By SUSANNE MARIE POULETTE
On October 2, 2014, I attended Jamaica Kincaid’s lecture and reading at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York. It was more than an author presentation, as the evening began with the conferring of Kincaid’s Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Skidmore College by President Phillip Glotzbach.
Kincaid has written a wide range of books, including novels, memoirs and polemical works, such as Annie John, Lucy, At The Bottom of the River, Autobiography of My Mother, Mr. Potter, and A Small Place. In 2013, she published See Now Then, which critics have compared to Kincaid’s own life. The novel’s wife and mother character, Mrs. Sweet, resembles Kincaid as an avid gardener whose marriage to a composer ends in divorce. Kincaid, however, has said that critics who classify the novel as a masked autobiography are diminishing her work.
The Washington Post has written, “Kincaid is not easy reading. Not much that is worthwhile in literature is. But she is fierce and true. Certainly, that is so of ‘See Now Then.’ After 10 years of inexplicable fictional silence, she comes forth with a mighty roar.”
At the time of Kincaid’s presentation, I had just worked my way through the first twenty pages of See Now Then. I only knew the author from what I had read, “unabashed rage” (Ms. Magazine), “scouringly vivid prose” (New York Times Book Review), “depressing and nihilistic” (Mother Jones), and I worried that maybe I should hold onto my seat when she took the podium. I guess I expected gale force words that would blow my curly hairdo straight. But that never happened.
Kincaid spoke softly and apparently, from her heart. She displayed a beautiful sense of humor, bringing the audience to long rounds of laughter as she spoke of her life and her writing with dashes of wit and humility. She stood at the microphone wearing her newly conferred doctoral robe and hood and with a gentle voice told us,
“Professor Boyers said such wonderful things about me, that I am stunned by them, and really just want to go home and play them over and over again, because I am very vain…..I think I’m supposed to tell you something inspirational, but I have nothing to say.”
“I didn’t think anyone would read anything I had to say, but I didn’t allow that to stop me from writing.”
She stated that she had a certain idea about writing that she almost never talks about.
“…that my own writing has no real beginning or real end because I think I’m entering into something that’s ongoing… that’s before me, and after me, and I’ve entered into it, this conversation, this writing.”
“I always wanted to be a writer… I wanted to be someone free of the chains of history,… chains of what I had been told are my limitations…But it’s not possible…however, just because something isn’t possible…you know it won’t work out… the point is to do it, and you already know you will fail, but you don’t know what the experience will be like. And it’s not even that you fail … because the issue isn’t to fail… it’s already a given.”
Kincaid responded to a question concerning categorizing her fiction and nonfiction.
“When I’m writing nonfiction, I never make anything up, but when I’m writing fiction, it’s not to be trusted at all… nonfiction is very factual, and I sometimes use the same language, because for me it’s a continuum…
These categories are useful to somebody, but not useful to me …because in the case of many people like me, the thing you call,…history, is not history at all, it’s ongoing, so what do you do with it?…the categories …seem to be more useful to people in another position than my goal…
History is an ongoing event….what happened in the past still propels my identity…my reality, so the categories of fiction and nonfiction…not terribly useful for me.”
Kincaid responded to a question about legacy.
“I don’t think about that, legacy, the future, writing….think of the influence of a book like the Bible…so deep in meaning…. think of writing as Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. How many Corinthians read Paul’s letter?… absolutely none… Where are the Corinthians? … but there are Paul’s letters….Pretend that you’re Paul and you’re writing to vanishing people… but that your writing will persist…It’s likely not to be true…but just because you know you’re going to die, doesn’t mean you should kill yourself right now…..”
Thanks also to Skidmore College for opening this and other valuable presentations to the public.
A native of Antigua in the West Indies, Kincaid was discovered by the New Yorker magazine as a very young woman. She is a professor at Harvard University and a long-time visiting writer each July at Skidmore’s New York State Summer Writers Institute.
To learn more about Jamaica Kincaid and her publications: