Hall Center For The Humanities

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Jamaica Kincaid
Jamaica Kincaid
Acclaimed Caribbean novelist

"Landscapes and Memory"
Humanities Lecture Series

Tue., Apr. 10, 2012, 7:30pm - 9:00pm
The Frances and Floyd Horowitz Lecture devoted to issues related to our multi-cultural society. Co-sponsored by Kansas Public Radio.
Location: Woodruff Auditorium, Kansas Union

Jamaica Kincaid is widely recognized as the finest West Indian writer alive. Her fifteen publications include novels, poetry, and reflections on gardening, and she was a long-time contributor to The New Yorker. Her novels Annie John, The Autobiography of My Mother, and Lucy are seminal works of Caribbean literature and the postcolonial canon more generally.  She is the Josephine Olp Weeks Chair and Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College and lives in Bennington, Vermont.

Kincaid's novels are loosely autobiographical and often feature strong maternal characters who must grapple with relationships with their own mothers and with the forces of colonization in their lives-which some have suggested are metaphorically linked. Men are infrequently mentioned and never used as main characters.  As Kincaid once famously explained, "I don't really write about men unless they have something to do with a woman." Kincaid's writing focuses on gender, sexuality, race, ethnic identity, place, and an understanding of self, using these topics as guides for self-definition.

Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in Antigua in 1949, where she grew up in poverty in a fraught relationship with the island's English colonizers.  "I was brought up to understand that English traditions were right and mine were wrong. Within the life of an English person there is always clarity...but within my life and culture was ambiguity." Because of what she came to view as an erasure of Antiguan culture, Kincaid struggled to understand what parts of her were Antiguan and what parts were English, the latter of which she viewed as forced and unnatural. In 1965 she escaped an increasingly strained relationship with her mother and with her country, which she has referred to as a "sewer-grate of corruption," moving to New York to become an au pair. It was there that she befriended William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, where Kincaid soon began to publish.

With the nurturance of Shawn and others at the magazine, Kincaid began to write pieces that eventually coalesced into her first novel, At the Bottom of a River. The themes so familiar to fans of Kincaid's work--race, gender, colonialism, familial relationships, and coming of age-- emerged here first, and..she continues to probe different facets of these issues in most of her fiction and non-fiction.  "I am not troubled to be seen to be of one whole cloth-that all I write is a further development of something."  In fact, Kincaid burst into the New York literary scene as one of the few non-male, non-white, non-Ivy League trained writers; and she wrote about topics and settings not openly explored before. Caribbean literature was, in some measure, introduced to the United States for the first time through Kincaid's writing.

Kincaid's frank depictions of island corruption, sexuality, and anger startled and intrigued readers. When asked about this anger, Kincaid responded, "I think life is difficult and that's that...I am interested in pursuing a truth, and the truth often seems to be not happiness but its opposite." Whether critics applaud or critique this anger, her lyrical prose and honesty are undeniably engaging, and her honesty is widely praised by literary critics. Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. once compared her to such acclaimed writers as Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka, noting "There is a self-contained world which they explore with great detail. Not to chart the existence of the world, but to show that human emotions manifest themselves everywhere."

In her Humanities Lecture Series presentation, "Landscapes of Memory," Kincaid will read from her work and discuss the importance of personal landscapes, history, and cultural identity.  The Hall Center will also host a more informal question and answer session, "A Conversation with Jamaica Kincaid."  Both events are free and open to the public.

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