Jamaica Kincaid’s life reads like an American Cinderella story: born and raised in poverty on the island of Antigua, West Indies; unloved by an unresponsive and often abusive mother who shipped her off to the United States at 17 to be an au pair (Kincaid insists on the word “servant” to describe her employment status); “discovered” on the streets of Manhattan by New Yorker columnist George Trow, who brought her into the fold of the magazine by printing one of her articles in the “Talk of the Town” section; became a celebrated fiction writer (Annie John, Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother) and gardening columnist; married the son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn; and moved to the idyll of North Bennington, Vermont, where she now writes, gardens, teaches, and tends to her family, which includes two beautiful children.
Why, then, does this 48-year-old woman, who speaks with an accent both lilting and sweet, feel it’s her “duty to make everyone a little less happy”? Mother Jones spoke with Kincaid about her continuing obsessions and her upcoming book, My Brother (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a nonfiction account of her youngest sibling, who died of AIDS in 1996.
Q: Why did you decide to go public about the life and death of your brother?
A: For me, writing isn’t a way of being public or private; it’s just a way of being. The process is always full of pain, but I like that. It’s a reality, and I just accept it as something not to be avoided. This is the life I have. This is the life I write about.
Q: In the book you said of your brother that he lived in death. What did you mean?
A: His life was a passive event. It had no shape. His life was sort of waiting to happen. As he died, that seemed to be what was going to happen — so one could only say that he never lived. He sort of died all the time. It was one of the frustrating things in taking care of him that I sometimes seemed to care more whether he lived. I didn’t like that. I also suspect that my interest in him was because I thought if circumstances had been different that might have been my own life. What distinguished my life from my brother’s is that my mother didn’t like me. When I became a woman, I seemed to repel her. I had to learn to fend for myself. I found a way to rescue myself.
Q: Your characters seem to be against most things that are good, yet they have no reason to act this way — they express a kind of negative freedom. Is this the only freedom available to the poor and powerless?
A: Of course everyone must find their own way. The characters I’ve — I don’t want to say created; I don’t think I’m capable of creating — written about, would seem to find their own way. It seemed to make sense. Any other way would be inconsistent and untrue with the characters I’ve written.
I think in many ways the problem that my writing would have with an American reviewer is that Americans find difficulty very hard to take. They are inevitably looking for a happy ending. Perversely, I will not give the happy ending. I think life is difficult and that’s that. I am not at all — absolutely not at all — interested in the pursuit of happiness. I am not interested in the pursuit of positivity. I am interested in pursuing a truth, and the truth often seems to be not happiness but its opposite.
Americans like to be funny, they like to laugh and they like a happy ending — which accounts I think for the sorry state of American writing life, but that’s a whole other story.
Q: You once gave a speech at a symposium on botanical gardens but talked about colonialism and peoples being forcibly transplanted to foreign soils, and the great cost that lies behind what most of us want to just see as beautiful…
A: Yes. They were shocked!
Q: Why this insistence on provocation and unpleasantries? On saying that a daffodil is not just a daffodil, for example, because of the way it was cultivated, who cultivated it, and who sweated over it?
A: I don’t know how to say it without sounding pompous: Why this insistence on truth? Everything has all sorts of sides. The daffodil has this peculiar side to it. The garden has a peculiar side to it, a qualifying side. For instance, most of the nations that have serious gardening cultures also have, or had, empires. You can’t have this luxury of pleasure without somebody paying for it. This is nice to know. It’s nice to know that when you sit down to enjoy a plate of strawberries, somebody got paid very little so that you could have your strawberries. It doesn’t mean the strawberries will taste different, but it’s nice to enjoy things less than we do. We enjoy things far too much, and it leads to incredible pain and suffering.
Q: Some might argue that you’re just being depressing and nihilistic.
A: Good! I like to be depressing. I feel it’s my duty to make everyone a little less happy. You know that line in the Declaration of Independence, “the pursuit of happiness”? I’ve come to think that it has no meaning at all. You cannot pursue happiness. And to think that this bad little sentence has determined our lives.
Q: The Declaration of Independence also talks about freedom, a concept that has been important to you creatively. What does freedom mean to you?
A: Of course you only are familiar with freedom if you have its opposite. The thing to remember about the Declaration of Independence and the profession of freedom is that it was written by people who were quite free and who were surrounded by people who were not free. The people who wrote the Declaration of Independence were ventriloquists really. The obsession with freedom makes no sense when it applies to them.
Q: You have said that you will never forget “how my ancestors came from Africa to the West Indies as slaves. It’s like a big wave that’s still pulsing.” Much of your writing springs from this heritage, yet, elsewhere, you almost heap scorn on those — mostly African-Americans — who define their identities by their blackness.
A: I hope I don’t heap scorn on African-Americans for anything, but I do often find the conversation African-Americans have frustrating. I, for instance, wish that not one African-American had had anything to say about Mr. O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence. I wish not one African-American felt that it was necessary to participate in some ridiculous, diverting spectacle called the Million Man March.
Do you know the journals of Lewis and Clark? Captain Lewis had what is described as a servant by the name of York. York was not a servant. York was a slave. But they can’t face it, so York is called a servant. On this journey with Lewis and Clark, York is often used by the party to divert the Indians. York would dance and sing. The Indians would rub York’s hair. That, for me, is the beginning of the stereotype of the African-American as the diversion.
The African-American is often used, and has conspired with the rest of America to be used, as a diversion from America’s problems. I wish African-Americans would stop contributing to this sideshow. I also wish all African-Americans would cease to sing and dance just for a generation. I think we provide too much entertainment.
Q: What are we being diverted from?
A: Well, the fact that the schools are very, very bad, for example. Or that there is such a real thing as racialism. It’s not about the specifics of whether O.J. killed his wife and her friend. There is such a thing as racialism, and one would just like to face up to that and move on. I also think people like Jesse Jackson do not help matters. I mean, “I am somebody”? My God, of course you are! Nobody needs to claim anything. This just drives me insane. How can you claim to be somebody? A human being is a human being. What frustrates me is to see African-Americans behave as though what European-Americans say is worthwhile. It simply isn’t. It’s just some silly people who can make laws and have the power to enforce them. I’m often amazed at the conversations black people have about themselves. They ought to be having these conversations about white people. It’s white people who are flawed and at fault.
Q: You dedicate My Brother to Ian “Sandy” Frazier, your former colleague at the New Yorker. You’ve also dedicated a book to your friend George Trow. It’s nice to know you have friendships with these two white men, who have supported you personally and professionally, since most of your work is about the oppressive relationship between men and women and between the powerful and the powerless.
A: Oh, gosh, yes! You can make these broad generalizations creatively, and then you have your own life. The strange thing about my life is that I came to America at about the time when racial attitudes were changing. This was a big help to me. Also, the people who were most cruel to me when I first came to America were black Americans. They made absolute fun of the way I talked, the way I dressed. I couldn’t dance. The people who were most kind and loving to me were white people. So what can one make of that? Perhaps it was a coincidence that all the people who found me strange were black and all the people who didn’t were white.
The other strange thing is that, whatever I say in my writing, in my personal life I’m really incredibly lucky. I suppose that’s what gives me the freedom to express negatives.