In her study at home in North Bennington, 2018. Interview still frame courtesy of Stephanie Black.
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in Antigua in 1949. When she was sixteen, her family interrupted her education and sent her to work as a nanny in New York. over time, she set out on another path. she went from the new school in manhattan to the university of franconia in new hampshire, and worked at magnum photos and teen ingenue magazine. In the mid-’70s, she began writing for the Town Voice, but it was in New York, where she became a regular columnist for the city’s talk section, that everything changed for her. Her first fiction, much of which also appeared in that magazine, was collected in At the Bottom of the River (1983), a book that, like her stories, announced her themes, her style, the astonishing purity of his prose. She has published the novels Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), My Mother’s Autobiography (1996), Mr. potter (2002), and see now then (2013). A children’s book, Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip, came out in 1986. In addition to Collected Conversation Stories (2001), her nonfiction works include A Small Place (1988), A Reckoning with the Legacy colonial in old; my brother (1997), memories of the AIDS tragedy in her family; and two books on gardening, my garden (book) (1999) and among flowers: a walk through the himalayas (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 big brown clapboard house with yellow window trim is shaded by trees. She has two children from her marriage to composer Allen Shawn, son of former New York publisher William Shawn, and in the living room she displays on a table—proudly, as an apology—productions from the camps and arts and crafts classes that her son and his daughter attended over the years. the study where she writes is a solarium surrounded on three sides by windows. the terrace that starts from the back door ends in a stone border; the lawn, planted with thousands of daffodils, slopes down to a thickly shaded stream. Nearby is an orchard caged against wildlife and a cabin in which she lives Trevor, her bearded young assistant. For about twenty years, Kincaid has created what my partner, the poet James Fenton, calls a “plant man’s garden,” filled with rare species. The hundreds of plants of her overlap in an informally designed composition, expressive of her refined aesthetics and seamless eccentricity. She has plants that move her because of her appearance or her behavior, or her stories.
this conversation began at a public event on 92nd street y in 2013, and was picked up again in his 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 style. Her large, wide-rimmed glasses evoke Italian movie stars of the 1960s. Years have passed, but she’s still tall. her voice is as musical as ever, high-pitched, the seductive Anglo-Caribbean cadence. she is a presence; everything starts to happen when she speaks. In person and on the page, Kincaid’s is a literary voice. she is alive ahead 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 the empire in the mid-1960s, the cultural center of the commonwealth?
if they had met anyone in london, they would have sent me there. but they had no long-term plan in mind. the idea was not to settle down and then have the rest of my family join me. they just sent me away to support them. my father, my stepfather, had become ill and my parents had three sons. the arrival of my younger brother had plunged us into a kind of poverty that we had never known. It used to be a tradition in farming families that you would sacrifice the eldest son. I remember the darkness of being sent away, pure misery of a kind I didn’t know existed. until then nostalgia was something I only knew from books. I think I first encountered it on one of the brontës.
so there was no emotion in it?
Not at all, because he went as a servant. I remember walking under the scorching sun to one of the American bases in Antigua, passing the madhouse, as we called the madhouse, and the house of the dead, where they put the bodies of people who died in the hospital until they were delivered. they collected the undertaker, to be interviewed by the wife of an American soldier. he was very bitter because he had before me what seemed to be a successful future. he could have gone to the university of the west indies. he would have gotten a scholarship. it seemed cruel even to other people because they knew me as what we called a “bright kid.” no, there was no reason to celebrate, although my mother made me a new dress and saw me off at the airport.
nostalgia, this kind of interrupted love, is an important element in your work.
Well, maybe, but I never felt like I belonged to the old days, not even when I was little. My mother came from Dominica, and what happens with those little islands is that people from one island or another don’t like each other. she was an outsider in old, and she looked different. she was part Carib Indian, and was called the red woman.
I guess my work is always mourning something, the loss of a paradise, not what comes after you die, but what you had before. I often think about the time before my brothers were born, and this may sound very childish, but I don’t care, like this paradise of my mother and I always together. there were times when my mother and I would go swimming and she would disappear for a second, and I would imagine that the depths of her would just roll over her, that she would sink lower and lower and never see her again. . . and then she would appear in another place. those memories are a constant source of some strange pleasure to me.
I was taken out of school to take care of my little brother while my mother went to work, and when she realized that I hadn’t been taking care of him properly, that she had been reading instead, she gathered all the books I had stolen from the library over the years and had burned them. You can probably tell from my writing that I am obsessed with notions of justice and injustice, those things that are wrong and can never be put right.
Nowadays, if I was homesick, it would be Vermont, which is weird. but maybe it makes sense: I grew up in a place where I saw the sea every day, and near the end of my life, I live in a place where the water ran out.
did lucy arise from the feeling that you needed to put your arrival in the united states in its place somehow, to examine it or leave it behind?
Not so much to put anything in its place as to account for what had happened to me. Lucy is about training a person. you can see in it the sentimentality of jane eyre. a feeling that I am alone in the world and have integrity. You may want this, but I’ll do it. Lucy stops sending her salary home and I stopped sending mine. I still have the clothes I bought at bonwit teller. I was the best dressed babysitter you’ve ever seen.
were you remodeling?
I loved dressing up and going out. you could say it was my mother’s influence. By the time my younger brother was born, her life had collapsed on her, but she was a very elegant woman when I was young. I used to be embarrassed to be seen with her because she was so hot – men of all ages would stop her and talk to her. I remember her that she had her hair up in a French bun and was wearing what they called a lame skirt.
after moving to new york, i modeled for the likes of steven meisel. He clearly had one of those feeding problems, but he didn’t know what they were. I didn’t know that there was something in me that had a name, that could be diagnosed. I ended up smoking lucky breaks, just because I liked the look of it, the gesture. for some reason i decided to cut my hair short and bleach it blonde. I dressed in old clothes, second-hand clothes.
I designed myself to look like no one else. and he also knew that he did not want to write like the others. When I started writing conversation pieces in the New Yorker, I tried to stay away from the anonymous “we” they used. They had some very good writers, but it was these big old white men. hated us. he had such contempt for a certain type of writing, which he would now call “white writing.” he was so boring and polite.