Magazine article Salmagundi

Jamaica Kincaid Returns in Epic Voice

Magazine article Salmagundi

Jamaica Kincaid Returns in Epic Voice

Article excerpt

Jamaica Kincaid Returns in Epic Voice

IN REVIEW: JAMAICA KINCAID, SICK NOW TIIKN (NEW YORK: FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, 2013)

Jamaica Kincaid is an unhappy genius. Her unhappiness seems, to some degree, cultivated; she admits that she enjoys being sad. But her mood must also be the result of living in a world of ordinary mortals - people who speak in platitudes and respond by rote. When I see Kincaid's name on a syllabus for a postcolonial literature or women's studies course, I wonder if the instructor realizes how unpredictable she can be, how intent on reassessing and shifting perspective. "It was hard for us to tell on which side we really now belonged-with the masters or the slaves," explains the protagonist of her 1985 novel, Annie John, set in Kincaid's native Antigua, "for it was all history, it was all in the past, and everybody behaved differently now..." She is especially distrustful of what seems beautifulquick to foresee how beauty is likely to evaporate or disappoint. Here is another characteristic passage, from her 1990 novel, Lucy:

The days were longer now, the sun set later, the evening sky seemed lower than usual, and the snow was the color and texture of a half-cooked egg white, making the world seem soft and lovely and-unexpectedly, to me -nourishing. That the world 1 was in could be soft, lovely, and nourishing was more than I could bear, and so I stood there and wept, for I didn't want to love one more thing in my life, didn't want one more thing that could make my heart break into a million little pieces at my feet.

One could argue that Kincaid has created her fiction out of the "little pieces" from which her own heart has been broken.

Born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson in 1949 .Jamaica Kincaid grew up in the then British-ruled Caribbean island of Antigua in a home without running water or electricity. She had a beautiful, controlling mother and an older father (really her stepfather-she never knew her real one). Quick and bright, she was a voracious reader, mostly of the English classics. Her specialness was reinforced by being an only child until the age of 9, when her parents had three sons in succession, radically altering her world. Taken out of school and made to care for her brothers and her sick stepfather, she came to deeply resent her mother. This resentment drove her to leave home and inspired her to write.

Kincaid left Antigua for America in 1966 when she was 17 to work as an au pair for a family in Manhattan. They introduced her to the City's literary scene where she soon gained a foothold, first doing research for "Talk of the Town" columns in The New Yorker, then writing those columns herself, and, eventually, composing essays, stories, and novels that were published or excerpted in the magazine. She has said that William Shawn, The New Yorker editor of that period, was her first and best reader. She changed her name to separate herself from her past and also, one surmises, to create a distinctive literary profile. In 1979, she married Shawn's son, Allen, and moved with him to Vermont, where he was a professor of music at Bennington College. They had two children, a girl and a boy, and were divorced in 2002.

Kincaid's use of her own experience is a hallmark of her fiction. The borrowing is often transparent and includes variations on her own name and that of others in her life. Her first published work, a series of linked stories, At the Bottom of the River (1983), is set in her native Antigua. The first in the collection, entitled "Girl," is a long, run-on sentence consisting of a series of orders from a mother to her daughter: "Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil;.. All the stories in the collection evoke a place of intense visual and emotional experience that is also oppressively provincial and circumscribed. …

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