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An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid

[WRITER]
“I HAD THIS EXPERIENCE WHEN I WAS THIRTEEN YEARS OLD OR SO, OF MY MOTHER BURNING MY BOOKS. I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND AT THE TIME THAT IT WAS A FAIRLY PROFOUND THING TO DO TO SOMEONE.”
Phrases that take up precious space:
“Really?”
“She said that?”
“He said…”
“I was wondering…”
by Robert Birnbaum
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid

[WRITER]
“I HAD THIS EXPERIENCE WHEN I WAS THIRTEEN YEARS OLD OR SO, OF MY MOTHER BURNING MY BOOKS. I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND AT THE TIME THAT IT WAS A FAIRLY PROFOUND THING TO DO TO SOMEONE.”
Phrases that take up precious space:
“Really?”
“She said that?”
“He said…”
“I was wondering…”
by Robert Birnbaum
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid

Robert Birnbaum
8 Snaps

Jamaica Kincaid, was born on Antigua, May 25, 1949, as Elaine Potter Richardson. She was educated in colonial British schools, and in 1965, at the age of sixteen, she was sent to Westchester, New York, to work as a servant. She briefly attended Franconia College in New Hampshire, and her interest in photography led her to New York City and the New School for Social Research. Through some fortuitous circumstances she was befriended by New Yorker writer George W. S. Trow, who introduced her to legendary editor William Shawn. Shawn began publishing Kincaid in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section and encouraged her writing. As Kincaid now recalls, “He always made you think you were the best writer of all. He was an unbelievable suitor.”

In his introduction to Kincaid’s collection of “Talk of the Town” pieces, her good friend and colleague during her tenure at The New Yorker, Ian Frazier writes:

A lot of the exhilaration of those years for me was in seeing who could be the bravest, who could be the coolest. I kept a mental scorecard of brave and cool deeds: I saw New Yorker veterans… come in to the office an hour or two before an issue’s deadline and in one draft turn out “Talk of the Town” stories as elegant and effortless as a Will Rogers roper trick… but to me nobody was braver than Jamaica. She didn’t try to be shocking or “transgressive” or audacious, those imitations of bravery done mainly for effect: her bravery was just the way she was and it came natural and uninterrupted from inside.

Jamaica Kincaid, who adopted that name to distance herself from her Antiguan family’s disapproval of her writing, has published four novels: Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), and Mr. Potter (2002); a story collection, At the Bottom of the River (1984), which contains the highly regarded “Girl”; a book-length essay about Antigua titled A Small Place (1988), an illustrated children’s story with Eric Fischl called Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip (1986); a memoir about her youngest sibling who died of AIDS in 1996, My Brother (1997); a collection of writing on gardening My Garden (Book) (1999); and an anthology of her New Yorker “Talk of the Town” pieces, Talk Stories (2001).

During my phone conversation with Kincaid, to arrange our interview, the discussion drifted to our parental responsibilities (she is the mother of Annie Shawn, eighteen, and Harold, fourteen) and how they require us to turn our attention to films such as X-Men and The Matrix. In her sweet, girlish, lilting voice, she confessed she was slightly embarrassed by two things: She liked The Matrix and she likes Eminem.

This interview took place on a sunny day at Kincaid’s spacious brown clapboard house near Bennington College in Vermont. Nestled on a gentle rise, the house is surrounded on all sides by her plantings. A brief tour revealed her current fascination with mottled red brown plants and a digression into the difference between “mottled” and “dappled.” Identifying one lilac tree, multiple rose bushes, tulips, and a young magnolia tree was the extent of my horticultural taxonomy, but it was clear to even my uninformed eye that Kincaid’s garden is a separate and complicated universe.

—Robert Birnbaum

WHO WAS I THAT I WROTE THAT?

THE BELIEVER: A number of people have pointed me to something you wrote years ago, “Girl.” It’s usually referred to as a short story, but then I came across it in John D’Agata’s anthology, The Next American Essay. I read it as a prose poem.

JAMAICA KINCAID: [Laughs]

BLVR: What is your sense of it?

JK: I’m kind of stunned. I’d written it as a short story, and when I wrote it I was just beginning to write, and I was convinced that the way people wrote short stories was outmoded, that it was a silly way to write.That the idea of a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a “he said,” “she said,” was ridiculous. I was very young when I thought this. I no longer do.

BLVR: [Laughs]

JK: I no longer care what people do. But I had this idea, and I was at The New Yorker, and I used to come across these stories of people’s ennui, young people having all these [In a small mocking voice] “Well, I don’t know,”  “Why should I,” “He said” and “I was wondering”s. I  just hated that kind of writing, and I was determined that I was just going to stamp it out. I literally thought that I would write things and that the people who wrote these silly [Returns to mocking voice] “I don’t know, we were driving up in our old Volkswagen bus…” and all this kind of crap, once they saw a story like “Girl,” would go [Sigh],“Oh,” and they would stop writing. Or they would write something wonderful. Well, not only did none of this happen… [Laughs] Actually people hated my story “Girl.” A lot of people liked it when they read it by itself, but when my first book of short stories came out and it was full of stories like “Girl,” people just really didn’t like it. I remember Anne Tyler said it was “insultingly obscure.” [Laughs] Which I found a compliment, because I found her writing insultingly clear.

BLVR: [Laughs heartily] So there!

JK: So there! I think of it as a short story, and the kind of energy and interest and boldness I had when I was writing these things were qualities you only have when you’re young. I don’t feel particularly like that anymore. Absolutely, I don’t feel like that anymore.

BLVR: No more crusading.

JK: No, not at all. Not only not crusading, but I don’t really care what other people write. I don’t have any theories of the Great Novel and the novel of narrative over the novel of anything. I actually love all sorts of things and see that writers are not doing anything deliberately. A person who writes like Jonathan Franzen—I don’t think he can write any other way than how he writes, and it is wonderful how he writes, and there’s no need to say anything about it other than you like it or you don’t. All of these declarations of what writing ought to be, which I had myself—though, thank god I had never committed them to paper—I think are nonsense…You write what you write, and then either it holds up or it doesn’t hold up. There are no rules or particular sensibilities. I don’t believe in that at all anymore.

BLVR: Will you venture a guess as to what contemporary writing teachers might get out of  “Girl”? It was written in 1978, a long time ago.

JK: Yes, a long time ago, and why is it still relevant? I don’t know why it’s relevant to anybody. I must say, when I read it myself I marvel at it in some peculiar way, and I think, “Who was I that I wrote that? How did I know that could be done? What sensibility was I in?” And the only thing that makes me understand it somewhat is that I was at a place where, for some reason, all that I was at the time was interesting to the editor [William Shawn] at the magazine, and so I must have just opportunistically taken advantage of being myself. I just really was myself.

BLVR: You don’t strike me as being able to be other than yourself.

JK: No, no. This is true: Wherever I was, I was going to be myself. But at that particular place, at that time myself was very much appreciated.

BLVR: That would be a wonderful thing.

JK: Whatever I was interested these people and was very much encouraged, and even when they disapproved of it—and there were times when they disapproved of it—they just really couldn’t deny that I was young and vital.

WRITING THE LAST SENTENCE BEFORE YOU WRITE THE FIRST

BLVR: When you first came to the United States you were interested in photography. And, in fact, you studied photography. Has that gone by the wayside?

JK: No. I just bought a digital camera and I’m always fooling around with it in the garden. That will never go away.

BLVR: What did you take pictures of?

JK: I had an interest in photographing children. So it must be something about my own childhood. Now, I photograph the garden, or I try to. And I always find that I’m lacking. I used to study photography. I used to knit seriously and sew seriously, and then when I got interested in the garden, I stopped doing all of that.

BLVR: You thought you wanted to write while you were studying photography, and somehow you were drawn in the wake of The New Yorker by some friends [George W. S.Trow] and you started writing for “Talk of the Town,” unbeknownst to you—

JK: The first thing that was published, I didn’t consciously write. I typed up my notes and observations and handed them to Mr. Shawn, and he published them just as I had given them to him. It was from that moment that I understood the thing that became my writing. And I remember struggling with the “we” voice; I soon stopped using it. I didn’t like writing in that voice. And then I just wrote a letter from a friend. Or I would devise ways of not mentioning a person. I would invent dialogue. I would write the “Talks” story in terms of a play.

BLVR: There isn’t much dialogue in your work, is there?

JK: No, I don’t like dialogue. I don’t like to hear people speaking in my work. I like reading it, and I marvel at people who can do it well. And there’s something when you see it done well. It’s just so terrific. But I’m not able to do it.

BLVR: One thing that strikes me about your writing is that it’s always your voice, you talking. It’s very clear.

JK: Yes, yes. That’s interesting. I only have one voice; that has its limitations, no doubt. But no, I don’t like dialogue. I think it’s very hard to do. When you see it not done well, it’s painful.

BLVR: As in the movies.

JK: Yes. “You mean she didn’t come? Well, what did she say?” “Really?” I would never write “Really?”The idea of someone taking up that precious space by someone saying, “Really? She said that?” is just beyond me. I couldn’t.

BLVR: But people talk like that. Some of them.

JK: They do. They do talk like that and fortunately, I don’t know many of them.

BLVR: [Laughs] “Those Words That Echo… Echo… Echo Through Life,” a “Writers on Writing” piece that you wrote for The New York Times, starts with you pondering the sentence “Mr. Potter was my father, my father’s name was Mr. Potter. When I read the article, I hadn’t read Mr. Potter—

JK: It hadn’t been written yet.

BLVR: Isn’t that sentence the last sentence of the book?

JK: That’s right. I had written the last part of it before I wrote the beginning. And, you know, I have not talked about that book. I wanted to write in the middle. I wanted to begin in the middle and then I wanted to go back and then forward; it doesn’t happen enough in writing, where you feel the writer’s agile thinking. And I don’t know that I succeed in this. I want always to write as if my brain has just woken up, because I want it to be exciting to me. The thing that keeps me writing is that it will be new. I will do something new. I don’t say that I do actually do it. But the way I get myself to the typewriter is to say,“This will be new and I haven’t done this before. This has not been done before.” As I say, it’s not true, but it’s the way I do it.

BLVR: How do you end a book? How do you know the last sentence?

JK: Well, this is very interesting. The last story in my first book—the title story “At the Bottom of the River”— took me six months to end. But at the end of the six months, I had not added one word. During the six months, I read “The Prelude,” Wordsworth’s great narrative poem. I spent six months reading it, and at the end of it I understood what I had been writing was finished. And that’s almost always true of my writing. I know it’s finished through some odd way, not by actually finishing it. I go over it in my mind and say, “That’s the end.” Because it crests in some way that satisfies me. Not that it ties things up. It just ends. You know, Dickens is Dickens. Balzac is Balzac. All sorts of things are all sorts of things. But I don’t want to write that kind of great novel, the great family novel. I enjoy reading it, but I
myself don’t want to write it.

THOMAS JEFFERSON AND HIS HYPOCRISIES

BLVR: When you are moved to write, when you begin, are there any boundaries at all, any parameters, anything that circumscribes what you are going to do, besides using the English language?

JK: Not as far as I can tell. You mean in terms of people’s feelings?

BLVR: People’s feelings. Length—

JK: Nothing, no. I wish I could write longer, but I can’t.

BLVR: I think Thomas Jefferson apologized in one of his letters, saying something to the effect that if he had had more time he would have written a shorter letter.

JK: This is just another one of his many hypocrisies.

BLVR: [Laughs]

JK: Have you ever read his autobiography? It’s the shortest autobiography by a great man ever. And he did have the time. Jefferson’s autobiography is one of those marvelous things. Sometimes I teach a course on reading Thomas Jefferson. His autobiography is like the equivalent of one of those busts that exist of him. It is stony, compact, artful. And it says absolutely nothing about him.

BLVR: Iconic.

JK: An incredible work of art, when you think about it. He mentions his mother—that he was born of her. He mentions a little about his father. And then he goes on, and he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He wrote this and he wrote that. And then he went to Paris and he did this, and then it ends. Read next to something like the Confessions of Rousseau, it’s the other extreme, where he tells you everything. And possibly none of it is true. Except that he was born. Maybe a third of it was true. And if you read it in comparison, it’s fascinating. Well, anyway, that’s another one of Jefferson’s disingenuinities—disingenuiness?

BLVR: Disingenuinenesses?

JK: It’s his hallmark: he’s disingenuous, ambivalent, contradictory. All sorts of things that people say about Thomas Jefferson. All of them true.

BLVR: It would be emblematic of Enlightenment figures to think everything was possible, everything was true. Everything they said was true. Despite the contradictions.

JK: Yes, despite the contradictions. Well, I think he’s just an example of a really great human being. No great person would be consistent. I think consistency is a sign of absolute stupidity and weakness. And I think our president is a good example of that consistency. This ridiculous person who doesn’t—who persists no matter what.

BLVR: [Nunally] Johnson, who wrote the screenplay for John Ford’s film of The Grapes of Wrath said only hacks are consistent.

JK: Oh, that’s very good. Well, he’s a hack, our president. Yes, I can’t imagine why you would be consistent.

DICKENS AND CLIMBING THE HIMALAYAS

BLVR: What’s the first step on the road to writing something?

JK: I never know. It really is always a revelation to me. I never know. I don’t have a sketch of what it should be. I never know what will burble up. And that is, again, one of the great pleasures of just writing something. I just don’t know how it will go, where it will lead. I thought Mr. Potter was going to be a different kind of book. And then it turned out to be what it was.

BLVR: What would have been a different kind of book?

JK: Well, I thought it was going to be more like a traditional book. Knowing here he is, he’s growing up now, he’s going to school now, and here he is putting on his shoes. And here he has made this marvelous transition from a boy to a man, through this tiny detail. And now here he is at the crossroads in his life. I thought I was going to do that. But I realized I have no interest at all in doing that. What I am always, so far, interested in is boiling it down into some essence. It’s like sucking something. Or maybe like a bouillon cube. You have to add one cup of water. I don’t like a cup of water. I just like the bouillon cube.

BLVR: [Laughs]

JK: So that’s what it turns out to be—like the bouillon cube.

BLVR: In one of our email exchanges, you said something about the world not liking writers so much. This is not, as I’m sure you know, a thought held only by you. Given that other writers feel this, how could the world show its appreciation?

JK: It tends to kill them. Or want to shut them up. I had this experience, when I was thirteen years old or so, of my mother burning my books. I didn’t understand at the time that it was a fairly profound thing to do to someone. Writers seem privileged in a way that painters and—you hardly ever stop painters. Well, I suppose the Soviet Union and Hitler did stop painters and composers and so on. Anybody can be a writer, readily and often everybody is, from time to time, in one way or another. But when you set yourself apart from all that and say, “Well, I am a writer,” you seem so privileged and special, and say things that nobody wants to hear. Most people will say, “Well, I’m doing something and there’s a price to pay for this.” Writers say “I am doing something and I insist that I have a right to say it.” And people just don’t like that. This should cost you something. Writers don’t think it, we all just feel it shouldn’t cost us anything. I happen to feel it should cost you something. That it’s not worth it if it doesn’t cost you something.

BLVR: That’s a consistent theme in Robert Stone’s work—that you have to pay for everything.

JK: Yeah, I don’t mind.

BLVR: There’s a kind of glamorization of the writer, part of which is that one is one’s own boss: no cubicles, no rush hour, all that.

JK: But that’s only in America. In America, people want to be recognized for everything they do. Only in America does it seem glamorous to be a writer, as opposed to it being an honor. In some places, in France and places like that, it’s an honor. Here, we think that it’s a glamorous thing. I think that you want to be known for anything in America. And writers are connected to publicity in some way—a great part of publicity is writing, and a great part of writing has become publicity. You might say I’m publicizing myself by speaking to you. No, I don’t think so. But in America, it’s really an American thing. We cannot stand to just be and just do the thing. It’s not that we just want to make money, we really want to be known. It’s more important to be known than to make money. I don’t know why.

BLVR: You’re teaching undergraduates writing at Harvard. What do you ask your students to read?

JK: We spent this year reading mountain climbing stories because I’d been in Nepal in October and discovered a whole genre of literature that I hadn’t known existed. There’s a whole set of literature of people who tried to climb these various peaks of the Himalayas. I found one by a man—it turns out I had been reading his seed-collecting books but I didn’t realize that it was the same person. He’d been on all the attempts to climb Mt. Everest and Kangchenjunga—all the failed attempts. The successful one was Hillary, and then Kangchenjunga was with a group of people that had been with Hillary. So he had been all over the Himalayas, trying to climb these mountains, and I discovered a book he wrote called The Kangchenjunga Adventure. It was one of the best things I ever read. I had my students read it, and we read Hillary’s account of Everest. Not because it was the fiftieth anniversary. This year we just read adventure things. We read Louise Bogan’s Journey Around My Room, a wonderful piece of writing. Every year I do something different. One of the things that young writers often can’t do—and I don’t know if it’s just this generation, but they don’t really understand a lot of general knowledge. If they say, “Something took me like a hurricane,” they don’t understand what a  hurricane is. Or what a volcano is. They don’t understand natural events. And so often I will have them read nonfiction. I was thinking about next year, and I thought, “We’ll read one book. We’ll read either Our Mutual Friend or Dombey and Son, just one big book by Dickens.” Basically, I have them read whatever I’ve liked. And that’s something the class reads, and then I make up individual lists of books for people to read. People are often in different modes. And there are things only some people are reading because everyone has a different kind of imagination. I always think of a writer’s reading list as a writer’s friend. You read the person who is helping you while you write. Not to say that you are going to write like them. It just keeps you in the general bath water.

BLVR: Why did you go to Nepal?

JK: Seed collecting or plant hunting.

BLVR: For how long?

JK: One month.

BLVR: How long did it take to climb to 16,000 feet?

JK: Two weeks.

BLVR: And you want to go back.Why?

JK: There are many reasons, but I suspect one of them is I love looking at the surface of the earth. That would be only one of the reasons.

ON BAD REVIEWS

BLVR: Do you read much contemporary fiction?

JK: No, I almost never read it. I started to make an effort to read writers who I think are good but had gotten really bad reviews, and so I read Don DeLillo’s new book and liked it very much. I was just stunned. That’s the last book I read. Robert Stone’s book got a bad review in The New York Times so I was about to buy it.

BLVR: I think Stone’s Bay of Souls is a great book.

JK: Is it? Ordinarily, I don’t read contemporary fiction. There are so many things—my contemporaries, I think, I already know what they know. But there are so many things I don’t know. I haven’t read all of Dickens. I’ve read most of George Eliot. There are some things I haven’t read and I want to read them.

BLVR: How is it that you come to read reviews at all?

JK: I don’t read reviews of my own books. Oh, that’s not true. How is it that I come to read reviews?

BLVR: In the case of DeLillo, for example?

JK: He had a new book and I thought, “I wonder what this is like?” If it hadn’t been for that bad review, I wouldn’t have bought the book, because I don’t read much contemporary fiction. But I was so shocked by it. So I just went out and bought it and loved it. I often do read reviews of other people’s books out of sympathy or support. No matter what you say, these things are very painful to read. They often don’t sound like reviews, but more like quarrels you’re having with someone in a dorm.

ANTIGUAN SLAVE NARRATIVES

BLVR: Are your students intending to move forward in their lives as writers?

JK: A lot of them are. A lot of them are very serious about writing or about literature or art in some way. I think the wonderful thing about having some time in college when you write is just that—that you have some time. It’s a wonderful thing to do. If I never turn out one writer, I wouldn’t consider myself a failure for teaching. It’s not to turn out writers—

BLVR: Is it to teach them how to read?

JK: Essentially, a good writer wants to read, and reading actually is the only school you have. Certainly, it was the only writing school I had—reading obsessively. I had no idea that it could lead one to write. But I certainly wanted to read.

BLVR: This is almost a chant, a mantra, in Mr. Potter. I suspect that a lot is made of your dark and angry view of life, but certainly what always shines through is your great belief in the value and importance of reading and writing.

JK: Yes. It’s hard to know why that is so for me. In a lot of slave narratives, over and over, slaves are forbidden the ability to read and write, or are forbidden to acquire the skill of reading and writing. I don’t have any memory of that as part of Antiguan slave narratives, but it’s possible that my attachment to it came from my mother, a maternal connection. My mother taught me to read. And she taught me to read as a way of making me independent of her. She was always reading and I was always interrupting her reading to make her pay attention to me. And she thought that if I knew how to read, I would like books as much as she did, and I would leave her alone and would be independent of her. So it’s possible—and I have to say I’m telling you something that I have only just this minute understood—this particular insight. It seemed to me that I must attach to this reading and writing a great power of self-possession. Because it led me to really not need her, to survive without her in ways that she couldn’t have imagined. When I was sent away from home I started to write, and this was how I became a person that really was a mystery to her.

BLVR: You answered a question that I was toying with asking. Here’s the question: Why is it that people who appreciate reading—and maybe writing, but certainly reading—are so zealous and convinced about its tremendous value, though not necessarily in a proselytizing way?

JK: Self-possession. I could say my name, and in writing my name I knew who I was, and it made me separate myself from the world. “That was mother. This is me, and that’s that, and I am not that.”

BLVR: And Mr. Potter, who couldn’t read and couldn’t write and who had no knowledge of the world, almost didn’t exist.

JK: Yes. It’s very interesting to me to see it not read accurately. [Chuckles] It was hard. I don’t think it was a bad book, but it was interesting to see the level of stupidity. I knew it was in trouble when the first review said, “Who will read this book?” And this was by a person who liked it. The reviewer said, “It’s so difficult. It’s so this and that and let me tell you what it’s about and I love it but who’s going to read it?” And I thought, oh well. But actually, it’s read. Like all my books, slowly.

BLVR: What can you say about the title to your novel The Autobiography of My Mother?

JK: I once had the insight that my mother wrote my life. My life as seen through writing comes straight from my imagination even as it is rooted in fact. If my mother can write my life, through my imagination, is it possible that I can write hers also using this same imagination? I almost certainly tried to do so in that book.

BLVR: I read all your books since Lucy in the early nineties as substantial narratives driven by your voice. It’s you talking about the world you see and experience, about who you are. It’s challenging, of course. Consider this: When a man is difficult, he’s a contrarian. When a woman is difficult, she’s a bitch or something.

JK: This is very true. You’d be surprised at the things you see playing into it, by all sorts of people. I remember Lucy being reviewed by a black woman who said it was a very good book but it was not interested in race and class. How could she [Lucy] not be interested in race and class? I thought it would be false for this girl to be interested in race and class in the American sense. Then other people said it was angry. You could see all sorts of people with their own expectations of how a book written by a black woman should be. I don’t think anyone has ever accused John Edgar Wideman of being angry. Wideman’s work is very much appreciated—as it should be, for being beautifully, exquisitely rendered. Just “powerful” is what it’s called, not “angry.” I never heard anyone say, “Wideman’s work is angry.” But for
some reason, my work is angry. And it mustn’t be. It mustn’t be angry. The truth is, I really don’t complain, because I have really lots of readers, and my work is well thought of and respected and appreciated, so I’m not going to whine. It would be beyond inappropriate. It would be silly.

BLVR: Do you know what’s next for you?

JK: Oh, gosh. I don’t know exactly what’s next. But I keep writing, and the world of writing seems—oh, god—so interesting. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I realize I am getting to be an old woman, but when I sit down to write, I just feel so young and wonderful. I just forget that I had two children. I feel as if I had never done this. I went on this trek way up in the Himalayas, just a little under 16,000 feet, walking. I had the most wonderful time. I can’t wait to do it again. And suddenly I realize, at fifty-four, how often am I going to…? and then I think, oh, it’s just begun, this seeing the world. Yeah. It’s just great. I just hope everything holds up.

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