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A Conversation with Jamaica Kincaid
“Express everything you like. No word can hurt you. None. No idea can hurt you. Not being able to express an idea or word will hurt you more. Like a bullet.”
One of the most highly-acclaimed writers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Jamaica Kincaid is a writer with a clear, illuminating vision of humanity. Written in a deceptively simple and unadorned style, Kincaid’s books are informed by her status as an uprooted subject, born in the Caribbean island of Antigua, but living in North America. Kincaid deals with such universal themes as coming-of-age and the necessity of separation from parents and establishing identity.
After leaving Antigua for New York to work as an au pair, Kincaid studied photography at the New York School for Social Research and attended Franconia College in New Hampshire. A staff writer at The New Yorker from 1974-1996, she published her first book, a collection of short stories called At the Bottom of the River, in 1983. Her first novel, Annie John, followed in 1985—the coming-of-age story of a willful ten-year-old growing up on Antigua. With thirteen translations, it is estimated it is the most translated book by an Antiguan author. Further novels include Lucy, the story of a teenage girl from the West Indies who comes to North America to work as an au pair for a wealthy family; The Autobiography of My Mother, a novel set on the island of Dominica and told by a 70-year-old woman looking back on her life; and Mr. Potter which follows the life of an illiterate taxi chauffeur.
Kincaid’s treatment of the themes of family relationships, personhood, and the taint of colonialism reach a fierce pitch in The Autobiography of My Mother and My Brother, an account of the death from AIDS of Kincaid’s younger brother. Writing in The New York Times, Anna Quindlen described the book as “a sustained meditation on the grinding wheel of family, with mother always at the hub… a memoir about death that portrays it as it is, not as we would have it be, as we so often tailor it both in memoir and fiction.” Kincaid’s latest novel, See Now Then, a nonlinear portrait of a family living in a small New England village, was a New York Times bestseller and won the Before Columbus Foundation America Book Award in 2014.
“I was trying to understand the thing people call ‘the existential’, or existentialism. And it was as if some reviewers decided that I, a black woman, had no right to think about life in such a speculative way. That I was only entitled to write about the hardship of racism.”
In addition to novels and memoirs, Kincaid has also written A Small Place, a short, powerful book about the effects of colonialism that subverts the cliché of Antigua as a tourist’s paradise. Her love of gardening has also led to several books on the subject, including My Garden and Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya, a memoir about a seed-gathering trek with three botanist friends.
A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Kincaid is the 2022 recipient of the Hadada Award for lifetime achievement from The Paris Review. Her other accolades include the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Dan David Prize for Literature, the Clifton Fadiman Medal, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and the Prix Femina Étranger award. She teaches in the English, African and African-American Studies departments at Harvard University and lives in Vermont.
This event is in collaboration with the Visiting Writers’ Reading Series.
The Blauvelt Speaker Series is funded in part by the generosity of the late Bradford Thomas & Eleanor G. Blauvelt and The Wintrode Family Foundation. Additional sponsors include Carluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle & Sacks, LLC, The Citta Foundation, Arlene and Frank Dupignac, Jr., Grunin Foundation, Kean Ocean, Stella and Marshall Kern, Kiwanis Greater Toms River, Dr. Teri Kubiel and Mr. Brian Kubiel, New Jersey Natural Gas, Novins, York, Jacobus & Dooley, Rotem Dental Care, and Veolia North America.