Elaine Potter Richardson, who later became the novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid, was born in 1949 in St. John’s, the capital city of the Caribbean island of Antigua. By Kincaid’s own account, she was a highly intelligent but often moody child, and she became increasingly distant from her mother as the family grew in number—an estrangement that would later become a central theme in her fiction. As she matured, Kincaid also became estranged from the social and cultural milieu in which she found herself. Too ambitious and intellectually curious to be satisfied with her career prospects in her tiny island home, she was also becoming alienated from the mostly white, European tradition handed down to her through her colonial education. At seventeen, Kincaid moved to New York to work as an au pair while continuing her studies, eventually earning a scholarship to Franconia College in New Hampshire. Dissatisfied, she left school after a year and moved back to Manhattan, where she began working as a magazine and newspaper features journalist. During this period, Elaine Richardson changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid in a symbolic act of self-definition and freedom from the “weights” of personal and political history. As Kincaid herself put it in an interview with the New York Times Magazine, the new name represented “a way for me to do things without being the same person who couldn’t do them—the same person who had all these weights.”
Kincaid’s big break came when she was hired as a staff writer by The New Yorker, and the magazine’s editor, William Shawn (famous as a judge of talent and an exacting critic of prose) became her mentor. Kincaid’s first book of short stories, At the Bottom of the River, was published in 1983, and her first novel, Annie John, followed two years later. Kincaid’s early fiction, such as the much-anthologized story “Girl,” often focuses on the mental world of a young girl much like the young Kincaid, with particular attention to the nuances and rhythms of Caribbean English. This evocation of the speech of the islands is reminiscent of the poetry of Derek Walcott (of St. Lucia) and Edward Kamau Brathwaite (of Barbados), and the stories of At the Bottom of the River have often been compared to prose poems. Kincaid’s treatment of the lingering effects of slavery and colonialism on the minds of those descended from slaves and from the once-colonized Caribbean “natives” places her in the company of the Trinidadian novelist V. S. Naipaul and the Dominican novelist Jean Rhys, as well as the poets just mentioned. However, Kincaid’s primary allegiance in her fiction—more than any affinity she might have to a movement or school of writing—is to her own vision and voice.
In addition to her fiction, Kincaid has produced a steady stream of nonfiction, beginning with her brief “Talk of the Town” pieces for The New Yorker and continuing more recently with her essays on gardening for the same magazine. A Small Place was, in fact, first meant for The New Yorker, but it was rejected as too harsh and angry in tone. The essay has been controversial since it first appeared in book form in 1988. Since then, it has gradually found its place within the English tradition of anticolonial travel writing, a tradition stretching back to Jonathan Swift’s mercilessly satirical writings on Ireland in the eighteenth century and including George Orwell’s classic essay “Shooting an Elephant,” as well as works by such writers as Graham Greene and the American Paul Theroux. Kincaid’s essay has also been important to “postcolonial” theory, a branch of literary studies that is concerned with understanding how a colonized people both internalizes and resists the colonizing culture. A Small Place has come to be seen as a perfect example of a postcolonial text: in it, a former colonial subject turns the greatest tools of empire, culture, and language into weapons directed against imperialism itself.