As a child in 1950s Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid encountered William Wordsworth at school. A vexed relationship with his poetry followed, owing to the imperious way it was taught as part of the colonial-era syllabus. In an attempt at reconciliation, Kincaid planted 10 daffodils in her garden after moving from New York City to Vermont in 1985. Now there are 20,000.
“When they are blooming, I recite ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’,” Kincaid, 73, tells me, adding that she has shared photos of her garden on Instagram throughout the pandemic. “It’s called redeeming Wordsworth, rescuing him from the colonial hell in which the British empire had placed him. All of us who had an education designed by the Colonial Office know that poem, and most of us live in a climate in which there are no daffodils.”
Gardening and colonialism are each vast subjects but that has not stopped Kincaid from scrutinising them, as well as their overlaps with human experience and emotion, in her work. Over the past half-century, Kincaid’s storytelling, which “is autobiographical and is not”, has drawn a global readership, covering and at times cutting across a number of genres. She has been compared to both Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf for her focus on female protagonists and rhythmic prose, and she has been tipped as a Nobel Prize contender — a guessing game she describes as “disrespectful”.
This month, Picador, which under the celebrated editor Sonny Mehta first brought Kincaid to the UK in 1985, will reissue five of her books: At the Bottom of the River, a collection of short stories published in the magazines the New Yorker and the Paris Review between 1978 and 1982; Among Flowers, a 2005 memoir of a journey she made to the Himalayas; and the novels Annie John, Lucy and The Autobiography of My Mother from 1985, 1990 and 1996 respectively. Five more will be re-released next year.
“[My work] didn’t have much of a reception [when it was first published] because writing then was still very much . . . I mean, black people were still marginalised, as we say, in the United Kingdom,” says Kincaid. “It might have a better reception now . . . I would very much like black people in England to like me. It would be nice [to find a new audience].”
Growing up amid relative poverty, Kincaid — born Elaine Potter Richardson, the eldest of four siblings and her family’s only daughter — “survived” thanks to stolen library books. “My mother taught me to read . . . at a very young age so that I would leave her alone to continue her own reading,” she says, citing the King James Bible, John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as particular influences.
Shaped by her own experience, complex mother-daughter relationships recur in Kincaid’s oeuvre. “[My mother] was a very strong-minded, brilliant woman,” observes Kincaid, “but she was Cronus-like: she gave birth to us in the morning and ate us at night, every day.”
When Kincaid was 15, her mother set fire to her collection of books after discovering she had been reading instead of tending her sick brother. “I loved those books,” reflects Kincaid. “I stole them and hid them. I didn’t know really she knew of them.” She pauses. “I don’t want to exaggerate, but it was traumatic, it was. I can still feel the pain of it.”
A year later Kincaid, then still Richardson, “was sent away” to New York to support her family by working as a nanny — a move that inspired the narrative of Lucy. Following night school, she worked as a receptionist at Magnum Photos and won a scholarship to study film at the now defunct Franconia College in New Hampshire. But not long afterwards she changed tack as well as her name, pairing Caribbean countries with Scottish-sounding surnames until she arrived at a combination she liked.
“I dropped out of [Franconia], went [back] to New York and said I was a writer,” recalls Kincaid, who identifies as African-American after so many years in the US. “I cannot tell you how ignorant I was but determined in my ignorance. I had no anything, but I would have done anything just to write.
“I must have met a lot of racism but I didn’t really understand racism, so I just sort of blundered on,” she adds. “I’m simply not in awe or afraid of what I think has come to be called ‘white spaces’. I want to say I’ve never been afraid to tell white people something, but it’s not that I’ve never been afraid. I didn’t know I should be afraid.”
In 1974, after writing for the Village Voice, Kincaid joined the New Yorker, where she stayed for two decades. This came after the staffer and “great writer” George WS Trow introduced her to its then editor, William Shawn, who quickly became a fan and, later, her father-in-law.
“He loved writing,” recalls Kincaid, adding that soon after giving Shawn the 690-word story “Girl”, which announces some of her stylistic traits and major themes, “he came into my office and paced up and down and talked about it”. Shawn had spotted a talent — he went on to print almost everything she wrote — but Kincaid attributes her success to “sheer luck, really. I’m like the blade of grass that missed the scythe.”
The five titles out this month span fiction and non-fiction, yet for their author the distinction between the two is “convenient for a scholar” alone. “Writing, it seems to me, depends primarily on a kind of chaos [so] that categorisation . . . only hinders the reader and the writer,” says Kincaid, explaining that she prefers to think in terms of “different forms” because “when I started to write, I just wrote”.
“In what we would call fiction I manipulate and invent things, though it always has something familiar and true in it.” In works such as My Brother — an account, to be reissued next spring, of Kincaid’s brother’s life and Aids-related death aged 33 that she “could only write in the dark with glasses of gin” — she continues, “the truth is very important. But the truth of something is also very important to me when I am writing what we call fiction. And it’s not that I embellish, I manipulate. Whereas when I’m writing something that we call non-fiction, I do not manipulate.”
In Kincaid’s eyes, attempts to turn writing into an industry, so that it becomes “like dentistry”, are misguided. “It’s just heartbreaking to see young people thinking this is a career. Publishing is a career. Writing is life. It’s something you do because you have to do it.”
Kincaid has frequently analysed the effects of colonialism, notably in the 1988 essay A Small Place, and she argues the British empire’s legacies go beyond the former colonies. “What’s fascinating to me is that [Britain is] so proud of this history. The British empire was a fucking nightmare for a lot of us. You can’t say otherwise. It was a nightmare for them too.
“We are correctly concerned with the damage enslavement and exploitation did to Africans but the damage it did to Europeans is fascinating to me. It led them to kill millions of people, it ended up killing millions of people in the mid-20th century, which is something I think a lot of people don’t connect. The Spanish Inquisition and Christopher Columbus’ journey into the so-called New World occurred within 20 years of each other, and the Inquisition you can say without doubt ends in the Holocaust.”
Connections abound in Kincaid’s universe, and two sites that have encouraged them are her garden and the classroom: she has taught at Harvard University since 1992.
For Kincaid, movements such as #MeToo and calls for broader curricula have been “very educational”. “I think what students have been demanding, if that’s the word, is respect,” she says. “That they not be treated as second-tier people . . . that they be regarded as human beings.”
In January, Kincaid was one of 38 Harvard professors to sign a letter defending a colleague found to have violated university sexual harassment and professional conduct policies. An outcry ensued, and she and 33 others retracted their signatures days later “when [they] realised that something was wrong”, she tells me. Calling it a “teaching moment”, she adds: “It was very important to me that I apologise to my class, explain the situation to my class and convey to them that I thought they were equal people and to respect them.”
As for the garden, where she grows both vegetables and flowers, Kincaid calls it “the place where I retreat and think about everything, and sometimes things happen. For instance, I would not have made the connection between naming and possession — that to give something its name is to put your mark on it, which begins with Adam in the creation story and continues with [the botanist Carl] Linnaeus — except in the garden.”
Not unlike Wordsworth, whose “heart with pleasure fill[ed]” at the sight of those “golden daffodils”, Kincaid affirms that gardening “feeds my writing”, joking that a course she teaches at Harvard on “The Paradox of the Garden: Good and Evil in Paradise” is “not Monty Don at all”. “It leads me into the world,” she concludes. “It’s a source of pleasure and knowledge, and knowledge is a source of pleasure for me.”
Franklin Nelson is the FT’s Maisie Hylton Fellow
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