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Jamaica Kincaid | Biography


Childhood in Antigua

Jamaica Kincaid's birth name is Elaine Potter Richardson. She was born on May 25, 1949, in Antigua's capital city St. John's, to an Antiguan cabdriver father and an Afro-Indian mother from the nearby island of Dominica.

Early in life Kincaid developed a love of books and enjoyed a close relationship with her mother. Her father abandoned the family. She frequented the library, befriending the librarian and reading English authors such as playwright William Shakespeare, poet John Keats, and novelist Charlotte Brontë. Young Kincaid stole library books and hid them under her porch: "Once I had read a book I couldn't bear to part with it," she explains in A Small Place. Since Antigua was still under British colonial rule, Kincaid received a British education in school. She was bright but a frequent troublemaker and was bullied by her peers.

Once the first of Kincaid's three younger brothers was born, her mother's attitude toward her changed dramatically, in a way that shaped the rest of her life. Nine-year-old Kincaid was neglected in favor of her brothers. Her mother, who had taught her to read at age three, pulled Kincaid out of school to work after her third brother became ill. Kincaid later said, "My life might very well have been destroyed by that casual act ... if I hadn't intervened."

Independence in New York

In 1965 when Kincaid was 16 her mother and stepfather sent her to Scarsdale, a wealthy suburb of New York City, where she worked as an au pair (or nanny). Depressed and lonely, Kincaid didn't send money home or answer her mother's letters. She eventually resigned and worked a series of low-wage jobs in New York. She wouldn't contact her family again until a visit to Antigua 20 years later.

Kincaid resolved to continue her education, earning a diploma from community college and taking photography classes. While working in Manhattan she met George Trow, columnist for The New Yorker, who was impressed with her wit and talent. Trow introduced her to William Shawn, who would become her longtime friend and editor at The New Yorker. Trow also published Kincaid's first of many columns in The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" section.

As her writing career took off Kincaid began to shape a new identity. She bleached her hair blonde, wore vintage clothes, and changed her name in 1973 from Elaine Potter Richardson to Jamaica Kincaid. She later said she picked Jamaica because "it was just sort of stylish." The name change ensured her writing would be anonymous and not discovered by anyone back home in Antigua. The anonymity gave Kincaid freedom to write honestly about her personal life, and the first name connected her to the complex and violent history of the Caribbean. The relationship between renaming and colonization is a recurring theme in Kincaid's work.

Writing for The New Yorker: Antiguan History and Controversy

By 1976 Kincaid was a regular staff writer for The New Yorker. In addition to her nonfiction column in "The Talk of the Town," she began writing fiction for the magazine. Her first published story was the widely anthologized "Girl," written in the voice of a Caribbean mother giving advice to her daughter. A few of her stories were only one sentence long. Her first book, At the Bottom of the River, published in 1983, is a collection of her short fiction from The New Yorker.

In the books that followed, both fiction and nonfiction, Kincaid addressed the themes of colonial domination and the oppression of women. A Small Place, published in book form in 1988, described the way colonialism continued to devastate Antigua and the Caribbean. Both A Small Place and Kincaid's 1991 novel Lucy startled readers with their direct and aggressive tones. Kincaid responded to criticisms of anger in her work by saying, "I don't feel I'm angry. I feel I'm describing something true."

After 20 years at The New Yorker Kincaid left the magazine in 1996 due to disagreements with the editorial choices of the new editor, Tina Brown.

Writing about Family and Nature

Many of Kincaid's works of fiction address themes in her life: immigrants with complex relationships to their native lands, mother–daughter relationships, and the impact of colonial conquest. Annie John (1985) and Lucy are coming-of-age tales about Caribbean girls. The Autobiography of My Mother (1996) shows a young Caribbean woman's imagining of her mother's life. Mr. Potter (2002) describes an Antiguan man who, like Kincaid's father, abandoned his family. A later novel, See Now Then (2013), draws inspiration from Kincaid's marriage to—and divorce from—William Shawn's son Allen. In her 1997 memoir My Brother, Kincaid writes directly about her youngest brother Devon Drew, who died from AIDS the year before the book's publication.

See Now Then and A Small Place both use a nonlinear treatment of time, where past, present, and future events collapse into one another. In A Small Place Kincaid explains how this vision of time, where "the division of Time into the Past, the Present, and the Future does not exist," pervades small nations like Antigua. The narrative techniques of Kincaid's novels are designed to make the reader feel the immediacy of time and history the way Antiguans do. For instance, A Small Place uses the second-person point of view to implicate the reader as a tourist arriving in Antigua and to imply the impact of tourists is perpetual and never ending.

An avid gardener, Kincaid writes about plants and nature as a way to understand colonial domination: "Most of the nations that have serious gardening cultures also have, or have had, empires," she told a reporter, noting, "You can't have this luxury of pleasure without somebody paying for it." Kincaid has written a gardening column for The New Yorker. After her 1985 move to Bennington, Vermont, Kincaid had more space to garden. She wrote the nonfiction book My Garden (Book) in 2001, followed by Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas in 2005.

Awards, Recognition, and Teaching

Kincaid's novel The Autobiography of My Mother was a 1997 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. She's been awarded honorary degrees from Williams, Amherst, Long Island, Middlebury, and Bard colleges, and she has taught at Bennington College and Harvard University.

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