Jamaica Kincaid on Writing and 'Outlaw American' Culture
Jamaica Kincaid has won acclaim for work that blurs the line between fact and fiction in novels such as "The Autobiography of My Mother." Her latest book, "See Now Then," her first novel in more than 10 years, intimately details a marriage's painful disintegration. While Kincaid's own marriage to composer Allen Shawn ended just over a decade ago, the author insists that fiction is not autobiography. She told Bookish about discovering "Lady Chatterley" as a 10-year-old in her home country of Antigua, wanting to be both African-American and a hippie, what it was like to create the "rodent"-like husband character in "See Now Then" and her wild days at "The New Yorker" with Ian Frazier.
Bookish: What's the book that you love, but no one who knows you would expect you to love?
JK: [Laughs.] "Lady Chatterley's Daughter," by a writer I do not know. It was full of sex, unlike "Lady Chatterley's Lover." I couldn't understand why "Lady Chatterley's Daughter" was not banned [in Antigua] but "Lady Chatterley's Lover," which has nothing of interest in it at all--it's Lawrence's worst book--was. I don't think anyone has even heard of "Lady Chatterley's Daughter." It was published by Penguin in the '50s. It's the best. It's for people who know nothing about sex, a 10-year-old girl living on a tropical island. Yes, that would be me.
[With "Lady Chatterley's Lover"], I had to read it in the dark under the house away from my mother's eyes. I kept turning the page looking for the banned parts. It's just like two little things, two sentences or something in a chicken coop, or in a hut in the woods. It's nothing! And I was so disappointed. And then there was "Lady Chatterley's Daughter"--in those days Penguin was a cheap publisher of Perry Mason books and so on. And page after page was just full of incredible things that I'd never heard of, and just the very words themselves I'm sure made my little flat chest grow fat.
Bookish: Which books have influenced on your own writing?
JK: I was given a dictionary when I was seven, and I read it because I had nothing else to read. I read it the way you read a book. You can see the influence on me, the way I repeat words, and each repetition is meant to convey a separate meaning. And the Bible, the way I begin a sentence with a conjunction sometimes, or the way I begin in the middle and there is no end, really. And "Paradise Lost," but for a more complicated reason.
Bookish: In your novel, "See Now Then," the main character, Mrs. Sweet, remembers how she was forced to copy out book one of "Paradise Lost" as a punishment. Is that something that you had to do as a child?
JK: That actually did happen to me, yes.
Bookish: Given that it's now one of the most important books to you, do you still consider it a punishment?
JK: You would conceive it that way now, but at the time I had to do it overnight. I grew up in a house without electricity. It was not done to make me the person I became: It was done to make me the opposite of the person I became. By nature, I'm the sort of person who can make lemonade out of something worse even than lemons--but it was regular punishment. This only reveals that you are American, you know. [Laughs.]
Bookish: How so?
JK: You Americans--and I'm an American too, by adoption--instinctively, Americans think that everything will turn out for the best, especially if it does turn out for the best.
Bookish: But at the time, you did not imagine that it would turn out for the best?
JK: No! I thought I would die. I couldn't see, and my fingers were cramped; my mother was ashamed of me because I had misbehaved.
Bookish: Does the main character of your book, Mrs. Sweet, consider herself American, or is she still an immigrant in her own mind?
JK: I would say in her own mind she's an immigrant. Though her interest in the brand of things would suggest that she's been Americanized.
Bookish: Do you think that it's possible for someone who comes to America after her personality has already been formed to become fully "American"?
JK: It's different for everybody. Some people embrace the whole thing and become Republicans and racists and so on. That's very, very American. The first thing some people would do when they come from some parts of the world is to become white, which is very American--to be white. And then you have someone like me: Not only did I not become white, I really wanted to be an African-American. I've always wanted to be. I always loved American popular culture when I was a child, even though everything I read was from the mother country, England. But yes, I think it is possible. Look at John Sununu. I don't know if it's his family, or he, who comes from Lebanon (or Syria or wherever his people come from), but the first thing he does is to be an asshole.
Bookish: What did you do to make yourself feel more African-American?
JK: I was just very interested in African-American style--Ebony magazine. When I was growing up, I wanted to look like one of those Negro ladies, and I would try to make my hair like that. I would just pretend I was a young girl in Chicago, probably, or Harlem. I had this romantic view of African-American life. I didn't understand racial discrimination because I grew up in an all-black place; I thought people who were racist were badly brought up.
Bookish: So you wanted to be African-American, yet you went and lived in Vermont for decades--not traditionally a hotbed of African-American culture.
JK: That's true, but the other thing I've always wanted to be was a hippie. When once I got to America I fell in love with hippie culture, and I've always wanted to live in the country and grow organic vegetables. When I was young I used to love psychedelic drugs. I used to take them all the time. I love hippie culture. I suppose you could say I love outlaw American culture.
Bookish: "See Now Then" is a portrait of the disintegration of a marriage between Mrs. Sweet and Mr. Sweet. There's a surface sweetness to the story, yet something darker lies underneath.
JK: Yes, that's the point. Everything about it is the opposite of sweet. I could have called them Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but it wouldn't have brought out in me the very opposite of sweet to write about. Partly the way I write, when I put something down is to give myself another clue. In a way I am my own reader.
Bookish: There's a thread of Greek mythology that runs through the novel. Mrs. Sweet's children are called Heracles and Persephone, and, like Hades, Mr. Sweet keeps Persephone locked away from Mrs. Sweet. What did weaving that mythology allow you to do in the book?
JK: It allowed me to glancingly talk about the relationship between fathers and their daughters and the vitality of sons and the dangers they pose to their fathers, and the mourning mothers feel for the loss of their children and so on. It's just what it says. I kind of don't want to interpret it too much for the reader because then you lose the magic; you might lose the pleasure of it.
Bookish: Mrs. Sweet is also a writer, and she has a private room off the kitchen where she writes. Do you have a space where you sequester yourself away from the world in order to write?
JK: I can write anywhere. I actually wrote more than I ever did when I had small children. My children were never a hindrance. There were so many things that wanted to interfere with me writing--my upbringing, my childhood, people in my career doing despicable things--and nothing stops me, really, not a bad review, not a bad thing, nothing.
Bookish: Mr. Sweet: He is so vividly described as "a rodent" or "an old prince"--he's a fearful and yet imperious man. Is he one of the darkest characters you've created?
JK: You know, the first mammals were rodents. We evolved from rodents (laughs). I wasn't trying to be dark; I was just trying to write out of an adult understanding of life. My observation of people at a certain stage in their life was like that. We don't always understand what's happening to us, and we try to make a social reality out of our internal one. It wasn't meant to be dark or derogatory; it was just meant to describe something (laughs). I'm not terribly familiar with someone like that.
Bookish: I have to ask, because the book does echo your biography--how much of you and your ex-husband are in these main characters?
JK: About my ex-husband: I feel terrible that people immediately go to that for him because he's not in the book as himself. It's been a long time, 12 years, since I was married, so I wasn't thinking of him. But about my own life, I find a lot of things in my own life of interest to me. We just live in a different time, where you think if a writer said something, oh it must be them. But it's not him, it's not me, it's a piece of writing. But it is true that a writer draws from the things they know.
Bookish: I think readers are intensely curious: They want to know not just about the book, but about the writer, too.
JK: You know what's wrong with readers is that they've begun to confuse writing with the things they see in People magazine. But I wish they would reserve some of themselves for not wanting to know the kind of things they want to know. Read the book and then close the book. Any answer a writer may give them about the origins of the book and the author's real life will ruin their imaginations. It's very important part of a healthy person's life, an imagination.
Bookish: I want to return to the past once more. There's a moment in the book where you write, "George said to Sandy, 'You know, one of us will have to marry Jamaica.'" Was that Ian Frazier--a.k.a. Sandy Frazier--and were you talking about your days at The New Yorker?
JK: Yes, that's true. And the George is George W.S. Trow.
Bookish: Is there a memory of your time with those two and working at The New Yorker that still sticks with you?
JK: Oh, it was as if all the fun I never had in school--I never had friends who loved and were loyal to me when I was child--it was if someone said, "Here! Now you get it." They were the best friends I could have had, and I was so lucky to know them, and they told me I was funny. I didn't know that I was funny. I didn't know one could be funny, and they showed me. George, one time I used the word "utilized," and he said, "You must never use that word," and he went out and bought me Fowler's guide to English usage. He brought me up.
We just would make each other laugh. George belonged to a club that at the time didn't admit women or Jews or, especially, black people, and he couldn't take us. And one day when he was going off to it--it's a club called the Knickerbocker Club--and one day when he was going off to it Sandy said, "Oh, so George, you're going off to the Niggerblocker Club?"
And George was furious with us! And we laughed so hard, but Sandy and I told our children that joke, they were appalled that we knew someone who belonged to a club like that. You see how it's not funny anymore?
Bookish: It's not. And yet--
JK: But it was--we just thought it was funny that he belonged to a club. It's the things like that.
Jamaica Kincaid was born in St. John's, Antigua. Her books include "At the Bottom of the River," "Annie John," "Lucy," "The Autobiography of My Mother" and "My Brother." She lives with her family in Vermont.