Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949, on the British-ruled Caribbean island of Antigua. She showed intelligence at an early age but received little encouragement from those around her. Raised by her mother, a homemaker, and her step-father, a carpenter, Kincaid attended government schools, where teachers chastised her for sass and disobedience. Kincaid’s mother, a book lover, taught her to read at age three and gave her an Oxford Dictionary for her seventh birthday, but she discouraged Kincaid’s goal of attending college and becoming a librarian or teacher. Kincaid spent the first nine years of her life as an only child and felt rejected when her mother gave birth to the first of her three brothers. She escaped her misery by immersing herself in the work of William Shakespeare, John Milton, the Brontë sisters, and other classic British scribes. Because she encountered literature only by white, long-dead authors, the young Kincaid never considered the possibility that she, too, could become a writer.
As Kincaid entered adolescence, her unhappiness turned into anger, and her relationship with her mother worsened. Strongly influenced by British colonial values, Kincaid’s mother demanded pristine behavior from Kincaid yet deemed her unable to restrain her sexuality. At sixteen, Kincaid left her poor homeland to become an au pair for a wealthy New York family and pursue her education. She earned her G.E.D. and studied photography at the New School for Social Research and Franconia College, but she never completed her degree. In 1973, when she began writing magazine articles, she changed her name, both to protect her privacy and to signify her new start in life. She developed a friendship with New Yorker writer George Trow, who introduced her to the magazine’s editor, William Shawn. Shawn encouraged her to submit work to him, and her writing career blossomed as she became a regular contributor to his pages. Shawn’s importance in her life took a new turn in 1979, when she wed his son, Allen.
Kincaid’s nonlinear, stream-of-consciousness New Yorker pieces bear the influence of modernists, such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Kincaid builds on that style in her first fictional work, a short story called “Girl,” which consists of a list of a mother’s orders to her daughter. “Girl” showcases the poetic, chant-like, hallucinogenic prose that characterizes Kincaid’s first short fiction collection, At the Bottom of the River (1983), and her debut novel, Annie John (1985). Both books display Kincaid’s talent for evoking states of mind without sacrificing sharp external detail, as well as her ability to address social issues through the domestic realm. They also explore themes that figure into much of Kincaid’s work, such as loss of innocence, betrayal by the mother, identity confusion caused by colonialism, and parallels between maternal and imperial authority. Kincaid’s next publication, the nonfiction A Small Place (1988), poses a scathing comment on Antigua’s tourism and postcolonial institutions and marks a new level of anger in her writing.
Lucy, published in 1990, retains the anger of A Small Place but simplifies the style of Kincaid’s earlier work by using less repetition and surrealism. The first of her books set completely outside the Caribbean, Lucy, like most of Kincaid’s writing, has a strong autobiographical basis. The novel’s protagonist, Lucy Josephine Potter, shares one of Kincaid’s given names and her birthday. Like Kincaid, Lucy leaves Antigua to become an au pair in a large American city. At nineteen, Lucy is older than previous Kincaid protagonists, which lends the book a more mature and cynical perspective than in her previous fiction. Still, Lucy has pangs of homesickness and unresolved feelings about her mother, and she has never lived on her own or seen much of the world. With plenty of room for growth, Lucy’s journey takes the form of a bildungsroman, a novel in which a young protagonist makes the transition to adulthood.
Lucy also joins the tradition of American immigration literature, tales that recount a newcomer’s experience in the United States, such as those seen in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and Julia Alvaerez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Along with exploring immigration, Lucy, as does much of Kincaid’s work, grapples with tensions between mother and daughter. Colonial themes of identity confusion and the connection between maternal and imperial rule stand out less clearly in Lucy than in Kincaid’s earlier books but have an underlying presence in Lucy’s relationship with her white, affluent employers, her homeland, and her new surroundings.
Kincaid continues to publish acclaimed fiction and nonfiction, such as The Autobiography of My Mother (1995) and Mr. Potter (2002), both novels, My Garden (Book) (1999), a book-length essay, and My Brother (1997), a memoir concerning her brother’s death from AIDS. While black, feminist, and postcolonial critics take much interest in Kincaid, her writing resists fitting into neat political categories. Unlike many Caribbean authors, who try to shake off the traditions of their colonizer to form independent modes of expression, Kincaid draws upon her colonial literary heritage to explore her experience. In the process, she critiques and redefines that heritage. Though her writing often explores issues of race, gender, and class, she rejects the idea of viewing her identity and work primarily in terms of social politics. Others might lump her together with other black woman writers, but she sees little connection between herself and African-American female authors such as Toni Morrison. Nonetheless, she believes in the importance of knowing one’s history, as Lucy and her other books eloquently demonstrate.
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