Interview with Jamaica Kincaid

Posted by Goodreads on February 4, 2013
Jamaica Kincaid Novelist, memoirist, and former New Yorker staffer Jamaica Kincaid went from an impoverished childhood in Antigua to extraordinary literary success in America, with celebrated books like Mr. Potter, My Brother, Annie John, Lucy, and The Autobiography of My Mother. After a decade without any new fiction work, Kincaid is back with the powerful, unsettling See Now Then, a novel about a marriage that is poisoned by both love and hate.

When Goodreads called, Kincaid was busy booking a car in Maui. For vacation? "Oh, I never go on vacation," she insisted. Instead the gardening enthusiast, who has also published extensively on the topic, is making her first trip to the Rainbow State to see poet W.S. Merwin's palm collection—he has an arboretum with more than 800 species. Kincaid put her rental search aside to talk to interviewer Jade Chang about time as a construct, the Delia's catalog, and trying to write a universal story in a world that demands memoir.

Goodreads: This is your first novel in ten years—and, perhaps not coincidentally, your marriage broke up about ten years ago.

Jamaica Kincaid: Oh! Yes...I suppose it is ten years. But I must say, it's not about my marriage, it's not about my children, and it's not about me. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!

GR: OK. But you're someone who has often drawn on your own life as material, and this is a book set in Bennington (where you live) about a writer (like you!) married to a composer (same job as your ex-husband, Allan Shawn!) with a son and a daughter (you have those!). It's hard not to draw some comparisons.

JK: That's probably true, but...it's an odd thing nowadays, to look for if something is interesting because it corresponds to the person's life instead of if it is an interesting book. Let's say I had said this was written by someone named...Janet Molowinski. Would it be interesting to you?

GR: People would probably think that Janet was writing a roman à clef about you. You can't escape the speculation!

JK: It would be nice to wait until I'm dead. But do I draw on my life? Yes, that's true. I tend to not understand anything until I have some experience with it. I probably wouldn't have understood marriage if I had not been married, so that's true enough. I would tend not to understand why a father would abandon a child, except that I was abandoned by my father, so it is true that I write out of this way of looking at things. That is true enough.

GR: When you do write about things that come out of your life, do you feel like you're explaining them to yourself or to other people?

JK: I became a writer in an attempt to understand and save my life, and it did. It gave me a life with a kind of privilege that I wasn't born into. I live a life of reception. I suppose I could have made a fortune in computers and become known that way, but I don't know how to add.

The life I have is that I like to think about everything that has happened to me. I'm essentially a lazy person in regards to physical labor. I like to sit around and read books and think about things. I wouldn't have written about being a mother if I hadn't been a mother, but that is not to say that the things I've written about are the people in my life. I've written a lot about my mother, and she sensibly never read it, or so she said.

That being said, things that are in the book might parallel my life, but it would be wrong to think that they address truly the other people in my life. Especially this book. It is true that I tend to augment and dramatize or exaggerate—I've never had two or three of anything; I have a million of them.

But you know, it would serve me right. After all the hard work I put in to orchestrate it the way I did, for anyone to just say, "Oh, that's her husband! That's her children!" It would be my just desserts.

GR: Let's talk about the orchestration, the style, the way that the book was written.

JK: Two things: I don't know if you've ever come across the very first piece of fiction I've written called Girl?

GR: Of course!

JK: Good. If you remember that story, the way the story worked, first of all, it's one sentence. It's 300 words long, and it takes place over a period from the time the girl is a girl until the brink of womanhood. It's perhaps the most misunderstood story. She's given all these instructions. The ordinary, traditional way to do it would have been to say, "My mother said to me...my mother was a very controlling woman and was trying to form me into this thing...and that day the sun was shining..." and so on, but I didn't do that. I compressed it. So if you were to look at that, and the other stories in that collection, you would see that I've been trying to do something like this forever.

I broke away and wrote more traditional stories like Annie John. But I've always been determined not to write a kind of rewarding-for-the-reader story of: "The next day, when I got up...." I've never wanted to write in that beginning/middle/end. I've been thinking about it all these years and experimenting with it.

GR: Do you feel you've been doing the same thing with concepts of time?

JK: I'm now interested in the nowness of things. I go around asking people stupid questions like, What happened to the five-year-old you used to be? Is it like the Russian dolls, and you just grow over new skin and new skin? And they say stupid things like, "Well, you know, scientists say that every seven years you grow new skin."

But once again this subject came up: Who are you? I was living with people I suddenly did not know. And it made me think, How does time work? I just had a long conversation with my editor, Jonathan, a written conversation, about this. You know how a noun is a person, place, or thing? Well, I decided that a person really wasn't a noun; a person was a verb, because they do not stay. They're not contained in the way a place or thing is. They're not still. But of course, we have to make a person a noun because it's too much! We have to make of each other a place or a thing.

GR: We should be verbs.

JK: How does life really work? What does it mean? I've been thinking this all through the years, and when I started to sift out a certain period of my own life, I found it useful to put it through that lens of now and then.

The idea of one thing following the other temporally is not acceptable or satisfying to me. So this way seemed my best bet to understand these things. And I have to tell the story in a way that is interesting to me. You can see why it's not satisfying for a reader to become attached to me—it's better to [read] The Emperor's Children or something!

GR: Let's talk about the title—See Now Then.

JK: I think the great joy for me in writing it, just to have figured out the title was for me ecstasy. I felt that I needn't write anything once I had that title! I couldn't believe how those three words [See Now Then], ordinary, ordinary words, the way those three words have exquisite layers of meanings. They can go any which way. I felt sort of powerful when I understood that, like someone who had just learned to walk. That must be what it felt like to cross the room on your feet and not to crawl.

GR: You came up with the title before you finished the book?

JK: The title came before the book because I'd been thinking about time all along. At the same time I'd been thinking about my own life—who I had been as a child, as a young woman, as the person who was experiencing an enormous amount of pain. There were times when I felt that someone had just simply removed my skull and hit my brain with a hammer—though it didn't smush or anything...or someone had just opened my heart and disconnected a lot of the springs in it. I'm always trying to put my own self into words—who am I? After all, I am the person who changed my own name. I never liked my name that my parents gave me.

GR: There were a spate of interviews that talked about your hatred of happiness, how you don't write about happiness, but in this book Mrs. Sweet seems occasionally blissful—have your feelings changed?

JK: It's funny, you know, I do remember when I was a young mother and my children were little as the happiest time in my life. I was rather plump and didn't really care much. I was extremely self-pleasing and really felt like king or queen of the hill or something like that. I discovered gardening, which made me incredibly happy. It's as if a part of my brain grew and developed. I had extraordinary curiosity about the world, and it was satisfied. I met with extreme worldly success. My children were healthy. I've experienced happiness, and also something else I've come to treasure, a feeling of melancholy, a sweet sadness, of the day coming to an end—though the day is indifferent to my feeling, and I've made this whole feeling out of it.

But happiness—I have experienced happiness. It was contentment. There was a period in my life when I was very content and looked it. There's something to be said about a slightly plump person—you have just enough of too much.

GR: So have you become a believer in happy endings?

JK: Oh god! There are no happy endings! It ends in death! That is the end of everything. That's the other thing I discovered: No matter how much someone loves you and you love them, you are invariably bound to cause each other some sadness because one of you will die. You read about these couples...like William Maxwell after his wife died. He just got into bed and died. In the end, death is not a happy ending; it's fucking death!

I used to think of death as this annoying thing that happened to other people. Things come in and go out of fashion, and I wished that death would take the same turn. People say it's a natural thing and you have to accept it, and I don't accept it at all. I simply hate it and wish it would go away. Of course it's something we construct; that's what I was trying to unravel. How it becomes constructed.

GR: Death?

JK: Yes, it's sort of like making up a noun and not a verb—if you don't contain it, it's just nuts! That's one of the reasons the book has all this geologic information in it, which I find incredibly moving. That's the only thing that makes death acceptable to me. I remember reading "it rained for 100 million years," and it's from that rain that all of that stuff we enjoy comes. I was going from the smallest, latest thing, which was human beings and all the things that they construct—time, the day—to this larger thing, which was the instability of the earth's core and all the things that come out of it and go into it. All the things we see, the mountains, everything, will go back from whence they came. It's the love/hate thing. Everything has its opposite, everything holds within it its opposite. That's very hard to accept!

GR: Goodreads member Kathryn writes, "In much of your work you very elegantly ask very difficult questions of the reader. How difficult is it to craft such weighty material into truly lovely prose?"

JK: I don't think difficulty is the word. I'm sure Dan Brown, who I don't know is asking a difficult question, must still find it difficult to write. It's not a question of difficulty of craft for me, anyways. To go back to the autobiography, coming out of this situation that I come from, a big influence is my mother's frustration. She was a brilliant woman who was incredibly frustrated because she had no way to exercise that brilliance. So the questions I ask don't seem difficult to ask at all.

What is difficult is to accept the situation that led to these questions that needed to be asked. You know that book Guns, Germs, and Steel? I can't understand why it's acceptable, the question at the heart of it: "Why is the West rich and the rest of us not?" You know, it's not because we didn't know what to do with what we had. That's the myth, that's what the West likes to think, but really it's because the West stole it! Well, I'm really the West now, I suppose.... But the difficulty is how to ask. You see, the question is easy, but how to put it so that you're not just walking up to Mr. Diamond and kicking him in the nuts, that's hard! It's always amazing to me the people who talk about the superiority of Western civilization—nothing else has done more to destroy the earth!

The way I ask questions, it's because I really am restraining myself from not slicing everybody's head off! I'm going to tell you something that I perhaps shouldn't, but I'll do it anyways. There's a joke I tell myself. The thing I really resent of terrorists is that they've made it impossible for anyone to express themselves fully, because they've gone too far! You know how the IRA blew up the queen's uncle, Lord Mountbatten? So everybody I didn't like, I used to imaginarily buy them tickets for Lord Mountbatten's yacht—a deck chair for you and you and you! But then terrorists made that joke not funny anymore. So I'm usually trying not to say something like what I've just said.

GR: Goodreads member Ronny M. asks, "Why has she chosen to give her main characters only the titles of Mr. and Mrs. Sweets? And why has she named their children after [heroes and] heroines from Greek mythology? Is she attempting to depict a universal modern myth, or are there still autobiographical, personal elements within it?"

JK: The symbolism of the disappearing daughter [named Persephone]—who, as you know, spent half her life in the underworld, in the world of death—is there. The thing is, [myths] get rewritten all the time; it's only now that they're fixed. It's well known that Heracles is a god that the Greeks picked up from somebody that they conquered, and they just rewrote all of their adventures. There are lots of things in it that I really enjoyed secreting, a lot of little things. I was just laughing about...do you know that OutKast song, "So Fresh, So Clean"? That's in there, with Mrs. Jackson. [The family in See Now Then lives in "the Shirley Jackson house"—"Ms. Jackson" is another OutKast hit.]

There are lots of things from popular culture in there. It's very, very carefully constructed. In the beginning of the book I talk about someone who fixes their house, and his name is Homer—that happens to be true, that the man who fixed [our] house died and his name was Homer, but by the time I got to that I had already named the children Heracles and Persephone. It's almost as if they were a gift, lying in front of me, and I just had to put them in their proper place—like when you're doing a jigsaw puzzle and you find where that odd dot goes.

GR: What about the family's last name, the Sweets?

JK: The man who picked up our garbage was a Mr. Sweet. The Sweets are a big family in this area, and I always thought it was funny that the man who picked up our garbage is that, and I named the parents that because they are not at all sweet.

I put a lot of things in there, but I fully expect them to be ignored, and what will be focused on is the autobiographical parts and their parallels to my own life, because that's the world we live in now, we want to know about each other's lives. But I actually was trying to say something larger. It really isn't about me or anybody I know, but the larger thing is much more difficult to understand. In Publisher's Weekly it was said, "Oh, her husband left her for a younger woman," and it's much easier to say that. I wanted to say, aren't husbands always leaving wives? I could have named them Zeus and Hera, because Zeus is always leaving Hera!

GR: Have your children read the book?

JK: They're artists themselves, and they very much think that an artist should do what he or she wishes to do. They don't identify with it at all!

GR: That's lucky for you!

JK: It is very lucky for me and lucky for them too, because it wouldn't have stopped me. When I'm writing, I'm ruthless; I really don't have any boundaries. I just think, "That's what I'm putting in, that's what I'm not putting in." When I'm not writing, I'm a very nice person! We're lucky to have each other; we're very good to each other.

GR: I've read that you usually compose a whole page in your head before writing it down. Is that true?

JK: Now it's so well known that it's probably going to change. I don't have any real rituals. With My Brother, I could only write in the middle of the night with many glasses of gin. This one had a different thing because there were so many things to consider and weave in. There's a lot of pop culture in it, and I used to just loathe mentioning pop culture in books. I don't know if you noticed the Delia catalog—I thought forever about whether to include that, and in the end I did.

GR: Oh yes, I did notice that—it was actually a really weird shock to see Delia's and Forever 21 in here! You know your teen shopping.

JK: I like young people—I forget I'm not young. I forget until I pass a mirror and think, Who's that ogre?

GR: What are you reading now?

JK: The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwartz-Bart, a writer from Guadalupe. Hmmm, I was reading a lot of short German fiction from before the war—Mann, Rilke—but generally I read nonfiction, I read books about landscapes. I'm usually interested in the world of Europe after 1492, or I'm reading something on geology. I'm trying to understand how geology works. I'll go through a period where I read only Apollodorus. I read a lot of garden books.


Interview by Jade Chang for Goodreads. Jade is a journalist and writer living in Los Angeles.

Learn more about Jade and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Joyce (new)

Joyce I love everything she has written. I made my book group each read a different book of hers and now we are telling each other about them and in the context of her new book which just came and which I alone will have read. When I first read her, years and years ago, she knocked me out. This one is the very best yet. She speaks for my anger in a way that makes it okay and I love it when she gets into my head and affects how I am alive.


message 2: by Tanvi (new)

Tanvi Girl was a short story that stuck with me. It's simple; I relate to it so much. It's great to read about her creative process here!


message 3: by Dee (new)

Dee Wow Jamaica Kincaid! I haven't heard her name in years; I'm looking forward to reading her new work.


message 4: by Ayman (new)

Ayman Hameed i wish that i can get the pdf of her novel for there is no chance to get the text in Iraq


message 5: by Terri (new)

Terri Love her! Her piece "Girl" inspired me to write a companion piece for boys and then add a little genre twist to make it into a sort of a process manual for parents to raise them. It was fun!


message 6: by Kayla (new)

Kayla houston that a good srory


message 7: by Glenn (new)

Glenn Miller I like Kincaid's fiction very much. I read her A Walk Among Flowers, a book about her travels in the Kanchenjunga area of Nepal. It inspired me. I went there.
But it's lazy writing, all about her. She rarely made the effort to describe the region. She didn't even learn the names of her guide and porters. "Where's that at?" as people say. Still, I look forward to reading her new book. Forbes


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