A Reading by Jamaica Kincaid
published: Oct. 22, 2012, recorded: April 2007, views: 2995
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Many writers long to see their work appear in The New Yorker. Miraculously, Jamaica Kincaid got her start in print generating “Talk of the Town” pieces for the magazine, back in the (good old) days when those pieces ran without bylines. Kincaid, who celebrates times “when the sheer doing of something was enough,” reads some of her “TOT” pieces and other examples of her early work, offering tips and asides to aspiring writers in her audience.
She admits having wanted to write differently from anyone else at the magazine, “a vanity or arrogance of youth.” Her piece about a book reception for economist Milton Friedman consists entirely of an inventory of the costs of the event to her and other participants (all rigorously fact-checked, Kincaid notes). She felt hostile to Friedman, because he was in those days an advisor “to a cruel government in Chile,” and Kincaid wanted to express this but ‘didn’t want to just say it.” When “Mr. Shawn published it, it was amazing to me.”
Her submissions to The New Yorker during the ‘70s just preceded the period of celebrity culture, Kincaid says. It was a time when “rich people in America wanted to be known for working, doing something other than being rich, and they would get jobs or something like that.”
She reads a long story, “Biography of a Dress,” that is based in large part on her early life in Antigua. Episodes from her girlhood, which in other hands might lean toward the nostalgic, are framed by a searingly honest and unsentimental adult voice. Kincaid utterly renounces the notion that dredging up and fictionalizing past events offers some release to her. Instead, once she puts memory into writing, “I’ve dispensed with it and it is no longer of any literary interest to me.”
“My Brother,” Kincaid’s account of her brother’s death from HIV, demonstrates her take-no-prisoners approach to biographical writing. She first acknowledges to the audience, “The most ridiculous thing -- I think why didn’t somebody tell me that having somebody die is so hard, that it’s just an amazing pain.” She wrote the first part of the book while he was alive, and then couldn’t continue, having what Kincaid describes as a “biological response to his death.” As difficult and extreme as her reaction was to his suffering, Kincaid was nevertheless committed to telling the story, in clear and brutal terms. “I rule out the memoir. It caramelizes and beautifies things…. I wouldn’t want to know how to make a beautiful thing. Implied in memoir is forgiveness that I don’t feel. I never forgive and I never forget, and I’m never cathartic.”
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