Jamaica Kincaid

Kincaid, Jamaica (b. 1949), short story writer, essayist, and novelist. A leading West Indian writer, Jamaica Kincaid (born Elaine Potter Richardson) left her birthplace, the nine-by-twelve-mile island of Antigua, just after her sixteenth birthday and came to the United States. Although much of her writing concerns itself with the West Indies, Kincaid did not return to the island where she was born until nineteen years after she left. Kincaid has received a good deal of attention and critical acclaim despite the modest body of work to her name: a slim book of short stories (At the Bottom of the River, 1983), two short novels (Annie John, 1985; Lucy, 1990), a longer novel (The Autobiography of My Mother, 1996), a nonfiction essay about Antigua (A Small Place, 1988), and short sketches, short stories, and columns published in the New Yorker and elsewhere. Kincaid was editor of Best American Essays 1995. In 1997, she published My Brother.

Kincaid began her career as a writer through an exposure to the New York literary scene in the 1970s. Her growing acquaintance with contemporary writers led then New Yorker editor William Shawn to ask Kincaid to write a piece for “Talk of the Town”. Her pithy, lyrical style was so successful that she became a regular contributor to the magazine. Her first book, At the Bottom of the River (1983), included seven stories originally published in the New Yorker and touched on themes that would be echoed in her later fiction: mother-daughter relationships, the social constraints felt by a young girl coming of age, a sense of listlessness and dissatisfaction despite surroundings of great beauty, sexual fluidity, questions of identity, and the merging of real and imaginary worlds.

Annie John (1985), Kincaid's next work of fiction, has alternately been called a book of short stories and a novel. An episodic bildungsroman, Annie John follows the path of an angry and alienated, yet exceptionally bright, ten-year-old girl as she matures. Stifled yet exhilarated by her small life on Antigua, in love with yet furious at her mother, Annie John suffers acutely from growing pains. Her changing body is awkward to her, she is debilitated by an inexplicable illness that makes her behavior border on madness, and although imbued with a sense of her own superiority, Annie John puzzles as much over her place in the world as she does over the question of what world it is that she inhabits. The book ends with Annie John at seventeen when, not yet freed from her parents' domination but on her way off the island, she embarks on a new life in England.

Kincaid's next novel, Lucy (1990), centers around a character whose anger and bitterness (her name is short for Lucifer) bear a great similarity to that of Annie John. Critics have remarked that Lucy can be read as a continuation of Annie John, although the protagonists have different names. Lucy has traveled a long way from her island home (this time the island is not specified) and come to work as an au pair for a blond and smiling, yet deeply divided, white family in the United States. At nineteen, Lucy is already savvy and seemingly imperturbable. Although she rides an elevator for the first time, eats food taken from a refrigerator for the first time (her island home did not have one, and Kincaid herself grew up without electricity), Lucy is a sophisticated and often embittered young woman. Much is familiar in this new world: she recognizes, for example, her father's love of other women (with whom he had children) in the affair her employer has with his wife's best friend.

The Autobiography of My Mother (1996) is the story of a motherless child, Xuela Claudette Richardson. She negotiates her way through a sensual and desperately lonely world on the island of Dominica, suspecting that her father cherishes his bundle of dirty laundry more than he cares for her. Claiming to embody both her mother and the children she decides not to have, Xuela struggles to construct a self out of the bleak, black wind of her mother's absence.

Best known for her fiction, Kincaid has also written a nonfiction, polemical essay about Antigua. When the piece was rejected by the changing guard at the New Yorker (they dismissed it as too angry), Kincaid published A Small Place (1988) as a slim book. The essay explores Antigua's shameful past, the island's postcolonial legacy, its dilapidated buildings and astounding beauty, and the corruption and abuse of power by present-day politicians. Kincaid wrote it after a visit back to Antigua and a fresh look at her birthplace through the eyes of an adult.

Kincaid and her husband, composer and college professor Allen Shawn, live in Burlington, Vermont, with their two children, Annie and Harold.


  • Daryl Cumber Dance, ed., Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, 1986.
  • Selwyn R. Cudjoe, ed., Caribbean Women Writers, 1990.
  • Moira Ferguson, Gender Relations from Mary Wollstonecraft to Jamaica Kincaid: East Caribbean Connections, 1993.
  • Diane Simmons, Jamaica Kincaid, 1994.
  • Kristin Mahlis, “Gender and Exile: Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy,” Modern Fiction Studies 44:1 (Spring 1998): 164–183.
  • Diane Simmons, “Coming-of-Age in the Snare of History: Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother,” in The Girl: Construction of the Girl in Contemporary Fiction by Women, ed. Ruth O. Saxton, 1998, pp.107–118

Jennifer Margulis


A significant voice in contemporary literature, Jamaica Kincaid (born 1949) is widely praised for her works of short fiction, novels, and essays in which she explores the tenuous relationship between mother and daughter as well as themes of anti-colonialism. A native of the island of Antigua, Kincaid is considered one of the most important women Caribbean writers. Over a career that has spanned more than three decades, Kincaid has earned a reputable place in the literary world for her highly personal, stylistic, and honest writings.

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949, in the capital city of St. John's on Antigua, a small island in the West Indies that was colonized by the British in 1632 and achieved full independence in 1981. Her mother, Annie Richardson, was an emigre from Dominica. Her stepfather, David Drew, was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. Kincaid's maternal grandmother, a Carib Indian, also played an important role in her early life. Kincaid's biological father, Roderick Potter, was never involved in her upbringing. Her family was poor: they had no electricity, running water, or plumbing in their home.

Kincaid was an only child until she was nine, at which time the first of her three brothers was born. Until their birth, Kincaid had enjoyed the sole attention of her mother, who taught her to read when she was three and had given her a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary when she turned seven. However, with the arrival of her brothers, Kincaid's relationship with her mother changed dramatically. She was no longer a dependent young child and her importance in her mother's eyes was severely diminished because she was female.

Although Kincaid was intellectually gifted, she was not given encouragement in the British public school she attended on the island. Her teachers frequently found her attitude rude and considered her a troublemaker. Nevertheless, she was an avid reader and spent much time at the city's library, getting to know and admire the young librarian who worked there. Kincaid's love for books was so fierce that she stole some from the library and hid them under her family's porch. The bookish and small child was not well liked by her peers, who often picked fights with her and beat her up. Discussing this period in her life, Kincaid recalled in a Kenyon Review interview with Moira Ferguson in 1994, "I would come home with my clothes in tatters and my face scratched up, and my mother would take me back to the person who had beaten me up and say 'fight, fight' and I couldn't fight. I would just cry and cry… ." Eventually, after years of abuse, when she was 11, Kincaid finally did fight back and win. After that, she was no longer tormented and she actually took on a leadership role.

As a girl there were few options available for Kincaid. She would have liked to have attended university in Antigua and remained there after becoming a teacher or a librarian, but she was not given that opportunity. Despite the shortcomings of her early education, she did acquire a strong background in English literature, studying the works of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, and the King James version of the Bible. Kincaid especially loved the works of Charlotte Bronte, reading Jane Eyre numerous times.

Self-Exile in the United States

In 1966, shortly after turning 17, Kincaid was sent to the United States to work as an au pair for an affluent family in Scarsdale, New York. She was expected to send money home to her family, but she would not. She received letters from home, but she did not open them. It was in this state of self-exile that Kincaid would shape her new life away from the unhappiness she had felt in Antigua. Shortly after leaving her job in Scarsdale, Kincaid found work for an Upper East Side family in New York City. After this move, she left no forwarding address and was cut off from her family until her return to Antigua 20 years later. While working in New York, Kincaid continued her education at a community college, earned a high school equivalency diploma, and began taking photography courses at the New School for Social Research. She later studied photography at Franconia College in New Hampshire on a scholarship, though she never earned a college diploma. When asked in a 1996 interview with Dwight Garner in Salon if she had any aspirations to become a writer when she came to the United States, she stated flatly, "None. Absolutely none. [When] I first arrived I was incredibly depressed and lonely. I didn't know there was such a world as the literary world. I didn't know anything, except maybe how to put one foot in front of the other."

Although Kincaid was not fully aware of her literary ambitions during her childhood and early years in New York, she had gained much from her voracious reading, all of which was of an English literary tradition. She had never been exposed to West Indian literature. When speaking to Ferguson, she acknowledged that as a child she would imagine stories and conversations in her head, but she never wrote them down. It was her experiences in photography that finally made her aware of writing. After watching the French film La Jete and reading Alain Robbe-Grillet, Kincaid felt her burst of inspiration. She told Ferguson, "I began to write poems. I began to write of my photographs - what I would take and [how] I would set them up. I would look at what I had written down, and that is how I would take the photograph. I would write down what I thought the picture should feel like. And I would try to take a picture of what I had written down."

Entrance to Literary World

After three years as an au pair, Kincaid left to become a secretary, model, and backup singer in a New York club. In 1970, with bleached blond hair, Kincaid enjoyed a freewheeling city lifestyle, sharing with Garner that she once attended a Halloween party dressed as Josephine Baker with only some bananas wrapped around her waist. She began to contribute pieces to Ingenue, a teen magazine. Her first published work, "When I Was Seventeen," was an interview with Gloria Steinem about the notable feminist's own teenage years. In 1973, Elaine Potter Richardson changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid mainly to keep her anonymity since she feared her family would disapprove of her writing and mock her efforts. After her contributions to Ingenue and the Village Voice, Kincaid began to make contacts with members of New York's literary society. One friend, Michael O'Donoghue, who was a founding writer for Saturday Night Live, introduced Kincaid to George Trow, who wrote the "Talk of the Town" column for New Yorker magazine. A strong friendship developed between the two and Kincaid began to accompany Trow when he researched bits for his column, adding her observations. William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, ultimately asked Kincaid to write her own "Talk of the Town" piece. She submitted notes of her observations of the West Indian Day parade, and Shawn published the notes as a finished column. Beginning in 1976, Kincaid contributed regularly to the magazine as a staff writer under Shawn's mentorship. In 1978, she published her first work of fiction, the short story "Girl," in the New Yorker.

Kincaid acknowledged that Shawn helped her develop her voice and encouraged her to continue writing stories. Along with the significant development as a writer Kincaid received while working at the New Yorker, she also met Allen Shawn, a classical composer and son of Ted Shawn. They were married in 1979.

Literary Celebrity

In "Girl" and nine other sketches, often denoted "prose poems" by critics, that appeared in the 1983 collection At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid plumbed her early life in Antigua, developing a series of "fictional narratives" centering on a young Caribbean girl. The stories were marked by a lyrically poetic, incantatory, rhythmic voice. Perhaps the most-discussed piece in the collection is "Girl," which is one sentence uttered by a mother to her child, listing in repetitive scrutiny a series of commands. Her breakthrough collection earned Kincaid the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Kincaid followed the publication of At the Bottom of the River with the slim novel Annie John in 1985. In this work, Kincaid writes a coming-of-age tale that focuses on the life of a young Caribbean girl. The theme of the mother-daughter relationship in which a mother devastatingly severs her bond with her daughter is at its core. This work was well received and critics praised its rhythmic quality, evocative images, and universal themes. Many critics have noted that her most significant theme, that of the mother-daughter bond, represents the larger issue of the powerful and the powerless, particularly as this relationship operates in a colonial culture.

The personal nature of so much of Kincaid's fiction is one of its salient features, and she admits that her difficult relationship with her own mother inspired her writing, though she maintains it was an act of salvation to write her thoughts down. "Writing is really such an expression of personal growth," she admitted to Ferguson. "I don't know how else to live. For me it is a matter of saving my life. I don't know what I would do if I didn't write. It is a matter of living in the deepest way." Noting the autobiographical element to her writing, she asserted that "My writing has been very autobiographical. The events are true to me. They may not be true to other people. I think it is fair for my mother to say, 'This is not me.' It is only the mother in the books I've written. It is only the mother as the person I used to be perceived her… . For me it was really an act of saving my life, so it had to be autobiographical."

Angry Voice Divided Readership

With the publication of her nonfiction work A Small Place in 1988 and her third fictional work, Lucy, in 1991, Kincaid was no longer the darling of the literary world. Reviewers were divided over the angry tone expressed in both works. In A Small Place, described as "an anti-travel narrative," Kincaid returns to Antigua after having been gone for 20 years. She ultimately skewers the white tourist who visits Antigua with no thought to the poverty and the long-endured oppression of the colonized natives, while also pointing out the corruption of the post-independent Antiguan government. Bob Gottlieb, editor of the New Yorker at the time, refused to publish any of the work in the magazine due to its angry tone. In her native Antigua, the government issued an informal ban on Kincaid, restricting her visits to the island from 1985 to 1992. Seemingly unaccepting of her resentment and frustrations, V.R. Peterson of People compared Kincaid to West Indian writer V.S. Naipaul, maintaining that "where Naipaul is humane and appreciative of the dark corners of the human condition, Kincaid seems only vituperative and intemperate."

Kincaid drew similar criticism for the novel Lucy. Annie John ends with the protagonist leaving Antigua at the age of 17, and Lucy begins with the eponymous protagonist leaving the Caribbean at age 19 to come to the United States to work as an au pair for a wealthy New York City family. Commentators note a more bitter tone to this novel in which Lucy will not bend to the powers that hold sway. However, most still commend Kincaid's storytelling abilities. Reviewing the novel, the Newsweek book critic summarized "Vinegary Lucy doesn't bother to be likable, but her shrewdness and her gumption make her good company all the same."

Familial Bonds

Kincaid returned to her familiar theme of the mother-daughter relationship and the cruel outcomes of colonization with her dark portrayal of seventy-year-old Xuela Claudette Richardson, the narrator of her novel The Autobiography of My Mother published in 1996. The novel, set on the island of Dominica, presents the life of the narrator and the mother whom she never knew who had died in childbirth. Xuela's life is mired in loss, and, as Andrea Stuart noted in the New Statesman, "[ Autobiography of My Mother] is simultaneously one of the most beautifully written books I have read, and one of the most alienating." In 1997 this complex novel was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the PEN Faulkner Award.

In 1997 Kincaid published My Brother, a memoir of her youngest brother Devon Drew, who died of AIDS in 1996 at the age of 33. This highly personal work addresses not only the relationship Kincaid had with her brother - the two were alike in personality though they had spent little time together - as well as the continued themes of her resentful relationship with her mother and the devastating outcomes of a post-colonial culture. Reviewing the work in Time John Skow laments that while "there is deep, honest feeling here … it seems long past time for this gifted writer to tell us something new." In response to such criticism, Kincaid related to Garner, "I am not troubled … to be seen to be of one whole cloth - that all that I write is a further development of something. Perhaps it is musical in that way. My work is a chord that develops in many different ways. I couldn't help but write these books." Central to this work is Kincaid's discovery after Drew has died that he was homosexual and the oppressive secret he had kept throughout his life. Kincaid's ability to address the personal themes within a memoir that, according to Brad Goldfarb in Interview, is "an almost ruthless desire to get at the truth" and still relate them to such universal themes as familial bonds and the overarching question of post-colonial issues, helped her earn a nomination for a National Book Award.

Fragrant and Thorny

As a child, Kincaid had been surrounded by plants on Antigua, and her interest in gardening developed steadily throughout her adult life. In 1985, when her husband accepted a teaching position in Bennington, Vermont, the couple moved to this idyllic community with their two young children, Annie and Harold. Leaving the confines of the city, Kincaid had ample space to garden, and she published My Garden (Book) in 1999. This collection of essays marks a departure from the embittered tone of her previous works and was heralded as entertaining yet intelligent due to Kincaid's artful connection between gardening and philosophical and poetic reflections. While most reviewers concede that all of Kincaid's works, despite at times her harsh tone, are complex and stylistically unique, with My Garden (Book), Kincaid seemed to have expressed similarly profound observations in a more gentle, even humorous tone.

Mr. Potter, Kincaid's tenth book, is a return to a West Indian setting and characters from her family background. The narrator, Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson, ruminates over the empty life of Roderick Potter, her father who has had no part in her life. Acknowledging the characters' obvious connections to Kincaid's own life, Susan Walker asserts in the Toronto Star that "it's unlikely any reader will mistake these characters for actual people. They are too encased in literary language, too distilled, almost mythic in the way they come to represent the way many people's lives are shaped by history."

While many of Kincaid's works are short in length, they have never failed to elicit respect, if at times reluctantly. Kincaid herself is a forthright person who speaks candidly. After she left the New Yorker in 1995, she spoke quite openly about her disgust at the "vulgarity" that the magazine produced under the editorship of Tina Brown. Her frankness, however, is always tinged with humor as she told Garner, "[Brown's] actually got some nice qualities. But she can't help but be attracted to the coarse and vulgar. I wish there was some vaccine - I would sneak it up on her."

Kincaid has been awarded honorary degrees from Williams College (1991), Long Island College (1991), Amherst College (1995), Bard College (1997), and Middlebury College (1998). She continues to write from her home in Bennington, teaching creative writing at Bennington College and Harvard University.


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People, September 26, 1988; December 15, 1997.

Salon, January 13, 1996; December 20, 1999.

Time, February 5, 1996; November 10, 1997.

Times, July 20, 2002.

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Women's Review of Books, March 2000; September 2002.


"Jamaica Kincaid," BBC World Service,http://www.bbc.co.uk (February 11, 2003).

"Jamaica Kincaid," Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color,http://voices.cla.umn.edu (February 11, 2003).


Personal Information

Nationality: Antiguan, American.
Born: Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John's, Antigua, West Indies, 25 May 1949; daughter of a carpenter and Annie Richardson; immigrated to United States, naturalized U.S. citizen.
Education: Princess Margaret girls' school, Antigua; New School for Social Research, New York; Franconia College, New Hampshire.
Family: Married Allen Evan Shawn; one daughter and one son.
Career: Contributor and staff writer, the New Yorker, 1976-95. Visiting professor, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Awards: Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1983, for At the Bottom of the River; honorary degrees from Williams College and Long Island College, both 1991, and Colgate University, Amherst College, and Bard College; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund annual writer's award, 1992; The Autobiography of My Mother was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the PEN Faulkner Award, both 1997; National Book Award nomination, 1997, for My Brother.
Family: Married Allen Evan Shawn; one daughter and one son.
Education: Princess Margaret girls' school, Antigua; New School for Social Research, New York; Franconia College, New Hampshire.


Worked as a nanny in Scarsdale, NY, and as an au pair in New York City during the 1960s; contributor and staff writer, the New Yorker,1976-95. Visiting professor, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Life's Work

Writer Jamaica Kincaid has been called an "instant literary celebrity" in the New York Times Magazine for her sudden rise in the world of arts and letters. Kincaid's intensely personal stories and novels about her homeland of Antigua and her experiences as an emigre have "carved out a singular literary niche," according to Emily Listfield in Harper's Bazaar. Listfield added that Kincaid's "lyrical and intelligent work has won a discriminating following. Kincaid's books may be brief, but no one could call them small."

Much of Kincaid's work is semi-autobiographical, reflecting both the lilting language and the colonial legacy of her island home. Her writings achieve universality through their themes: a daughter's ambivalent feelings for her parents, a naive expatriate's confrontations with urban America, a black person's rebellion against white rule and white liberalism, and a woman finding herself and learning to live with rage. "Jamaica Kincaid just happens to write short, exquisite little novels," noted Audrey Edwards in Essence. "And while the themes may be ... personal, the writing is so eloquent and original, specific in details yet universal in truths, timeless and transforming that it demands attention and respect. Like other Black women for whom writing is both an act of liberation and salvation, Kincaid says she writes to save her life--that if she couldn't write, she would be one of those people who throw bombs, who spout revolution, who would surely be in jail or perhaps even dead. Or maybe just insane."

Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on the tiny West Indian island of Antigua. She grew up in poverty, the daughter of a carpenter and a loving but overbearing mother. Her home in the island's capital city of St. John had no electricity, running water, or bathroom. As a young girl, Kincaid made trips to a public pump twice a day or more for the water her family used, carrying it home in buckets. She described her youth in the New York Times Magazine as tightly restricted, revolving around her home and her mother. "You grow up in a street and it's a tiny street," she said. "The street might not be as big as this yard out there, but it becomes your world, and it's the only thing you know, and you know it unbelievably well, with this thickness, this heaviness, and you have no interest in anything else. It would not occur to you that there might be something else."

When Kincaid was nine, the first of her three brothers was born. Her mother's focus shifted from her to the baby, and the additional mouth to feed only deepened the family's poverty. "I thought I was the only thing my mother truly loved in the world, and when it dawned on me that it wasn't so, I was devastated," Kincaid told Harper's Bazaar. At almost the same time, Kincaid was beginning to mature. Separated from her mother's love, she took solace in reading, stealing books and hiding them under the front porch of her house. "I was sullen," she remembered in the New York Times Magazine. "I was always being accused of being rude, because I gave some back chat. I moved very slowly. I was never where I should be. I wasn't really angry yet. I was just incredibly unhappy."

Although most of the books she craved came from British authors, Kincaid was gaining an awareness of her status as a subject of white rule. This consciousness of subordination heightened her resentment. The author told the New York Times Magazine that none of her teachers recognized her potential as a student, and none of them offered her any praise or encouragement. "It was a colonial situation, and everybody was angry, but nobody knew why," she said. "So if I wrote a good essay, my teachers would just say, 'Ha! At least one of you did it right.' I remember my teachers as very angry people."

Angry and bitter herself, Kincaid began to feel stifled by life on Antigua. "I didn't know anyone who was as unhappy as I was," she stated in Essence. "I felt different, but I didn't know that was alright. I just wanted to get out. I didn't know that I would."

In 1966, at the age of 17, Kincaid saw her opportunity and took it. She left Antigua to work as a nanny for a family in Scarsdale, New York. She told the New York Times Magazine that as the northbound airplane rose into the sky, she looked out the window at the island she was so determined to leave. "I remember seeing it. How beautiful and small it was. I didn't know it was so small!" she recounted. "From the air it was just this tiny place. And it looked very green, whereas on the ground it looks very brown."

Kincaid decided to burn all her bridges. She refused to open letters from home and did not write any herself. When she left the job in Scarsdale after only a few months, she did not give a forwarding address. In fact, she would not return to Antigua for 19 years--and by that time she was famous.

From Scarsdale, Kincaid moved to New York City, where she took a position as an au pair, or live-in nanny, with a wealthy family. For three years she cared for the four children of writer Michael Arlen and attended night classes at a local community college to upgrade her island education. She received a high school equivalency diploma while working for the Arlen family and took photography courses at night. At the time, the idea of becoming a writer, of mining her past experiences and putting them into words, had not even occurred to her.

By 1970 Kincaid was dissatisfied with the menial jobs she was able to hold--including a stint as a secretary in a photography studio--and she accepted a full scholarship to Franconia College in New Hampshire. After only a year at the college, she returned to New York City, dyed her hair blonde, and began to conduct interviews for a magazine for teen-age girls. In 1973 she changed her name from Elaine Richardson to Jamaica Kincaid. The author told the New York Times Magazine that the name change was "a way for me to do things without being the same person who couldn't do them--the same person who had all these weights."

Gradually Kincaid made friends among New York's literary community. One of these acquaintances, George Trow, was a contributor to the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" column. Trow began to invite Kincaid along with him as he researched "Talk of the Town" pieces, and he even began to incorporate her observations into his column. Eventually, New Yorker editor William Shawn asked Kincaid to write a "Talk of the Town" piece of her own about the West Indian Day parade held annually in Brooklyn. She submitted the essay to Trow as "notes" from which he could craft a column. Instead, Trow gave the notes to Shawn, who published them in the New Yorker verbatim. "When I saw it, and it was just what I had put on paper," Kincaid recalled in the New York Times Magazine, "that is when I realized what my writing was. My writing was the thing that I thought. Not something else. Just what I thought."

Kincaid became a regular contributor to the New Yorker four years before she began to write fiction. "When I first started to write, I had no money and slept on newspapers in an apartment," she told Essence. "I used my money to buy a desk and a typewriter; I had nothing--no shelf for my books or records. I didn't even have a chair to sit on, but I had a chair for my desk." At that desk, Kincaid eventually began to experiment with fiction, and a veritable dam burst when she set free her searing memories of her mother, herself as a child, and the island she had fled with such loathing.

Kincaid's first story filled a single page of the New Yorker. Published on June 26, 1978, it was called "Girl" and consisted of a string of commands issued by a mother to her daughter. Other short stories followed, and by 1983 Kincaid released her first book-length collection, At the Bottom of the River. Critics such as Ms. correspondent Suzanne Freeman praised the work for its "singsong style" and its "images that are as sweet and mysterious as the secrets that children whisper in your ear." Village Voice reviewer David Leavitt noted that the stories move "with grace and ease from the mundane to the enormous," adding, "Kincaid's particular skill lies in her ability to articulate the internal workings of a potent imagination without sacrificing the rich details of the external world on which that imagination thrives." The collection won the prestigious Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Kincaid followed At the Bottom of the River with another collection of interrelated stories entitled Annie John. The pieces in Annie John revolve around a young girl in Antigua as she establishes independence from her mother, overcomes a serious illness, and decides to immigrate to England. New York Times Book Review contributor Susan Kenney observed that in the work Kincaid "has packed a lot of valuable insight about the complex relationship between mothers and daughters."

Ironically, Kincaid's relationship with her own mother failed to improve substantially over the years. The author told the New York Times Magazine that her mother "has never taken me in as someone she'd want to talk to in the world. It's really painful because some people might actually be rather proud of me. But it doesn't enter my mother's mind." She continued: "It really is a mystery to me how I came to be the person I am."

For many years Kincaid has lived in Bennington, Vermont, with her husband, composer Allen Shawn, and her two children. A daughter, Annie, is named after Kincaid's mother, but Kincaid told Essence that the relationship she shares with her daughter is far different from the one she endured with her own mother. "We have a lot of intimacy, the kind that was never possible with my own mother. I want to see if it's possible to be a strong person and still raise a healthy daughter."

Kincaid returned to the subject of familial relationships and the colonial experience in her 1990 novel Lucy. The story is presented as the flashback of a young black woman who leaves the West Indies for the United States to work as an au pair for a wealthy but troubled white family. In a Los Angeles Times review, Richard Eder commented that Kincaid, whose life closely resembles that of her title character, "has gone far beyond autobiography. At best, a biographical or autobiographical protagonist will be vivid and true. Lucy has ascended into fiction: She is vivid, true and necessary. Her voice in this harsh and graceful book tells us in the only possible way--at least while we are reading it--what it is to be a colonized subject, a Third World sensibility in the United States, a child battling with her past and a woman battling with her identity."

Since Lucy, Kincaid has produced such highly personal works as The Autobiography of My Mother (1996) and My Brother, a 1997 memoir chronicling the last years of life of her younger brother, Devon Drew, who died of AIDS in January 1996. Since that time she has published two books on gardening and Talk Stories, a collection of her "Talk of the Town" articles first published in the New Yorker.

Kincaid, who never changed her Antiguan citizenship, makes universal themes immediate. She addresses such topics as the insights of a black colonial subject in a Third World country, the scars of childhood inflicting wounds on an adult, and the search for identity and self-worth. The author remarked in Harper's Bazaar, "I'm just one of those pathetic people for whom writing is therapy."

"I'm someone who writes to save her life," Kincaid expressed in the New York Times Magazine. "I mean, I can't imagine what I would do if I didn't write. I would be dead or I would be in jail because--what else could I do? I can't really do anything but write. All the things that were available to someone in my position involved being a subject person. And I'm very bad at being a subject person." The author added that she never wants to be at peace, that she remains acutely aware of--and bitter about--her family's past as slaves, and she wants to continue to explore her feelings in art. "I'm never satisfied," she confided in USA Today. "I'm always complaining. And I hope I stay that way."


Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1983, for At the Bottom of the River; Ritz Paris Hemingway Award nomination, 1985, for Annie John.; honorary degrees from Williams College and Long Island College, both 1991, and Colgate University, Amherst College, and Bard College; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund annual writer's award, 1992; The Autobiography of My Mother was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the PEN Faulkner Award, both 1997; National Book Award nomination, 1997, for My Brother.



  • At the Bottom of the River (short stories), Farrar, Straus, 1983.
  • Annie John (novel), Farrar, Straus, 1985.
  • A Small Place (essays), Farrar, Straus, 1988.
  • Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip, illustrations by Eric Fischl, Knopf and Whitney Museum of American Art, 1989.
  • Lucy (novel), Farrar, Straus, 1990.
  • The Autobiography of My Mother (novel), Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1996.
  • My Brother (memoir), Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.
  • Editor, My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love (essays), Farrar, Straus, 1998.
  • (With Lynn Geesaman) Poetics of Place (essay), Umbrage, 1998.
  • My Garden (nonfiction), Farrar, Straus, 1999.
  • Talk Stories (essays), Farrar, Straus, 2000.
Other Works
  • Contributor to magazines.

Further Reading


  • Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 13, Gale Research, 1993.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volumes 43, 68, 137, Gale, 1987-2000.
  • Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1996.
  • Jamaica Kincaid, by Diane Simmons, Twayne, 1994.
  • Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion, by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Greenwood Press, 1999.
  • Jamaica Kincaid: From Antigua to America, by Frank Birbalsingh, St. Martin's Press, 1996.
  • Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, by Moira Ferguson, University Press of Virginia, 1994.
  • Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Volume 1, The Gale Group, 2000.
  • Atlanta Journal, October 21, 1990.
  • Essence, May 1991.
  • Harper's Bazaar, October 1990.
  • Kenyon Review, Winter 1994.
  • Los Angeles Times, October 21, 1990.
  • MELUS: The Journal for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Fall 1996.
  • Ms., January 1984.
  • New York Times Book Review, January 15, 1984; October 28, 1990.
  • New York Times Magazine, October 7, 1990.
  • USA Today, November 8, 1990.
  • Village Voice, January 17, 1984.
  • Washington Post, November 2, 1991.

— Anne Janette Johnson

Columbia Encyclopedia:

Jamaica Kincaid

Kincaid, Jamaica, 1949-, West Indian-American writer, b. Antigua as Elaine Potter Richardson. She immigrated to the United States at 16 and later became a U.S. citizen. Changing her name (1973), she became a New Yorker staff writer in 1976, working there until 1996. Kincaid first became known for her lush tales of Caribbean life-in her first short-story collection, At the Bottom of the River (1983), and in Annie John (1985), a semiautobiographical series of related stories that explore the complexity of mother-daughter connections. Her later fiction continues the style and themes of these works. Dark and personal, they often feature clear-eyed yet lyrical portraits of everyday reality in the postcolonial West Indies. Her novels include Lucy (1990), The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), and Mr. Potter (2002). Kincaid has also written nonfiction, notably A Small Place (1988), a long and angry essay on Antigua, and My Brother (1997), an incantatory memoir of her brother's death from AIDS. An enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener, she is also the author of many essays on the subject and of My Garden (Book) (1999).


See studies by M. Ferguson (1994), D. Simmons (1994), H. Bloom, ed. (1998), L. Paravisini-Gebert (1999), L. Golmore (2000), and S. A. J. Alexander (2002).

(b. 1949)

1984At the Bottom of the River. These seven stories represent many of Kincaid's repeated concerns: mother-daughter tensions; the restraints put on a young, intelligent, attractive black woman; youthful disaffection with home and community; and a writer's quest to create a world that blends the actual and the imaginary. Critics praise Kincaid's lyrical prose and her powerful ability to endow ordinary events with magical resonance. Born on Antigua, Kincaid came to New York as a teenager. She began writing for The New Yorker in 1975.
1985Annie John. This story collection, named after its reappearing character, explores her efforts to escape a repressive culture and a domineering mother. Annie clearly has budding talent, which heightens the conflict with her mother but also spurs Annie to come to terms with her and develop an understanding of her womanhood. Critics praise Kincaid for brilliantly applying the conventions of the bildungsroman.
1995The Autobiography of My Mother. Kincaid's shocking semi-autobiographical novel is about the casual cruelties of early-twentieth-century Caribbean life, related in the first person by a bitterly angry woman. Reviewer Michiko Kakutani observes that this woman is more than an absent mother; she "represents... a connection to earlier generations of women and blacks who endured the indignities of colonial and post-colonial oppression."
1997My Brother. Kincaid deals with the death of her youngest brother and his record of drug addiction and violence. A promiscuous homosexual, he had dreamed of becoming a famous singer. Kincaid does not try to resolve the dilemmas and tensions of family life and her own quest for a career. Rather, she kindles in her prose what she calls her "combustion of feelings."


Jamaica Kincaid (born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson; May 25, 1949)[1] is a Caribbean novelist, gardener, and gardening writer. She was born in the city of St. John's on the island of Antigua in the nation of Antigua and Barbuda. She lives with her family in North Bennington, Vermont, during the summers and teaches at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California,[2] during the academic year.[3]


Writing career

Kincaid's short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, where her novel Lucy was originally serialized.[4] Her first book, At the Bottom of the River (1983), was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.[5] She has received the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Prix Femina Étranger, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award.[6]

Her novels are loosely autobiographical, though Kincaid has warned against interpreting their autobiographical elements too literally: "Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true. You couldn't admit any of it to a court of law. It would not be good evidence."[7] Her work often prioritizes "impressions and feelings over plot development"[8] and often features conflict with both a strong maternal figure and colonial and neocolonial influences.[9]


She has a son, Harold (music producer/songwriter Levelsoundz), and a daughter, Annie (singer/songwriter Annie Rosamond), with her ex-husband, the composer Allen Shawn (son of The New Yorker's longtime editor William Shawn and brother of actor Wallace Shawn).[3]


Kincaid is a convert to Judaism.[10]


  • "Girl" - short story/poem (June 26, 1978, appeared in The New Yorker then again in 1984 in At the Bottom of the River)
  • At the Bottom of the River (1983)
  • Annie John (1985)
  • A Small Place (1988)
  • Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip (1989)
  • Lucy (1990)
  • Biography of a Dress (1990)
  • "On Seeing England for the First Time," essay (1991, published in Transition Magazine)
  • The Autobiography of My Mother (1995)
  • My Brother (1997)
  • My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants they Love (editor; 1998)
  • My Garden (1999)
  • Talk Stories (2001)
  • My Garden (2001)
  • Mr.Potter (2002)
  • Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas (2005)
  • See Now Then (2013) [11]
  • Figures in the Distance
  • Life and Debt Film (2001)
  • "In History" (in The Colors of Nature)


  • President of the Levelsoundz fan club (the official fan club for her son Harold "Levelsoundz" Shawn)
  • Honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, Tufts University (2011). In 1997 Jamaica Kincaid won the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction and, also won the Autobiography of my mother, shortlist award.[12]


  1. ^ "Literature Matters Jamaica Kincaid". British Council. http://literature.britishcouncil.org. Retrieved 10 December 2012.
  2. ^ "Jamaica Kincaid", Academic Faculty Profile, Claremont McKenna College
  3. ^ a b "Jamaica Kincaid", Voices from the Gaps, University of Minnesota,
  4. ^ "Jamaica Kincaid", Literary Encyclopedia
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Cassidy, Thomas. "Jamaica Kincaid." Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Literary Resource Center. Web.
  7. ^ Kay Bonetti, "An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid", The Missouri Review.
  8. ^ Cassidy.
  9. ^ "Jamaica Kincaid." Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction. Literary Resource Center. Web.
  10. ^ Donna Halper. "Black Jews: A Minority Within a Minority". Ujc.org. http://www.ujc.org/page.aspx?id=26506. Retrieved 2010-08-03.
  11. ^ Lee, Felicia R. “Never Mind the Parallels, Don’t Read It as My Life.” The New York Times. Nytimes.com, 5 Feb. 2013: C1 Print.
  12. ^ "Literature Matters Jamaica Kincaid". British Council. http://literature.britishcouncil.org.

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Life + Debt (2001 History Film)
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