Jamaica Kincaid -- art has roots in the family
In the light of the lamp, I see some books, I see a chair, I see a table; I see a pen; I see a bowl of ripe fruit, a bottle of milk, a flute made of wood, the clothes I will wear. And as I see these things . . . how bound up I know I am to all that is human endeavor, to all that is past and to all that shall be. . . .'' Jamaica Kincaid ``At the Bottom of the River'' IN the decade that Jamaica Kincaid has been writing fiction, this Caribbean-born author has carved a literary niche by elevating the personal and familial -- even the overtly domestic -- to moments of epiphany.Skip to next paragraph
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This Proustian process, executed in two slim volumes, the prizewinning ``At the Bottom of the River'' last year and now ``Annie John,'' is earning Ms. Kincaid a reputation as a writer of subtle force and perception. Critics have praised her work for its transfiguring ability and even prophetic power. Caribbean writer Derek Walcott wrote in response to her work, ``Genius has many surprises and one of them is geography.''
Within the poetic abstractions that characterized her first book and the more fictional narrative of ``Annie John,'' Ms. Kincaid explores the universal themes of separation and loss of childhood within a specific terrain. The latter work is a semi-autobiographical portrait of the change and gradual evolution of a mother and daughter's relationship. ``A betrayal, a love story,'' is how Kincaid describes it during an interview. In both works, the author's youth in Antigua is the surface upon which her fiction unspools.
``For some reason, I can remember even the taste of things. Not to drag in the glorious Proust madeleine . . . [but] I can see a tiny point of a certain color and it reminds me of a day at the sea and from that [come] worlds of emotion,'' she says.
A tall, striking woman who looks not at all the ``ordinary person'' she insists she is, Ms. Kincaid is curled upon one of the two white couches in her New York apartment that she shares with her husband, composer Alan Shawn, and their five-month-old daughter, Annie. Baby clothes grace one armchair; a piano and recording equipment litter a corner. Lining the length of the room are floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed with bound volumes, paperbacks, and snapshots of friends and family, including Ms. Kincaid's own family and in-laws such as the actor Wally Shawn and William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker magazine. While the traffic rumbles outside and rain drums on the air conditioner, Ms. Kincaid speaks about her life, her work, and how the birth of her daughter has altered it all.
``We are so absorbed by [Annie],'' she says in a voice rich with British precision and Caribbean lyricism. ``No matter what you expect, nothing matches the reality of having a child.'' While such maternal affection is not unexpected from a new mother, the birth of this child has already affected Ms. Kincaid's fiction. ``I'm clearly the kind of writer interested in the autobiographical for [use in] fiction and nonfiction,'' she says. ``Since I wrote [``Annie John''] from this semi-autobiographical view, I couldn't do it [from the daughter's perspective] now.''
Writing ``Annie John'' from the daughter's point of view was an exercise in memory, according to the author. But the final chapters, written during the first months of pregnancy, began to alter Ms. Kincaid's sympathies. ``I didn't feel [the daughter's] woes and her pain so clearly,'' she says.
Ms. Kincaid's own mother, also named Annie, played a pivotal role in the author's childhood in Antigua and even now in her life as a New York-based writer. Ms. Kincaid's exploration of the mother-daughter relationship provides much of the impetus behind her current fiction. ``It was in such a paradise that I lived,'' is how she describes a childhood spent on Antigua in ``Annie John.'' Just as that work charts the growth and separation that can occur within families, Ms. Kincaid too broke away -- physically and emotionally. ``I identified [parental] restrictiveness with the restrictiveness of my surroundings,'' she says.