Jamaica Kincaid
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SAL Presents

Jamaica Kincaid

Past Event: Monday, November 15, 1999

Jamaica Kincaid’s passion for writing was passed on to her from her book-loving mother, who taught her to read at the age of three-and-a-half. Later in Kincaid’s childhood almost nothing could stop her from acquiring a book. She confesses, “I stole money to buy books. It’s true. I was quite a thief and quite a liar, and I’m sure the only thing that stopped me was that I was never successful at either. I’ve always been found out, and my lies all seemed so plausible to me, I never understood why they didn’t work for other people. I suppose those were my first ventures into fiction.”

Born and educated in St. John’s, Antigua, in the West Indies, Kincaid, in 1966, moved to New York City at the age of 17 and worked a series of short-lived jobs to help support her family in Antigua. She began writing in the early 1970s for The Village Voice and six years later she was hired as a staff writer for The New Yorker. Since then she has published several books including The Autobiography of My Mother (National Book Award finalist, 1997).

Her passion for gardening began in Vermont where she planted only her favorite flowers. She designed her garden so that its paths and beds wove in and out like the shorelines of her native Antigua. In her book, My Garden (Book), she gathers together all she loves about gardening and plants, and explains it with the same sharpness and attention to detail that she gives to her fiction. Currently, she lives in Vermont with her husband and children, and she teaches at Harvard University.

Excerpt from My Garden (Book) (1999)
I know gardeners well (or at least I think I do, for I am a gardener, too, but I experience gardening as an act of utter futility). I know their fickleness, I know their weakness for wanting in their own gardens the thing they have never seen before, or never possessed before, or saw in a garden (their friends’), something which they do not have and would like to have (though what they really like and envy—and especially that, envy—is the entire garden they are seeing, but as a disguise they focus on just one thing: the Mexican poppies, the giant butter burr, the extremely plump blooms of white, purple, black, pink, green, or the hellebores emerging from the cold, damp and brown earth).

I would not be surprised if every gardener I asked had something definite that he or she liked or envied. Gardeners always have something they like intensely and in particular, right at the moment you engage them in the reality of the borders they cultivate, the space in the garden they occupy; at any moment they like in particular this, or they like in particular that, nothing in front of them (that is, in the borders they cultivate, the space in the garden they occupy) is repulsive and fills them with hatred, or this thing would not be in front of them.

* * *

But we who covet our neighbor’s garden must finally return to our own, with all its ups and downs, its disappointments, its rewards. We come to it with a blindness, plus a jumble of feelings that mere language (as far as I can see) seems inadequate to express, to define an attachment that is so ordinary: a plant loved especially for something endemic to it (it cannot help its situation: it loves the wet, it loves the dry, it reminds the person seeing it of a wave or a waterfall or some event that contains so personal an experience as when my mother would not allow me to do something I particularly wanted to do and in my misery I noticed that the frangipani tree was in bloom).

I shall never have the garden I have in mind, but that for me is the joy of it; certain things can never be realized and so all the more reason to attempt them. A garden, no matter how good it is, must never completely satisfy. The world as we know it, after all, began in a very good garden, a completely satisfying garden—Paradise—but after a while the owner and its occupants wanted more.

Selected WorkMy Garden (Book) (1999)The Autobiography of My Mother (1996)Annie John (1995)Lucy (1990)At the Bottom of the River (1983)

LinksInterview with Kincaid on Salon.comNews York Times reviews of Kincaid’s books