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Jamaica Kincaid left Antigua for New York in the 1970s and made a name for herself as part of a vibrant literary scene. Known for lyrical, powerful prose, Kincaid recently published her first novel in a decade. Many reviewers are asking how closely it hews to her own life, questions she says miss the point entirely. Kojo talks with Kincaid about what’s really at the heart of “See Now Then,” her childhood and her career thus far.
- Jamaica Kincaid author, "See Now Then"
Inside The Studio
Jamaica Kincaid, the novelist behind “See Now Then” and “A Small Place,” talks about why she changed her birth name from Elaine Richardson. Kincaid, who grew up on the island of Antigua, said she knew she wanted to write about her family and thought she might fail at it. She wanted a pen name — which would later become the name used on her passport — that paid homage to her Caribbean and Scottish heritage. Kincaid considered many combinations of names, including Havana Davenport.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “See Now Then” by Jamaica Kincaid, published in February 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2013 by Jamaica Kincaid. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. In "See Now Then," Jamaica Kincaid's first novel in a decade, we bear witness to the unraveling of the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, a couple that came together by chance in New York City. He, from there, she arriving there on a so called banana boat and they grew apart overtime in a bucolic New England town.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe plot parallels to Kincaid's own life have led to much speculation but this is not the first time Jamaica Kincaid has drawn from her own experience for her work. In fact, that's what she does. Here to tell us what is at the heart of this new novel and where the line between fiction and truth lies for her is the aforementioned Jamaica Kincaid. She is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction. Her latest novel, as I said earlier, is called "See Now Then" and it is her first in a decade. Jamaica Kincaid, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. JAMAICA KINCAIDOh, thank you for having me here.
NNAMDIYour first in a decade. Why so long?
KINCAIDWhy not? I don't know why it strikes people so but it is the first thing everybody says about it as if you -- I sometimes feel I -- perhaps a writer's like a baker. You produce bread every day. I never meant -- I suppose I wrote a lot for a while and then...
NNAMDICertainly since I've been following you in the late 1970s, yeah.
KINCAIDYeah, yeah, but you know, in between my last book, "Mr. Potter," I wrote a book on traveling in the Himalayas collecting seeds for my garden. It's called "Among Flowers." I walk in the Himalayas. So I did publish something. I did write something and I write various things. But I suppose that this book did take a long time because I was dealing with a much more philosophical theme and a sort of -- well, let me be high-minded.
KINCAIDI love being high-minded and say that I was sort of contemplating an existence. Not just my own or people I knew but something larger. I was trying to think of how to write in fiction about these -- a larger issue that I'd only sort of glanced at in my other work.
NNAMDIAnd in many ways it's a contemplation on time but straight off the bat a lot of reviewers have asked whether your new novel is the thinly veiled story of your own marriage. What say you?
KINCAIDI say no, of course. But it's not just that they've said straight off the bat. People have actually gone and researched my biography to see exactly how it parallels what's in the book. Which I find almost insulting, but to themselves because they haven't allowed themselves their intelligence to examine the book to read the book and to think about it. But it's as if something in the book is so frightening to them -- either it's frightening to them to think that someone like me would write a book like that because the themes in it are very unusual for a novelist nowadays, I think -- for fiction nowadays.
KINCAIDSo they must've thought it's very unusual. And so couldn't deal with the book on its own terms and had to go digging into my life. You know, I don't know. They may have even had the Freedom of Information Act because some of it was quite shocking. I mean, one reviewer just said a third of the way through the book he decided to look me up on the internet. And I couldn't believe one would even admit such a thing in a book review.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. As I said, this book is in many ways a contemplation on time. Are you too intrigued by the notion of time and how it affects memory? How has your perception of time changed over the years? You can call us at 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. But you have never made any secret of the fact that when you write there are elements of your own life that are somehow included in the process and in the product.
KINCAIDOh absolutely true that I've said about -- especially a book called "Annie John" that everything in it is autobiographical, including the punctuation. But there was something -- when I've said that people have always laughed and accepted it but there was something about this book -- there is something about this book that seemed to irritate people. Because I say it's not autobiographical in the sense that I wasn't really thinking about the details of my life. I was trying to write out of something larger than myself.
KINCAIDAs I say, you know, the structure of the book, the -- how do you say -- the skeleton of the book is this thing called time. And I wanted to understand well, what do we mean by it? How does it become invented? Does it exist outside of human consciousness for one thing? Is -- I once, for instance, when thinking about it, asked someone when they say the earth is -- this is a question I posed to someone -- when it said the earth is 4.5 billion years I said to this person, is it 365 4.5 billion...
NNAMDIYou multiplied one by the other.
NNAMDIIs that -- is it as simple as that?
KINCAIDI said, is it -- was -- yes, was every day for 450 billion years 24 hours long? I was trying to understand what it meant. And the person looked at me and just laughed and said, of course. Though I'm not entirely sure that that's true because all sorts of things...
NNAMDIWell, the theme of this book, as you point out, is time but in all things there are the universal, the particular and the individual.
KINCAID...and the individual.
NNAMDIAnd it would appear that too many reviewers have chosen to focus on the individual in this particular...
KINCAIDExactly. Exactly, because the -- I think for one thing it's very strange in literature today, among Americans anyway, to think of things in that way. That's not how we read novels now or how we write novels now. The other thing, it must seem unusual for a black woman I suspect to be thinking about things in such an abstract way. But really I should be writing about, you know, a half-dressed woman on a plantation or perhaps someone who's recovering from...
NNAMDIBut in your career you've been all over the map in terms of what you have contemplated. So it's certainly not unusual for you.
KINCAIDIt's not unusual for me but -- it's not unusual for me when I think of my writing at all but it seems to be a lot of times struck people as odd that I would write this. And so it must be that it's about a divorce, when there's no divorce in the book at all.
NNAMDIIs it possible that some of the confusion comes from the style of writing that you employ? It's not a linear novel with an easy-to-follow plot. Do you worry that style makes the work or might make the work somewhat inaccessible to some, or is it your goal to provide readers with a challenge?
KINCAIDWell, it's my goal to provide myself with a challenge. I almost never think of a reader other than myself. I am the reader that I'm writing for. And I often say -- and people think it's funny but it's not. It's something I mean seriously, that I learned -- I knew how to write before I knew how to read. That I...
NNAMDIYes, I've seen where you've said that.
KINCAIDYes. Like I've always been writing and then I learned how to read. My first reader and my -- is myself. I have the thing written already in my head and then I write it out. And so that's the reader. The idea of writing for a reader who will be challenged is true in the sense that I am challenged in reading and writing. It's never been my intent or I've never attempted to write a novel of linear -- I suppose "Annie John" is a linear novel. She begins as act nine and ends at 16, something like that.
KINCAIDBut on the whole, I've never been interested in the plot or the motivation or the character. I'm primarily interested in ideas and in words. And so that makes it -- I suspect will make a reader -- my readership limited. But that's all right with me. If you're the only person who likes it I'd be happy.
NNAMDIJamaica Kincaid is our guest. She is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction. Her latest novel is called "See Now Then." You can call us at 800-433-8850. If you've read any of Jamaica Kincaid's dozen plus books and have questions for us, give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. You say that the reviews focusing in on finding possible links to your life have missed the point. What, for you, is the point? Is it time that lies at the heart of this novel?
KINCAIDTime lies at the heart of it. Existence lies at the heart of it. On one level it's a domestic novel. It has a family, they live in a house. The house is called the Shirley Jackson house. On the other hand there is this larger issue of the whole -- of human beings on this earth. It has about it an account of a geologic story, a geologic fable, an understanding of -- for instance, the mother tells the child -- one of the children a bedtime story. And at the heart of the story is this period of time in which geologists say it rained for 100 million years. And the 100 million years of rain is what created the atmosphere in which we live.
KINCAIDIt has the slipping and sliding, the fracturing of the earth in it. It has all sorts of things that all lead back to domesticity and time and how time passes in habitation. How it operates on individual consciousness. How it operates on individual existence -- physical existence. You grow old. You come into the world a innocent baby to cry is a sign that you're alive when you're born. And that's significant.
KINCAIDIt has all these things in it, layers of things. It even has on it, for the very young person, a quote from "Outcast." Sometimes it's very funny.
NNAMDIIt is sometimes very funny. Let's talk for a moment about the characters through whom you explore time, Mr. and Mrs. Sweet. They could not be more different from one another and the disintegration of their marriage seems to have, you wrote, at any common ground there once shared Is time in a sense to blame for that?
KINCAIDNot to blame. This is just what happens. But notice the word you use there, eroded. That's a very significant thing in the earth's surface. Things erode. Over time they collapse and they reform in a different way than they were before the erosion. So, yeah, you -- eventually you read the book and you begin to think of the book -- I hope -- I think -- I suspect one begins to see it in the way in which it is written, that it is not about two people you would know.
KINCAIDThey -- you notice, you know, their names are Mr. and Mrs. Sweet. They have no other names.
NNAMDIThis is true.
KINCAIDThey're not Dick and Jane. They never are. And their children are never growing up. They are always young. The boy is always young and the girls is always beautiful. They never change. It has -- among the other things it has a carefully constructed mythology.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're going to take a short break. When we come back with the conversation with Jamaica Kincaid, she is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction. Her latest is a novel. It's called "See Now Then." You can also send us a Tweet at kojoshow or you can go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Jamaica Kincaid. She is an author of numerous works, both of fiction and nonfiction. We're talking mostly about her latest novel. It is called "See Now Then." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. As we think about this theme of time and now versus then, I can't help but note that Mrs. Sweet spends a lot of time thinking about then. It seems to be tethered to her roots. Do you think that's an experience that A. many immigrants to the U.S. would be familiar with or is it simply a part of the human condition, that no matter how far removed we are from our roots, we remain somehow tethered to them?
KINCAIDOh, I thought about this a little bit and I wondered if it wasn't particularly true of our immigration from the part of the world that you and I are from.
KINCAIDI notice that people from other parts of the world are not so attached to it in memory. And I don't -- I'm not sure I'm right but it seemed to me that the -- well, let me just narrow it to the British West Indian experience, that we seem more bound to it, our past in some -- I mean, I'm always amazed at how when I think of home, even though I only lived in Antigua for 16 years, I think of Antigua as home. And that when I'm in Vermont where I live I will say, well when -- at home we would do this and that, and I mean Antigua, and that it's just such an indelible part of me.
KINCAIDBut I don't know if people who migrate from Ukraine or something -- and I know some people like that -- they don't think of Russia a home in the way we think of it. And this of course is just an anecdotal observation. I don't have any hard data or statistics to show this. But, yes, she does refer to her past -- the character does because I think in seeing this enormous change in her life, the declaration by her husband that I don't love you. And there's a world in that. And when you read the book she constructs the world of love as she's known it. And that was her home and it's shattered.
KINCAIDAnd so she retreats to the world that she comes from. It too is shattered but she tried to reconstruct it, to go over it, to see how it led to her present and how it might come again in her future. That's the thing of -- you know, she -- the thing about then and now, you see -- and I say it again and again in the book -- at some point now becomes the past. And if you -- when you think of it you say -- you can use it -- you will say sometimes then I will go out of this room. And you can say then I was in that room. The now has a future and it has a past, is what I meant to say.
NNAMDIIt's a fascinating concept, the present as history so to speak.
KINCAIDYes. And the present -- and the future as...
NNAMDIAnd in exploring this it's almost invariably an exploration of the function of memory in our lives also.
NNAMDINot only are these characters in "See Then Now" very different from each other, but they've settled in a community where they're both sort of the other.
NNAMDIWas it important for them to both be on what's in a sense foreign turf?
KINCAIDWell, yes. Since one of the things again I wanted to understand is the strangeness of being a human being. We are not -- we can't get up every day and say, gosh this is really strange. What is this? What is -- why -- not -- it's not just why am I here but what is the purpose of this? I always wonder about that. You get out of bed and you can see, you know, in that moment you step out of bed or the moment you wake up and you sort of quickly reassemble yourself. You know, you sort of make yourself into something, whatever it is you are told you are.
KINCAIDYou're a black man, you're a black woman or you're the President of the United -- you're something, you know. And you quickly assemble that like a dish or like a dining room table or something. Anyway, you make yourself and you get up and you do all these things. But there's just a moment when you 're just nothing at all, you know. And you sort of are in some kind of ether. You're suspended between being and not being. And I -- it's very interesting to me that.
KINCAIDSo I put them both in a place that they're foreign. It's foreign to them and they're always assembling themselves. It's not she who only -- it's not only the wife who is looking forward and backward, but he is too. He has a past that he misses very much. A past in which he calls the doorman to turn on the lights and so on. Yeah, they just -- they're at sea, but human -- we are, we are always at sea. And, you know, memory helps keep us up straight -- memory helps. But sometimes memory's a problem and you just erase it or you bury it or you distort it, you know.
KINCAIDBut it's a very complicated thing to be an individual I think.
NNAMDIAnd that is clearly brought out in the novel "See Now Then" by Jamaica Kincaid. Please start to don your headphones because I'm going to be going to the telephone shortly. But before I do there is a burning question that several people who have read this book have asked me. There is an author who is frequently mentioned in the book, the former owner of the Sweet's house. Who is Shirley Jackson and why did you set the domestic action of the novel in her former home?
KINCAIDOh, that's such a wonderful question. There are two -- around that area where the Sweets live, the fictional couple live there are two authors who lived there. One was Robert Frost, the great American poet Perhaps one of the great poets of the 20th century, Robert Frost. And the other was this great writer, Shirley Jackson. And she wrote -- she's most famous for writing a story called "The Lottery." And if you haven't read it, go and read it and...
NNAMDIAppeared in the New Yorker.
KINCAIDYes. And read everything else of hers. But I couldn't us Robert Frost because, first of all, he was a -- great a poet as he is -- was -- very unpleasant person and probably wouldn't have liked the Sweets at all. He didn't like the new deal. He didn't like all sorts of things that are wonderful, but he was a great poet. But in any case, the house he lived in, his son had shot himself dead in the house. So that wouldn't work for -- that would have added an element to the story.
KINCAIDOn the other hand, there's Shirley Jackson and she wrote about family life and she wrote about children. And she had an unfaithful husband, so that made one sort of sense. But most important was the sound of her name, all the syllables together, the Shirley Jackson house. That was the most important, from a poetic -- from the way poets use words. I'm not a poet but drawing on -- borrowing from poets I chose her name.
NNAMDIBecause every time it appears in the book it appears in the form of that phrase...
NNAMDI...the Shirley Jackson house.
KINCAID...Jackson house, yes. It means something more than just a name.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Please don your headphones because Maryanne in Washington, D.C. has a question for you. Maryanne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYANNEThank you so much for having me on air. And I just want to say Ms. Kincaid, you are one of my favorite authors and I am looking forward to reading your new book.
MARYANNEOne of the themes that I've always seen in your novels is just really exploring family dynamics. And I know that -- well, for a lot of, particularly Caribbean writers, there's this kind of putting the mother figure on a pedestal or their idealization of the mother. And reading "Annie John" was the first time I was struck with just kind of a deconstruction of the mother and a deep delving into mother -- just the complexity of motherhood. Would you like to comment on that?
KINCAIDOh well, I was writing about my own mother in that case. And if she had been a mother like the other Caribbean mothers that you've come across, I perhaps would've -- not perhaps -- I absolutely would have said that. But I hadn't meant to deconstruct, again, her in particular at the time I was writing it. But I can see that the unconscious plays a much greater part in my writing life than my conscious life, you know.
KINCAIDSo I start out by writing a book, I say, I'm going to write about my mother. And I do and I write about her as truthfully as I can and as -- depending on memory and as faulty and as unreliable that is, I write a book about her. But it turns out that I, in the long run, was very interested in the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. And in the Caribbean, especially in the British English-speaking Caribbean, there's no one more powerless than a child. And of course it began to seem to me that what I was really writing about was the relationship between mother country and colony.
NNAMDIMaryanne, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDII'd like to follow up on that for a second because you made the fascinating comment that your relationship with your mother probably affects your writing life more than it affects your real life. I was going to ask, given how complicated that relationship was, how did that relationship shape, influence or affect in any way your connection with your own real life kids who are 28 and 24 years old today?
KINCAIDYou'd have to ask them of that. But I suspect the -- I tried very hard not to be like her. My mother was very -- well, I think we kindly call it strict but actually she was very tyrannical. And was most interested in us when we were -- when we needed -- when we failed, was most able to be there. For instance, I remember when one of my brothers was dying of AIDS and the other one had done something and was in jail. And in both institutions they didn't like the food that was served.
KINCAIDAnd at the same time they didn't like the same kinds of food so she would make two separate dishes of food and take one to the hospital and one to the jail, which happened to be not too far from each other. And that was -- that seemed -- when you say it it seemed, oh what a wonderful thing. But of course most wonderful of a mother would've been if we had not been in jail or be dying of AIDS. That would've been the most extraordinary kind of mother.
KINCAIDSo in that way I've tried to be the kind of mother whose children are not going to be dying of AIDS or go to jail. On the other hand, I've probably done some pretty terrible things. Again I say, you know, a child is just extremely vulnerable and powerless. And you do things to them. They interpret things you do to them in a way that's almost not -- never flattering to you. Even the best mother, you often hear the child say, oh I just wish she'd go away.
NNAMDIYes, but you do seem to have a pretty good relationship with your children. They are with you in California, right?
KINCAIDYes, they are. Yes, yes. They seem very attached...
NNAMDIBoth in the music world.
KINCAIDYes. They're both songwriters and attempting to have careers in music. Yeah, we spend a lot of time with each other, you know, going around. We travel a lot together, which must mean they like me.
NNAMDIYeah, that's the best you can hope for I guess is that your children like you.
KINCAIDYes, yes. Right. Yes.
NNAMDIMaryanne, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Kevin in Washington, D.C. Kevin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KINCAID...are you a childhood friend by any means?
KEVINNo, I'm sorry, ma'am, I'm not.
NNAMDIThis is another Kevin.
KEVINYeah, Kojo, it's a pleasure. Thank you for having me on the show. And Ms. Kincaid, I'd like to say, as a native Antiguan myself and someone who recently just moved to the United States well over ten years ago, that I really appreciate your work. And you're a great author and a great person it seems like. But I want to give you my experiences with your work, especially your "Small Place." It was introduced to me by my mother and when she was -- it came from a place of disdain, having read how the island was characterized and how it was, you know, laid out to be typical.
KEVINAnd another experience is when I went to college and being taught by a professor and friends and so forth. And they would ask me, well is it really like that, okay? But my question to you mainly is, as someone who left the islands a long time ago, I don't know if you've been involved -- if you've, like, given back to the community, you know, speak simply -- if your experience at the time way back when have been tarnished, your person being so much so that you don't -- I mean, Antigua's probably -- I mean, I want to say you're polite...
NNAMDIYou want to know whether Antigua's anathema to Jamaica Kincaid. Clearly it is not. She's already mentioned it several times during this broadcast, but I guess he's exploring what your feelings are about the country right now and if you keep track of what's going on there.
KINCAIDI think I keep track. The last time I was there I was in sort of almost hurricane. I haven't been there in a year, but I go quite often. I was there in Hurricane Emily. Well, it glanced by. I keep track of what's going on in Antigua in the sense that I love Antigua. But, you know, this -- have I said anything about Antigua that was not true? I'm happy to correct anything I've said that was not true. If it -- anything I've said that wasn't true, I will correct it, and it was -- if it's not true, it wasn't deliberate. It was a mistake.
KINCAIDBut everything I've ever said about Antigua, I've tried very hard for it to be true, and if you don't like the truth, then you shouldn't read a writer. A real writer writes the truth. A real writer isn't interested in your mother's feelings or my feelings or your feelings. They're interested in is it true. And if Antigua doesn't -- Antiguans don't want Antigua to be described in a certain way, than do something else.
NNAMDIYou have said that it was necessary for you to leave Antigua to become a writer. Would you explain that?
KINCAIDYes. The very -- Kevin, would be someone like that, would be a person why I would have to leave Antigua. It is very hard to speak to people who are unable to take responsibility for their actions and for the things that they do. For instance, Antigua has just been involved in an international scandal -- financial scandal. Everyone -- every Antiguan I knew knew that that man, what's his name, Stanford, was...
NNAMDIStanford -- Alan Stanford.
KINCAIDAlan Stanford was a crook. Everyone knew it, and it was -- but everyone worked for him or took his money. He and I were at a ceremony where he was knighted, and I was given an honor. I can't remember what it is, but I thought I'll take this honor because Antiguans so infrequently express affection for me, and I was very glad to be given this honor.
NNAMDIFor our listeners who don't know, Alan Stanford was a Texas millionaire who claimed he was a billionaire, who moved to Antigua and set up shop, so to speak, in Antigua, ultimately owning a great deal of property there, and ultimately doing all kinds of finagling of money that ultimately caused him to be prosecuted...
NNAMDI...prosecuted and incarcerated here in the United States.
KINCAIDThat's right. He was given a knighthood, unprecedented. He was given a knighthood. At this same ceremony, he bounded over to shake my hand, and I refused to shake his hand. The next day in the newspapers in Antigua I was vilified for not shaking his hand. I think even Sir Vivian Richards ridiculed me for not shaking...
NNAMDIGreat cricket captain in Antigua.
KINCAIDYes. For not shaking the hand of this man. This man turns out to be the second biggest crook after Bernie...
NNAMDIBernard Madoff, yes?
KINCAIDYes. So I think, Kevin, you should really make a little statue to me.
NNAMDIHe was prosecuted of running a ponzi scheme, and if you go to Antigua now, nobody wants to mention his name at all.
KINCAIDYes. And I will remind them that they were rude to me for not shaking this man's hand. Everyone -- I mean, people now say to me, how did you know he was crook, and I can only answer how did everyone not know he was a crook. We all knew it. We all talked about it. So to say that I write about Antigua in any way -- I only write about Antigua in the truth -- in the truthful way.
NNAMDIWell, from reality to mythology. There are a variety of literary illusions in the novel, "See Now Then." The children of Mr. and Mrs. Sweet are named for a Greek god and goddess, Heracles and Persephone.
NNAMDIHow does mythology influence or play into this theme of time?
KINCAIDOh, perfectly, I think. One of the ways people -- by the way, that was a wonderful segue. One of the ways we connected to the past collectively is through these mythological stories. And they get passed down, they get reinterpreted. They connect us to our past. And I named the children after the Greek ones, not the Roman ones, to keep them steady and out of cartoon-likeness. Heracles becomes Hercules in Roman mythology, and Hercules is a cartoon whereas Heracles is more in his god-like stature, not so familiar to readers.
KINCAIDBut as I say, I thought -- I think that, again, dealing as I was with time in all the ways we are connected to it, you know, geologically, the social invention, conventions we have with time, social association, essentially, you know, we break up the day into all these little social niceties. We have lunch, we have tea, we have breakfast. All of these things have certain rituals, certain attachments to them. All of these, for instance, you know, an idea like tea which involves sugar, which involves the transformation of the surface of the earth, vegetably speaking.
KINCAIDTea after all comes from China, and was sent to India by Joseph Banks. I mean, I was referring to all -- as many things as I knew how, history, mythology, trying to work all of it into single word for instance.
NNAMDIIt's becoming clearer to me even as you speak that, in fact, if you think about time, you have to think about time in all of these terms.
KINCAIDAbsolutely. I did -- I was trying to do that. It was a -- you say 10 years. Well...
NNAMDIFortunately, it didn't take you any longer than that. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Jamaica Kincaid. Her latest novel is called "See Now Then." If you have comments or questions for her, call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Jamaica Kincaid. Her latest novel is called "See Now Then." She is the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction. You can join the conversation by sending us email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or calling at 800-433-8850. We got an email from Frederick in Ashburn. "How did Ms. Kincaid come up with her great pen name? I'm sure others would like an answer to this intriguing question." For the 100,000th time, would you please give the answer?
KINCAIDWell, the answer is not very interesting, and it is not a pen name, it is my actual name on my passport. I started to write about my family. Immediately I wanted to write I knew I would write about them, and I also thought I would fail at it, but the failing wouldn't have made me not do -- didn't make me not do it. If I change my name, they wouldn't know I was writing about them, and if I failed at it, they wouldn't laugh at me. They wouldn't know it was me and so they wouldn't laugh at me.
KINCAIDIt was something as simple as that. Now, the name itself, which will be the other part of your question, even if you haven't asked it, is why Jamaica and why Kincaid. I wanted something that was from that part of the world that I was from, and I wanted something that was from the other part of the world that I come from, something Scottish or English sounding.
KINCAIDAnd there were many combinations, just so you know, and Havana was one of them. I was going to -- a combination was Havana Davenport, and for some reason I settled on Jamaica Kincaid.
NNAMDII'm trying to channel Havana Davenport.
NNAMDIIt isn't working.
NNAMDIPeople listening might be wondering who is this polite soft-spoken woman with whom I'm speaking, and what has she done with the angry Jamaica Kincaid? Because that word is one many people have used to describe you over the course of your career. Do you think it's fair? I tend to think of you more as defiant than angry.
KINCAIDWell, I am defiant, but angry is a word used for outspoken women and outspoken black women in particular. Is it not the angry --- what is it?
NNAMDI"The Angry Black Woman."
KINCAID"The Angry Black Woman," yes.
NNAMDIOur first lady had to undergo that for a while.
KINCAIDYes. Yes. If a woman speaks -- a black woman speaks truthfully and clearly and with the slightest bit of confidence, she's regarded as angry. No one has ever disputed anything I've said. No one has ever said, she's lying. All they say is she's angry, and it's meant to shut me up, but keep trying.
NNAMDINo one has ever questioned the accuracy of anything that you have said?
KINCAIDNo, never. I once asked a friend of mine if the book about I wrote about my brother's death, if there was anything in it that wasn't true. She said, well, he was born on the fifth, not the fourth, or something like that. That was the only thing that was not true. I try, in -- when I'm writing a certain way, a small place, I try very hard -- it's not my purpose to upset people or to destroy people. It's simply to tell the truth as much as I can, as much as I know it.
KINCAIDI'm not angry. I'm not vengeful. I simply speak the truth as I see it. It's a -- there's no question that if I had been a man, these words would never have been said to me.
NNAMDIGlad you brought up vengeful, because I saw that somewhere in one of the probably amateur blogging reviews of this book, that it was intended to seek revenge against your ex-husband.
KINCAIDYes. Poor thing. The reviewer, I mean.
NNAMDIHere is Carlene in Washington D.C. Carlene, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLENEHi. I just wanted to say, Jamaica Kincaid, I think that you are amazing. I actually graduated from college like in 2000, and I remember writing a paper comparing you, Esmeralda Santiago and Edward (word?) as like one of the few female Caribbean writers who are exploring what it's like to be -- have to be one way at home and then be another way in the public, and then have an expectation of what a woman should be like at home, and another expectation of what a woman should be like in the public, but at the same time you have to be Caribbean at home but American when you're in public.
CARLENEAnd I say that because my parents are Asian and I was born in New York, but I was just around like Asian family members. And so you were probably one of the first writers that, like, you knew what I was feeling and that it was okay and normal.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Carlene. And Jamaica Kincaid, you've talked about having to kind of assemble who you -- who we all are, just about every day of our lives, but you've said in the past that your being a girl narrowed your opportunities growing up more than anything else. Do you think we've made enough collective progress in the way we think about the intelligence of young women? I remember you writing about the fact, and it was significant, that you mentioned a short while ago that you changed your name because you didn't want, if you failed, to be laughed at, because when you were growing up, the notion that you could become a writer was considered laughable in the environment in which you were growing up.
KINCAIDOh, laughable because it was like trying to be a camel or something. I would have had more chance at success at being a camel than at being a writer. I used to pretend I was a writer as a child, but I had no idea what that was. It was sort of like, you know, you pretend to be a princess or something. I pretended I was Charlotte Bronte, and I used to walk around with in my head a couple of lines of her biography I'd read on the back of a book, "Jane Eyre," and it said that she had been a governess in Belgium, and she'd been poor and was without her family.
KINCAIDAnd so I would pretend that I was cold and hungry in Belgium when I lived on this little island. But no, there wasn't any -- I think the most I would have been if I had been properly treated, I would have been perhaps a teacher, perhaps a nurse. But there was not -- the thing is, there was no possibility of me being an individual, someone with independent means and an independent life, someone who made choices for herself, someone who had some degree of autonomy as a person and would be regarded -- respected as an individual. That was very, very limited for me, in fact, not at all existent.
NNAMDICarlene, thank you very much for your call. We're almost out of time, but in addition to being a writer, you're now also a professor. What do you get out of that experience of teaching, and what do you hope your students get from your classes?
KINCAIDOh, what I hope they get some knowledge -- I impart some knowledge to them. For me, I think I get from it the thing that was not given to me when I was a student, a child, which is love, which a teacher out to have for students, sympathy, empathy, in giving or in helping your students to learn and know more than you do. You give them something on which they build more.
NNAMDIWell, there's a lot to build on if your professor is Jamaica Kincaid. She is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction. We have been talking to her this past hour mostly about her latest novel. It is called "See Now Then." Jamaica Kincaid, thank you so much for joining us.
KINCAIDThank you. Thank you. It was a great pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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