Arts, Culture & Media

Immigrant author discusses winding road from Caribbean to pages of The New Yorker

This story is a part of

Global Nation

This story is a part of

Global Nation

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Jamaica Kincaid's story begins in Antigua and ends as a remarkably successful author in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Noland.)

When Jamaica Kincaid was growing up on Antigua, she never dreamed of moving.

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But misfortunes in her family led her to leave in the 1960s, when she was a teenager. She came to New York to work as a nanny. Before too long, her short stories were being published in the Paris Review and The New Yorker.

Kincaid was the "it girl" of the literary scene.

Kincaid’s work (Annie John, Lucy, Autobiography of My Mother) has often dealt with her Caribbean upbringing, but her new novel, See Now Then, is set in North Bennington, Vt. — the town where Kincaid has lived for many years. It’s the story of Mrs. Sweet, a mother with two grown children in a marriage that’s gone very sour.

Many particulars of the book — the town, the gardening, the Caribbean upbringing, the unsuccessful composer, the dissolving marriage — resemble Kincaid’s real life, but she insists See Now Then is not autobiographical.

“I wasn’t thinking of myself, I was thinking of all sorts of larger things,” she said.

The book is both poetic and fragrant, while at the same time a little other-worldly and ruthlessly and shockingly unsentimental.

"It’s possible it’s influenced by where I spent my forming years which is incredibly beautiful, but in which some rather brutal things happened in the world after 1492,” Kincaid said.

The New Yorker isn’t the obvious starting place for first-time fiction writers, but Kincaid managed to get her stories published in the magazine when she was in her twenties. Other women at the magazine, working as secretaries and receptionists, “were all sort of mystified” by her success, she says.

“I was this young black woman with bleached blond hair and I wore funny clothes. I was sort of odd, sort of rigorously stylish," she recalled. "And they would say to me, ‘How did you get your job at The New Yorker?’”

It was awkward, so she asked her friend George W. S. Trow for advice.

“He said, ‘Oh just tell them your father owns the magazine,’ and when I did, they stopped asking," she said. "They really believed my father owned the magazine.”

Today, Kincaid keeps up that odd yet rigorously stylish attitude.

“I wear a lot glittery, cheap rings on my fingers,” she said. “People will say, ‘Well, why do you do that?’ And I will say that I’m trying to pay tribute to Lil’ Kim — because I feel Lil’ Kim is in danger of being forgotten.”