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Jamaica Kincaid | Biography

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Early Life

Born in colonial Antigua on May 25, 1949, Elaine Potter Richardson, who would later be known as the writer Jamaica Kincaid, grew up in relative poverty. Her childhood home lacked electricity and running water, yet her mother, a homemaker, and her stepfather, a carpenter, initially had little financial trouble raising her. She attended Princess Margaret School and the Antiguan Girls School, where she performed at the top of her class and felt doted on by her parents, particularly her mother. When Kincaid was nine years old, however, her mother gave birth to a quick succession of three sons. Suddenly, Kincaid's mother seemed emotionally distant, distracted, even negligent. The financial burden of four children mounted, and Kincaid's parents decided to pull their daughter from school. Considering this, Kincaid later claimed that when her education ended, her life might have been destroyed "if I hadn't intervened in my own life and pulled myself out of the water."

New York

Desperate for extra money, Kincaid's parents shipped her off to New York City when she was 17 to work as an au pair caring for a family's children and household. Once she arrived in America, Kincaid sent money home until she came to resent the expectation and ceased contact with her family. She stepped down from her au pair position and embraced her freedom by trying a variety of odd jobs. At the same time, she started writing stories about her upbringing, which she published under the pen name "Jamaica Kincaid" to protect her anonymity: "I was writing about my family, my mother especially, and I didn't want her to know." In 1976 her work caught the eye of editors at The New Yorker, who took her on as a staff writer, a position she held for 20 years. In 1979 Kincaid married composer Allen Shawn, with whom she had two children: daughter Annie (named after Kincaid's mother) and son Harold.

Annie John

Each chapter of Annie John was written as a stand-alone story to be published in The New Yorker during Kincaid's tenure there; each story had a conflict, rising action, and a resolution. Rather than publish them as a short-story collection, Kincaid and her editors reworked the stories to further intertwine their themes and create a novel. This explains the somewhat choppy transitions between chapters, repeated information, and unexplained maturity leaps in Annie's character.

When Annie John was first released, critics praised the unique Caribbean voice and detailed, lush setting Kincaid created. Some critics hailed the work as a reinvention of the bildungsroman, a coming-of-age genre previously dominated by white men.

Influences

Kincaid's primary influence, which can be seen in all her published works, is her Caribbean childhood. Nearly all of Kincaid's female characters, including Annie in Annie John, experience a strained relationship with their mothers and struggle to break free of strict behavioral expectations. Strong parallels between Kincaid's biography and her characters' experiences can almost always be found. For example, Annie John experiences emotional upheaval when she matures into a young woman her mother no longer dotes on. Lucy in Lucy (1990) leaves the small Caribbean island where she was raised to become an au pair in New York City, and Mrs. Sweet in See Now Then (2013) comes to terms with her failing marriage to a composer—Kincaid herself divorced her composer husband in 2002. Most of her works are semi-autobiographical, meaning she fictionalizes true events from her past in her stories, but she warns readers not to read her fiction as gospel. "Truth is complicated," she said in a 2013 interview with American magazine Mother Jones, slyly adding, "Everything I write is autobiographical, but none of it is true in the sense of a court of law."

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