Award winning author and professor, Jamaica Kincaid, is perhaps best known for her books At the Bottom of the River and The Autobiography of My Mother. Her new book, See Now Then, tackles some difficult subjects. The beginning of the novel describes what seems like an ideal family life, in a small town in New England. But what readers soon discover is that the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, isn’t all that sweet. Critics have drawn parallels to Kincaid’s own life. Mrs. Sweet, like Kincaid, is an avid gardener; her marriage to a composer ends in divorce.
Kincaid recently made an appearance at PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature. Most people assumed she would read from See Now Then, but in true Kincaid fashion, she went against the grain and read from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Following her appearance, Kincaid had a candid sit-down interview with The American Reader about her career. She spoke candidly about being perceived as an “angry black woman”.
AR:In the past, much has been made out of anger in your writing. But also, in person, in readings and interviews, you’re very funny, and I was wondering what do you think the link is between anger and humor, and how do they both serve you?
JK: People only say I’m angry because I’m black and I’m a woman. But all sorts of people write with strong feeling, the way I do. But if they’re white, they won’t say it. I used to just pretend I didn’t notice it, and now I just think I don’t care.
There are all sorts of reasons not to like my writing. But that’s not one of them. Saying something is angry is not a criticism. It’s not valid. It’s not a valid observation in terms of criticism. You can list it as something that’s true. But it’s not critical.
You may not like it because it makes you uneasy—and you can say that. But to damn it because it’s angry…. They always say that about black people: “those angry black people.” And why? You’re afraid that there might be some truth to their anger. It might be justified.
I promise you, if I had blonde hair and blue eyes this wouldn’t be an issue. No one ever says, “That angry Judith Krantz…” or whatever.
AR:You’ve actually said something similar about your new book. There’s all this discussion about it being autobiographical, and I’ve heard you say, it’s because you are black and a woman.
JK: Yes. I am somehow not supposed to use my life in any way. Let’s say it’s true. What’s wrong with that?
People draw on their life all the time.
AR:Right, it’s not a critical stance.
JK: I couldn’t—I can’t for the life of me understand why people would go looking to see if there were parallels. There are always parallels. Charlotte Brontë was a nanny, was a governess. What’s the big deal?
It’s not a valid criticism.
I think—especially with this last book, I thought, “Is there something about methat just makes people annoyed?” I’ve always thought people were sort of annoyed at me. My life does seem improbable. Here I am, this young black woman, just from nowhere and I’m writing for the New Yorker. Then I’m doing this, and I’m doing that—yes, it’s annoying.
I have no credentials. I have no money. I literally come from a poor place. I was a servant. I dropped out of college. The next thing you know I’m writing for the New Yorker, I have this sort of life, and it must seem annoying to people.
I remember my friend, George—people used to say to me, other women, when I was young and at the New Yorker: “How did you get your job?” And I would say, “Well, I met George Trow, and he introduced me to the editor.”
And they’d say, “No, no, no. How did you get your job?”
And I said to George, “I don’t know why they ask me this.” And he said, “Oh, just tell them your father owned the magazine.”
And so the next time people said, “How did you get your job?” I said, “Oh, my father owned the magazine.” And it stopped.
Because that made sense. But that I actually worked and was talented— “How did you get your job?” And I think sometimes there is a bit of that leftover, like, “How did you get here?”
And I don’t seem to care what people think. I write—from the time I started writing I’ve been writing the same way. And people have been saying the same shit about it: “She’s angry. The sentences are too long.”
My first short story is one sentence, 300 words long. My writing has always been criticized for this, this, this. I think that people just think, “Why the hell won’t she stop it? We’ve told her we don’t like it. She keeps doing it.”
That’s the way I write. It’s never going to stop. And the more it makes people annoyed the more I will do it. And it’s actually really good writing. I’m a good writer. They should just say that: “She’s a great writer.” I am.
AR: No, that’s fantastic.
JK: Actually, you make me realize that I am pissed. Not at you, but at this perception that I am pissed—I’m really pissed at it.
No. They should just say it, “This is really a good writer.” And, “A lot of the other shit that you like isn’t good writing.”
Jamaica Kincaid has proven once again that she doesn’t believe in biting her tongue.