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Jamaica Kincaid strives to write 'the history of people like me'

April 21, 2013|By Reed Johnson
  • Jamaica Kincaid, speaking with Hector Tobar, shared her motivation for writing at the Festival of Books on Sunday.
Jamaica Kincaid, speaking with Hector Tobar, shared her motivation for… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

In her long and illustrious career, Jamaica Kincaid has tackled many genres of literature. So best believe her when she says that her 2013 work "See Now Then" is a novel and a work of fiction. Period.

That's why, she said in a discussion with Hector Tobar on Sunday at the Festival of Books, "the most irritating thing" about the reaction to the book has been the insinuation that it is really a roman-a-clef, a memoir disguised as a fiction.

"I will assert that if I were a white man this would not be the conversation," Kincaid told the audience at the Embassy Room Auditorium, who responded with a round of applause.

Kincaid dispensed spirited opinions and forthright answers on a number of subjects during the hour-long presentation. That included her explanation of why, and how, she started to write. Writing, she said, "was something that no one who looked like me or was from my part of the world had ever done." And she sought to write in a way that encompassed "the history of people like me."


Kincaid said her biggest foundational influence as a writer was the King James Bible, along with the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. She also fell under the sway of "Paradise Lost," which she said "had a profound effect on me in that I fell in love with Lucifer."

In response to a question from Tobar about how reliable the narrator of "See Now Then" is, Kincaid replied that in any fictional work "the narrator's the most unreliable person in the entire world. No detective would proceed based" on the word of a narrator, she added.

And she suggested that all of us, as human beings, are unreliable narrators of the stories we tell, even to ourselves.

"You never really know anyone, and that includes yourself," she said. "A human being, it seems to me, is just the most fragile, delicate kind of thing....To exist, it's a disaster!"

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