Jamaica Kincaid -- art has roots in the family
In the light of the lamp, I see some books, I see a chair, I see a table; I see a pen; I see a bowl of ripe fruit, a bottle of milk, a flute made of wood, the clothes I will wear. And as I see these things . . . how bound up I know I am to all that is human endeavor, to all that is past and to all that shall be. . . .'' Jamaica Kincaid ``At the Bottom of the River'' IN the decade that Jamaica Kincaid has been writing fiction, this Caribbean-born author has carved a literary niche by elevating the personal and familial -- even the overtly domestic -- to moments of epiphany.
This Proustian process, executed in two slim volumes, the prizewinning ``At the Bottom of the River'' last year and now ``Annie John,'' is earning Ms. Kincaid a reputation as a writer of subtle force and perception. Critics have praised her work for its transfiguring ability and even prophetic power. Caribbean writer Derek Walcott wrote in response to her work, ``Genius has many surprises and one of them is geography.''
Within the poetic abstractions that characterized her first book and the more fictional narrative of ``Annie John,'' Ms. Kincaid explores the universal themes of separation and loss of childhood within a specific terrain. The latter work is a semi-autobiographical portrait of the change and gradual evolution of a mother and daughter's relationship. ``A betrayal, a love story,'' is how Kincaid describes it during an interview. In both works, the author's youth in Antigua is the surface upon which her fiction unspools.
``For some reason, I can remember even the taste of things. Not to drag in the glorious Proust madeleine . . . [but] I can see a tiny point of a certain color and it reminds me of a day at the sea and from that [come] worlds of emotion,'' she says.
A tall, striking woman who looks not at all the ``ordinary person'' she insists she is, Ms. Kincaid is curled upon one of the two white couches in her New York apartment that she shares with her husband, composer Alan Shawn, and their five-month-old daughter, Annie. Baby clothes grace one armchair; a piano and recording equipment litter a corner. Lining the length of the room are floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed with bound volumes, paperbacks, and snapshots of friends and family, including Ms. Kincaid's own family and in-laws such as the actor Wally Shawn and William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker magazine. While the traffic rumbles outside and rain drums on the air conditioner, Ms. Kincaid speaks about her life, her work, and how the birth of her daughter has altered it all.
``We are so absorbed by [Annie],'' she says in a voice rich with British precision and Caribbean lyricism. ``No matter what you expect, nothing matches the reality of having a child.'' While such maternal affection is not unexpected from a new mother, the birth of this child has already affected Ms. Kincaid's fiction. ``I'm clearly the kind of writer interested in the autobiographical for [use in] fiction and nonfiction,'' she says. ``Since I wrote [``Annie John''] from this semi-autobiographical view, I couldn't do it [from the daughter's perspective] now.''
Writing ``Annie John'' from the daughter's point of view was an exercise in memory, according to the author. But the final chapters, written during the first months of pregnancy, began to alter Ms. Kincaid's sympathies. ``I didn't feel [the daughter's] woes and her pain so clearly,'' she says.
Ms. Kincaid's own mother, also named Annie, played a pivotal role in the author's childhood in Antigua and even now in her life as a New York-based writer. Ms. Kincaid's exploration of the mother-daughter relationship provides much of the impetus behind her current fiction. ``It was in such a paradise that I lived,'' is how she describes a childhood spent on Antigua in ``Annie John.'' Just as that work charts the growth and separation that can occur within families, Ms. Kincaid too broke away -- physically and emotionally. ``I identified [parental] restrictiveness with the restrictiveness of my surroundings,'' she says.
After working in New York as an au pair girl, followed by two of years of studying photography in New Hampshire, Ms. Kincaid made a final journey. She returned to New York determined to become a writer. ``I was so poor. I was trying to live as a writer when I couldn't really write. But I was determined not to do anything but be a writer,'' she says. Her first journalistic efforts met with uncommon success. She published free-lance pieces in Ingenue and the Village Voice, and by 1976 she was working as a staff writer for the New Yorker, where she continues to publish short fiction.
It wasn't until this transition from precocious adolescent to mature writer was complete that Ms. Kincaid understood how her cloistered life in Antigua had provided an ideal environment for the writer-to-be. ``From the moment I was going to write I knew that these were the things that were me . . . the sort of life I had as a child and on into my grown-up years seemed designed for a writer,'' she says. Geographic and familial isolation as well as the intense praise and attention she received from her parents, particularly her mother -- ``I was sort of encouraged to mythologize my life'' -- provided Ms. Kincaid with a self-contained universe that brooked ``no interference from outside. . . . This small place [had] all these rich elements that were a good incubator for a writer.''
Like many a journalist turned fiction writer, Ms. Kincaid struggled to find and perfect the ``voice'' that is evident in her work now. On the day that she says she discovered it, ``I went upstairs to my room and wrote [``Girl''] in one afternoon. I knew that it was something.'' That story proved to be not only her first publishable short story but also the turning point in her literary career. ``I somehow got more confident in what I knew about language,'' she says. ``Finding your voice brings great confidence.'' That first book of stories, in which ``Girl'' appears, won an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. This year, Ms. Kincaid picked up a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Moving to the United States has also provided her other opportunities for personal as well as literary growth. As someone who rankled at her colonial upbringing (``I think I'm an American in spirit''), Ms. Kincaid stops short of categorizing herself as a black American. ``Americans are all hyphenated,'' she says. She disparages the label of ``black American woman writer,'' and she is most concerned about how her daughter will eventually perceive herself. ``I would like her to feel a part of people for whom their skin isn't really that much of a problem,'' she says. ``It's just too slight to cling to your poor skin color or your sex . . . when you think of the great awe that you exist at all. The other stuff is too small to attach any importance to.''
This well-grounded streak of independence seems to blend well with her current life. But it is perhaps ironic that the strong sense of family that so overwhelmed Ms. Kincaid during her youth has come to mean so much now. She says most of her real writing occurs ``in my head,'' that she does little or no rewriting, but goes over all her work with her husband ``at breakfast.'' ``Sometimes I can't even write a line without showing him,'' she says. ``It's true I haven't written a page without telling him, `You must read this, you must read this.' He's an incredible editor.''
Toward the end of the interview, Ms. Kincaid's husband arrives carrying in Annie, who has just awakened. As Ms. Kincaid reaches for this bundle with the staring brown eyes and tufted black hair, she acknowledges this familial connection and its impact on her as a woman and as a writer. ``Sometimes I feel as if my life now is sort of this thing that has nothing to do with writing. I can only reach certain feelings or reach back into my past,'' she says. ``My life right now is fairly stable and [so] full of love and joy . . . that I am able to really see things, the feelings . . . to reach into life really.''