Sunday, January 14, 1996
`MOTHER' IS THE INVENTION OF KINCAID'S NECESSITY
All novelists are exiles in this world, isolated by their solitary visions of the human experience and the peculiar demands of their craft. Even their most inspired work culminates in displacement, loss and abandonment: No writer can really begin a new book until he has gathered up all the false starts, anxieties, pride and shame that went into the last one, dumped everything into the dustbin, slammed the lid down tight and walked away.
``This most simple of movements, the turning of your back, is among the most difficult to make,'' writes Jamaica Kincaid in this eagerly awaited and entirely gratifying new novel, ``but once it has been made you cannot imagine it was hard to accomplish.''
Yet for Kincaid who turned her back on her native Antigua at 17, but whose fiction remains defined by her childhood yearnings for her mother's love, her postcolonial birthright of poverty and political corruption, and her status as a citizen of no place and everywhere there are no clean breaks, no new beginnings. Kincaid now lives and writes in Vermont, but in her exile world there are no amicable divorces from the people and places of the past.
``I've never really written about anyone except myself and my mother,'' Kincaid once told an interviewer. And since her first novel, the celebrated coming-of-age tale ``Annie John,'' was published in 1985, no rigid boundaries have separated the imagined from the remembered in her work. The West Indies curls like a vine around her words and spirit. Her sentences throb with its rhythm, mysterious and reassuring as a heartbeat. Little collisions of myth, metaphor, memoir, fact, fantasy and truth illuminate her prose in the same odd, slightly off-balance way that the noon sunlight shimmers across the surface of some languid, tropical sea.
`` . . . this is how to sweep a yard,'' lectures the stern mother/narrator of ``Girl,'' Kincaid's first work of fiction, a widely anthologized, two-page story she wrote in 1978. ``(This) is how you smile to someone you don't like too much: . . . this is how you set a table for tea; . . . this is how to behave in the presence of men who don't know you very well, and this way they won't recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit. . . . ''
Now, with this new novel (Kincaid's third after 1990's ``Lucy,'' which it is tempting to subtitle ``Annie John II),'' we are rewarded with that most sublime of pleasures, an ambitious, profound and courageous work by an author at the top of her form.
Kincaid presents ``The Autobiography of My Mother'' as the memoir of 70-year-old Xuela Claudette Richardson, who has spent her whole life on the island of Dominica, 150 miles southeast of Antigua but far less removed from its own slavery days and the other lingering shames that scar its past.
Like Kincaid, Xuela has spent her life obsessed by conquest, colonialism, class and culture, the clouded process of identity and the travails of stumbling toward adulthood bereft of the sweet cushion of maternal love.
``My mother died the moment I was born,'' the book begins, ``and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind.''
With her mother present only in dreams (``She wore a long white gown, the hem of it falling just above her heels, and that was all of her that was ever exposed . . . '') and her father's attention deflected by a new wife and the petty cruelties and corruptions of his career as a minor government official, Xuela learns to lean on the only person available: herself.
``I came to love myself in defiance, out of despair,'' she tells us, ``because there was nothing else. Such a love will do, but it will only do, it is not the best kind; it has the taste of something left out on a shelf too long that has turned rancid, and when eaten makes the stomach turn. It will do, it will do, but only because there is nothing else to take its place; it is not to be recommended.''
When Xuela is 15, her father takes her to Roseau, Dominica's capital, to attend school and live with his friend, Jacques LaBatte, ``a man of no principles,'' and LaBatte's wife. Xuela's affair with LaBatte leads to pregnancy and abortion, pivotal events that form the central motif to the rest of her life. Though Xuela freely indulges her passions and eventually even marries a white doctor of whom she grows somewhat fond, her womb is a wasteland, ``shriveled like an old piece of vegetable matter . . . .''
Kincaid relates Xuela's remarkable story with a richness and lyricism that can be almost heartbreaking. Some passages read like word pictures; others read like psalms.
``I could hear someone singing, a woman it was an English woman; she was singing a sad song, a sad lullaby, but she herself was not sad, people who are sad do not sing at all. My room was lit by a small blue lamp whose base was made of porcelain with two flowers with multicolored petals painted on it parrot tulips, Philip had told me they were called and it gave off a light that made the room seem not romantic, not wicked, not warm, none of those things; it only gave light, not much light, because it was a small lamp . . . .''
Xuela is not particularly warm or wicked either, but in telling her story Kincaid has created something wonderful and shed a great deal of light indeed.
Margaria Fichtner writes for The Miami Herald.
Copyright 1996, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
Section: LIFE & LEISURE
Tuesday, February 13, 1996
POURING HER SOUL INTO HER WORDS
PAUL GRONDAHL Staff writer
Even at her home in thoroughly landlocked Bennington, Vt., Jamaica Kincaid, who grew up in Antigua and reconstitutes the West Indies island in her fiction, never seems far from the sea.
``As a writer, human memory is my frame of being and I'm continually calling upon my primal childhood memory of water,'' Kincaid says. ``I work from memory and I remember water more deeply, feel more inspired by water, when I'm not surrounded by it.''
Subconsciously, though, Kincaid creates a Caribbean island home in Bennington amid a house with walls painted the color of Key lime pie and a profusion of tropical rhododendrons, begonias, blue hyacinths, hibiscus, iris and dahlias blooming in the kitchen.
``I don't even recognize I'm doing some of these things,'' Kincaid says. ``I keep trying to make my garden beds in straight lines, but they end up in undulating shapes. I didn't notice what it was until someone pointed out it was the outline of the seashore on the island where I grew up.''
Anticipating a lilting Caribbean accent, one is caught off-guard to hear Kincaid's high, reedy voice speaking in proper British diction, tossing off schoolmarmish phrases -- ``Oof, what a splendid idea'' and ``Oh, dear, what a charming notion.''
During a stop on a promotional tour for her breakthrough novel, ``The Autobiography of My Mother'' (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20), Kincaid is speaking by telephone from a hotel in Portland, Ore. More water imagery. A deluge is causing the Willamette River to overflow its banks, causing the worst flooding of downtown Portland in 30 years.
Expect rain when Kincaid visits Albany on Thursday for a reading at the University at Albany and Saturday for a book signing at Borders Books & Music.
Kincaid is enjoying an outpouring of praise. She is packing bookstores from coast to coast for readings and signings and ``The Autobiography of My Mother'' is winning raves from critics, including The New York Times Book Review, which called the novel ``pure and overwhelming, a brilliant fable of willed nihilism.''
Just don't suggest that Kincaid is now a bona-fide literary celebrity, that she's arrived. You'll be met with a sharp, dismissive cackle.
``If I ever dream of feeling important, all I have to do is call home and talk to my children and they'll set me straight,'' Kincaid says. ``Maybe I have written a good book. I don't know. I rather enjoy this moment because I know it will all come to an end rather soon. As of next Thursday, I'll be home ordering dahlias and that's the life I like the most.''
Kincaid, 46, has been married since 1979 to Allen Shawn, a classical music composer and professor at Bennington College. They have two children, Annie, 11, and Harold, 7. The couple met through her husband's father, William Shawn, legendary former editor of The New Yorker, who recognized and nurtured Kincaid's talent by hiring her as a staff writer on his magazine, which published Kincaid's fiction beginning in 1978.
Kincaid's writing success is hard-won. Born Elaine Richardson, she never knew her biological father and was raised in poverty by a cruel mother. She fled Antigua at the age of 16, landed a job as an au pair in New York City, saved her money, spent two years at Franconia College in New Hampshire and quit, a failed poetry major.
``I was a flat-chested, six-foot-tall girl trying to be a writer and I had just started writing at age 20,'' she says. Richardson dyed her hair blonde, took on the pen name Jamaica Kincaid for its exotic sound and hustled free-lance assignments for Ingenue and The Village Voice.
Then came The New Yorker, where she found safe harbor for her words and a refuge from the write-for-hire scramble. After 17 years, Kincaid left the magazine after a vitriolic and public falling-out with New Yorker editor Tina Brown. Kincaid called Brown ``a little bully yellow-haired high-heeled woman from England'' in The New York Times.
Kincaid joined an exodus of longtime New Yorker writers Garrison Keillor, George W.S. Trow and Ian Frazier, who have criticized Brown's celebritization of the magazine.
``I found the situation there intolerable,'' Kincaid says of her departure. ``I needed to separate myself from the Las Vegas showgirls with ornate nipples in the magazine. I don't blame Tina Brown. She's just scared like anyone else working for the Conde Nast empire. I don't blame them. Life is frightening.
``But we have to realize the old New Yorker was an odd and peculiar thing in the history of literature,'' Kincaid says. ``It was a strange little mushroom that sprouted up and nourished and protected writers for a time. But Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, or George Eliot and the Brontes, didn't have The New Yorker. If you want to write seriously, you have to be willing to die for it.''
Kincaid is an uncompromising writer. ``The Autobiography of My Mother'' is a 228-page monologue rendered in unconventional, incantatory prose. There is not a single quotation or line of dialogue. In its stylistic verve and emotional impact, it reminds one of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning novel, ``Beloved.''
Kincaid doesn't mind comparisons to Morrison or to V.S. Naipaul, the British novelist born in Trinidad to Hindu parents, a hybrid international writer to whom she is most frequently compared.
``Who could mind those comparisons? I'm flattered. They are two of our very best writers,'' Kincaid says.
The poetic beauty of Kincaid's novel overlays a shocking, cruel tale. The narrator, Xuela Claudette Richardson, is a 70-year-old woman recalling her grim and painful life on the Caribbean island of Dominica. The book's title is a puzzle, because Xuela's mother died in childbirth. Further complicating the literary conceit is the fact that her newest novel is the least autobiographical of her books (``At the Bottom of the River,'' ``Annie John'' and ``Lucy'') but she gives the fictional narrator her own family name.
``Names are very strong for me,'' Kincaid says. ``Using the name Richardson anchored me in the book. When I'm writing, though, I'm not interested in theories about what's real and what's not real. I leave that to the reader.''
Her new novel continues Kincaid's exploration of the themes of exile, of the oppression of colonial rulers, of the tyranny of the past and attempts to escape it.
``I've come to realize I'm in the tradition of all the people who left in search of some place totally different,'' Kincaid says. ``I guess I'm in the tradition of the restless European. I have a sense of place, of centeredness, but it's more than one. Whether that's good or bad, that's the truth about me.''
Kincaid says she retains connections to Antigua, to New York City, to England, to Boston (she teaches writing in the fall term at Harvard University) and, most recently, to Vermont.
``My children will know themselves as Vermonters when they grow up because they have no other frame of reference,'' says Kincaid, who has lived in Bennington since 1985 and taught briefly at Bennington College. ``My children are also thoroughly American. They demand that I take them to McDonald's, which is a sore point.''
Kincaid says she struggles to imbue her children with a sense of her Caribbean past. ``I guess I'm a terrible mother, because I try to make them like things like garlic and pesto,'' Kincaid says. ``And I try to take them to museums and to read them `Wuthering Heights,' which isn't really what they're interested in.''
Kincaid separates mothering from writing. She worked five years on ``Autobiography.'' She composes in her head and generally only writes one draft. ``That draft might take months to compose because I write slowly,'' Kincaid says. ``Once I put it down on paper, I trust it deeply and don't change it easily.''
Kincaid says her writing day is unstructured and she often works in the middle of the night. ``I have deep insomnia, which we needn't discuss,'' she says. ``It's a sore point that plunges me into despair. But I write out of need and desire and indecency, as opposed to decency.''
Despite her ambivalence for the place, Kincaid says she frequently returns to Antigua. She was on the island two weeks ago to bury her brother. He was 33 years old. Kincaid carries the rest of the story in her heart, a story she says is not hers to tell.
Copyright 1996, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.