Saturday, December 13, 2008

What do we think about ourselves?

I was looking at this link about writing autobiography. It's a basic level class writing assignment; I thought it revealed some of the underlying assumptions that we have about autobiography. It is organized by a series of questions such as who you are in life and what does life mean to you? What is your outlook on the future? The introduction is grounded in basic facts about your life and the conclusion comes back to this data. It cites Augustine as the first autobiographer dating from around 400AD. This orientation is what most readers expect when they read an autobiography; but it significantly differs from many autobiographies, particularly Jamaica Kincaid.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Salon Interview by Dwight Garner

This frequently cited interview opens with a description of Kincaid's ability to project power:

"Jamaica Kincaid -- tall, striking, clear-eyed -- turns heads when she strides into the lobby of New York's swank Royalton Hotel one chilly day in mid-December. It's not that she is trying very hard, dressed comfortably as she is in rumpled khakis, green blazer, and a mustard-colored bandana. Kincaid simply projects a natural authority that attracts attention, and that spills over into her writing."

She answers questions about her family and writing; saying that she feels at ease in Vermont and that she did not plan to become a writer. She points out her difference from other writers as a reason for her success at The New Yorker,"But I am Exhibit A. Because I am not a man, I am not white, I didn't go to Harvard. The generation of writers from The New Yorker that I was a part of were white men who went to Harvard or Yale. And I was none of those things." I'm fascinated with her statement about her writing process which she claims is slow: that she thinks about everything before she writes. In another essay about her writing process, she describes a different method. It's mention in an article about Mr. Potter, too, I think. Yes, here it is.

But the one I'm thinking of now is about her new story that has a character, Mr. Sweet, who doesn't like his son because he is not ascetically/artistically gifted; he has clumsily thick hands whereas the father has fine, long and thin fingered hands. Is that autobiographical? It makes me feel so sad about Kincaid's boy, Harold, about his life being shared that way. Mr Sweet is a name that Alice Walker uses for her story, To Hell With Dying. Mr. Sweet is a man worth loving even though he is an alcoholic who mostly plays guitar and doesn't work regularly. Walker also wrote a group of essays published in a book called Anything Loved Can be Saved. I'm thinking about this because it seems like there is a connection. To Hell With Dying shows how a girl can love and value an old man enough to give him strength to carry on. This new story is about a father who cannot love his son, a father in a long tradition of fathers, who cannot love their sons. Here's a reading she did at Brandeis University about this work in progress. Click here to read about Mr. Sweet in "Jamaica Kincaid visits Brandeis":

Garner's interview makes a good deal of fuss about Kincaid's looks, she even relays a story about a party that she attends wearing only bananas around her waist. She says she was poor when she first came to New York (after leaving her job as an Au par) but she made a living as a backup singer, secretary and model. She can't remember if she posed nude. ("I certainly hope I did!"-she laughs)

Another notable interview detail is that in a comment about The Autobiography of My Mother, she says that her own mother should have never had children. She says that the character, Xuella, is a woman who decides not to have children, "And that is an observation I've made about my own mother: That all her children are quite happy to have been born, but all of us are quite sure she should never have been a mother. " Then she begins to have a moment of reflection about what she has just said. " I feel comfortable saying that publicly, I think. I try not to corner my mother anymore. Because I have at my disposal a way of articulating things about her that she can't respond to. But I feel comfortable saying that the core of the book-and the book in not autobiographical except in this one way -derives from the observation that my own mother should not have had children." Kincaid then goes on to say that her mother loved her children when they were dying and that she doesn't know what her mother will do when her brother dies. I think Kincaid's angry...she is doing that emotional distancing again, which shows itself in cold speculation that seems toned-down and sad but really sounds insincere. When her brother Devon dies, will her mother no longer have someone to love? Will she grieve too much? What does Kincaid mean?

Kincaid's comment about the only autobiographical detail-the main character's choice not to have children (just as her mother shouldn't have had children) is not true either. There are other details that reflect actual biographical facts. For example, there is a scene where Xuella hides letters under rocks that actually occurred in Kincaid's life when she was sent to her mother's family in Dominica. The event was precipitated at nine years of age, by the fact that she dropped her baby brother when she was holding him. (She admits that she resented her displacement in the family but isn't sure if she dropped him on purpose.) As a result of this incident, her mother sends her away. The mixed Carib-African-Scot ancestry of Xuella is the same as her mother's and her mother also had an overbearing neglectful father whom she ran away from; although, Xuella was sent by her father to live with the La Battes when she was fifteen. It goes without saying that her mother was raised in the same setting of the novel- Dominica, too. I found an introductory essay in America's Best Travel Writers where Kincaid as the editor of the series, writes about some of this in detail. I will expand later.

Maryln Snell Interview: Jamaica Kincaid Hates Happy Endings

This interview addresses the contentiousness that Kincaid seems to express in her writing. I like it because she is owning up to her anger directly, which by the way, is her style. The interview discusses going public about her brother's death, the frequently occurring theme in her work of powerful over the powerless, and her writing as a way of living/experiencing. This link adds a reader reaction post-a-comment section that is packed full of comments. One reader thinks that Kincaid needs to get over her anger, another complements her for the short story, "Girl" and says that while she was translating it into her own language (a group in India) she realized that her mother was hard on her sister in the same way as in the story. She understands that this was her mother's reaction to an oppressive society and that really it is a way of bonding with the elder sister. Then, she asks for Kincaid's email because she needs to ask permission for the translation. (Why doesn't she write the publisher for permission?) It also has one reader who I find delightful! She post a prayer of forgiveness for Kincaid-and it is long-to help Kincaid get over the anger she feels about her mother and her birth country! I guess this reader just glossed over the fact that Kincaid said she never wants to forget where she came from and what it tells her about how the world is organized; she doesn't want to be happy...or to forgive.

Another Biography

This is an article that gives an overview of Kincaid's work, its themes, popular and critical reaction. It begins with a summary of Kincaid's life. Some common errors in Kincaid's biography are the dates given for leaving Antigua (Was she 16 or 17?), her name and those of names her family, (she was Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson, her mom was Annie (?) Richardson, her father (biological-Mr. Potter) is her step-father (Mr. Richardson) but in many conversations she mentions her father but she means the step-father so it is easy to get confused. Plus, Kincaid seems to confused detail on purpose because it is part of her approach to make the reader question facts. In other words, the whole concept of discovering a fact is false. In the Bonetti interview, she refers to this tendency of perceiving the real as a tendency of Western civilization whereas in Antigua facts (such as death) are not so certain.

Reasonably Reliable Biography

Jamaica Kincaid grew up on a small island near St. John, sometimes when I read her work I feel as though I have been to some of the places she describes; I have been to Antigua but the ambiguity I have absorbed by reading her makes me doubt myself. One of those settings is church in St. Johns where I walked around and remembered the description of a child's funeral. Kincaid observes the women wore white, grieved loudly, and she discusses the vomiting of one of the relations, who likely is the mother. That scene is described in one of the essays in A Small Place. Kincaid is so detached that it seems that she must be either angry or fearful of reabsorbing the limitations of her small -and small-minded-home island. She mentions that she was re-inventing herself as a writer in the Bonetti interview, probable she was in the process of this new self-formation at that time.

Anthurium Article

Kay Bonetti Interview 1992

Jamaica Kincaid has many interviews that are available on the Internet. These are of interest because a reader can track the shifting and solidifying of her thought over time. I want to organize the interviews here. The first one I have posted is the Kay Bonetti interview in the Missouri Review. This interview mentions these works: At the Bottom of the River; Annie John; Lucy; and The New Yorker, "Talk of the Town" series. Culture: Thematically, it references the West Indian tradition of writing about home and people (mother-daughter relationship)-her home island being Antigua. She praises the United States for allowing her the opportunity to re-invent herself and asserts that in the United Kingdom this self-invention opportunity would not have been available. She refers to the cultural tolerance of ambiguity in Antigua as compared to England. She says that "dead is dead "in England but in Antigua "dead might not be dead"-that the ambiguity of her home island is part magic and/or illegitimacy; and, she refers to Western civilization or thought orientation as "the real thing" orientation. Her opportunities were limited in Antigua because she was a girl-gifted-but a girl nonetheless. She provides this example to explain the unfairness and gender discrimination found in Antigua; the Gwen character in Annie John was exceptionally talented but she only became a supervisor somewhere, however, one of the boys who beat her up because she won a prize in school (instead of him) became a cabinet member in the corrupt government. Race: She is not offended by George Trow calling her "My sassy black friend" because "she seemed sassy and was black". The British books and authors she read as a child were mentioned: Jane Eyre, Keats, Wordsworth, Milton's Paradise Lost and the Christian bible.

Bonetti, Key. "An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," The Missouri Review, Columbia, MO. 1992,15:2, 124-42.

On Autobiography and the similarities between Lucy and herself she says:

"She had to have a birth-date so why not mine? She was going to have a name that would refer to the slave part of her history, so why not my own? I write about myself for the most part, and about things that have happened to me. Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true. You couldn't admit any of it to a court of law. It would not be good evidence."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Who is Jamaica Kincaid?

Jamaica Kincaid is an Antiquan writer who currently lives in Vermont. She has written many novels and works of nonfiction but the majority of her work is autobiographic. Kincaid is interesting because she complicates autobiography by using techniques that make the reader experience a kind of cognitive dissonance, which is the experience of holding conflicting thoughts in your mind. The way I use the psychological term is different than a psychologist might because these thoughts that you believe in, trust, and use as a guideline are uncovered through the reading of Kincaid. A classic definition focuses on a preexisting condition of holding simultaneous conflicting thoughts which is not necessarily triggered by the experience of reading. For an example of this sensation, we might consider reading Lucy, Kincaid's second novel. You may realize that you are similar to a character-in my case, Mariah,-and through the rejection of this character's identity, you begin to uncover what it is about yourself and/or the culture that you identify with that is aversive. You find yourself both liking and rejecting the character. Mariah is a sweet-natured naive mother who is unaware of her impact on other people and the natural environment, identifies with both her European and questionable Native American ancestry, and claims feminist loyalty but plays by the rules of the affluent fully integrated society woman. These contradictions cause little questioning in the character, she cannot conceptualize Lucy's perspective, but the reader is able to reflect and discover the ways that she is both alike and different from Lucy and Mariah; nevertheless, by the completion of the novel resolution is unsatisfactory. Lucy and Mariah's troubling perspectives interfere with the reader's peace. Consequently, this reader is processing Kincaid more thoroughly in her PhD dissertation, Jamaica Kincaid and the Dynamics of Autobiography.