Jamaica Kincaid on writing as transformation, “anger” versus truth, and those who think writers of color are “only entitled to write about the hardship of racism.”
Image by Kenneth Noland
Jamaica Kincaid’s latest novel, See Now Then, chronicles the transformation of a family in turmoil. The bonds between its members shift, some realigning, others breaking. In true Kincaid fashion, the novel defies ease, and so mirrors the nature of relationships. “What is the essence of Love?” Kincaid asks, and seeks to answer through studying the fragile, falling-apart intimacy of the Sweets, an interracial couple living in New England. Mrs. Sweets is a writer, Mr. Sweets a musician, and they have two children. The book tracks each character’s mental and emotional journey as the family moves toward fracture.
The novel’s title, See Now Then, refers to the book’s complex deconstruction of time. The heart of the story rests as much in the “when” of this family’s dissolution as it does in the “why” and “how.” The Atlantic slave trade presses against this marriage as sharply as Mr. Sweets’s gnawing resentment toward his wife. Kincaid blurs the lines between the past, present, and future, challenging a linear understanding of time.
When I first met Jamaica Kincaid nine or ten years ago, I was a student in the MFA program at Cornell, and she had come to give a reading. I’d read and taught her several times, and was anticipating someone completely other than the soft-spoken woman draped in a comfy chair in our graduate lounge, whose phone blared 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” when her son’s call interrupted her mid-sentence.
For this interview, Kincaid spoke with me early one morning via Skype (once she’d awakened her son to help her figure out “how it worked”). We only used the audio feature, as she assured me I was missing nothing but the rumpled sight of her drinking coffee in bed. When she learned I was from Trinidad, she confessed to having made up, as a child, a cousin from Trinidad named Jillian—a way to keep up with her friends, who all seemed to have tons of relatives. I offered her use of my cousin of the same name, and so we began our conversation about fiction, non-fiction, history, and what it means to tell the truth.
– Lauren K. Alleyne for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve often said you write because you have to. But I wonder if you’re able to articulate more specifically what it is you’re trying to accomplish when you write? What it is you’re trying to achieve.
Jamaica Kincaid: When I start to write something, I suppose I want it to change me, to make me into something not myself. And while I’m doing it, I really have the feeling that this time, at the end of it, I will be other than myself. Of course, every time I end a book, I look down at myself and I’m just the same. I’m always disappointed that I’m just the same, but not enough to never do it again! I get right back up and I start something else, and I think this time–this time—I really will be transformed into something other than this tawdry, ordinary thing, sitting on the bed and drinking cold coffee. When I write a book, I hope to be beyond mortal by the time I’m finished.
More immediately, I’m trying to earn a living in the way that is most enjoyable to me. I love the world of literature, and I hope to support myself in it. I come from the small island of Antigua and I always wanted to write; I just didn’t know that it was possible. I would pretend when I was a child that I was Charlotte Brontë, because I’d read Jane Eyre when I was ten and, although I didn’t understand it, I loved the idea that this woman had written a book. I wanted to be her.
Guernica: Do you pursue that idea of transformation outside of writing?
Jamaica Kincaid: No. Not at all. Everything I do is because of writing. If I go for a walk, it’s because I’m thinking of writing. I go look at flowers, I go look at the garden, I go look at a museum, but it’s all coming back to writing. I don’t really do anything that isn’t about writing, and I don’t really know who I am if I’m not thinking about writing.
A psychiatrist once asked me to draw a picture of my family. This is when I was a member of a family of four. I drew the three other people in the family first, bodies and heads. And then, last, I began to draw myself—but gave up. I said to the psychiatrist, “You know, I really can’t draw, I can’t do this, this is just something that is beyond me.” And I gave the psychiatrist the piece of paper, and she showed it back to me and said, “Can you see anything wrong with this? Can you see anything missing?” And I said “No, I’m sorry, I just can’t draw.” And finally, she had to point out to me that three of the figures were complete, but the figure representing myself was only a head, that I had no body. And I would say that is completely reflective of how I see myself. I am not aware of anything below my neck. I live completely in my head.
“Race.” I really can’t understand it as anything other than something people say. The people who have said that you and I are both “black” and therefore deserve a certain kind of interaction with the world, they make race. I can’t take them seriously.
Guernica: As someone who lives primarily in her head, can you talk about how you engage with the world in your writing? To what extent are you looking to engage with the issues of the day—race issues, for example.
Jamaica Kincaid: “Race.” I really can’t understand it as anything other than something people say. The people who have said that you and I are both “black” and therefore deserve a certain kind of interaction with the world, they make race. I can’t take them seriously. Not beyond the fact that they have the ability to say that you and I are a single race. You know, a piece of cloth that is called “linen” has more validity than calling you and me “black” or “negro.” “Cotton” has more validity as cotton than yours and my being “black.” It is true that our skin is sort of more or less the same shade. But is it true that our skin color makes us a distinctive race? No.
The people who invented race, who grouped us together as “black,” were inventing and categorizing their ability to do something vicious and wrong. I don’t see why I have to give them validity, or why I have to approach that label with any kind of seriousness. We give the people who make this category too much legitimacy by accepting it. We give them too much power. They ought to be left with the tawdriness of it, the stupidity of it. It’s a way of organizing a wrong thing, it’s a way of making a wrong thing easy. It’s too easy to say this or that is “race,” and that has been a vehicle for an incredible amount of wrong in the world.
Guernica: And yet your work is often described as dealing with race.
Jamaica Kincaid: Yes. And race as a subject only comes about because of what I look like. If I say something truthfully, people say “Oh, she’s so angry.” If I write about a married person who lives in Vermont, it becomes “Oh, she’s autobiographical.” Norman Mailer stabbed his wife, and was not ever described as angry, and nothing he wrote was ever described as autobiographical. And all of these things are, in some sense, ways of diminishing my efforts.
If I describe a person’s physical appearance in my writing, which I often do, especially in fiction, I never say someone is “black” or “white.” I may describe the color of their skin—black eyes, beige skin, blue eyes, dark skin, etc. But I’m not talking about race. I’m talking about a description. What I really want to write about is injustice and justice, and the different ways human beings organize the two.
Guernica: You mentioned ways of diminishing your efforts. Do you feel there is a resistance, among some people to seeing your work as serious work?
Jamaica Kincaid: The resistance to my work, and to my way of writing, has been there from the beginning. The first things I wrote were these short short stories collected in At the Bottom of the River, and at least three of them are one sentence long. They were printed in The New Yorker, over the objections of many of the editors in the fiction department. [Former editor] William Shawn published them. The story “Girl,” which is much anthologized, would not be printed in The New Yorker today. The courage to write a story like that, to write those stories, you can only have when you’re young. You’d never do it when you’re sixty-four, as I’m about to be.
But in any case, my writing has always been met with derision or dismissal. Ann Tyler wrote about my first collection of stories. Ann Tyler, that much loved American writer, who writes about things that would kill me just to think of, never mind to write a book about them. Of the stories in that first book of mine, she said they were—and I suppose I should be flattered that she even took notice—almost “insultingly obscure.” And I wanted to write a review of her books saying “and I think your books are almost insultingly clear.” [Laughs.] I’ve gotten this reception from the beginning, and I never stopped. I’ve never let the criticism deter me.
Guernica: What’s your strategy for not letting criticism deter you? How do you deal with it?
Jamaica Kincaid: I don’t. It’s painful sometimes. It’s laughable sometimes. Sometimes when someone says something stupid, my friends and I just read the reviews out loud and collapse with laughter at the stupidity of it all.
The thing about writing in America—and I just recently understood this—is that writers in America have an arc. You enter writing as a career, you expect to be successful, and really it’s the wrong thing. It’s not a profession. A professional writer is a joke. You write because you can’t do anything else, and then you have another job. I’m always telling my students go to law school or become a doctor, do something, and then write. First of all you should have something to write about, and you only have something to write about if you do something. If you just sit there, and you’re a writer, you’re bound to write crap. A lot of American writing is crap. And a lot of American writers are professionals. Writing is not a profession. It’s a calling. It’s almost holy.
Another thing I like to say to my students is this: “How many Corinthians read Paul’s letters?” The answer is none. They couldn’t have cared less! There aren’t even any Corinthians left, but Paul’s letters persist. Paul was not a professional writer. He was called to something, and he sent his letters. That’s a good way to look at it. That you might be making something that nobody cares about, but you have to do it. It’s not that people should care, but that you should care.
So much history, if you or I were to write it, could seem a fiction. These separations, these lines that tell us this is fiction or non-fiction, that this is history or this is a novel, are often useless.
Guernica: With the new novel, See Now Then, people seem to care quite a bit about the possibly autobiographical nature of the book. The subject of so many articles is, “Is it really? Is it really?” My question is why you think that question keeps coming up.
Jamaica Kincaid: [Laughs.] Gosh, why do they want to know? I don’t understand. I would never never read a work of fiction and want to know about the person’s life. And that to me is so interesting. What do they think I am? A famous person? What is it about me that makes people want to know? I’ve written a book about my mother, and I don’t remember anyone going to Antigua or calling up my mother and verifying her life. There is something about this new book that drives people mad with the autobiographical question.
Even if the book is autobiographical, think of Philip Roth. He wrote a book called My Life as a Man. I remember talking to Roth once, and finding out from him that he’d been married. He started to tell me about it. I hope I’m not violating anything here. And he gave me this book, My Life as a Man, and he said, “Here’s the story.” It’s one of his best books—really a great book—but I’ve never heard anyone bring it up and talk about him in a derogatory way because he used his own autobiography to create that novel. He uses things from his life all the time. People do it all the time.
There is something about See Now Then. It was as if I had no right to write about this, even if it is my own life. And I say it isn’t my own life. What I was describing wasn’t my own life—I was trying to understand all sorts of things beyond that, about time, about what happens to people. The unknowability of a person. The unknowability of oneself. I was trying to understand the thing people call “the existential,” or existentialism. And it was as if some reviewers decided that I, a black woman, had no right to think about life in such a speculative way. That I was only entitled to write about the hardship of racism.
Guernica: You’ve written non-fiction, and you also write fiction. What do you see as the line marking the distinction between the genres? Do you think that line is at all important?
Jamaica Kincaid: That’s a good question. I just wrote an introduction to a book by Simone Schwarz-Bart: The Bridge of Beyond. A wonderful writer from Guadeloupe, and a wonderful book that defies categories.
Often the lines that define the traditional European arrangement of fiction, non-fiction, history, etc. are not useful. These lines can distort the world we, people who look like me, live in—and by the world, I mean our personal experience of it. When it is described in a history book, when it’s even included in a history book, it is only good as a reference. The Wretched of the Earth could easily be a book of fiction, an imaginative work. [Frantz] Fanon turns out to have been a psychiatrist, so it can be put in the category of Psychiatry. You could also put it in the category of Politics. The point is you can put it in all sorts of categories, but it does not sit comfortably. Black Skin, White Mask, Invisible Man. For people who have a memory of what happened, none of the categories that exist are useful.
Guernica: You mentioned earlier that you get labeled as an “angry” writer. Could you speak a bit about how you use anger in your work? Shaping it on the page. How you negotiate that.
Jamaica Kincaid: Oh, that. It’s an interesting thing, the angry thing. And I wouldn’t mind being labeled as “angry,” if it wasn’t used once again to denigrate and belittle. First of all, I don’t feel I’m angry. I feel as though I’m describing something true. If I had stabbed my husband, I could understand being called “angry.” If I had an affair with my husband’s best friend (an imagined husband, mind you; I now have to be careful about these things!) and written about that experience, I could see the anger. But I’m not doing that. When I wrote A Small Place, the New York Times reviewed it in “Briefly Noted” and the thing the reviewer said, for the most part, was “Oh, it’s so angry.” I think that’s where the angry started, with A Small Place.
People think if you describe someone with glistening brown skin you’re writing about race, as if the whole of the African diaspora is in someone’s brown skin.
I’ve come to see that I’m saying something that people generally do not want to hear. In my writing, I’m often describing a universal situation. A situation in which human beings often choose to violate each other. Sometimes I happen to explore that in terms of the black/white dynamic. Generally, a white person does not like me to say, or does not like to be told, “You know, what you did was incredibly wrong.”
Slavery. The history of race relations in America. It’s very different than something like the Holocaust. The Holocaust happened in Europe, and that’s important to how it is viewed. Had Europeans done such a thing in the far corners of the earth, rather than on their own doorstep, it might not be mentioned in the history books. But that they did something in the midst of themselves was unimaginable. They did something that they started in Africa, and then it came back.
Had the Holocaust happened in Tahiti or the Congo, as it has; had it happened in South America, as it has; had it happened in the West Indies, as it has—you must remember that within fifty years of Columbus’s arrival, only the bones remained of the people called the Arawaks, with one or two of them in Spain as specimens. Had the Holocaust committed under the Nazis happened somewhere else, we wouldn’t be talking about it the way we talk about it now.
In my writing I’m trying to explore the violations people commit upon each other. And the important thing isn’t whether I’m angry. The more important thing is, is it true? Do these things really happen? I think I’m saying something true. I’m not angry. That’s not the way I think of it. The way I think of it is that I’m telling the truth.
I’m always surprised to hear or read my work described, “In angry tones, she says.” No! In truthful tones! Does truth have a tone? I don’t know.
Guernica: Another big subject of your work is human relationships. In See Now Then you write, “Love is accompanied by hatred and contempt, too.” It seems to me that sets up this novel in a pivotal way, but also relates to much of your other writing.
Jamaica Kincaid: Someone who knew me well once accused me of being unromantic. And that’s probably true: I don’t trust romance. I am always reminded of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; I saw a production of the play as a child, and I think of Tatiana’s falling in love with an ass, which was all very romantic. I think that influenced my view that romance is false, that the thing we call romance is a diversion from something truer, which is life. Life has a truth to it, and it’s complicated—it’s love and it’s hatred. Love and hatred don’t take turns; they exist side by side at the same time. And one’s duty, one’s obligation every day, is to choose to follow the nobler one. And if the nobler one is something one can’t pursue, then the lesser, the ignoble one, is what is left. It’s there. It’s present. There are things that make us choose, on certain days, on certain nights, the opposite of love, in all its variations. But I want to acknowledge that with love and hate it’s not simply one or the other. It’s at least two, three, four, five different emotions existing at once, side by side, a broad spectrum of things alive.
The slave trade was globalism. Why people insist that globalism, after its hideous history, is a good thing, I do not know.
Guernica: In See Now Then, there’s an image of Mrs. Sweets as she’s doing some work for her husband. Her hands get pale and dry. In your writing it seems to me there’s often a cost, a price, for intimacy.
Jamaica Kincaid: Yes. Though people interpret that image in racial terms. But what I meant by that image is that newness has a substantiveness, and that after much hard work that substantiveness fades. Things fade. The paleness of her hands had nothing to do with race. People think if you describe someone with glistening brown skin you’re writing about race, as if the whole of the African diaspora is in someone’s brown skin. Ha!
Guernica: But that notion of there being a price to choosing love or hate seems to be something you’re exploring. And the idea of complicity, too.
Jamaica Kincaid: Of course. I’m very aware that we make these decisions toward love or hate every day. I certainly don’t have the stamina to live through each day making only the noblest decisions. I don’t get out of bed and think “today I’m going to be Mother Teresa.” Often I’m more like Dick Cheney or somebody horrible like that! And I say “get out of bed,” but of course, my very bed is made by someone in Bangladesh who is probably dead right now after making it and my delicious nightclothes. It’s not that I’m a very good person. It’s that I think I should at least look at the ways in which I am not a good person, the ways in which I so readily become the person who would not notice that the wonderful clothing I’m wearing someone is probably dying for.
The complicity. Here I am, a product of something really vicious, right? You and me, here we are, products of the Atlantic slave trade. And yet, you know, I give nary a thought to some of the awful things happening right now in the world. The things that happen in Vietnam, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Call it “globalism,” the modern form of which started in 1492. The slave trade was globalism. Why people insist that globalism, after its hideous history, is a good thing, I do not know. There’s no way it can be a good thing.
Guernica: So what do you think we must be willing to do, as people, to improve things, to advance the human bond? What elements need to be in place?
Jamaica Kincaid: I sort of know, and sort of don’t know. I know that the fantastic amount of profit that people want to make on anything is damaging. And that none of us seem able to resist it. None of us seem to think that we should draw a line under what would be a satisfactory amount of wealth. I was just looking at moving to Cambridge, and a house I was looking at cost a million dollars. Because somehow, that’s what a house costs. And I was thinking, “How can it be?” And I was thinking, “What am I doing? Am I going to be Niall Ferguson, that horrible man? But what to do about it?”
You know, eventually, all these questions about political arrangements come down to how much stuff you want. I just ran into a couple a little bit older than me, and they’d moved from Boston to Maine, and they had to move their stuff, and they said you know we have all this stuff that we’ve collected over the years. We threw out a lot, but there’s still a lot that we just couldn’t part with, so we put it in boxes. We figure when we die, the children can throw it out. And I mean, that’s the thing, you just end up with shit! That’s what we guard. That’s all we do! We guard our shit, and we kill a lot of people so we have a lot of stuff our kids can throw out when we die. It’s sad.
Guernica: When you put it that way…
Jamaica Kincaid: I know! I realize it sounds hopeless.
Guernica: What was your favorite part of writing See Now Then?
Jamaica Kincaid: Did you come across the reference I make in the book to OutKast? It’s toward the end. I was so pleased when I realized I could do that. The family lives in the Shirley Jackson house, and at some point, the mother is apologizing to the son about her failures. Somehow in that part of the book, the lyrics “So fresh, so clean,” and “I’m sorry Ms. Jackson” made their way into the writing. It made me laugh so hard when I included that. I thought it was so amusing. I’m afraid the reference has gone unnoticed by most. But when I read that part of the book to an audience, the younger people listening absolutely get it. That was my favorite thing: the fact the older people miss it and the younger people get it.
Guernica: Are there other details in the book that matter to you, but which people have missed?
Jamaica Kincaid: The reference to the Shirley Jackson house matters to me. Robert Frost and Shirley Jackson happened to live not to far from where the book takes place, where the family lives. So I made the family live in the Shirley Jackson house for this reason. And the sound of “Shirley Jackson” works with “house,” a thing that no one except maybe poets get. The sound of words in a novel is a pretty amazing thing, and I am concerned with the sound of every word I write. When I was writing about the geology of the place, I could have chosen any number of words. But I chose geological terms, because I love how they sound. It drives me a little bit crazy that people who write about this book don’t understand: it’s all very carefully constructed.
But you know, I have to say in defense of my little books, that over time they gain an understanding that they don’t have on first being issued. It’s shocking to me how much that first story, “Girl,” is reproduced and anthologized now. When it was published, the first and only person to recognize anything significant about it was the person who published it. No one else seemed to care about it. Now, there are some other people who see significance there. So whenever I think of how misunderstood this book has been, I remember the history of my writing, and the reception it gets.
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