Culture

Jackie Kay on Jamaica Kincaid: ‘I’ve never read anyone like her’

When I first read Annie John in 1986, the year after it was first published, I had never read anything like it. Over the years, I’ve read everything by Jamaica Kincaid, and I’ve still never read anyone like her. If you are new to Kincaid, I envy you. For she is a writer you don’t just read; she is a writer that takes you back to yourself. She’s candid, clear, clarifying – and her books talk to each other as if they are in conversation across time. I would sit down if I were you and read everything she has ever written.

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid.
Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid. Photograph: Picador

Re-reading Annie John for the umpteenth time in 2022, I was surprised to find that it is a wee book. In my head it was bigger. In my head, Kincaid is big. (She is, she is six feet tall.) It is big because her themes are huge; her principal character is time itself. She is afraid of nothing as a writer, and never seeks her reader’s approval; you’ll love her or not, she doesn’t mind. She is fearless, her work feeds off mythical realities, rich rivalries, her work is deadly alive, brazenly breaking customs and conventions. You might return to her work years later and find it still blooming like the gardens she writes about so vividly.

She once said in an interview that when she was gardening, she was thinking about writing, and when she was writing, she was thinking about gardening. This is her writing about wisteria in My Garden Book (2001):

But what am I to do with this droopy, weepy sadness in the middle of summer, with the color and shape reminding me of mourning, as it does in spring remind me of mourning but mourning the death of something that happened long ago (winter is dead in spring, and not only that, there is no hint that it will ever come again).

It is true, so true, and yet it happens to us every year, if we are lucky enough to live somewhere that has still retained seasons: the surprise of winter, the shock of spring.

Kincaid’s fiction is mostly set on the small Caribbean island of Antigua. She starts there with the okra trees and the tamarind grove, the cherry grove and the bright blue of the sky and the sea. Her writing is non-linear, her plots share more with poems than with engines, and yet she is compulsively readable. Memories are so vivid in the works of Kincaid that they might as well be the present tense. Now and then are false divides.

Jackie Kay.
Jackie Kay. Photograph: Mary McCartney

Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in the capital of St John’s, Antigua in 1949. But like Nina Simone, or Toni Morrison or George Eliot, she didn’t just change her name. She invented herself. In The Autobiography of My Mother the central character Xuela Claudette Richardson says, “In the world that I lived in then and the world that I live in now, goodbyes do not exist, it is a small world.” Annie John leaves Antigua waving a red handkerchief, but Jamaica Kincaid has never said goodbye. For she has returned in her fiction again and again to the place that has tugged at her heart strings: home.

What kind of novel is Annie John? To call it a coming-of-age novel is to do it a disservice. Annie is complex, flawed, and difficult at times. She is not a stranger to her own cruelties, and yet we love her. We love her honesty, her bravery, her desire to flout conventions, her passion. We love the way she loves the Red Girl and the way she once loved Gwen. But most of all we join Annie on her journey through adolescence, through the bewildering relationship with her mother, through the arrival of menstruation, through friendships and love affairs.

She’s as brilliant and unnerving a character as Plath’s Esther Greenwood, or Toni Morrison’s Sula. And the school scenes in Annie John are just as vivid, just as funny, just as brilliantly depicted as scenes in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But the most exhilarating thing about Kincaid is that you can reach out to try and contextualise her, to place her in a category or in a moment of time, and she will not have it. She transcends time and category.

To read her is to get close to a kind of pure voice, one stripped of adornments and writerly tics. She’s pared the voice down, like the gardener in her might prune roses. She is her own first reader. She’s the first one to smell the roses.

After a childhood spent in Antigua, Kincaid was sent to live and work in New York as an au pair at 16. The shock of this separation – part freedom, part torture – runs through her oeuvre, and so too does the tender and torturous relationship with her mother. She described her mother as like the god Cronus who gave birth to her children in the morning and then ate them at night.

Many reviewers of her work get bogged down on the thorny issue of autobiography, reductively trying to stitch the details of Kincaid’s life to her fiction; they miss the point. It doesn’t matter how much life intersects with art, which then again intersects with life. It doesn’t matter if some of the same memories appear in her fiction and in her non-fiction. We should be over by now obsessing with what is truth and what is fiction, especially when fiction like Annie John can tell a greater truth.

Kincaid is also one of the key chroniclers of family dynamics of the 20th century. In the astonishing memoir My Brother, about Kincaid’s brother who died of Aids at 33, a book that is often moving precisely because of the distance Kincaid keeps, she writes:

I only now understand why it is that people lie about their past, why they say they are one thing other than the thing they really are … why anyone would want to feel as if he or she belongs to nothing, comes from no one, just fell out of the sky, whole.

The desire to break free from the family is just as strong as the desire to be defined by them; the struggle between the two is what she writes about most. Characters arrive whole in her fiction and non-fiction: a couple of strokes, a sprinkling of a few seeds and they have bloomed into life. You can even smell her characters: the fabulous Red Girl in Annie John smells brilliantly to Annie, who loves the fact that the Red Girl is not made to live under any conventions, not made to bathe twice a day like Annie, not stopped from climbing trees.

There’s a great desire for freedom in Kincaid’s characters, but also a tethering to the shore. The language too repeats and mesmerises with repetition, a lyricism that is scalpel-sharp and gets closer and closer to the truth. The novel follows the rhythm of language to follow the rhythm of Annie’s life, her “becoming”. There is a hallucinatory quality to the prose: “She falls from the sky, whole.” And in her falling and landing on her feet, Kincaid created a space for other writers to take risks, to dare to become themselves.

Some readers have complained that Kincaid doesn’t write about race. But like Toni Morrison, she doesn’t write for the white gaze. She writes for everyone, and assumes that her readers will make the leap, black or white, to travel with her and inhabit the island of Antigua.

Kincaid once said: “I didn’t understand racial discrimination because I grew up in an all-black place; I thought people who were racist were badly brought up.” The influences of colonialism (Antigua didn’t become independent until 1981) are there in her fiction. But she never writes in a way that explains things as if to an invisible white reader; thank goodness! It is refreshing to read a writer who takes in colonialism, racism, subjectivism, in a new and dynamic way, who tells us what her characters see, who is not trying to point it all out.

At one point in Annie John, Annie says: “We swore allegiance to our country, by which was meant England.” For those of us who have been enjoying this unique and wonderful writer for many decades, I would say we should swear allegiance to our writer, by which we mean Jamaica.

  • This is an edited version of Jackie Kay’s introduction to a new edition of Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, published by Picador (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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