It’s 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,an English corruption of Xaymaca. Sure she  would fail at writing,  she  took on a different name to avoid  shame from  her family, she said; 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.”

Chronicle reporter Collestipher Chatto interviews Jamaica Kincaid.
Chronicle reporter Collestipher Chatto interviews Jamaica Kincaid.

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?”

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, California, 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 19th century, is one of Kincaid’s favoriters, she said. 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  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.

Collestipher_JamaicaFrontviewSmall

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

Of her writing process,she said, “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 Foundationinvites 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 told    the Chronicle.
“I love working with young people!” Jamaica Kincaid 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.

 Books by Jamica Kincaid

At the Bottom of the River (Short Story, 1983)

Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip (Children’s Literature, 1986)

A Small Place (Nonfiction, 1988)

Lucy (Novel, 1990)

Biography of a Dress (Uncollected Fiction, 1992)

The Autobiography of My Mother (Novel, 1995)

My Brother (Nonfiction, 1997)

Mr. Potter (Novel, 2002)

See Now Then (Novel, 2013)

 

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