All in the Naming: A Talk with Jamaica Kincaid

BY COLLESTIPHER D. CHATTO

It’s hard to believe now, but noted Antiguan-American writer, Jamaica Kincaid, once feared she would fail at writing. Kincaid was in Santa Fe on Oct. 16 for a reading at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of the Lannan Reading and Conversation series.

When she decided to become a writer, Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid, an English corruption of Xaymaca, an Arawak name meaning “land of wood and water.” Sure she would fail at writing, she said she took on a different name to avoid the shame from her family, so they wouldn’t know it was her.

The changing of a name is a first step of liberating oneself, she said. She gave the example of how conquered people and places are given new names by the ones who conquered them.

“It’s a way of subjugating. It’s an act of war to change their names because you empty them of their past,” she said. “Their history begins with the name you gave them. And often times, when people liberate themselves, the first thing they do is to go back to the names that were taken from them.”

Of Time and Justice

The British colonization of the Caribbean indigenous people is a recurring theme in her writing. However, her current novel, “See Now Then,” from which she read at the Lensic, focuses on time and her attempt to understand who a person is within time. “The person who’s two, is it the same person who’s twenty-two? Forty-two? Where does the person who was two years old go?”

Chronicle reporter Collestipher Chatto interviewing Antiguan-American writer, Jamaica Kincaid.
Chronicle reporter Collestipher Chatto interviewing Antiguan-American writer, Jamaica Kincaid. Photo taken by Sasha LaPointe.

She’s an author of various novels, nonfiction, children’s literature, short stories, and was a columnist for The New Yorker. She was born in 1949, in St. John’s, Antigua, which is part of the twin-islands nation, Antigua and Barbuda, in the West Indies. She teaches creative writing in Claremont, Calif., at the Claremont McKenna College.

Place has largely influenced her writing and her way of thinking about the world in terms of justice and injustice. “I can hardly drink a cup of coffee without thinking: wonder where it comes from, who picked it, what were their lives like and so on, so forth,” she said. She spent sixteen years in her native country, Antigua, named after a church in Spain by Christopher Columbus before her mother sent her to a suburb of New York City called Scarsdale to work as an au pair, a domestic servant.

Ever since she was young, she knew she wanted to be a writer. She mostly read English literature. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, a British writer of the ninetennth  century is one of Kincaid’s favorites. As a child she would pretend she was Brontë.She named the King James version of the Holy Bible and “Paradise Lost” as some of the other works she enjoyed reading and that influenced her writing.

“Read, Read, Read.”

Her “colonial education” as she referred to her secondary education, included reading various European literature, which she enjoyed. But the education system, she said, was linear and did not enforce creative and critical thinking.“Did they see a flower and see within the flower the rest of the world? The rest of humanity? We were not encouraged to even think like that,” she said.

Kincaid strongly advises student writers, “Read, read, read ”“ read until your eyes fall out. Even read the cereal box. Just read everything.”

She said of  her writing process, “I read a lot and then I write something. I have an idea that’s going around in my head for a long time, then I put it down. But on the whole, I don’t really have a writing process.”

Coming to IAIA

The IAIA creative writing department through a grant from the Lannan Foundation invites prominent writers to campus as writers-in-residence. The writers have one-on-one conferences with student writers, and visit creative writing classes to talk about their writing and conduct writing exercises. Recently, Faith Adiele, a Nigerian-American writer, worked with students in November and M. Evelina Galang, a Filipina-American writer, in October.

"I love working with young people!" Jamaica Kincaid (left) told the Chronicle.
“I love talking with young people!” Jamaica Kincaid (left) told the Chronicle.

Kincaid accepted the CHRONICLE’S invitation to be a visiting writer in the near future. “I would really love to come to IAIA. I love talking to young people!” she said.

Copyright © IAIA Chronicle  2013

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