75 at 75: Victor LaValle on Jamaica Kincaid
Posted on Oct 14, 2013
Jamaica Kincaid is one of the funniest writers around. Press play on the audio above if you don’t believe me. Listen when she steps to the microphone after Mary Gordon’s respectful introduction. Gordon speaks of Kincaid as a “daredevil.” She describes The Autobiography of My Mother, Kincaid’s most recent novel at the time, as “a lamentation and an accusation, a choked cry and a measured judgment.” Gordon reads a characteristically beautiful and ponderous passage from the novel, then Kincaid appears and the audience applauds with gusto. She says, “That was very kind. It’s all very kind. I’m a little embarrassed. I like hearing good things about myself, but I don’t like to admit it.”
How badass is that?
She calls out an audience member to help explain why she’s about to read a short story that first appeared in The New Yorker in 1978. It’s because this audience member wrote a letter asking her to read “Girl,” and so that’s what she’s going to do.
“If you don’t like this, you can blame her for it,” Kincaid says.
The story is more like an incantation, a recitation of lessons from mother to daughter. How to choose cotton to make a nice blouse, how to cook pumpkin fritters, how to sweep a corner and how to sweep a whole house, how to iron father’s shirts and slacks. The mother returns, regularly, to her belief that the daughter is, or will become, “a slut.” On paper this reads, perhaps, a bit like a horror story. The mother’s affection is muted at best. She sounds as though she’s training a servant. That is undoubtedly part of the text, but only a part of it. Listen to the audience. By which I mean listen to the way Kincaid’s voice trains them to hear and to understand. They laugh more than they gasp, even at the most troubling lines. Especially at the most troubling lines. And while this is only a recording, Kincaid’s delight is clear. The mother in this story is a harsh taskmaster but she isn’t unfun. Among the many lessons passed from mother to daughter is “how to spit up in the air if you feel like it” and “how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you.” This story isn’t merely a chronicle of torture, but a remembrance of the particular bond—yoke and handcuff, inheritance and embrace—that binds some mothers to their girls.
Kincaid introduces her novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, by saying, “I’m going to read the last chapter of a book that I believe will be available for purchase shortly after gift-giving time.”
The crowd, already hers, again offers up laughter and warmth.
Reading from the end of the novel, her tone is less playful than before, and there is a bleaker humor. At one point, the narrator discusses how her husband’s first wife died from getting high on a special tea brewed with the dried white flowers of “a most beautiful weed.” The narrator denies, despite gossip to the contrary, having poisoned this woman and admits only to having “stood by and watched her poison herself every day and not try to stop her.” But who introduced the dried white flower that “created a feeling of well-being and induced pleasant hallucinations?” It’s rare to find the murderer admitting guilt for the act. Our narrator, the second wife and former servant, certainly won’t accept the blame.
For me this is quite funny, and the humor is intentional. Because Jamaica Kincaid knows how to keep a straight face, her work is too often taken as strict and serious. But that’s too simple for a writer as fine, as wild, as her. She is diminished by what people expect rather than what is there on the page. Her performance here should inspire any reader to go back to her books and read them again—but this time let this voice play in your ear. Wicked and witty, playful and profound. If you think she writes only of wretchedness, then you’re listening all wrong.
Victor LaValle’s most recent novel is The Devil in Silver.