Jamaica Kincaid: The Things We Must Say
The celebrated writer reflects on the confinement of identity, speaking truth to shame, and the power of secrets.
Photo Credit: Kenneth Noland
Jamaica Kincaid’s journey from a child of British colonial Antigua to a celebrated writer occupying the upper echelons of New York’s literati is an inspiration to many. Kincaid’s lyrical works of fiction—from her 1983 debut collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River, to her newest novel, See Now Then—draw deeply on her own history. She treats memory as a source of knowledge that must be questioned in order to unearth secrets, to acknowledge shame, to examine identity, to liberate.
How much is your history part of your identity?
I’m not consciously interested in pursuing identity. I don’t consciously claim a Caribbean identity, a black woman identity, although clearly those things can’t be denied about me. When I write, I can draw on those facts, I can transmute them, I can modify them, I can interpret them. On the other hand, when I say who I am, and it’s a series of “things,” it begins to feel confining. Even if you said to me, “Who you are is Queen of the World!” I would find that confining. I mean there wouldn’t be any glory or beauty in it.
You write and speak frankly about the difficulties of your early life.
When I was becoming a writer I knew that all I wanted was to say what had happened to me. I think that must have come from [childhood]—first being praised for speaking, and then being frowned upon for saying the thing that no one wanted to hear. I came to understand that anything that I was ashamed of was the thing that I must say, because the shame was a way of people having power over me.
Is writing a way for you to speak of things that people are afraid to say?
Yes, for me to acknowledge that something has happened. I hate secrets because they hold. You have a secret because it’s humiliating, and the humiliation diminishes you. Secrets have powers. I don’t like to be involved in that. I don’t want power over anybody, and I don’t want anybody to have power over me. I loathe people having power over me—I just would rather be dead. I don’t mind being a lump of coal, but I don’t want to be a lump of coal in somebody else’s hand.
Do you have a quest for truth?
I do, I do. I want there to be one true thing. I want there to be something eternal. Something. And it’s not possible. It’s childish of me, really, to desire this, but I do. I want there to be something that cannot be destroyed, that can be relied on and it would be good.
Do you think you will ever feel “whole”?
No. I think that you’re whole and complete when you’re dead. I think that death squares the circle. I think as long as you’re alive, you’re not complete. If I was complete, I wouldn’t be sitting here thinking, Wow this is something new. Isn’t this marvelous?