If I were asked to describe Jamaica Kincaid’s style in a single word, I would have to settle, after sulking about the pointlessness of the question, for a composite one: “non-conformist”, I would say. If I were pressed for a second word, it would have to be “self-conscious”. Prompted again, I would cheat with “calculatedly-angry”. And so on. Which is all to say that, as well as all of the above, Kincaid’s literature bears no simple reading, primarily because she sets out from the start to disallow it.
Born in St John’s, Antigua in 1949, Jamaica (left) was the more conventional Elaine Potter Richardson before she became Jamaica. She grew up in the colonial setting of the West Indies of the 50s and 60s until she departed for New York in 1965, famously, to become an au pair. Distanced from her family, Kincaid (still then known as Elaine) finished her secondary education, enrolled in photography courses and, eventually, signed up for college, only to abandon it one year later. Fast-forward her tale by seven years and we find her working for the magazine Ingenue in a series of articles about what celebrities were like at age seventeen. At this stage, her self-fashioning was advanced enough for her to drop her given name and adopt the pseudonym with which she would become famous. It was then, as an eccentric 23-year-old with a random name and a flamboyant wardrobe, that she met George Trow – the man who, Kincaid claims, must stand at the beginning of every sentence about her life as a writer. Trow taught her how to become a writer, even though she had been writing before. Most importantly, however, Trow also introduced her to The New Yorker magazine, and its editor at the time, William Shawn. Jamaica Kincaid became a staff writer at The New Yorker an remained at the magazine for more than 20 years; she also married and had two children with Mr. Shawn’s son, Allen. Now, there’s a meaningful acquaintance, if there ever was one!
Kincaid’s first collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River, was published in 1984. This was followed by the novels, Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), The Autobiography of My Mother (1997) and My Brother (1997). She also published a long essay about Antigua entitled A Small Place (1988), and, most recently, a number of books on gardening.
Kincaid’s fiction is almost exclusively narrated on the first person, which has led to her work being bracketed as autobiographical. She has often acknowledged her mother, and their antagonistic relationship, as the richest source of inspiration in her work, fuelling the suspicion that the first person narrator in her stories is none other than herself. Be that as it may, even if the sentiments expressed in (and evoked by) Kincaid’s fiction are genuine, they are indelibly marked by the narrative structure within which she has chosen to inscribe them. This structure, more consciously than not, I would venture to assert, sets out to challenge the order of the establishment, not so much by questioning it, but rather by constructing a parallel reality where the dominant point of view is neither patriarchal nor colonial.
And yet, Kincaid has often justified her style by saying that this was the only way she knew how to write; she has distanced herself from the West Indian literary tradition by asserting that she was unaware of its existence, even as she contributed to it; and she has sidestepped the question of her feminist activism by pronouncing herself uncomfortable with being part of any militant group or force. This is where Kincaid’s sober attitude contrasts with her narrative style, where the point of view of the (female) individual often becomes exhaustive,precluding even any sort of direct interaction with other characters (in The Autobiography of My Mother, for instance, there is no dialogue, whatsoever); where the colonial structures of power are passed on to the local population, seemingly causing widespread vice even after independence; where the focus shifts towards the periphery, and the context becomes the relationship between the other and the center.
Kincaid might well have known no other way to write, but not to question her style would be like not to question someone on the street who were walking backwards. Indeed, some of the most profuse criticism leveled at her work revolves around the fact that it remains so patently provocative. Another point of contention involves her uprootedness, which, some adduce, places her closer to the North American than to the Caribbean tradition. In this respect, the name she chose for herself more than 35 years ago might work as a good allegory, both associated to her heritage and at the same time foreign, and yet indelible – like a birthmark, or a tatoo. If one thing unites Caribbean writers, it is the multiplicity of their personae – literary or otherwise – often developed through the experiences brought about by displacement and relocation. In this sense, Elaine Potter/Jamaica Kincaid remains quintessentially Caribbean.