Interviews | June 01, 2002
Bonetti: Ms. Kincaid, in the novel Lucy, you give Lucy Josephine Potter one of your birth names and your own birthday. How closely do the facts of Lucy’s biography match your own?
Kincaid: She had to have a birth-date so why not mine? She was going to have a name that would refer to the slave part of her history, so why not my own? I write about myself for the most part, and about things that have happened to me. Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true. You couldn’t admit any of it to a court of law. It would not be good evidence.
Bonetti: Your father, like Lucy’s, was a cabinet maker, and your own mother married a much older man with whom she had three sons several years after you were born.
Kincaid: Yes, that is true. But here’s an example of something that is true and not true: in “The Long Rain” the girl has an illness–a rite of passage, I guess you might call it–when she’s fourteen years old. I had an illness like that when I was seven years old, and I was writing about that illness. I root my fear of rodents in that time of my life. I used to lie on my bed and look up at the ceiling, and I saw hundreds of rats running around the ceiling. It must have been only one or two, but they seemed to go around like a merry-go-round. It must have been a hallucination. I was left alone, and like the girl I did get up and wash and powder the photographs, but some of the photographs described in the book could not have existed when I was seven years old. The confirmation photograph, for instance, did not exist. I don’t aim to be factual. I aim to be true to something, but it’s not necessarily the facts.
Bonetti: Where did the story of the green figs and the black snake come from?
Kincaid: That was a story my mother told me about herself, but the outcome of that story as it is in the book is not what really happened. I tried to write a story about my mother and myself, and there were incidents that I perceived as betrayal, at the time, though I don’t necessarily believe that now. In my writing I suppose I’m trying to understand how I got to be the person I am. The truth is important, but it’s a certain kind of truth.
Bonetti: Even though Annie John begins and ends chronologically, it’s not built on a linear model. A single one-time happening recurs in several episodes, taken from different points of view, within different contexts. Did you conceive of it as a novel or as a sequence of short stories?
Kincaid: I didn’t conceive of it as either one. I just write. I come to the end, I start again. I come to the end, I start again. And then sometimes I come to the end, and there is no starting again. In my mind there is no question of who will do what and when. Sometimes I’ve written the end of something before I’ve written the beginning. Whatever a novel is, I’m not it, and whatever a short story is, I’m not it. If I had to follow these forms, I couldn’t write. I’m really interested in breaking the form.
Bonetti: It is interesting that a story your mother told about herself as a girl–walking home with a bunch of green figs on her head in which a snake is hiding–becomes a parable that the mother tells the daughter in Annie John, to try to induce her to confess.
Kincaid: What did I know? I was writing this story and I had a lot of information about my family and their history, and I used it in this way. My mother used to tell me a lot of things about herself. It’s perhaps one of the ways in which I became a writer. Why I used that incident, I can’t really say. It was conscious and it was not conscious. A psychiatrist would see that it’s not an accident that I picked that particular one to speak of seduction and treachery. As we know, the serpent is associated with betrayal.
Bonetti: In Annie John, Annie is praised by her teachers, and she even holds them spellbound with her writing at one point. When you were a girl in Antigua, did you have teachers who encouraged you and thought that you were special?
Kincaid: Yes and no. I was considered a bright child. I was always first, second or third, and when I was third it was considered disappointing. But to say people encouraged me, no. No one was encouraged. Some of us might go off to the University of the West Indies to study, or to England, but then what would we do? There’s nothing in Antigua. I am from a poor family, and most of the girls who went off to university were from privileged families. Only boys could go off to university if they were from my background. If I had been a boy, there’s no question that I would have been singled out.
Bonetti: So it was that you were a girl, as much as anything, that narrowed your opportunities?
Kincaid: It was. I can see that now. The other day I was reading the newspaper from my home–the government is very corrupt–everybody’s always got their face in the newpaper for some terrible thing–and one of the pictures was a boy I used to go to school with. He and his brother once beat me up because I came in ahead of one of them in an exam. They thought that I had cheated; if I hadn’t come in ahead of them, whatever glittering prize–a book of poetry or something–would have gone to one of them.
Bonetti: You had to have cheated because you were a girl.
Kincaid: I had to have cheated. But what happened to him? He’s a member of the cabinet. There’s a girl that I went to school with who in fact is the “Gwen” character in Annie John. She was a brilliant, brilliant girl but nothing much happened to her. She’s a supervisor somewhere. There’s no question, if she and I were boys, that we would have fared much better. As it turns out, for me, it didn’t matter.
Bonetti: You grew up in the British colonial tradition, reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Bible. Are you conscious of the ways in which that kind of literature has had an impact on your work?
Kincaid: People have told me so, and when I read it out loud, I become aware of the influence of the things I read as a child– images from Christian mythology and Paradise Lost. All of this has left me very uncomfortable with ambiguity. My sense of the world is that things are right and wrong, and that when you’re wrong, you get thrown into a dark pit and you pay forever. You try very hard not to do a wrong thing, and if you do, there’s very little forgiveness. I was brought up to understand that English traditions were right and mine were wrong. Within the life of an English person there was always clarity, and within an English culture there was always clarity, but within my life and culture was ambiguity. A person who is dead in England is dead. A person where I come from who is dead might not be dead. I was taught to think of ambiguity as magic, a shadiness and an illegitimacy, not the real thing of Western civilization.
Bonetti: That’s the way you were taught, and so now that’s your inclination.
Kincaid: Yes, yes. The thing that I am branded with and the thing that I am denounced for, I now claim as my own. I am illegitimate, I am ambiguous. In some way I actually claim the right to ambiguity, and the right to clarity. It does me no good to say, “Well, I reject this and I reject that.” I feel free to use everything, or not, as I choose. I was forced to memorize John Milton and that was a very painful thing. But I’m not going to make myself forget John Milton because it involves a painful thing. I find John Milton very beautiful, and I’m glad that I know it. I’m sorry that the circumstances of how I got to know it were so horrid, but, since I know it, I know it and I claim every right to use it.
Bonetti: One book that seems to incorporate different cultural expectations and interpretations of the same events is Lucy. In one scene Lucy tells Louis and Mariah her dream. Their response, the western white response, is to look at each other and say, “Freud lives,” or words to that effect.
Kincaid: The people in Lucy’s society live for dreaming. They believe that waking life is informed by dream life. Where I come from some people act only on their dreams. All their non- sleeping actions are based on what happened to them when they were asleep. Louis and Mariah were in fact saying that her perception of the world was not valid, that she needed Freud.
Bonetti: My Milton professor once described the imagery in John Milton as being “highly visual, non-visual” imagery–because of Milton’s blindness. You couldn’t draw a picture of what John Milton describes, yet it is highly visual. Do you feel an affinity between that notion and the style of At the Bottom of the River?
Kincaid: One of the things that inspired me to write was English poets, even though I had never seen England. It’s as if I were a blind person too. When I was about ten years old I read Jane Eyre, and at one point she describes the evening as the “gloaming.” She’s describing something English, something I would never see until I was thirty-odd years old. I got stuck on that word, and eventually found a way to use it in At the Bottom of the River. Then I was free of it. It was important for me to have written those stories, because it freed me of an obsession with a certain kind of language. I memorized Wordsworth when I was a child, Keats, all sorts of things. It was an attempt to make me into a certain kind of person, the kind of person they had no use for, anyway. An educated black person. I got stuck with a lot of things, so I ended up using them.
Bonetti: So you see At the Bottom of the River as a kind of catharsis?
Kincaid: I would not have ever, ever been able to say, “You know, I really need to write this, I really need to get rid of these images,” but that’s what I was doing. A sort of desire for a perfect place, a perfect situation, comes from English Romantic poetry. It described a perfection which one longed for, and of course the perfection that one longed for was England. I longed for England myself. These things were a big influence, and it was important for me to get rid of them. Then I could actually look at the place I’m from.
Bonetti: And what did you find there?
Kincaid: In the place I’m from you don’t have much room. You have the sea. If you step on the sea, you sink. The only thing the sea can do is take you away. People living on a tiny island are not expected to have deep thoughts about how they live, their right to live. You can have little conflicts, disagreements about what side of the street to walk on, but you cannot disagree that perhaps there should not be a street there. You cannot disagree about fundamental things, which is what an artist would do. All they’re left with is a kind of pastoral beauty, a kind of natural beauty, and wonderful trinkets. They make nice hats. They catch fish in an an old-fashioned way. It’s all aesthetic, but it has no thinking it it. They cannot think. They will not allow themselves to think. They might have to change things, and they can’t bear it.
Bonetti: Was it necessary for you to leave Antigua to become a writer?
Kincaid: Oh, absolutely. It’s no accident that most West Indian writers do not live in the West Indies all the time. It’s the source of their art, but they can’t live there. The place is full of the most sewer-like corruption you ever saw. The ones who live there become obsessed with politics, and almost always stop writing. And you can’t blame them, you know. There is simply no way to stay there and write. People there don’t really read. They have cable television, thanks to America. You couldn’t make a living there, you couldn’t be supported economically, to begin with. But you wouldn’t be supported spiritually, either. These are not places that support people. I was attempting to do this thing that, as far as I know, no one in Antigua had attempted to do. Part of the reason I changed my name was so that they wouldn’t know I was writing. I was afraid I would be laughed at, though it would not have stopped me. Nothing has made me not do what I wanted to do.
Bonetti: So you changed your name to disguise yourself so that you could write. How did you pick the name Jamaica Kincaid?
Kincaid: It had no significance other than it was useful, to protect me from things. It was one of those things you do in the middle of the night. In those days we used to smoke marijuana or drink. I can’t remember which one we were doing. If someone should say, “Well, you know she used to smoke marijuana,” they should know that I don’t mind that anybody knows. I try not to have too many secrets.
Bonetti: You’re not going to try to get appointed to the Supreme Court?
Kincaid: Or become Secretary of Defense. Or marry the president. My husband is not going to be the president. It was just one of many things I was doing in my life to make a break with my past.
Bonetti: Perhaps I am identifying you too strongly with your characters, but Lucy talks about the fact that she realizes she’s inventing herself when she starts studying photography, and you too studied photography at a certain point after you got here.
Kincaid: I didn’t have the words for it, but yes, I was inventing myself. I didn’t make up a past that I didn’t have. I just made my present different from my past. How did I really do that? Just a few years off the banana boat basically, and there I was doing one crazy thing after another. How was I not afraid? The crucial thing was that I would not communicate with my family. Somehow I knew that was the key to anything I wanted to make of myself. I could not be with people who knew me so well that they knew just what I was capable of. I had to be with people who thought whatever I said went.
Bonetti: Do you feel like you were running for your life in the fiction by telling the mother/daughter story from different perspectives?
Kincaid: It was the thing I knew. Quite possibly if I had had another kind of life I would not have been moved to write. That was the immediate thing, the immediate oppression, I knew. I wanted to free myself of that.
Bonetti: It must have taken a great amount of focus and self- determination to become a writer.
Kincaid: I wouldn’t describe myself as someone with focus and self-determination. Those are words and descriptions I shy away from. I consider them, in fact, sort of false. I find ambition to achieve unpleasant. The ambition I have is to write well. I don’t have an ambition to be successful. I have an ambition to eat, which I find quite different from an ambition to be successful, though I think in America the two are rather bonded together.
Bonetti: When you came to the United States to be a maid did you have an agenda?
Kincaid: No. I did not know what would happen to me. I was just leaving, with great bitterness in my heart–a very hard heart– towards everybody I’d ever known, but I could not have articulated why. It’s a mystery to my family why I feel this way, because they see nothing wrong with what happened to me. If I had remained a servant, I would not have been surprised. I would have been in great agony, but I would not have been surprised. I knew that I wanted something, but I did not know what. I knew I did not want convention. I wanted to risk something.
Bonetti: You’ve done a very American thing. Like Huck Finn, you “lit out for the territory.”
Kincaid: What good luck it was that I did light out for American territory and not Britain. I do not think that I would have been allowed this act of self-invention, which is very American, in Europe–certainly not in English-speaking Europe. When I came to America, I came from a place where most of the people looked like me, so I wasn’t too concerned with the color of my skin. If I’d gone to England I could only have been concerned with the color of my skin.
Bonetti: More so than here?
Kincaid: Much more so. I was not used to American racial attitudes, so whenever they were directed at me I did not recognize them, and if I didn’t recognize them they were meaningless. I had no feeling about my own race. No feeling about my color. I didn’t like it or not like it, I just accepted it the way I accept my eyes. I’m sure people denied me things because of the color of my skin, but I didn’t know it, so I just went on. That was not my problem. I didn’t know that there were very few black people writing for The New Yorker, so I wasn’t troubled by that. I actually knew nothing about The New Yorker– its history, or its prominence in American literature–when I was taken to meet the editor. I was just a fool treading where angels feared to go.
Bonetti: You wrote “The Talk of the Town” column for about four years. How did this come to be?
Kincaid: How did I come to write for The New Yorker? George Trow befriended me–I think that is how I would put it–and was very generous and kind and loving. He thought I was funny, and he would take me around to parties. I was so grateful, because I was very poor. Sometimes the only meal I ate was those little cocktail things. He would write about me in “Talk of the Town.” He took me to meet Mr. Shawn, and I started to write for The New Yorker. I gave George my impressions of an event, and they appeared in the magazine just as I wrote them. That was how I discovered what my own writing was. It was just all a matter of luck, chance.
Bonetti: Were you George Trow’s “sassy black friend?”
Kincaid: I was his “sassy black friend,” which didn’t offend me at all. I seemed to be sassy, I said these things that he thought were sassy, and I was black.
Bonetti: How do you think the writing that you did for “The Talk of the Town” prepared you for the fiction?
Kincaid: It did two things. It showed me how to write, and it allowed me to write in my own voice. The New Yorker no longer has that kind of power, but at one time it could take any individual piece of writing, no matter how eccentric the writing was, and without changing so much as a punctuation mark, the piece became the standard of The New Yorker. It had such power of personality. So there I was, writing anonymously in this strange voice, and it looked like The New Yorker. It was a wonderful thing for me because I was edited by this brilliant editor, this brilliant man, Mr. William Shawn, who became my father-in-law.
Bonetti: Later. We have to say later.
Kincaid: Yes, he was very keen on not appearing to practice nepotism. Anyway, I had this wonderful editor and what I had to do to keep him interested was write clearly and keep my personality. And I did it. I could make him understand what I had to say. I doubt very much that I would have turned out to be the writer I am without him. He often bought my bad “Talk” stories, and didn’t print them, but paid me for them, just so I could have some money to live on. The New Yorker, you know, used to support writers. Sometimes it didn’t work out, but some of us kept on going. I wrote many very weird “Talk” stories that appeared in The New Yorker, very experimental “Talk” stories, and it was from them that I learned how to do the stories in At the Bottom of the River. Sometimes I was doing both; I was writing weird stories and I was writing At the Bottom of the River.
Bonetti: At what point were you Jamaica Kincaid, in “Talk of the Town?”
Kincaid: By the time I made the effort to write I had changed my name, so I was never anything but Jamaica Kincaid as a writer.
Bonetti: And “my sassy black friend” before that.
Kincaid: That’s true. But it would be “our sassy black friend, Jamaica Kincaid,” I was always named.
Bonetti: I read that there was a bit of controversy, at least among people privately, about the Louis character in Lucy being too close to an actual writer on the staff of The New Yorker. Did that surface in a public controversy at all?
Kincaid: I must say when I read that, it was a surprise to me. If it was a controversy among my friends, they didn’t tell me. Everyone likes to think that everything is really telling them something about someone, but I never write about other people. I’m not that interested in other people at all. The people that I really want to say anything about are people at home, and even so, I muddle up characters. The true characters in Lucy are the mother and Lucy. Apparently it’s the stock in trade of West Indian writers to write about their childhoods. Meryl Hodge’s Crick Crack Money is a wonderful book, and it’s about a Caribbean childhood, too, not unlike mine. It’s true that women sometimes fall victim to a kind of narcissism. Certainly it’s true in the West Indies. I went to a conference of West Indian women writers, very learned, brilliant women. Many of them said, “I know I should give my paper, but I’m going to tell you about myself instead.” It was at that moment I realized that my mother wasn’t that unusual. I don’t know if this sense of “here I am, let me tell you about me,” is universal to women, but it’s a very West Indian trait. Maybe it is because she’s confined to home and family that there’s a great love of self as an aesthetic thing among West Indian women. It must be said they’re very beautiful women.
Bonetti: The critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says that you, like Toni Morrison, “never feel the necessity of claiming the existence of a black world, or a female sensibility,” that you assume them both as a given.
Kincaid: That is very true. I don’t really write about men unless they have something to do with a woman. I was just reading an African writer who described black people as black. I couldn’t tell whether he meant it as race or skin color. I didn’t understand what he meant.
Bonetti: There’s also an acceptance of androgny in your books, a completely frank treatment of adolescent sexuality between girls. “Gwen and I will get married,” says Annie John. There it is, and no big deal is made of it.
Kincaid: I grew up with a great acceptance of female bonding. The greatest loves that I knew, and the greatest quarrels, the greatest enmities I knew were between women. I was very interested in feelings between these people, and I just wasn’t going to worry about whether they were homosexuals or not. If they are, well good for them.
Bonetti: Another thing that you do with absolute matter of factness is to take the imagery of patriarchal literature–God, we all know, is a man and so is Lucifer–and without any ado, God, by God, becomes a woman.
Kincaid: I am writing about power and powerlessness and I think that these things have no sex. They have only their nature. I have never met a man more impressive than my mother. When Ronald Reagan was announcing the invasion of Grenada, at his side was Eugenie Charles, the Prime Minister of Dominique. If you were from Mars, you would think that she was the leader of the powerful country and he was the leader of the weak country. My mother is like that–grand and impressive. I’ve never met any man with that sort of personal power.
Bonetti: You’ve talked about your mother and the stories that she tells as being a part of what makes you a writer now, and yet you’ve also commented that it would never occur to people like her to step back from their experience and create a work of art. Can you elaborate on that?
Kincaid: I started to write out of reasons that were I thought peculiar to me–I was lazy and I wasn’t really interested in being educated in a way that would suit other people. I was interested in knowing things that pleased me. For instance, I often read books on astronomy but it doesn’t interest me to go to school to study astronomy. I became a writer because I could live a life that pleased me. I liked to investigate my own life. I liked to talk about my mother, her family, my life, what happened to me, historically, in my childhood, and I could only get to them in this way. I do not know why I am able to step outside and look. I certainly don’t have more courage than they do, more education, more brilliance. My mother is an extremely brilliant woman. I do not know what it is that made, in me, the desire to do this thing and to seek satisfaction for that desire.
Bonetti: Have you come to the point in your life where you’re comfortable with the enriching things about you that come from your mother?
Kincaid: Absolutely. There are many things about her that I’ve consciously tried to adopt, that I love. Sometimes I only write in her voice. I think the voice of Lucy is very much her voice. Her voice as a piece of literature is the most fabulous thing you ever read or heard. She is a person in her own right, but careless with her gifts. That’s very painful to me to watch.
Bonetti: How do you mean that?
Kincaid: I perhaps am a writer because of her, in a very specific way. For instance, I love books because of her. She gave me an Oxford dictionary for my seventh birthday. She had taught me to read when I was three-and-a-half years old. There are many things that should have allowed her to free herself from her situation, and perhaps one of them would have been to have no children at all, including me. But you see her with these marvelous gifts and sense of self–people who have less of this than her have done things, ruled the world for instance. She’s in her seventies and she’s quite something. If she roused herself she could do quite a bit.
Bonetti: Have you ever felt that a part of why you write is to win your mother’s approval?
Kincaid: When I first started among the things I wanted to do was to say, “Aren’t you sorry that no greater effort was made over my education? Or over my life?” But as I’ve gotten older I am fairly sure that that’s not a part of my life anymore. I didn’t see her for twenty years, so the desire for her approval was greater in her absence. Then as we saw each other and spoke, I realized there was a certain chasm that could not really be closed; I just grew to accept her. I also wanted my children to know my mother, because whatever my differences are with her, I wanted them to feel a part of this person, and if possible to realize that some of the dynamics in my life were related. I didn’t want her to die without closing that circle.
Bonetti: If you suddenly won your mother’s total and unconditional approval, would you still be writing?
Kincaid: Now you’ve frightened me. I think it’s not possible, but I no longer really want that. We’re just two grown-up people living the life we chose to live. It would be nice if she understood certain things about me. On the other hand, she’s in her seventies, she needn’t make any new arrangements if she doesn’t want to, and perhaps, new efforts are beyond her. I really don’t look for that.
Bonetti: You’ve taken the facts of your biography and shaped them into fictions with universal appeal. When it comes right down to the bottom line, who do you think you write for?
Kincaid: I always assume no one will read the damn thing, you know. Not my mother, the person I really write for, I suspect. My great audience is this one-half Carib Indian woman living in Antigua. I imagine she doesn’t read what I write, but I’m quite surprised that people who are the exact opposite of her find anything in it. I’m really quite amazed.
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