Kincaid, Jamaica (Elaine)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Kincaid, Jamaica (Elaine)

Kincaid, Jamaica (Elaine) (1949- )

Caribbean essayist and novelist

Essayist and fiction writer Jamaica Kincaid speaks the anger of the children of colonialism. Born Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John's, Antigua, an illegitimate child of African-Carib-Scots ancestry, she came of age in a British-dominated milieu that she describes in an autobiographical novel, Annie John (1985). Amid island storytellers, practitioners of the belief system called obeah, and worshippers of African animism, the author endured an insidious overlordship symbolized by tombstones “of long-dead people who had been the masters of our ancestors” before the emancipation of slaves in 1833 (Kincaid 1985, 50). Under compulsion from teachers, the emissaries of British culture during the last decades of British rule, she estranged herself from her black ancestry through gendered refinements and table manners and spoke proper English rather than her native West Indian patois. She later noted, “We got kind of the height of empire. They were trying to erase any knowledge of another history” (quoted in Ferguson 1994, 168). The inner battle of a devalued female against androcentric European rule resulted in a combative personality and caustic feminist canon.

A paradox of the author's upbringing derived from her condemnation of Christopher Columbus as well as her adoration of British poets, Anglo scripture, and the works of the Bronte sisters and George Eliot, the latter members of the privileged white caste. When the family's financial situation dictated that Kincaid quit school at age 16 and earn money, she emigrated from the Caribbean to New York in June 1965, completed high school, and entered night school at Westchester Community College in White Plains. Though she won a scholarship to Franconia College in New Hampshire, she left after a year, feeling herself too old to be a student any more, and returned to New York, where she embarked on a career in journalism. In 1973, she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid as a way of freeing herself from her past.

In 1976, while writing for Ingenue, Kincaid obtained a staff position at the New Yorker. She dedicated herself to postcolonialism—an islander’s anger at GENOCIDE and “the shameful qualities of imperialism and unjustified aggression” (Kincaid 1999, 148). She felt obligated to “remember not just the past—because there is no past—but the moment, and that moment is 500 years long” (quoted in Obejas 1996). In the New Yorker column “The Talk of the Town” and in fiction, she expressed black islanders’ loathing for the British Empire, which stamped its domination on Antiguans through a constant English-based routine—Anglican church bells marking the hours, English teatime and eating habits, and even bulbs and plants from the British countryside. Her reason for concentrating on the corrupt history of the Western Hemisphere was survival—“getting something out of my head that if I don’t will drive me absolutely insane” (quoted in Ferguson 1994, 174).

Ambivalence toward Home

Kincaid leveled abuse at the privileged white tourist in a short diatribe, A Small Place (1988), a counter-travelogue meant to insult rather than invite the outsider to Antigua. The text depicts recent arrivals at the airport as the “got-for-noth- ing” wealthy and includes the insulting comment, “We made you bastards rich” (Kincaid 1988, 10). Chapter two targets the British, who no longer exercise power over a quarter of the earth’s people. Kincaid claims that the rulers of her own time seem unaware that “this empire business was all wrong” (23). The jeremiad won the approval of the critic and novelist Salman Rushdie, who applauded the author’s acerbic lamentation and moralizing.

In autumn 1989, the author turned to allegory for another attack on colonialism. In “Ovando,” an essay for the literary magazine Conjunctions, she envisions conquest as an arrogant ghoul rotting down to bare bone from the corruption that inhabits it. The GOTHIC wraith of Frey Nicolas de Ovando (1960-1518), whom the Spanish chronicler BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS reviled in Brevisima relation de la destruction de las Indias (Brief report of the devastation of the Indies, 1552), enters the home of a hospitable native of Hispaniola. Ovando, an early 1 6th- century military mentor to the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez, the destroyer of the AZTEC empire, wears plate armor tinged with the blood of Arawak and Carib aborigines of the West Indies. Kincaid summarizes his governorship of the islands in a hellish litany comprised of “horror and misery and disease and famine and poverty and nothingness” (Kincaid 1989, 76). In the narrative, Ovando warns that he has allies—English, Dutch, French, Germans, and Iberians, all of whom threaten the Caribbean paradise with wholesale annihilation of indigenous cultures. The antithesis of the courtly knight, Ovando justifies his predations with the claim that discoveries are ordained by fate and sanctified by God, the conventional excuse for invasion. Kincaid’s narrator defies the deluded warrior by smashing his mirror and destroying his map; her story preserves on natural tree fiber the seizure of the West Indies as a record for world history.

Personal Animosity

The cynicism that barbs Kincaid’s work recurs in The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), in which the first-person protagonist describes her Carib ancestors as “defeated and then exterminated, thrown away like the weeds in a garden” (Kincaid 1996, 16). The protagonist, Xuela Claudette Richardson, voices the aphorism that good people are always poor because they have not committed enough sins to enrich themselves. At a pivotal moment in the four-year-old Xuela’s life with Ma Eunice Paul, a surrogate mother and the family laundress, the child breaks the woman’s only plate, which features an idyllic English countryside—a field of grass and pastel wildflowers beneath a mild sunlight. One word in gilt declares the scene to be “heaven,” an identification linked to the island underclass concept of the British motherland, which enjoys “a life without worry or care or want” (9). For punishment, Ma Eunice forces Xuela’s body into a servile pose holding rocks aloft in her hand beneath a pitiless Caribbean sun, an ironic posture that turns the impoverished laundress into an enforcer of bicultural standards that the young rebel Xuela defies. Subtextually, the laundress becomes a colonial apologist.

Kincaid's multilayered prose makes links between imperialism and the denigration of women and nonwhites. She muses on self-congratulatory males and their joy in not being born female and subservient like Ma Eunice Paul or the women whom raiders devalue through rape and bondage. Xuela extends the metaphor of androcentrism to racism by affirming male pride in being lightskinned. The accident of birth causes the male to feel “blessed and chosen to be [white] and it gives him a special privilege in the hierarchy of everything” (131). She summarizes the conqueror's sense of entitlement as an ipso facto awareness of “what makes the world turn” (132).

Travel introduced Kincaid to the extent of the British Empire and increased her compassion for the postcolonial poor demoralized by a legacy of cultural erasure and tourism, a modern version of SLAVERY. In August 1991, in the international review Transition, she published the personal essay “On Seeing England for the First Time,” an explosion of rage at colonial racism and the pillage it created. Like the Trinidadian-British author V S. NAIPAUL, she discovered that the reality bore little resemblance to the England about which she had fantasized. While working as garden editor for Architectural Digest, she analyzed botanic collections and horticultural traditions as evidence that imperialism sullies an innocent and joyful avocation. In her essay “Sowers and Reapers: The Unquiet World of a Flower Bed,” published in the January 22, 2001, issue of New Yorker, she admitted to deliberate polarization in the gardening community by introducing postcolonial themes: “I had done something unforgivable—I had introduced race and politics into the garden” (Kincaid 2001, 41). The comment epitomizes her feeling of anger with every facet of colonialism, whether on the edenic island of Antigua or in the prim gardens of Europe and the United States.


Allen, Brooke. “Imperialism Is the Mama of All

Sorrows,” Wall Street Journal, 2 February 1996, A8. Ferguson, Moira. “A Lot of Memory: An Interview

with Jamaica Kincaid.” Kenyon Review 16, no. 1 (Summer 1994): 163-188.

Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985.

----- . The Autobiography of My Mother. New York: Plume, 1996.

----- . My Garden. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999.

----- . “Ovando.” Conjunctions 14, no. 10 (Fall 1989): 75-83.

----- . A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

----- . “Sowers and Reapers: The Unquiet World of a Flower Bed.” New Yorker 76, no. 43 (January 22, 2001): 41-45.

Obejas, Achy. “Jamaica Bound: Imagining Lives of Those Never Let to Be,” Chicago Tribune, 31 March 1996.