Jamaica Kincaid's life reads like an American Cinderella story: born and raised in poverty on the island of Antigua, West Indies; unloved by an unresponsive and often abusive mother who shipped her off to the United States at 17 to be an au pair (Kincaid insists on the word "servant" to describe her employment status); "discovered" on the streets of Manhattan by New Yorker columnist George Trow, who brought her into the fold of the magazine by printing one of her articles in the "Talk of the Town" section; became a celebrated fiction writer (Annie John, Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother) and gardening columnist; married the son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn; and moved to the idyll of North Bennington, Vermont, where she now writes, gardens, teaches, and tends to her family, which includes two beautiful children.
Why, then, does this 48-year-old woman, who speaks with an accent both lilting and sweet, feel it's her "duty to make everyone a little less happy"? Mother Jones spoke with Kincaid about her continuing obsessions and her upcoming book, My Brother (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a nonfiction account of her youngest sibling, who died of AIDS in 1996.
Q: Why did you decide to go public about the life and death of your brother?
A: For me, writing isn't a way of being public or private; it's just a way of being. The process is always full of pain, but I like that. It's a reality, and I just accept it as something not to be avoided. This is the life I have. This is the life I write about.
Q: In the book you said of your brother that he lived in death. What did you mean?
A: His life was a passive event. It had no shape. His life was sort of waiting to happen. As he died, that seemed to be what was going to happen -- so one could only say that he never lived. He sort of died all the time. It was one of the frustrating things in taking care of him that I sometimes seemed to care more whether he lived. I didn't like that. I also suspect that my interest in him was because I thought if circumstances had been different that might have been my own life. What distinguished my life from my brother's is that my mother didn't like me. When I became a woman, I seemed to repel her. I had to learn to fend for myself. I found a way to rescue myself.
Q: Your characters seem to be against most things that are good, yet they have no reason to act this way -- they express a kind of negative freedom. Is this the only freedom available to the poor and powerless?
A: Of course everyone must find their own way. The characters I've -- I don't want to say created; I don't think I'm capable of creating -- written about, would seem to find their own way. It seemed to make sense. Any other way would be inconsistent and untrue with the characters I've written.
I think in many ways the problem that my writing would have with an American reviewer is that Americans find difficulty very hard to take. They are inevitably looking for a happy ending. Perversely, I will not give the happy ending. I think life is difficult and that's that. I am not at all -- absolutely not at all -- interested in the pursuit of happiness. I am not interested in the pursuit of positivity. I am interested in pursuing a truth, and the truth often seems to be not happiness but its opposite.
Americans like to be funny, they like to laugh and they like a happy ending -- which accounts I think for the sorry state of American writing life, but that's a whole other story.