PEN 2013: Master/Class: Jamaica Kincaid with Ru Freeman
Thursday, May 02, 2013, 6:30pm The New School: Tishman Auditorium 66 West 12th St., New York, NY 10011
On Thursday night we were offered a fascinating glimpse into the renowned writer, Jamaica Kincaid. Keeping within PEN's theme of bravery, the evening's topics ranged widely from the novel, memory, the event, landscape, marriage, writing to the colonial mindset, but I want to focus on one particular thread that ran throughout and perhaps touches on a number of the topics I have just listed: curiosity.
For it becomes immediately apparent when listening to Jamaica Kincaid speak that she is not only a writer but in truth a philosopher who seeks to explore the world through the medium of creative writing. And I do not know if it is unfair to only give Kincaid such a label as perhaps most creative writers have this element about them but a child-like fervor for the world and its workings laced with the wisdom of experience shines through as Kincaid speaks, "I simply wish to know more" being repeated more than once during the evening's event. Asked if she feels as if she constantly writes within the past, Kincaid stated that she does not constantly go into the past but rather, has simply not exhausted what she is writing about, the things she wants to write about not being written about enough (e.g., the role of vegetable matter in unification—the Irish and their non-native potatoes).
The discussion, led by Ru Freeman, began with the novel. Said Kincaid, "The novel is something someone invented. The novel has no laws or prescriptions that come from anywhere," and the only people that are often heard talking about what a novel is tend to be those that are about to write a novel and are often a "he." It was more than once that Kincaid would rib men over the course of the night, at one point stating, "They [men] just make things so they can violate them." The bears were well-timed and enjoyed by many.
But perhaps the most interesting focus of the night was on a photograph of Kincaid at two years old that is featured in Biography of a Dress. From this photograph there arose a series of questions for Kincaid: what do events mean, what filled the holes in her ears, covered her feet, how did it all come to be? How did it come to be that gold from Guyana filled her ears or shoes from Canada covered her feet? This is the crux of Kincaid—this tireless fascination with how the world has come to be, grounded within specific objects or things (books, flowers, earrings, dresses, tea, and on and on). I was reminded of Jane Bennett's work in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things and her work toward rehabilitating enchantment. Over the course of a short evening, Kincaid was able to reignite and reinvigorate enchantment in the everyday. In approaching her work, she noted that she does not mind failing at all but rather enjoys the process of doing: "I leave the page and I have totally failed, but I am not afraid to go back to the same chair and write again."
There were sobering moments during the evening, particularly around discussions of her mother's abortions (including the failed early terminations of herself and her brother), her brother's sickness, and her own culpability in existing within an interconnected world where it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself from the injustices of one's trousers, for instance, and the lineage therein. Asked about the shifting of blame and denunciations Kincaid herself had earlier said of her essay published as a short book entitled, A Small Place, she stated instead that she still cannot believe that she had such clarity of vision and recalled that when reviewed by Antiguans, the response had been, "Everything you said is true but why did you have to say it." To tell a truth, as conflicted, oppositional, and self-destructive as it may be, is her primary drive for writing ("All I want to say is something true. The form does not matter") and any judgements that she may make are truly judgements of herself ("None of us are innocent.")
In synergy with Earl Lovelace's discussions on landscape at an earlier event, Kincaid too touched upon the distance locals in the Caribbean feel toward the landscapes of their native countries, noting that rarely do people from the Caribbean relax on their own landscapes. Said Kincaid, "We have such horrible memories upon this landscape."
Prior to the evening, I had only read A Small Place, an extremely enjoyable short read on the pitfalls of tourism (amongst other things) in her native Antigua. But through Ru Freeman and Jamaica Kincaid's guided travels through Lucy, At the Bottom of the River, My Flowers, My Brother, and The Autobiography of my Mother I have now cleared my reading list for a pending Kincaid marathon.
One of Kincaid's many memorable statements serves as a wonderful wrap up to the evening: "I will never get to the bottom of who I am but why not try?"
Jamaica Kincaid: was born in St. John's, Antigua. Her books includeAt the Bottom of the River, Annie John, Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother, My Brother, and Mr. Potter, all published by FSG. She lives with her family in Vermont.
Ru Freeman: is the author of On Sal Mal Lane and A Disobedient Girl, the latter of which was long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. She is an international activist and journalist, and calls both Sri Lanka and America home.
Follow JK on Twitter @JKFow