In 1939, with New York City playing host to the World’s Fair, Fortune magazine dedicated its July issue to commemorating the event. The issue would be divided into four sections: The People, They Govern Themselves, They Earn a Living, and What Is This City? The project required seventeen in-house writers and eight editors to capture the breadth of the city and its people, from Harlem to Wall Street, and the magazine turned also to a former staffer they regarded as their finest writer, James Agee. He was tasked with composing “tone poems” to introduce each section. In the end, Fortune editor Russell Davenport chose not to run the prose poems, or the foreword that Agee wrote to open the magazine.
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The Art of Fiction No. 252By Jamaica Kincaid
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on Antigua in 1949. When she was sixteen, her family interrupted her education, sending her to work as a nanny in New York. In time, she put herself on another path. She went from the New School in Manhattan to Franconia College in New Hampshire, and worked at Magnum Photos and at the teen magazine Ingenue. In the mid-’70s, she began to write for The Village Voice, but it was at The New Yorker, where she became a regular columnist for the Talk of the Town section, that everything changed for her. Her early fiction, much of which also appeared in that magazine, was collected in At the Bottom of the River (1983), a book that, like her Talk stories, announced her themes, her style, the uncanny purity of her prose. She has published the novels Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), Mr. Potter (2002), and See Now Then (2013). A children’s book, Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip, came out in 1986. Aside from the collected Talk Stories (2001), her nonfiction works include A Small Place (1988), a reckoning with the colonial legacy on Antigua; My Brother (1997), a memoir of the tragedy of AIDS in her family; and two books on gardening, My Garden (Book) (1999) and Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya (2005).
Kincaid divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is a professor of African American studies at Harvard University, and Bennington, Vermont, where her large brown clapboard house with yellow window trim is shielded by trees. She has two children from her marriage to the composer Allen Shawn, the son of the former New Yorker editor William Shawn, and in the living room she displays on a table—proudly, apologetically—productions from the arts-and-crafts camps and classes that her son and daughter attended over the years. The study where she writes is a sunroom surrounded on three sides by windows. The terrace that starts at the back door ends in a border of stones; the lawn, planted with thousands of daffodils, slopes down to a thickly shaded creek. Nearby are a vegetable garden caged against wildlife and a cottage in which lives Trevor, her bearded young assistant. Over some twenty years, Kincaid has made what my partner, the poet James Fenton, calls a “plantsman’s garden,” full of rare species. Her hundreds of plants are layered into a composition of informal design, expressive of her refined aesthetic and untroubled eccentricity. She has plants that move her because of how they look or how they behave, or because of their histories.
This conversation began at a public event at the 92nd Street Y in 2013, and was picked up again in her Vermont kitchen eight years later, in the summer of 2021, when the social restrictions of the pandemic had, for a time, eased. Jamaica Kincaid is a generous host. She cooks with flair. Her big, broad-frame glasses evoke the Italian movie stars of the sixties. The years have gone by, but she is still tall. Her voice is as musical as ever, high-pitched, the Anglo-Caribbean lilt beguiling. She is a presence; everything begins to happen when she talks. In person and on the page, Kincaid’s is a literary voice. She is alive to the advantage in the irony that her literary heritage had not predicted her, exalted, brave, free.
Why did your family send you to America? Wasn’t London still a capital of empire in the mid-’60s, the cultural center of the Commonwealth?
If they’d known anyone in London, they would have sent me there. But they didn’t have any long-term plan in mind. The idea wasn’t that I would establish myself and then have the rest of my family join me. I was simply sent away to support them. My father—my stepfather—had gotten ill, and my parents had three boy children. The arrival of my youngest brother had plunged us into a kind of poverty we’d never known. It used to be a tradition in agricultural families that you’d sacrifice the eldest child. I remember the darkness of being sent away—sheer misery of a kind that I didn’t know existed. Until then homesickness was something I only knew from books. I think I first came across it in one of the Brontës.
So there wasn’t any excitement in it?
Not at all, because I was going as a servant. I remember walking in the hot sun to one of the American bases in Antigua—past the crazy house, as we called the lunatic asylum, and the dead house, where the bodies of people who died in the hospital were put until they were collected by the undertaker—to be interviewed by an American soldier’s wife. I was very bitter about it because I had before me what seemed to be a successful future. I might have gone to the University of the West Indies. I would have gotten a scholarship. It seemed cruel even to other people because I was known as what we called a “bright child.” No, there wasn’t any cause for celebration, though my mother did make me a new dress and see me off to the airport.
Homesickness—this kind of interrupted love—is a big element in your work.
Well, perhaps, but I never really felt I belonged even in Antigua, even when I was little. My mother came from Dominica, and the thing about those little islands is that people from one island or the other don’t like each other. She was an outsider in Antigua, and she looked different. She was part Carib Indian, and they used to call her the Red Woman.
I suppose that my work is always mourning something, the loss of a paradise—not the thing that comes after you die, but the thing that you had before. I often think of the time before my brothers were born—and this might sound very childish, but I don’t care—as this paradise of my mother and me always being together. There were times when my mother and I would go swimming and she would disappear for a second, and I would imagine the depths just rolling over her, that she’d go deeper and deeper and I’d never see her again . . . And then she would pop up somewhere else. Those memories are a constant source of some strange pleasure for me.
I was pulled out of school to take care of my youngest brother while my mother went to work, and when she realized I hadn’t been looking after him properly, that I had been reading instead, she gathered all the books I had stolen from the library over the years and burned them. You can probably tell from my writing that I’m obsessed with notions of justice and injustice—those things that are wrong that can never be made right.
Nowadays if I were to be homesick it would be for Vermont, which is strange. But perhaps it makes sense—I grew up in a place where I saw the sea every day and, near the end of my life, I’m living in a place where the water has run out.
Did Lucy come out of a feeling that you needed to put your arrival to America in its place somehow—to examine it, or to leave it behind?
Not so much to put anything in its place as to give an account of what had happened to me. Lucy is about the making of a person. You can see in it the sentimentality of Jane Eyre. A sense of, I’m all alone in the world, and I have integrity. You might want this, but I will do that. Lucy stops sending her salary home, and I did stop sending mine. I still have the clothes I bought at Bonwit Teller. I was the best-dressed nanny you ever saw.
Were you refashioning yourself?
I loved dressing up and going out. You might say that was the influence of my mother. By the time my youngest brother was born her life had collapsed on her, but she was a very elegant woman when I was young. I used to be ashamed to be seen with her because she was so sexy—men of all ages would stop her and talk to her. I remember she wore her hair in a French roll, and she wore what they called a hobble skirt.
After I moved to New York, I modeled for people like Steven Meisel. I clearly had one of those eating problems, but I didn’t know what they were. I didn’t know that there was anything about me that had a name, that could be diagnosed. I ended up smoking Lucky Strikes, just because I liked the way it looked, the gesture. For some reason, I decided to cut off my hair and bleach it blond. I dressed in old clothes, thrift-shop clothes.
I styled myself to look like no one else. And I also knew I didn’t want to write like anyone else. When I started writing Talk pieces at The New Yorker, I tried to get away from the anonymous “we” they used. They had very good writers, but they were these old, stout white men. I hated the we. I had such contempt for a certain kind of writing, which I would now call “white writing.” It was so dull and mannered.
From the Archive, Issue 239
Episode 22: “Form and Formlessness”
Rachel Cusk photo courtesy the author.
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