Zibby Owens: I am just beyond excited to be talking to the legendary writer, novelist, and professor Jamaica Kincaid today. Jamaica is most recently the author of children’s book Party, illustrated by Ricardo Cortés. Originally from Antigua, Jamaica, who was born named Elaine Potter Richardson, came to the United States to work as an au pair at age sixteen. She was a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine for twenty-plus years. Her books include novels Annie John, Lucy, At the Bottom of the River, The Autobiography of My Mother, Mr. Potter, A Small Place, My Brother, My Garden, Among Flowers, and See Now Then. Some of those were not novels, by the way. Jamaica teaches in the English, African, and African American Studies Departments at Harvard University. She has received the Guggenheim Award, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Clifton Fadiman Medal, and the Dan David Prize for literature. She currently lives in Vermont.
Jamaica Kincaid: Hello.
Zibby: Hi. Thank you so much for coming on my podcast and spending the time talking to me. I'm so honored that you're doing this.
Jamaica: Thank you. I'm honored too. I've never -- oh, I've done my son’s podcast. Anyway, I mustn’t waste time on my podcast history. Go ahead.
Zibby: [laughs] I have so many questions for you. The first thing I want to talk about is your latest book, Party, with Ricardo Cortés. I just interviewed him too. He was lovely and told me all about everything, about how it became a book. I want to hear it from your perspective. How did you do your first children’s book, Party?
Jamaica: It’s because of him. I never thought of doing a children’s book. I don't think there's such a thing as a children’s book. I read all kinds of books. I don't know what a children’s book means, really. Do you have to talk a different way to children? I never thought of myself as doing a children’s book. When I was child, I could have read the books and would have loved to read the books I have written. I don't consider I've written children’s books. Sometimes I read the books I read as a child which were in the children’s library. Some of the books I read were not in the children’s library. They were books found from my mother or something. In any case, I never thought of writing a children’s book.
Ricardo apparently had read some of the stories I read for Talk of the Town, Talk Stories. He liked that one and thought it would be a good children’s book. I was quite mystified by it at first. I think of those stories I wrote in Talk of the Town as little sketches of how I would come to write. If you ever read the Talk Stories, they're very weird. They're not like talk stories at all, the traditional talk story which is piece of reporting. I would combine reporting with stylistic things, especially in terms of The New Yorker. One said to me that their only worth reporter than me was George WS Trow. [laughter] He did, I think, mean it as a compliment. He loved George. He loved me.
That story, I had gone to fiftieth anniversary party of the publication of the Nancy Drew books. I had loved them as a child. They were in the children’s library, though I liked even more, theories about Cherry Ames who was a nurse. TheNancy Drew stories, I remember them. I'd gone to [muffled audio] this party. At the time, they were suffering in sales. This was in the early eighties or seventies. I can't remember. It’s so long ago. They gave this big party in an old house that was supposed to be a replica of something that Nancy and her friends would be trapped in after they'd gone to investigate some trivial something that seemed to be murder. [laughs] It made murder seem like a swimming party. He said he couldn't make it. He would love to illustrate it. I didn't do any writing. He may have edited it. I didn't pay much close attention to what he would do with the text so much, as I loved his illustrations. I would buy the book just to look at the illustrations.
Zibby: They are beautiful. They're really, really beautiful, really evocative of such a time and place. They're beautiful of the library. They're really great. I must say, I had to read it a couple times. I'm like, did I miss what the mystery of this was? You were the one who was at this event. Can you give us an inside scoop? What were they actually pointing to? What did they see?
Jamaica: How I wrote the story, if you read the story, is that I was making fun of -- how to say this? It was my interpretation. I was making fun of the whole, what we now call -- I didn't have this word for it at the time -- what we now call white privilege, the idea of, first of all, of these well-off girls who had lived comfortably some place in New Jersey. They were white. They had nothing in their lives, really. They would look for something wrong. There was something never really wrong. The wrong was an invention, some pluralist person with horses or something. The party really was about nothing, just trying to drum up sales for this really, kind of, sexist, racist story. I was making fun of what we now call white privilege.
Ricardo could see another interpretation, that they would discover something which they would keep a secret. He thought he would leave it up the imagination of the child. What did they see? Should they go back and look for clues in the drawings? How I read it from his point of view, the clues -- this is only because of my own obsession -- the clues would be in all the flowers scattered around. What they see is some mysterious garden. I left it up to him. If I were to rewrite it, I suppose I would have put in -- the mysterious thing they saw would be Montezuma’s garden or something like that or Paradise or something, which would be garden related. That would be my interpretation. It’s up the reader to say, “What do you think they saw?” Go back through the pictures. What do you think they saw? I've seen in which the people who are at the party were made into angels because they're not very nice people, if you look at them and the institution. I really left it up to him.
In my story, I was making fun of the nothingness that was in the books. It’s supposed to be the stories that later become interpreted as some empowering of females or something like that. Empowering of white females, white women always want to do what white men do. I think that, for them, is the allure of equality. If men can kill six million people, why can't we do it too? That was my interpretation originally of the nothingness in this house. Again, that's what I really get from reading the story. Ricardo wisely thought it should stir up your imagination. What do you think they saw given all the things, where they're from, how they're dressed, their background? They walk up into this grand affair. What do you think they are looking for? He was very wise to do it.
Zibby: I agree. It’s a great book for any type of audience. I loved the pictures. I loved the mystery of it, especially because it’s about a mystery book. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing it in this form. It’s kind of a departure from you. Although as you said, it doesn't matter who reads it. You're just writing for writing. I remember reading Annie John years and years ago. I recently finished reading your memoir about your brother, which you called My Brother, and how you took care of him and went back to Antigua to deal with him when he had the AIDS virus.
You wrote in such a thoughtful, really interesting way about your relationship with your mother in that book, which I was hoping to talk to you a little bit about. I'm going read a little quote. You said, “My mother loves children, I want to say, in her way. And that is very true. She loves us in her way. It never has occurred to her that her way of loving us might not be the best thing for us. It has never occurred to her that her way of loving us might have served her better than it served us. And why should it not? Perhaps all love is self-serving. I do not know. I do not know.” I wanted you to talk a little more about that passage and how you were feeling then and maybe how you feel about your relationship now.
Jamaica: First of all, my mother is dead. I think about her every day, strangely. We didn't have to bring her up for me to have thought of her. My whole life seems to be saturated with her. My relationship to her actually grows more warmly and positive the longer she stays dead. It’s not impossible for her to come back, you know. She's that kind of person, not impossible for her to not stay dead. [laughter] My relationship with her, as she's dead, grows better. I say more nice things about her or I remember her. I haven't forgotten the cruel and harsh things that she visited on us, her children. There was also lots of good things. For instance, I was just telling someone how I learned to read. I learned to read by her teaching me words in books that she was reading. I could read everything by the time I was three, three and half years old. I could read anything.
When I went to school, I was three and half years old. I had to say I was five because they would only take you if you were five. I was confronted with this thing called the alphabet. I had learned to read without knowing there was something called an alphabet. To this day, I still have a problem with vowels. First of all, the word vowel, it sounded so amazing, vowel. Then of course the idea that it was just contrived of these five letters, which weren’t even near each other, A, E, I, O, U, it’s nothing like A, B, C. They seemed far away from each other. They were vowels. It took me a long time. I often say to this day, I still have problems with it. It gave me feelings for words that permeates my writing. I have a love of words, not all words. I'm very particular with them. I have a sort of affiliation with them that may not be good for writing. It’s a very pleasurable relationship to spend a year looking for the right word to go with a sentence. It’s incredibly wonderful. I owe that to her. I have reasons to, as long as she remains dead, to find something very warmly and positively of her. Does that answer your question?
Zibby: Yes, it does. I didn't mean to imply -- I knew she had passed away. I'm sorry.
Jamaica: You don't have to explain anything at all. No, please. I hope I sound friendly and appreciative because I feel that way to you for doing this. You're very kind.
Zibby: Of course. It’s my pleasure. I thought it was so interesting, in your book about your brother when you were growing up, that you said your mother didn't like seeing you laying around reading. She thought you were doomed to a life of slothfulness. You said, “As it turned out, I was only doomed to write books other people might read.” I wanted to hear a little more about how you got your start writing. I read about the story of what happened when you came to the United States. I would love for you to tell it in your own words.
Jamaica: I was sent away to work as a servant. I did. People who knew me as a child are not surprised that I became a writer because apparently I would always pretend I was writing, even though I didn't know that people still wrote serious literature. I think the last thing I read -- I thought literature had stopped with Kipling. It was a surprise to me when I was nineteen that the woman in the house whose I was a nanny in gave me, I think it was To the Lighthouse. She was a feminist and a very big Virginia Woolf -- it’s either To the Lighthouse or A Room of One’s Own. She had all these books that I discovered, modern literature. I remember that around that time while I was there a book by Vladimir Nabokov had come out. I think it was A-D-A, Ada. I still don't know how you pronounce it. I was amazed. I read it. I couldn't understand it at all. I didn't like it. It was perhaps the beginning of me thinking of, “I like this. I don't like this,” and so on.
I didn't know that people still wrote serious literature. I thought they just wrote penguin detective stories and romances. I didn't know that there was such a thing as writing. I must have always wanted to be an artist or something because I thought I would be a photographer. I studied photography. I began to write out the photographs. It occurred to me then that I'm a writer. I quit the college I was going to in New Hampshire, returned to New York, and started to write. The funny thing about being in America, at least in those days -- I don't know, anymore, what America is like. In those days, whatever you said you were, people said, “Oh, yes. That's what you are because you said so.” I said I was a writer. People said yes. One thing led to the other. Then I started to write for The New Yorker. It’s an improbable tale, but all too true. Every word of it is true.
Zibby: When you look back on all the many things you've written over the course of your career, is there anything that stands out as something that you're most proud of having written?
Jamaica: Gosh, yes. The novel I published, See Now Then. Sometimes when I'm asked to read from it -- I never really read my own work unless I'm paid to or have to. I wouldn't dream of looking at it again. Sometimes I have to read from that book. I sometimes want to stop and just admire some of the things I did in it that I'd always dreamed of doing in a piece of writing of carrying on a thought for a long time, dropping something, picking it up again, all in one sentence. I really love the things I did in that book, the technique of writing that. To me, that's so much like the way I think when I'm silent, when I'm thinking with no one around, just to myself. Yes, I particularly love that book. Almost no one agrees with me, but I think it’s the best thing I've written. The short stories I first wrote, the one-sentence short stories in At the Bottom of the River, I'm very proud of those. I wouldn't say that unless you asked me. I don't think I've even ever admitted that. I must be coming to the end of my life. It’s very annoying. I hate endings.
Zibby: [laughs] It doesn't mean you're coming to the end of your life. It could just mean you've reached a place of self-acceptance. You're willing to commend yourself.
Jamaica: You're right. That sounds much better. I loved writing that. I love reading philosophy. I'm the sort of person who reads Being and Timeover and over again because I love the way it asks you to understand a being, existence, even though you can't, really. It’s a powerful one.
Zibby: I hear you're going to be a library Lion at the New York Public Lions’ event this November. I'm going to be there as a guest. I will have to look for you when we’re there. Were you excited to get that honor? I know you've gotten many in your lifetime.
Jamaica: In my lifetime, oh god. That sounds so old, my lifetime.
Zibby: Oh, no. I'm sorry. I ruined it again. [laughs]
Jamaica: I just turned seventy. I look at people who are seventy and I thought, do I look like that? I don't feel like that. I'm very sensitive. I would never lie about my age. I see someone who's died at seventy-two. I think, oh no, two more years. I haven't even planted all the annuals I want to plant, never mind the perennials. Every time I'm given an award or something, I'm always surprised because I deeply, truly think no one has ever heard of me. It’s one of the ways I'm able to write what I write because I think no one will ever read this. I just do what I really want to do because no one will ever read it. No one has ever heard of me. Why would I be a literary Lion? I'm really quite thankful and happy. When I was little and I was given prizes in school, you'd have to wear your dress uniform and get up on the stage and curtsey. Everyone would clap. Everything wonderful that happens to me reminds me of my childhood, and everything terrible. [laughter] I am very surprised and pleased. Yes, I’ll be very, very, pleased to have that. It’s very nice. [Indiscernible] my other honorees are so distinguished. I shall hide.
Zibby: [laughs] No, not at all. When you talk to people just starting out on a writing career, what advice do you like to give them?
Jamaica: Never go to a creative writing school. Do not get an MFA. If you do, it’s only because you needed the time. Certainly, don't take the advice of a teacher. No one can teach you how to write. Just remember Homer was a blind person sitting at the city gates. Just remember the apostle Paul. No Galatians listened to him. In any case, there are no Galatians anymore. His letters to the Galatians, you can still find them. Just write as if something depends on it, something that you don't know, but something important. I don't mean to -- I teach creative writing. My students will tell you, my teaching is just, “What would you like to do?” Writing is so peculiar. You can teach someone the proper way to put paint on a canvas, but then the proper way to put paint on a canvas might not be the way you paint. Let's ask Jackson Pollock about that. It’s very hard to teach people to write, or to think you can, or you want to teach people to write. I hope no creative writing professors listen to your podcast.
Zibby: [laughs] They probably don't.
Jamaica: Oh, god. We writers, we do have to make a living. On the other hand, writing, it’s not really a career. I don't understand it. Do I have a career? I suppose I do, but I didn't mean to. I didn't know you could do this, that this could be done. I had no idea. That's the other thing with young people starting to write. They think perhaps this has something to do with being rich and famous and so on. It really doesn't. It’s unfortunate that we writers are part of something called publicity. It’s really quite something wonderful and holy. Advice to young writers, I do have positive advice. Read, read, read. Read everything even if it’s the directions on a box of over-the-counter medicine. Just read it.
Zibby: I’ll spend the rest of my day now at Rite Aid reading all the boxes to find my inspiration in directions and dosages. I knew I was forgetting to do something. [laughter] I want to thank you so much. That's the end of our little time together. I am so grateful to you for doing this. I really hope to meet you in November.
Jamaica: Yes, please.
Zibby: I’ll accost you at the party.
Jamaica: Yes. I would be very disappointed if I don't find you.
Zibby: Enjoy the rest of the day gardening. Thanks again for all your time.
Jamaica: Thank you.