Jamaica Kincaid: The Long Road from Antigua to Vermont

By Saunders, James Robert | Hollins Critic, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Jamaica Kincaid: The Long Road from Antigua to Vermont


Saunders, James Robert, Hollins Critic


Back in 2001, Jamaica Kincaid came to Purdue University to speak on her then just-released book Talk Stories. That book is a collection of the eighty-five stories that she wrote, between 1974 and 1983, for the "Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker. Besides her intriguing recollections of life as a staff member of that magazine, two things struck me. One was that she did not put on anything, clothes-wise that is, Special for the event. In fact, as she came on stage to give her presentation, she appeared not all that much different from how her New Yorker colleague Ian Frazier describes her in his foreword to Talk Stories. Elaborating on what he refers to as her "pajama phase," he recounts the time that she spent in a Manhattan hospital, due to a cancer scare, and "she liked the pajamas so much that after she got out of the hospital she wore them everywhere." The author herself, in her introduction to that same book, comments on what was her generally unique approach to apparel selection in those days. She explains, "I could not afford to buy new clothes and so I bought old used-up ones and I wore them as if they were the only clothes an interesting person would wear." She did not care if others disagreed with her; and while Frazier pondered, during her pajama phase, why she was "wearing pajamas for evening attire," he "held [his] tongue" since she was going to do what she wanted to do anyway.

So, there I was at the fiftieth anniversary of that prestigious literary event, waiting for Kincaid to appear; and when she did enter, rather inconspicuously through a side entrance, I was taken aback because what she seemed to have on were a pair of pajamas and, on her feet, were what looked to be bedroom slippers. She was evidently intent on having it established from the very start that, if nothing else, she would be the most comfortable person in the room.

The other thing that struck me was how much she is the kind of woman who speaks her mind, regardless of who might be offended. During her talk, she noted the sparseness of blacks in the audience. She declared that a recently deceased prominent politician was "the most evil man who ever lived." Then, after her talk, she fielded questions with the brusqueness of a person set on making it clear that, however much she enjoyed intelligent conversation, she was not inclined to suffer fools lightly. If members of the audience took nothing else away from that evening, it was just how fight Ian Frazier had been when, in the foreword to her book, he remarked that her particular type of courage had nothing to do with being audacious or trying to shock anyone but, instead, "her bravery was just the way she was, and it came natural and uninterrupted from inside."

For a clearer understanding of that sort of courage, one has to go back to the time when Kincaid (born Elaine Potter Richardson) was a child growing up in the Caribbean, on the island of Antigua. Her 1985 coming-of-age novel Annie John recapitulates the experiences of a young girl who is so smart as to be appointed "prefect" of her class and yet she is also so self-possessed as to write defamatory remarks in her textbook under a picture of Christopher Columbus, the explorer who is credited with having discovered Antigua although, as Kincaid reminds us in her 1999 My Garden (Book):, "he never set foot on it, he only came across it while passing by." Not to mention, it is painful to be the progeny of a people who had already been living at a place where, much later, a European will arrive and be credited with having discovered it. The child Annie John was not reluctant to express her disgust at the contradiction, and she was duly punished for her offense, sent to the headmistress and stripped of her prefect position.

Kincaid has warned readers not to believe that her fiction is autobiographical; however, she acknowledged, in a 1989 Callaloo interview, that "the feelings in [Annie John] are autobiographical. …

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