AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMAICA KINCAID
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson
in 1949 on the island of Antigua. At seventeen she was sent to
Westchester, New York, to work as an au pair to help support
her family. Later on she studied photography at the New School
and attended Franconia College in New Hampshire.
In 1973 she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid.
It was about the same time that her writing caught the attention
of William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker. Kincaid later
married the editor's son, Allen Shawn, and they now have two children.
Kincaid has published four books: At the Bottom
of the River, (a collection of short stories); Annie John.
(a novel); A Small Place (nonfiction), and Lucy
The following interview took place on February 13,
1991, in the lobby of the Wyndham Warwick Hotel in Houston, Texas.
Allan Vorda: Caribbean
writer Derek Walcott, while writing about your work, stated that,
"Genius has many surprises and one of them is geography."
In what ways has geography both helped or hindered you
as a writer?
Jamaica Kincaid: I
can't say it has hindered me at all, and if it has I don't
know of it. It seems to me that it has been more of a help since
I can find nothing negative to say about the fact that I come
from the place I'm from. I very much like coming from there. It
would be false for me to take pride in it because it's an accident
really. It just seems to be sort of happenstance that I was born
in this place and happenstance that I was born with black skin
and all the other things I was born with. All that aside, the fact
that I was born in this place, my geography has been, I think,
a good thing for me. I experience it as just fine. I am not particularly
glad of it and I'm not particularly sorry either. The reality
of my life is that I was born in this place. I find it only a
I can't say what it would have been like if I had
been born a white English woman. Actually, I think I can say.
It seems as if it would have been quite wonderful because
whenever I was growing up and looked at white English women they
seemed to have a life denied me. This isn't to say if I had been
born a white English woman, I wouldn't have been perfectly miserable.
They didn't seem perfectly miserable; they seemed rather privileged
and had all the things I couldn't have. I think I just made the
best of what I had. What I had was my mother, my father, my mother's
family, my father's family, all of that complication, my history,
which, as far as I know, began on boats. I'm part African, part
Carib Indian, and part, which is a very small part by now, Scot.
All of them came to Antigua by boats. This is how my history begins.
critic and black studies scholar Henry Louis "Skip"
Gates, Jr. has stated about your work that "she never feels
the necessity of claiming the existence of a black world or a
female sensibility. She assumes them both. I think it's a distinct
departure that she's making, and I think that more and more black
American writers will assume their world the way that she does.
So that we can get beyond the large theme of racism and get to
the deeper themes of how black people love and cry and live and
die. Which, after all, is what art is all about."
I agree with Gates' comment, but is this a conscious
attempt by you not to overtly claim you are a black and/or female
writer? Also, do you mind that you are still stereotyped
as a black female Caribbean writer?
I thought what Skip said was very revealing to me because I did
not know that I had been doing that. I come from a place where
most of the people are black. Every important person in my life
was a black person, or a person who was mostly black, or very
deeply related to what we call a black person. So I just assume
that is the norm and that it is the other people who would need
describing. I assume most of the people who are important to me,
and not last among them is my own self, are female. When I write
about these people it would never occur to me to describe their
race or their sex except as an aesthetic. I wouldn't say, "She
has two eyes." I assume everyone has two eyes and the only
reason I would mention the eyes is if it were a superficial decision.
It's not conscious at all that I leave out a people's race. Race
is important, but the thing I know deeply is that when you say
someone is white or black it is a shorthand way of describing
positions of power. In actual life "white" is powerful
and "black" is powerless. I never say people are white.
I never say people are black. I describe them. When you get to
know people, you don't describe someone as, "My wife that
white woman." Or that man we just met (Jamaica is referring
to a strange fellow who interrupted the taping of the interview
for half an hour to pontificate his unusual views of the world),
would you say, "He is a white man." No. What
you would say a that he's a very intrusive person and that he
was somewhat crazy, except we were sort of interested in his lunacy.
So you look at him and immediately identify him as someone who
is intrusive. Then from there you pick up on certain characteristics,
but the least thing about him is that he's white.
To answer the second part of your question about
being stereotyped, I think for the people who want to do it that
it must be a very convenient way, but it really belittles the
effort being made. When I sit at my typewriter, I'm not a
woman, I'm not from the Caribbean, I'm not black.
I'm just this sort of unhappy person struggling to make
something, struggling to be free. Yet the freedom isn't a political
one or a public one: it's a personal one. It's a struggle
I realize will go on until the day I die.
I'm living rather an ideal life. I think I want to
live a long life in which I attempt to be free. Perhaps we all
want that. It's a paradox because the freedom only comes when
you can no longer think, which is in death. You don't want to
die, but you want to be free and that's the outcome of the freedom.
Perhaps I should say this is only a very personal view. In the
meantime you struggle to make sense of the external from the things
that have made you what you are and the things that you have been
told are you: my history of colonialism, my history of slavery,
and imagining if that hadn't happened what I would have been.
Perhaps I would have been an unhappy woman in pre-European Africa.
Who knows what I would have become. That's what I struggle to
understand about myself.
It's not connected to the shell you see sitting
at the typewriter. It's connected to the inner thing. Whatever
I may say about being black, Caribbean, or female when
I'm sitting down at the typewriter, I am not that. So I think
it's sort of limited and stupid to call anyone by these names.
The truth is, would you say John Keats is a white man who was
a poet from nineteenth-century England? No, we just say he is
John Keats. You think of these people in terms of their lives
and so that's what I'm saying. When you think of me, think of
my life. My life is not a quota or an action to affirm an idea
of equality. My life is my life. If it helps people to get to
something I've written, I'm glad, but, on the whole, I wish these
terms would go away. Is my work any good? That is what I wish
was your childhood, which often serves as a basis for your stories,
filled with sadness and anger? Most readers would expect to find
growing up on a Caribbean island to be happy and carefree.
can say to most readers, try living on a Caribbean paradise and
see if they find it happy and carefree. The thing I've learned
is that all of life in every stage is hard to live. How much more
interesting it would have been for the world, not to mention less
painful, if the Europeans in the fifteenth century had decided
that the trouble with the part of the world they were in should
be worked out within their borders. Life is hard whether you live
on a Caribbean island or somewhere else. No one living in these
places you might think of as a paradise thinks it is paradise.
They all want to leave. Even if someone could live the life of
a tourist, no tourist goes to these places and wants to spend
the rest of his or her life there. It was hard to grow up in a
place like that in particular because it doesn't have the comforts
you think a place like that has. A person living in a place like
that finds the sun hard to take. They find the nice days after
a while hard to take After a while it becomes a prison.
Life is just extremely hard. I don't know of one person who lived
in be West Indies as a child who thinks, "Oh, I always wish
to remain a child in this wonderful atmosphere."
is a reference in the magazine W that you dearly loved
the St. John's library in Antigua which closed in 1974 because
of an earthquake: You stated, "Antigua used to be a place
of standards. There was a sort of decency that it just doesn't
have anymore. I think the tragedy of Antigua for me, when I began
to see it again, was the loss of the library." Would you
comment on the microcosm of this incident and does it apply to
other countries as well?
hate to speak for other countries that have been and are in the
situation Antigua is in, which is a former colony that is now
independent. The sad fact is that they are all in the same boat.
It's very hard to admit this, but they were all better off under
colonial rule than they are now. This isn't to say that I want
colonial rule back. I'm very glad to get rid of it. I'm only sad
to observe that the main lesson we seem to have learned
from colonial rule is all the corruption of it and none of the
good things of it. We seem to have learned none the good things
about Europe. I don't say Western Civilization because I think
this is the new term that implies white people of the world. So
I'm not going to say that. What I'm going to say is that we learned
none of the good things from Europeans, such as their love of
education or their documenting the historical pass-even if they
lie about it, which they often do. Another great thing about the
Europeans was their understanding of a community, even if they
violate it sometimes-no, they violated it all the time! They understood
the idea of a community even as they limited it only to people
who looked exactly like them. So that the French are excluded
from the English idea of community and the Welsh are excluded
and Scots are excluded and so on and so forth. Yet there are some
great things Europeans had when they were among us, when they
were ruling us, and one of them was education. The library in
Antigua was a colonial institution and had Antigua still been
a colony when we had that earthquake, then the library would have
been rebuilt and perhaps made better. So things like that are
sad to admit, but we learned only the bad aspects. We have kept
and refined all the bad aspect of the colonial power.
In Zimbabwe they have on their books laws that were
put in place by the whites to oppress the blacks. The blacks,
when they got power, kept those laws on the books and now use
them against each other. In all of these places they practice
oppressive political ideas. There is always a ruling power
that behaves like the colonial power. They treat the citizens
in the worst colonial way, but the only difference is that the
countries are independent. We have no one to rebel against. There
isn't any dividing line. It's like people in your own family doing
these terrible things. They look like you. They're not white.
They're not from far away. Yet they are behaving in the same way
the colonial powers did.
So I come from one kind of corruption, the moral
corruption of Europe, and now I find myself in a new kind of corruption.
My background is that I am a product of corruption.
There is a litany of items in "Girl" from a mother
to her daughter about what to do and what not to do regarding
the elements of being "a nice young lady." Is this the
way it was for you and other girl in Antigua?
a word, yes.
that good or bad?
I don't think it's the way I would tell my daughter, but as
a mother I would tell her what I think would be best for her to
be like. This mother in "Girl" was really just
giving the girl an idea about the things she would need to be
a self-possessed woman in the world.
you didn't take your mother's advice?
because I had other ideas on how to be a self-possessed woman
in the world. I didn't know that at the time. I only remember
these things. What the mother in the story sees as aids to living
in the world, the girl might see as extraordinary oppression,
which is one of the things I came to see.
like she's Mother England.
was just going to say that. I've come to see that I've worked
through the relationship of the mother and the girl to a relationship
between Europe and the place that I'm from, which is to say, a
relationship between the powerful and the powerless. The girl
is powerless and the mother is powerful. The mother shows her
how to be in the world, but at the back of her mind she thinks
she never will get it. She's deeply skeptical that this child
could ever grow up to be a self-possessed woman and in the end
she reveals her skepticism; yet even within the skepticism is,
of course, dismissal and scorn. So it's not unlike the relationship
between the conquered and the conqueror.
is the connection in the story "In the Night" between
the jablesse and her night-soil father with the woman she wants
to marry? Is the woman a jablesse?
That story is really a portrait of night in Antigua. I don't remember
it as being a story about a particular person. It's a portrait
of a character within twenty-four hours.
does the narrator skip from one sex to another in such stories
as "In the Night," ("Now I am a girl, but one day
I will marry a woman."), "At Last" ("Sometimes
I appeared as a man"), and "Wingless" ("I
myself have humped girls under my mother's house.")?
a way I can't answer that because I wouldn't want to explain it
very much. I think when I was writing those stories I really wanted
to disregard certain boundaries, certain conventions. These more
stories written in my youth. (I think of the time before I had
children as my youth.) These are stories in which I had endless
amounts of time to consider all sorts of things and endless amounts
of silence and space and distance. I could play with forms and
identities and do things then that I can't do now, because I don't
have the time to plumb that kind of depth. They were attempts
to discard conventions-my own conventions, and conventions that
exist within writing. I still try to forget everything
that I've read and just written. That was what that was about
and it really doesn't bear close interpretation from me. The reader
would have to do that.
prose style often depicts ordinary events. Are you trying to show
that the most ordinary events can become extraordinary?
yes! I think there is no such thing as an ordinary event. I believe
everything is of the deepest significance. If you could isolate
an event, it would lead to profound things. For example, if you
would trace the ancestry of everybody who has crossed this room,
you wouldn't be able to do anything else.
are a number of scenes in your stories that incorporate a type
of magic realism. Are these phantasmagoric scenes derived from
other writers of magic realism, such as Borges or Marquez and
even possibly Lewis Carroll?
it went back to anyone it would be Lewis Carroll. Borges is the
kind of writer when I read I'm just absolutely in heaven. I wouldn't
say the same thing is true of Marquez. I like reading Marquez,
but I don't feel it's the most wonderful thing, like when I read
Borges. The truth is I come from a place that's very unreal.
It's the reason for its political malaise, because it will not
just look at the thing in front of it and act on it. The place
I come from goes off in fantasy all the time so that every event
is continually a spectacle and something you mull over, but not
with any intention of changing it. It is just an entertainment.
It's just some terrific thing you told yourself that happened
today. I wouldn't say that I was influenced by these other writers
you mentioned, because for me, it's only an accident. It's really
the place I grew up in. I'm not really a very imaginative writer,
but the reality of my background is fantastic.
were born in 1949 as Elaine Potter Richardson, but in 1973 you
adopted the pseudonym Jamaica Kincaid. Was the name given you
by George Trow? How was it chosen? You said that changing your
name was a way of disguising yourself so that you wouldn't have
to be "the same person who had all these weights."
By the time I met George Trow, I had already changed my name.
I wasn't that young. It's really more of the second question.
I wanted to write. No one I knew had ever written. I thought serious
writing was something people no longer did. By the time I discovered
it was still being done, I didn't know how I could do it
as the person who left home I thought, and I think I would have
been correct, I would have been judged pretentious. I would have
been judged as someone stepping out of the things that had been
established for her. I would have been laughed at. I didn't want
anyone who knew me to know I was writing. I thought quite
possibly my writing would be bad. The choosing of the name is
something that is so private-because it also involves a lot of
foolishness-that I can't even begin to tell you. It would involve
remembering worlds of things that I remember quite well, but I'm
no longer sure how to interpret what I was doing. I remember what
I was doing, but I don't quite understand why I
was doing it. So I'd rather not quite figure that out.
you don't want to answer the question directly, that's fine, but
why Jamaica instead of Antigua?
You see, you're trying to give it a logic that it did not
have at the time. I was playing around with identities. When you're
young you don't know how old you'll get to be and you feel
every moment is the moment. In my case, there were
many possibilities and that is the one I settled on. I had no
idea anyone would one day be asking me how it all came
to be or I would have made better sense of it at the time. I wanted
to write and I didn't know how. I thought if I changed my name
and I wrote and it was very bad, then no one would know. I fully
expected it to be bad, by the way, and to never be published,
or heard from again. So I thought they'd never get to laugh at
it because they wouldn't know it was me. So I changed my name.
It was done one of those nights when you're sitting up late with
friends who were trying out identities. If you saw photographs
of me then, you would see how easy it was to do that. It was around
this time I had started to write. When I started to get published,
no one ever called me Elaine. I'd always been unhappy with my
name. You can almost say I became a writer just so I could
change my name.
the name Elaine always seemed stupid. (I hope there are not many
Elaines out there.) At the time I changed it, I didn't know there
were African names, although I don't think I could have done that
because by this time I have as much connection to Africa as you
do. The connection I have to Africa is the color of my skin and
that doesn't seem enough to have changed it to an African name.
My new name unconsciously had the significance I wanted it to
have since that is the area of the world I'm from. Jamaica is
an English corruption of what Columbus called Xaymaca. Kincaid
just seemed to go together with Jamaica, but there were many combinations
of names that could have been chosen one night when my friends
and I were sitting around.
also said that changing your name was a way of disguising yourself
so that you wouldn't have to be "the same person who
had all these weights."
could never lose the Elaine Potter Richardson identity, but I
wanted to say things about the people in Antigua. This was a way
to talk about things without people knowing it was me. I wanted
to be able to be free of certain things. I wanted to speak truthfully
about what I knew about myself without being myself. I suppose
I had no idea it would have significance for anyone else.
left Antigua in 1966 when you were seventeen and moved to Westchester,
New York. Why did you move and was the decision yours alone?
I left because of economic reasons. We thought I'd be able to
help my family by going away to work and perhaps get an education.
I come from a very poor family who worked very hard. At the time
my father was getting older and couldn't work as much as
he used to. Actually, my education was cut short because I was
supposed to go and help my family. I didn't go on to study at
university. I got to a certain level at school and was taken out
so that I could come to America to work and help my family.
you didn't want to go to New York?
I would have preferred to stay in school and gone on to university.
I was so depressed about what was happening to me. I wasn't going
to be a university educated woman. Those type of women come back
to Antigua and become school teachers and they are very impressive,
very important people to the community. I wasn't going to be like
that. Instead, I was just going to be this supporter of my family
and I was so miserable. Everyone said I was really very bright.
So I didn't want to go and I was very depressed, but it wasn't
really my decision.
My decision would have been to be one of these very
respected women who come back from the university and just sort
of push everyone around. They are very well thought of. I wanted
to be one of those. There is a certain kind of West Indian woman
who's got great authority. All of them go to the University of
the West Indies in Jamaica and become teachers or librarians.
These are wonderful people who could run the world in a snap.
lucky you didn't become a librarian, because you wouldn't have
a job in Antigua.
You're right, I wouldn't have a job. I probably would have
gone to Canada. That's another thing that happens. All of these
educated people in the West Indies can't find work there, so they
go to Canada and the United States. In Trinidad every Saturday
there are people from American hospitals recruiting nurses. So
Trinidad and places like that are robbed of their best nurses
because the nurses get paid better here. In my case, I
ended up going to Westchester because that was where I was going
to be a nursemaid and go to school.
John appears to be an autobiographical novel. You have said
that "lying is the beginning of fiction." Do you think
fiction works best when reality is mixed with fiction?
Well, I certainly can't make a fast rule about it and say
that about everything. It seems to be that those things are true
for me so far and I don't know what I'll do in the future.
How I've written, so far, is to exploit my personal experiences.
I have no idea of writing as an objective exercise. I only write
about myself and about the people connected to me or the people
I'm connected to.
For instance, I could not write a marvelous novel
about someone living in Houston, Texas. I would not know how.
I can only write about the things I know. I happen to be that
sort of writer. The process of fiction is the most successful
way to do what I do.
The part about "lying is the beginning of fiction"
was true when I was a little girl. I used to be accused of having
a strong imagination and that was why I was a liar. I lied all
the time. It was a way, I thought, of protecting my privacy They
tried to beat the truth out of me, sometimes literally, by giving
me a spanking-no, a beating! (There is great cruelty to children
in the West Indies.) I was always mistrusted. The other thing
I was accused of was that I had a good memory. I never forgot
anything that happened. I would hear people telling something
that happened and they would leave out, in my opinion, the
crucial parts. Every part was crucial. If someone left something
out, then I would tell what happened and they'd look at me in
amazement. So my memory was considered an act of treachery and
I was asked not to have such a good memory. Essentially, I would
be told that I should just forget certain things that happened.
It was considered one of my greatest faults, but I'd remember
everything and then I would invent things. For instance, if something
happened, such as a little smoke coming out of a building and
the fire truck came, then I would say, "Oh, it was the biggest
fire you ever saw and hundreds of fire trucks had to come."
I was incapable of just describing something as it really happened.
I would remember that it had happened and I might exaggerate the
details, but other people would forget it happened. So that is
essentially what my fiction is. It really happened, but the details
appears to be paradise on the outside, but there is evil which
you metaphorically depict with the basket of green figs on the
head of Annie's mother which has a snake hidden within. Do you
view this evil from a Biblical or Conradian perspective or something
would be Biblical, although these things are very unconscious
or subconscious. I did not know how much until very recently,
when I began to read my writing out loud and eventually collected
the images of my writing. I began to realize how influenced my
writing and my use of images are based on my own understanding
of the world as good and evil, as influenced by two books in the
Bible, Genesis and Revelation. If that's all any writer has been
influenced by, it would be enough. My understanding of the world
is influenced very much by those two books, which were my favorite
books to read in the Bible. I used to read the Bible as a child
just for fun. I really loved reading it, especially Revelation,
which I could not get enough of. I used to make myself afraid
just by reading it. I took it literally. It was very real to me.
So I'm very influenced by the first book of the Old Testament
and the last book of the New Testament. Everything in between
is just sort of picturesque, but the beginning and the ending
are the real thing. I did not know how much of an influence those
Biblical images had on my writing and understanding of the world
until very recently.
It also turns out that there are recurring images
of Lucifer, whom I apparently identify with, from Paradise
Lost which I did not know, I did not know. I did not know
how much I was rooting for the devil.
you also apply Lucifer's comment from Paradise Lost that
it's "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n"
to Antigua's colonial situation?
It is better to reign and to have self-possession in Hell than
to be a servent in Heaven. You know how people would say, "Better
red than dead," I'm someone who would never say that. I always
say, "It's better to be dead than to live like this. It's
better to risk dying than to live as a slave." Always I say
Annie John's love for Gwen supposed to be a substitution for her
mother's lost love? Or are these tendencies simply homosexual
they weren't meant to be. I think I am always surprised that people
interpreted it so literally. The relationship between Gwen and
Annie is really a practicing relationship. It's about how things
work. It's like learning to walk. Always there is the sense thatthey would go on to lead heterosexual lives. Whatever happened
between them, homosexuality would not be a serious thing because
it is just practicing. The stories in At the Bottom of the
River about the relationships between women are not meant,
at least in my mind, to be homosexual. They were meant not to
observe the convention of men and women because I was trying to
do away with certain conventions. I don't know if it comes up
any place else, but Americans rather like to have things very
much defined or to have things very much to be what they say they
are. The question of sexuality in these stories is not meant to
be dwelt on because that is not the main thrust-so to speak-of
is a scene in Annie John where the narrator looks at a
window and sees her reflection yet doesn't recognize herself because
she "had got so strange." Do you see yourself, both
as a person and as a writer, still changing or have the changes
become less noticeable with age?
nature I'm the sort of person who is never the same. Sometimes
it's disturbing to me because I find myself in a moment I like
very much and wish I could stay that way, but I don't. I change
very much. I'm still changing, but I don't always like it because
it is not always convenient.
John's request to make a new trunk indicates she wants to start
her own life, while the recovery from her illness as the long
rain stops indicates she has grown from adolescence to womanhood.
Is this metaphorically and symbolically correct?
think it is, but again at the time I was writing it, I wasn't
conscious of these things as you point them out to me. If I were
an objective reader, I'd be able to see it. I was writing these
stories and I was far less conscious of things than I am
now. The sickness in the long rain actually happened when I was
seven years old with whooping cough, and I would get delirious.
It's actually to that moment that I trace my fear of rodents.
I was lying in my bed when I looked up and around edges of the
ceiling that had this boarded mantle I thought I saw hundreds
of rats running in a circle. I thought there were hundreds of
them, but I think there was only one. I was powerless to do anything.
I put that incident into the teenage life of the girl and made
it a period of transition. I exaggerated the details.
A Small Place you criticize tourists who go to Antigua
to "escape the reality of their lives," which implies
tourists are an unthinking lot of mediocrity, and that tourists
and their ancestors have profited from using Antigua. Isn't this
a generalization that is unfair and discriminatory?
at all. If you think it's unfair and discriminatory, try it the
other way around. Imagine that your existence depended on people
who are very different looking than you and whose differences
seem to give them privileges that you can not even imagine. Just
imagine the situation in reverse. For example, in Vienna they
depend mostly on tourism. You and the Viennese look alike so that
alienation just isn't there, but even if you're a tourist among
people who look like you, they resent it. I can tell you there
are differences in going Vienna and going to Antigua. If you don't
go to Vienna for fun, you can also go to experience all of the
cultural benefits and gain a deeper understanding of the western
world. If you go to a place like Antigua, it's to have a rubbish-like
experience. You want to forget who you are for the moment. You're
not interested in these people. You're not interested in their
culture except in some sort of anthropological way that offers
you psychic relief. They have nothing of value you want to bring
home. It's an escape, a moment to forget who you really are. If
you think there isn't anything wrong with it, then try living
it, and you'll see how quickly you want to shoot every tourist
you ever met. It's deeply wrong.
Antigua you grew up in no longer exists, but it is the one you
love. Yet you wrote a scathing diatribe against the English for
trying to make Antigua English. Now the English are gone and you
hate Antigua even more. Why?
question isn't whether the current system doesn't work so let's
bring back the old system. The English were wrong when they were
there and it is wrong today. I think, dare I pat myself on the
back, that it's very good that I'm able to admit that we've made
a mess of things. I don't wish the British to come back.
I wish the British to say in Britain. I wish everyone would stay
where they come from because when we go to other places, you eventually
exploit. Antigua is in terrible shape and it should be changed
into something better. It's not a question of degrees of morality,
but simply just morality. Just because Antiguans behave like fools
doesn't mean that we should have other people-the British-who
are also fools ruling over us.
make the analogy that Antiguans who graduate from the Hotel Training
School become nothing better than contemporary slaves who wait
on tourists. Isn't this extending the metaphor a bit too far?
After all aren't they free to choose to work for a hotel as
well as the right to earn income?
used to have a Teacher's Training College of which we were all
proud, but it seems it was a peculiar choice to change a teacher's
college to a school for graduating hotel employees. First of all,
have you ever heard of anything more ridiculous? I don't believe
the Italians or the French go to training schools to be waiters.
If you have to go to a training school, then there must be something
desperately wrong. We're not talking about a scientist or a brain
surgeon. We are talking about putting a pineapple on a table.
If you need to go to school to learn how to do this, then what
are we really talking about?
I can't see there is a sense of freedom because that
seems to be the wrong word. It implies you are free to be a hotel
waiter or to starve. I know how to set a table. I did that in
Brownie Scout meetings. These are things everyone knows how to
do. If you don't know how to bend and kiss behinds, do you mean
you are going to school for that?
I don't mean to take lightly the institution of slavery,
but it seems to me the mentality of these small islands is very
much related to slavery. These island rulers are pretentious since
they pretend their little islands are nations. Back home they
talk about the nation of Antigua, but it's only a stupid little
island. If they'd only do something ordinary and logical, such
as educating their citizens, that would be fine, but you don't
want them to pretend to be something they are not. The fact is,
they don't even do the things that a small village in the U.S.
would try to do.
live in America, you are married to an American, and you are published
by an American publisher; yet you continue to use British spellings
(e.g., colour). Why?
lived in America longer than I've lived in Antigua. I lived in
Antigua sixteen years and I'm now forty-two. From the time I was
seventeen to now, it has been twenty-five years I've lived in
America. When I talk about going home, my husband says, "What
home are you talking about?" I think of Antigua as my home.
I'm not an American citizen. I have no intention of becoming an
American citizen. I don't become an American because I don't think
America needs another writer. Antigua needs a writer more than
it needs an American citizen. My children are American and they
can say the Pledge of Allegiance just like my husband can, but
they don't have to say it bemuse they're Americans. No American
has to say it
has been the response in Antigua regarding your book A Small
Place? I can't imagine you're looked upon very favorably by
the government and perhaps wouldn't want you to return.
think about that all the time. I imagine that I'd be shot. I haven't
been back since the book was published. I wanted to go this year,
but I didn't want to be separated from my children. I booked a
flight the day the war in Iraq started, yet I didn't know how
it would turn out and I decided not to go. Now I don't
have the time. God knows if they would shoot me, but it's a criminal
place. I wouldn't be surprised if they had henchmen who would
do it because politics in the West Indies is very tribal. People
take their colors very seriously. They divide themselves into
people who wear red and people who wear blue. My mother is a blue.
I'm nothing. When I was growing up we were reds. Then my mother
joined the party that had broken away from the reds, and
they are blue. She takes it so seriously. For example, I bought
her a red T-shirt and she said, "No, I could never wear that."
Even though she was visiting me in the United States, she brought
her loyalties with her. This makes you think there isn't any hope
for people in Antigua who think like this.
appears to be a character similar to Annie John except
she is a few years older. Did you consider keeping the name Annie
John for this character?
don't consider it a continuation because I would never write a
continuation. It's a continuation only in the sense that it's
about my life and it's the same life I'm writing about, but they
weren't meant to be the same person at all. In any case, a key
to Lucy is the name Lucifer so she couldn't be called Annie
at all. It's a very shallow, though understandable connection
to make, because the reader isn't me, in my mind observing what
I'm doing. I'm not interested in making the thing whole. I'm interested
in parts of things. When Annie left her mother that was it. We're
not going to hear from Annie again. We're not going to hear from
Lucy again. You might very well hear about a woman's life in the
metropolitan area of the world, whether it's London, New York,
Toronto or wherever.
You might very well hear about how this life turned
out, but to say it's a continuation of Lucy would be a mistake.
Very, very crucial to understanding Lucy is her name. I think
most people in America have such a different background than I
do that people in America, especially in universities, are so
obsessed with race that they miss the crucial things about Lucy.
The great influences on that young woman's life are Genesis and
Revelation and, strangely enough, Jane Eyre. I think all
sorts of things escape American readers.
I suppose my writing is as mysterious to an American
reader as someone like Zora Neal Hurston is to me. She's a woman
who wrote in the twenties, part of the Harlem Renaissance, who
had a very brilliant career and then died a maid in poverty. It's
one of those stories which either you think is an American story
or you think it is a racial story. Lucy is a very moralistic person
and she's very judgmental. Her view of the world is very much
shaped by a nineteenth-century view, filtered through the mist
of colony and mother country.
Lucy tells her dream to Lewis and Mariah, it is an uncomfortable
scene because the couple looks at the dream from a Freudian and
sexual viewpoint, whereas Lucy views the dream as having accepted
them into her life. Did you have a scene like this happen to you
in real life?
that I will not say. The scene really explains itself because
the people had become real to her. If you show up in someone's
dream; it means they are finally real to you. It's a cultural
gap. I tried to show what Lucy did not understand. She can only
report. Of course, I understand at that point, Lucy cannot interpret.
Lucy doesn't know who Dr. Freud is and it's said with a certain
simplicity. I think it's the sort of thing I wouldn't have been
able to write five years ago. I wouldn't have been able to separate
the knowledge I have of Freud from the knowledge I did not have.
is the contrast of the island girl Sylvie who has the teeth-bite
mark on her cheek and Mariah who "looked blessed, no blemish
or mark of any kind on her cheek or anywhere else." Lucy
does not identify with pleasant smelling Mariah, but prefers to
have a powerful odor. Why is Lucy, as well as Annie John, so iconoclastic?
She seems to rebel against most things that are good, yet she
seems to have no reason to act this way.
think it's that "better reign in Hell, serve in Heaven"
problem again. A person like Sylvie seems more self-possessed
to Lucy. Even in her embryonic consciousness-raising, she knows
that it's better to feel self-possessed, that it's better to be
Sylvie rather than Mariah, spiritually speaking. There's something
sad about Mariah and ultimately defeated. She's the victim among
the conquerors whereas Sylvie is the victor among the defeated.
Later on, Lucy develops sympathy and grows to love
Mariah. Lucy is the sort of person who, no matter what happens
to her, would never identify with the victors. Lucy is naive,
but she is not stupid.
Mariah is a lovely person. She didn't think the world
would turn on her. What undoes Mariah is trusting in human nature,
but this is not possible for Lucy who trusts and mistrusts at
once. It's not me sort of thing Mariah would understand because
she thinks love is all. Lucy thinks love is fine, but she doesn't
look upon love as an absolute reality.
shows Lucy the daffodils in the garden, but Lucy wants to kill
the flowers. Why do your characters have such negative thoughts
and such conflicting feeling?
me answer that in a roundabout sort of way. My husband and I went
to Paris last September on a boat. We sailed on the QE
II and after we arrived at South Hampton, we spent a couple of
days in London. Every time I go to England I almost have a nervous
breakdown. I have such conflicting feelings of England. I love
it and I hate it. It's not possible for me to be a tourist. I
realize I'm a visitor, but when I go to England what happens is
that I also confront my past.
identifies with the French painter Gauguin, who found his homeland
to be a prison and want something different. Essentially, Lucy
and Gauguin are much alike even though Gauguin escaped to the
islands while Lucy left the islands. Do you feel much in common
with Gauguin, whose painting "Poems Barbares" was used
for the cover of Lucy?
hesitate to say I identify with this man. I must say as I was
writing parts of Lucy I was reading one of his journals
called The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin. I found it
a great comfort. He was very selfish and very determined, yet
there are two things that struck me in that book.
His amount of his friendship with van Gogh is the
most hilarious yet cruel thing I've ever read. I never have laughed
so much. He describes van Gogh cutting off his ear and you are
just aghast because it's all very astonishing.
The second thing was when he asked Strindberg to
write an introduction to one of Ids shows. Strindberg wrote back
a very long letter saying he could not do it because he disliked
Gauguin's work. So Gauguin used the letter as the introduction
even though the letter stated what was bad about his paintings.
Gauguin wasn't afraid to use someone's negative view of his work.
He wore it as a badge. I rather admire that.
So I think the criticism I most value comes from
people who do not like my writing. There's almost nothing to make
you feel more superior, as the people who don't like you.
narrators or main characters of your fiction seem to have a cursory
or dispassionate regard for sex. What was your viewpoint of sex
as a young woman mid how has it changed as you've grown older?
heavens, I don't think I could answer the first part of the question,
although I must say Lucy rather enjoys it. What Lucy doesn't want
is to be possessed again. She has just escaped a certain possession
fron for mother and she doesn't want to be possessed again. I
think at the end of the book she wishes she could be possessed
and loved but she can't at this point in her life.
I suppose what she is saying is she wishes time would pass
quickly to allow herself to be consumed.
writing style in Lucy is somewhat unusual in that you often
start a passage, but before it has fully developed you digress
to a previous experience. For example, there is the party at Paul's
where Peggy disapproves of Paul, but then you digress to the story
of Myrna and Mr. Thomas on the island.
not anything deliberate, but last night after my reading someone
said they really admired the way I had done that scene. It sort
of leads you to explain how something was written, but I've come
to understand them is no such thing in writing as a technique.
Quite often you invent what you're doing while you're doing it,
and it would be quite wrong to apply your style to all writing.
I was not aware of any special thing when I did that. I did that
in Lucy and that was it, but I have no intention of using
it again. If it were to turn up again, it would be because I felt
that was what was needed.
each book your characters have gained both insight and maturity
with age, culminating with the ability to possibly love. Will
your next book of fiction continue to develop along these lines
or do you plan to take off in a different direction?
really cannot say. For me, writing is a revelation. If I knew
what it would be, then it would be of no interest for me to do
it. When I sit down to write I will reveal to myself what I already
know. I already know all of this. I know how it works, but I haven't
quite said it yet. The minute that I'm conscious of it then it's
of no interest. When I sit down to write it, it will become conscious
to me. I will know it and then I will move on. So I don't know
what will happen. I don't know how it will work.
are your thoughts about interviews? Do interviews help you to
better understand yourself and your writing?
forget interviews once they are done. The two or three times I've
been interviewed, I have read what I've said when I edit it, but
I'm shocked that I've said these things. I find that some of my
responses sound very intelligent or they may sound very stupid.
I can't believe it's me. So I just simply forget it. I never listen
to myself on the radio. I've been on television once, but I would
never watch myself!
Doing this interview is like having a conversation,
but later I will just forget it. It's of no help and it's of no
the past twenty years, your life has changed dramatically. Do
you have a different perspective of the world now than you had
back then when you were an au pair?
and it's not good. No, it's worse than I thought. The world is
not a better place than when I was a servant. It's true if I had
gone to England I would have remained a servant and it was only
by sheer chance that I came to America. I'm really glad I did
come to America, which is a place that has allowed me to denounce
it. I think it's to America's credit that it can spawn someone
like me. I like living in America because it gives me the language
and the idea to rearrange the world in what I'd think would be
a just equation. I think by now I'm supposed to be a Republican.
I'm supposed to be someone who says, "Yes, the system works."
But actually I'm someone who says, "I'm not sure that it
works." I suppose if my perspective has changed it would
be that I'm now a politically conscious person. To America's credit
I've become, at least verbally, a politically conscious person.
I suspect that if I wasn't writing, being the person I am who
has become politically conscious, then I would be throwing bombs.
If I didn't have the pen, I would certainly be someone who would
take up the sword.
Reprinted by permission of the author.