Lucy: A Novel | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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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 St. John's on the West Indian island of Antigua. Her father, Antiguan cabdriver Roderick Potter, abandoned Kincaid and her mother, Annie. Annie Richardson, an Afro-Indian immigrant from the island of Dominica, married carpenter David Drew, and they raised Kincaid as an only child until the birth of their three sons.

Early in life Kincaid enjoyed a close relationship with her mother, who taught Jamaica to read at age three. Kincaid soon developed a love of books. She frequented the library, befriending the librarian and reading English authors such as playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616), poet John Keats (1795–1821), and novelist Charlotte Brontë (1816–55). Young Kincaid stole library books and hid them under her porch. She explains her behavior in her 1988 book-length essay, A Small Place: "Once I had read a book I couldn't bear to part with it." Since Antigua was still under British colonial rule, Kincaid received a British education. Although a bright student, she was 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. When she was a young teen, her stepfather became too ill to work and her mother pulled Kincaid out of school to help care for him and her brothers. Kincaid later said, "My life might ... have been destroyed by that casual act ... if I hadn't intervened."

Independence in New York

In 1965—when Kincaid was 16—her parents 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 did not contact her family again until she visited Antigua in 1986.

Kincaid resolved to continue her education, earning a diploma from community college and taking photography classes. While working in Manhattan, she met American writer and critic George Trow (1943–2006). A columnist for the New Yorker, Trow was impressed with her wit and talent. He introduced Kincaid to fellow New Yorker staff member William Shawn (1907–92), who became her longtime friend and editor. Trow also published the first of many Kincaid 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—in 1973—changed her name 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 her new 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.

By 1976 Kincaid was a regular staff writer for the New Yorker and also contributed fiction to the magazine's pages. Her first published story was the widely anthologized "Girl," written in the voice of a Caribbean mother giving advice to her daughter. Her first book, At the Bottom of the River, published in 1983, is a collection of short fiction from her time at the New Yorker.

Autobiographical Novelist and Controversial Essayist

Kincaid is open about the fact that most of her fiction is autobiographical. "There is no reason for me to be a writer without autobiography," she has said. "I ... had to make sense out of my past." Her writing often incorporates themes related to struggles in her personal life: immigrants with complex relationships to their native lands, mother-daughter relationships, and the impacts of colonialism. These themes all appear in Lucy (1990), the characters and events of which directly parallel Kincaid's own experiences. Like Kincaid, Lucy was born in 1949 and had a close relationship to her mother until the birth of her brothers. Lucy, too, comes to the United States to be an au pair, cuts off all contact with her mother, and studies photography. Lucy's predecessor, Kincaid's 1985 novel Annie John, is also a coming-of-age tale about a Caribbean girl. Some people think Lucy is a continuation of, or sequel to, Annie John, which ends with the main character sailing to the United States at 17. However, Kincaid is clear that the two books are unrelated. After Lucy, Kincaid adopted a parental protagonist in The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), which relates a young Caribbean woman's imagining of her mother's life. Her 2002 novel Mr. Potter describes an Antiguan man who, like Roderick Potter—Kincaid's father—abandons his family.

Kincaid also addresses the themes of colonial domination and the oppression of women in her nonfiction work. A Small Place (1988) describes the ways in which colonialism devastated Antigua and the Caribbean. That book and Lucy startle readers with their direct and aggressive tones. Kincaid has responded to criticisms of anger in her work by saying, "I don't feel I'm angry. I feel as though I'm describing something true." Kincaid's other nonfiction titles include My Brother (1997), about her brother Devon Drew, who died of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in 1996, and a 2005 publication, Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya. Among Flowers describes a trip she took to collect plants from the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal.

Awards, Recognition, and Teaching

Kincaid's novel The Autobiography of My Mother was a 1996 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the 1997 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. She has been granted honorary degrees from Amherst College and Long Island College, as well as Brandeis University, Tufts University, and Wesleyan University. She has taught creative writing at Bennington College and Harvard University.

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