I See the World


Arts & Culture

© robert / Adobe Stock.

It begins in this way:

It’s as if we are dead and somehow have been given the unheard-of opportunity to see the life we lived, the way we lived it: there we are with friends we had just run into by accident and the surprise on our faces (happy surprise, sour surprise) as we clasp each other (close or not so much) and say things we might mean totally or say things we only mean somewhat, but we never say bad things, we only say bad things when the person we are clasping is completely out of our sight; and everything is out of immediate sight and yet there is everything in immediate sight; the streets so crowded with people from all over the world and why don’t they return from wherever it is they come from and everybody comes from nowhere for nowhere is the name of every place, all places are nowhere, nowhere is where we all come from; the dresses hanging in a store window that are meant for people half my age are so appealing and the waist of this dress is smaller than my upper arm and I walk on; the homeopathic combination of vitamin C and bioflavonoids and zinc are on a shelf in the Brattleboro Co-op and I let them remain there, but in the Brattleboro Co-op are cuts of meat that used to be parts of animals and these animals were treated very well and given the best food to eat and that is why they are on the meat shelf of the Brattleboro Co-op; the blue sky, the blue sky and the white clouds are made less so even, modified really, when I place them next to the blue of the sky and the white of the clouds I know exist in the place where I was born and grew up, St. John’s, Antigua, nowhere, nowhere; the long lines in/at the airport and the people manning the various portals of entry and then exit to allow me to attend my oldest brother’s funeral, though he was nine years younger than I was at the time he was born but how much younger is he now that he is dead, he is dead and I am alive in the time of the dead, the time of the dead being the time in which to be alive is a form of being dead, we are dead right now for we cannot be all our ways that are ways of being alive that is familiar; I can hear Martha and the Vandellas singing back up to Marvin Gaye as he sings, close my eyes at night, though to close my eyes at night does not bring sleep or dreams of being loved, only how it came to be that I thought being dead would come about by nuclear bombs, not from something my eyes cannot even see; that very shaded part along the banks of a small stream, which feeds into a larger stream, which feeds, all ending the Atlantic Ocean, that very shaded area is beginning to be filled up with ramps; there were funerals, there were weddings, there were bar mitzvahs, there were meetings I never attended and was penalized, there were evaluations and I thought hard and did my best to be fair; there were sentences that could not be completed for long periods of time; bells, all kinds of bells, in churches, at dinners, in gardens, when someone was hung at Her Majesty’s Prison at eight o’clock on a Wednesday morning; girls with small bosoms, ladies with large bosoms, men who couldn’t stand up straight, the phone ringing, somebody telling me that my mother had died; the fear of using public toilets because people I didn’t know had used them before; one thing I would have loved: sailing across the southern Atlantic Ocean from Argentina to Cape Town, South Africa, and making a little detour to the Drake Passage; the wonder of this world, the wonder of this world and there are no words for it, every word spoils it; the prison for women on the corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue and in it were women who had violated all sorts of rules: sexual, which were political, and political: Grace Paley and Angela Davis, a writer of one kind and a writer of another but thinkers observing the same thing and not being heard and not being heard is in the land of the dead where I am now; Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina; walking so closely to someone just to hear what they are saying and then telling someone else what was overheard, so I could make fun of it; the joy of ridiculing someone I don’t know and will never meet again; there was that time when I told my best friend that if I got married and had children that he should commit me to an institution for the insane because this meant that I would never be a great writer and I did get married and had children and never became a great writer, that thing, the great writer, now looks so ridiculous, like a clown or something unworthy of human attention, not garbage, not that at all, just something to be but, but, I was young and didn’t understand anything at all, though I knew everything all and danced in the streets while wearing pajamas that had been issued to me by a cancer hospital, where it was found I did not have cancer at all but after I left the hospital I continued to wear the pajamas for they had been so comfortable; and having children, how difficult to see that they were not me and that their comfortable childhood was not mine and my girl daughter, oh how she suffered from my confusion and that world is separated from me, lost forever because of that thing that came from nowhere, like the rest of us it comes from nowhere, China, the United States of America, Antigua, all of that is nowhere, we are all of us from nowhere, and nowhere is where we end up, it is our destiny; alive but dead, dead but alive; a great divide has fallen on our life, on my life certainly and on the way I see the world: in life itself there are lots of dead in it, the kingdoms of mammals, vegetable, mineral, and all the others, are all in the living sometimes but in the dead all times.


The writer, novelist, and professor Jamaica Kincaid’s works include Annie John, Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother, Mr. Potter, A Small Place, My Brother, and See Now Then. Her first book, the collection of stories At the Bottom of the River, won the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Professor of African and African American Studies in Residence at Harvard, Kincaid was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has received a Guggenheim Award, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Prix Femina Étranger, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Clifton Fadiman Medal, and the Dan David Prize for Literature.

This essay originally appeared in Swedish in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter.