Showing posts with label Autobiography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Autobiography. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Jamaica Kincaid, News, and Autobiographical Connection

SARATOGA SPRINGS >> Jamaica Kincaid will present “The Writer in Her World,” the annual Frances Steloff Lecture/Reading at Skidmore College, at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2, in Gannett Auditorium, Palamountain Hall.

Admission is free and open to the public. She will receive an honorary doctorate of letters from Skidmore President Phillip Glotzbach. Following her presentation she will respond to audience questions and participate in a book signing.
Author of a wide range of books, including novels, memoirs and polemical works, Kincaid is perhaps best known for “Annie John,” “Lucy,” “At The Bottom of the River,” “Autobiography of My Mother,” “Mr. Potter” and “A Small Place.”

Her most recent book, “See Now Then,” has stirred considerable controversy, turning as it does on a disastrous marital break-up, which is said to resemble very closely the demise of Kincaid’s own long-time marriage to the son of New Yorker editor William Shawn.

Kincaid is a professor at Harvard University and a long-time visiting writer each July at Skidmore’s New York State Summer Writers Institute.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Good Reads Review

Reviewer Matt Lived in the Shirley Jackson house as found in the Jamaica Kincaid's,  See Now Then

"So I read "See Then Now" yesterday afternoon. I read it because I enjoy Jamaica's voice. I also read it because it the vast majority of the book takes place in the house I grew up in, the Shirley Jackson house. Jamaica's house was across the street.

I can see how the appearance of folks from the neighborhood might cause some anxiety to those referenced, but there was nothing that struck me as particularly fanciful. Jamaica is a self-centered person and always has been. I think she's aware of this fact and I've always thought this facet of her personality made her more interesting. Jamaica is a storyteller and I appreciate storytellers far more than reporters. This book is obviously her take on things rather than an attempt to depict things as they actually are/were, but I can see things as they were through her eyes. We all see the past modified by time. Recent studies have shown that each time we remember a past event we are in fact remembering the last remembrance of that event rather than the event itself. Our self image as a product of our memory is nothing more than an ongoing game of telephone we play with ourselves. This is the reason that the courts no longer give weight to eye-witness accounts during criminal proceedings. This is why it's irrelevant whether or not this book is a novel or a memoir.

The book was probably not fair to her ex-husband (and children). I guess I think that's okay. We should all probably be nicer to others, particularly our own families. In my future memoir of my hometown I'll probably be kinder to everyone. If Jamaica had done so it would seem false, particularly given the temporal proximity to her divorce and the abandonment/maturing by her babies. I do think it was fair to the village, a place where the volunteer fire department does spend more time washing their trucks than fighting fires and people are occasionally buried in their hunting clothes. Not that that's all there is to the place, but it is part of it."

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Jamaica Kincaid, 2010. (Elisabetta A. Villa/Getty Images)

Book Review 



"See Now Then is about the failing marriage between a writer and a composer living in a small New England village. The writer, Mrs. Sweet, is black and from the Caribbean, and her husband, Mr. Sweet, is white and comes from a princely faction of New York “entitled to doormen, no matter what.” The book’s premise appears to be borrowed from Kincaid’s own life: In 2002, her 20-year marriage to the composer Allen Shawn ended in divorce. Kincaid continues to live in the Bennington home they shared."


"Kincaid, however, is offended by the notion that her fiction is autobiographical. “It’s belittling to think that what I’ve done hinges so much on my own life. It’s as if the reality of what I’ve written is hard to take in so that people must ask about my life rather than what I’ve written,” Kincaid said. “The purpose of the novel wasn’t to talk about the intimate details of my life. The biggest character in the book is the thing we call time: What connects you to tomorrow."

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Don't Read (only) as Autobiography: A Cautionary Review

Review gives Kincaid's book a B-

  " shouldn’t be read as purely autobiographical"

 by Kevin McFarland March 18, 2013 


"See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel since 2002’s Mr. Potter, shouldn’t be read as purely autobiographical. The facts do line up well: Kincaid’s former husband, Allen Shawn (Wallace Shawn’s brother) is a composer; they had two children together, a boy and a girl; they lived in Bennington, Vermont. The novel depicts a crumbling marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, a composer and a writer, respectively, who live with their son and a daughter in a small New England town. But it isn’t a book about another American divorce. See Now Then elevates marriage difficulty to the level of myth and archetype, to represent a fundamental part of the American story. Unfortunately, Kincaid focuses so much on the style of the lyric novel that it hinders the potential emotional impact."

Here we are allowed to read it autobiographically but not as "pure" autobiography!

Friday, February 15, 2013


Studio 360


by Kurt Andersen

Jamaica Kincaid on The New Yorker and Lil’ Kim

"Kincaid’s work (Annie John, Lucy, Autobiography of My Mother) has often dealt with her Caribbean upbringing, but her new novel, See Now Then, is set in North Bennington, Vermont, the town where Kincaid has lived for many years. It’s the story of Mrs. Sweet, a mother with two grown children in a marriage that’s gone very sour.
Many particulars of the book — the town, the gardening, the Caribbean upbringing, the unsuccessful composer, the dissolving marriage — resemble Kincaid’s real life, but she insists See Now Then is not autobiographical. “I wasn’t thinking of myself, I was thinking of all sorts of larger things,” she tells Kurt Andersen. Kurt was struck by how the book’s prose is both “poetic, fragrant, and a little other-worldly but also ruthlessly and shockingly unsentimental at times.” Kincaid explains that “it’s possible it’s influenced by where I spent my forming years which is incredibly beautiful, but in which some rather brutal things happened in the world after 1492.”


Monday, February 4, 2013

Jamaica Kincaid's "See Now Then" is Published

Anticipating Reactions to the Autobiographical in Jamaica Kincaid's See Now Then

( Elisabetta A. Villa, Getty Images / February 1, 2013 )
Jamaica Kincaid at Festival Delle Letterature Di Roma 2010

"There are two ways to read Jamaica Kincaid's mesmerizing new novel, See Now Then. The first is the way any work of art should be read: by simply absorbing what's on the page. This is how I read the first two-thirds of See Now Then."

See Now Then
A Novel
Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 192 pp., $24

It becomes impossible to avoid the personal life story of Kincaid during his well-intended reading: READ AS ART. 
Tobar who has little knowledge about Kincaid's personal life but he becomes too tempted to verify details and consequently, does some research and reports on the findings. His research changes the reading from simply ART to Art -Influenced-Autobiography and it completely changes the meaning of her work. He writes that "All of this is relevant because Kincaid, the author of more than a dozen books, is a public literary figure. And seen through the lens of some basic but widely known facts of her life, reading "See Now Then" becomes quite a different experience." Similarities about the physical appearance of Mrs. Sweet to Kincaid and Mr. Sweet to her former husband, Allen Shawn begin to create another layer of meaning in the work- it begins to feel "uncomfortably voyeuristic"  as he reads.  I await the arrival of my copy and my own sneak peek  into Jamaica Kincaid's life.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


"If you were to write an autobiography, you would have to spend a lot of time at the courthouse, looking up the date your great-grandfather was born, what year your father bought the house on Elm Street. The research for a memoir can be done in an easy chair. Close your eyes and try to recapture the moment you bought your first car, learned you were pregnant, met the President or wobble down the street on a two-wheeler."

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Memory: Gertrude Stein -there is no there there...

There statue at the Oakland/Berkeley border. Photo by Joe Sciarrillo.

"...what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or any- thing if I like but not there, there is no there there." Gertrude Stein

When she published Everybody's Autobiography two years later [1937], saying there was "no there there," it was written to reflect painful nostalgia about her home being gone and the land around it being completely changed. The house where she grew up was on a sprawling 10-acre plot surrounded by orchards and farms. By 1935, it had been replaced by dozens of houses. Oakland held a special significance to her, and on her return, she found that Oakland had urbanized and changed from the pastoral place she remembered.
Matt Werner, Huffington Post

Gertrude Stein-Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein 
(link to complete text)

What is the grammatical significance of "there"?

Part of Speech:  The word 'there' can either be a pronoun or adverb depending on how it is used in a sentence. If you use it to describe a location (it is there), it would be a pronoun. If you put the word before a verb (there is), then it would be an adverb.

In Stein's quotation:
...there [adverb before verb] is no there [pronoun-absence of location] there (pronoun-location)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Autobiography of a Yogi

March 7, 2012 marks the 60th anniversary of the mahasamadhi (a God-realized yogi's final conscious exit from the body) of Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) and widely regarded as the father of Yoga in the West. His best-selling life story, Autobiography of a Yogi, has been hailed as one of the 100 most influential spiritual books of the 20th century and has introduced millions of Westerners to India's ancient philosophy and science of Yoga. (click here for link to article)

Read more:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Autobiographical Picasso

Trivial autobiography?

Picasso a Show Off?
Germaine Greer writes:
There is something tiresome about Picasso. Jonathan Jones put his finger on it in a piece in the Guardian last month. "Each work by Picasso is a unique piece of autobiography," he said, which signifies that each work is, no matter how dazzling, inherently trivial. To understand Picasso's works, you must regard them as "anecdotes or snapshots of a particular moment in his life". There is nothing more to most of Picasso's work than virtuosic showing off – except for Guernica. The studies for Guernica show this was one work in which Picasso forgot himself.

And what does Picasso say about himself?

Perhaps the explanation of Picasso's quixotry can be found in something he said to the writer Giovanni Papini in 1952: "Today, as you know, I am famous, I am rich. But when I am alone with myself, I haven't the courage to consider myself an artist in the ancient sense of the word. Great painters are people like Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, Goya. I am only a public entertainer who has understood the times and has exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity and the greed of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than might seem, but it has the merit of being sincere."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Autobiographical Impact on Kincaid`s Writing

Individual Dynamic; Kincaid as herself

“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.”
Jamaica Kincaid (Mo Review interview, Kay Bonnetti)

Does Jamaica Kincaid write autobiographically? The preceding quotation seems to be an answer to this question; however, she seems to enjoy muddying up a clear answer by both affirming and contradicting herself in the same answer. Later on within this same interview, rather than clarifying her answer, Kincaid attributes her ambiguity to her Caribbean ancestry, continuing to embed her formative identity into this location.

In J.Brooks Bouson`s book, Jamaica Kincaid; Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother, assertive statements about Jamaica Kincaid`s identity and intention are tidily solved as Kincaid and her works are placed neatly within the psychological field. Her motivation is attributed to an experience of shame and trauma experienced primarily within the mother-daughter relationship. Though this book appears to address the psychological aspects of Kincaid`s life, the differences between cultures of the United States and the Caribbean are collapsed. Kincaid is viewed within the minority construct within the United States.

This oversight of cultural difference between the Caribbean and the US is most apparent in the simplification of the mother, Annie Drew, who is characterized as a dominating shame inducing mother. The complete oversight of Kincaid`s contradiction of her understandings, her own ambivalent portrayals of herself and her Antiguan family, points to a serious flaw in Bouson`s analysis. The glossing over of cultural difference and simplification of understanding is a problem. When Kincaid’s contradictions are admitted to, they are attributed to her effort to gain greater personal freedom, which is similar to the social construct of the American feminist`s independence movement. Bouson repeatedly writes that Kincaid had a cruel and humiliating mother, without considering Annie Drew`s place within Antiguan society. What stresses might she have been under to behave in so harsh a manner towards her daughter? In two books, Kincaid writes that her mother should not have had children (My Brother, Lucy) and Bouson takes her at her word; but what does Kincaid actually and permanently mean this statement? Is she actually saying that her mother never was an adequate mother? By inquiring further, it soon becomes clear that Kincaid also has moments of praise toward her mother. She attributes her reading skill to her mother, her writer`s voice is directly connected to her mother. If Kincaid actually hated her cruel mother as Bousen claims, why would she have named her daughter Annie, after her mother? Kincaid`s complication of her relationship with her mother can be discovered by noting the factual contradictions uncovered in reviews, interviews, and in her fiction and nonfiction examined over her lifetime.

This question points to another oversight, as a writer who seems self-aware yet continually contradicts herself, maybe she has a reason for her inconsistencies? What would be her reason for this ambiguity? Individuals change over time; and too, their opinions may change based on situational reasons, more information, or even whim. Anyone who has written privately in a journal knows that the explorations there are frequently transitory insights that are revised or re-understood at a later time, especially when subjects are revisited over many years. Kincaid’s work has to be viewed within a cultural framework that accounts for her individuality. Kincaid writes public journals that play with the tropes of autobiography but always feel as if they might be revised again.

Reflecting back to Kincaid´s comment that her mother should not have had children, would not circumstances create a powerful woman such as Annie Drew who pushes forward even as she makes mistakes? Consider the chapter, “Girl” in At the Bottom of the River, where the mother continually tells the daughter that she will become a “slut”. Some Caribbean students have responded that the mother is worried about the daughter and wants to protect her from what has happened to so many others. It is not rare within the Caribbean for a parent to use negative/harsh criticism in order to express concern for the child’s safety or to prevent mistakes. What is seen as a cruel comment by Bouson, should be placed in the Caribbean context.

Kincaid said in an interview that she stopped criticizing her mother because her mother did not have the public access to respond in a fair way. Kincaid has been able to write personally and provide her own perceptions whereas those within her family cannot publicly respond. Kincaid reveals in this interview that she is carrying on an argument, like a public street fight, but she realizes the other side cannot be heard. Anne Drew is verbally gifted. Kincaid writes about her mother´s talent in her collection of essays, In a Small Place; it is a sense of fair play that later constrains Kincaid. She knows that her mother`s gift for public rebuttal is unavailable.

If the reader were to set aside everything outside of the text, author biography and personality and just look at the written words alone, would this be a fair reading of Kincaid? The author, Margaret Atwood writes that since the author’s life factors are always changing and flexible, the only reliable understanding of the work is found within the work itself, i.e. the only truth to be found is within the text. This disconnected approach cannot be applied to Kincaid’s writing because she repeatedly references the author and her biography. Sometimes Kincaid uses accurate names, or changes them slightly. She also elaborates on events that occur from one work to another, only shifting the emotional tone or casting the events in a different light. Additionally, when Kincaid writes, there is a Caribbean audience whose presence hovers within the text even while she seems to address a western (or American) audience. This presence makes it difficult to isolate the work outside of multiple contexts. The reader of Kincaid becomes obsessed with the author’s biography, what is a factually true statement verses an emotionally true one? What is in fact a lie? Kincaid writes to this reader by relentlessly pointing to her biography.

In Walking in the Himalayas, Kincaid writes that she is obsessing about her son, Harold; she is excessively fearful of his well being, though he has stayed home in Vermont and she is the one traveling. She has encountered threatening military Maoist and has more than once felt threatened. Nevertheless, she worries like an over protective mother. She continually writes about her motherly anxiety but her fear for her son seems to be out of place. After all, he is in a much safer environment than Kincaid. Her concern comes across as somewhat forced or put on. In this same context, Kincaid is troubled over calling herself Canadian, in order to hide from the angry militants, but she writes that she “would never call herself or think to call herself anything other than American” and later she writes that she could only be called “Antiguan now living in Vermont.” All of her contradictions are related to a kind of identity movement that can only be securely grounded in Antigua.

What are the reasons for her changes? In My Brother she reverts to her own family as a healthy new space/place for herself but her old role as daughter and sister does show a shift towards peace making. When Kincaid visits her home with her children, she encourages their relationship with her mother even though Kincaid points out that there is a competitive feeling between them. Her mother continually tries to obtain confirmation that her grandchildren like her better than their mother. When the grandmother believes that they like her better, she celebrates but Kincaid just accepts that this is a quality of her mother’s love. She also makes a genuine attempt to know her youngest brother who later dies of AIDS despite her active involvement in obtaining treatment and drugs for him from the United States. When she returns to the states, she continually refers to her Vermont home as the perfect place and her ideal role within her family. She never mentions that her husband can never travel with her to Antigua because of his agoraphobia or any other domestic points where problems in her paradise might exist. So much so that many are surprised when they find out that she is divorced. These inconsistencies create questions about what is hidden and what is revealed by Kincaid creating a wary atmosphere when reading her work.

Two theoretical/critical approaches are particularly relevant when considering Kincaid’s autobiography and her writing focus; these are the Feminist Standpoint Theory and the individualist’s perspective. Both approaches point to the question, who does Kincaid represent? Does she speak for a community?

One aspect of Kincaid’s identity formation has to do with her shifting sometimes called fluid subject position. Nevertheless, she has been latched onto by various groups who claim her as their own, African American scholars and American feminists, for example. Kincaid is classified by publishers as African American but Kincaid does not actually embrace the classification. Nevertheless, she often is an invited speaker to activities that celebrate African American contributions to literature. She has been both embraced and rejected by feminists but claims that she does not want to box her creative self into a particular perspective. Is Kincaid a feminist? This is too broad of a question and it makes more sense to focus on to one approach, such as Feminist Standpoint Theory as understood by Nancy Harcourt. (Her input to this question is particularly valuable because she also writes about autobiography and subject positions.) Does Jamaica Kincaid have a standpoint? Does she have a position to argue from? Clearly it is difficult to place her without a through analysis of her written texts and her interviews.

Does being flexible mean that there is no standpoint? Brooke Lenz argues that Kincaid’s multiple standpoints offer a way to more accurately understand her experience of being a woman and the power dynamic that characterizes the role of a post-colonial subject. Kincaid refuses to be boxed into a pre-constructed identity because she wants to maintain her freedom and nurture her creativity. The resultant oxymoronic identity construction is highly individualized. An example of a competent woman falling into non-feminists discourse is found in My Garden Book. Kincaid points out that she cannot handle money. She writes that her husband will not allow her to write checks because she does not keep track of the accounts. Her husband has to pay all the bills. Feminist scholars who want to claim Kincaid as their spokesperson or a role model, must revolt at her reference of the gender biased script of the woman who cannot handle money. Kincaid’s love of all things domestic [her own words] might also rankle, even though the concept of domestic space has a more complicated meaning related to a power base and as validation in African American and Caribbean writing and living.

Returning to Standpoint Theory, Lenz interrogates Lucy by referring to classic literary frames such as identity and point of view in order to question if Lucy has a standpoint -or rather to show how Lucy arrives at a standpoint by reflecting on the processes she undergoes while adjusting to an alien country, the United States. It is important to consider that Standpoint Theory has most often been used within the field of the social sciences and applied to identity and social behavior. Kincaid’s work can be more easily connected to social science analysis because it is autobiographically based; it is uniquely situated.

As to Kincaid’s standpoint, can she be a feminist if she does not claim it is so? Even without the term feminist, it is clear that Kincaid`s characters Annie in Annie John and Lucy in Lucy were both rebellious because of an unequal difference in how the genders are treated. Annie John spoke of her change in relation with her mother after her brothers were born; Lucy, too, mentions the obstacle of her brother’s birth to her education, both character’s mention that the reason they left Antigua was to earn money to send home. Kincaid confirms that her mother did intend for her to send money home to help support the family but she decided to break from the family and cultural expectation of self-sacrifice. The entire concept of privileging males over females as it relates to education and expectation is addressed frequently in most of Kincaid’s books. For example, Lucy confronts the double standard related to sexual freedom and becomes empowered through enjoying sexuality without commitment and without love. Annie rebels when her brothers are born and a new set of expectations for her behavior are insisted upon.

These two core threads connected to the feminist movement; i.e., the imbalance of power through unequal treatment of the genders, specifically the preference of sons over daughters, and through the double-standard regarding sexual freedom, fit in with most definitions of a feminist. Kincaid’s reason for resisting labels is well documented but they primarily focus on the constraint that those labels might place on her writing. There is tension between an author’s freedom to create and producing work that is marketable. Kincaid’s resistance to the feminist identification while calling attention to well known feminist’s concerns is likely her way of negotiating a creative space for her individuality while gesturing toward the concerns of a particular identifiable group.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Identity Issues; Selected Quotes

1 When we remember remembering, [it] is already autobiography in the making. And this making, this mapping of our lives in time, I like to think helps us to keep track of who we are.

Paul John Eakin (170)

2 Belief in individualism, which seems to authorize our confidence in our freedom to think, to act, to be what we want, to say who we are, needs to be measured against the constraints of culture that condition or otherwise set our possibilities. (103)

3 The Internet and the World Wide Web are creating radically new opportunities for self-presentation, and perhaps, some observe then, new modes of selfhood as well. Jefferey Wallen's investigation of online journals or weblogs, for example, lead him to speculate that 'the contemporary 'self ' is in important ways discontinuous with what existed at earlier times." His findings parallel those of the French autobiography critic Philippe Lejeune, whom he quotes as follows; "The self [moi] is not an atemporal essence altered today by disastrous technical progress, has always been shaped by the evolution of medias" (Lejeune, Cher ecran 240).

4 Blogs, online journals, home page, photo album video clip /Facebook/MySpace

87% 12-17 year olds have uploaded into these Internet systems. (95)

5 Predictably, the social world of cyberspace seems to have developed its own version of the rule-governed narrative identity system [described in chapter 1]. (95)