By Beth U.
Reading Jamaica Kincaid is like immersion in a sea, not a lake, not a brook but a sea or an ocean—perhaps the Atlantic which bangs against Africa and also against islands in the West Indies. You stand on the shore. It takes a long time for her words to arrive, a sentence that starts somewhere beyond the horizon but ends with you. Her words catch you—off guard, despite the waiting—around the ankles and tug. So you walk in, you begin to swim, slowly at first: the water feels fine!
And then sadness saturates, a salty sweep. It is a mourning keen that you hear beneath and all around you: a whale of fathomless grief. You might remember to breathe, but then again you might not. For Kincaid’s words pull you under until your heart seizes and your skin is brined. You must stay here, under water, until the sentence ends, and this may take pages and pages! Gasping, you resurface but by now you have lost your shore. Razor-backed sentences shark close to your shanks, succinct indictments like this one from The Autobiography of My Mother: “it is among the first tools you need to transgress against another human being—to be very pleased with who you are.” You jerk away, but her words leave bloody nicks. When will she put you back on safe land? Never. She might throw you a buoy now and again. You might even find yourself laughing for in Kincaid’s biting desolation is deep wisdom, and where there is wisdom, there is humor.
Kincaid is known for using autobiographical material from her life growing up in Antigua as a way to discuss the (western) world since the upheavals of European colonization and the transatlantic slave trade. Born Elaine Potter Richardson in 1949, Kincaid left Antigua at 17 when her mother sent her to the United States to work as an au pair to an American family. Once there, Kincaid refused to send money home or read letters from her mother. Eventually Kincaid changed her name and befriended George Trow, then writer of The New Yorker column “Talk of the Town.” Through him, Kincaid met The New Yorker’s editor, William Shawn. Shawn hired Kincaid first as a staff writer and soon after as a featured columnist for “Talk of the Town.” Kincaid later married William Shawn’s son, the composer Allen Shawn, and moved to Vermont with him where they had two children.
For years, I assigned Kincaid’s novella A Small Place when teaching about post-colonialism in the Americas. Later in the semester, when discussions about colonialism became discussions about globalization, I showed Life In Debt, a documentary directed by Stephanie Black that details the consequences of structural adjustment policies in Jamaica. The film uses excerpts of A Small Place as part of the over-narrative. Students flinch when listening to Kincaid’s indictment of tourism in the Caribbean. Her exposé of the legacies of colonialism found in the purchase and provision of leisure is both cuttingly objective and, for students who spend their spring breaks cavorting around tropical beaches, personal.
Reading Kincaid is not like reading a tale: there is no single beginning but many, no single end but eddies. Her sentences are the pacing of tides torn awry by the memory of a storm far away. The storm is her mother (The Autobiography of My Mother). The storm is her father (Mr. Potter). The storm is her childhood in a small place – an island (Annie John). The storm is the world created since 1492 (A Small Place). The storm is a fierce something in which we are all caught. In her most recent book See Now Then, her first novel in ten years, the storm is all of these things and a marriage that is dead.
It took me nearly two years to pick up See Now Then. I couldn’t face the pain I knew it would bring. While reading it, we construct a home in our thoughts. We draw a sky—sun and moon—around this home and in it we place days, days that, despite sun and moon, are not what the occupants thought they might be, although they never gave much thought to what they expected. The occupants are Mrs. and Mr. Sweet. Mrs. Sweet, off a banana boat, “a beautiful brown, a brown that glistened and shone, a brown so unique to her.” Mr. Sweet, from the city, “a place where people are civilized” who understands “Wittgenstein and Einstein and any other name that ended in stein.” What was tantalizing difference for Mrs. and Mr. Sweet, difference consumed in love and lust, later becomes “This Marriage is Dead, This Marriage Has Been Dead for a Long Time.”
And so Then (what was) becomes Now (what is). From Now (what is) we see Then (what was), like mountains from the kitchen window. From Now (what is) we see Then (what was and still is), like enslaved people carried in ships made cavernous for the purpose across the Atlantic and against their will, and Jewish people gassed and starved against their will in another place and time across that same Atlantic. And these histories—vast, beyond comprehension—come together in two people, in Mrs. Sweet and Mr. Sweet, in a small home, in a small village, in a love that was big but is now small. In this love darts life: children. Two small people who are of this love but too close to it, so close that it becomes them: small.
For what happens when love from one person—Mr. Sweet—has grown small, and love from the other person—Mrs. Sweet—is the same size? His disaffection grows grandiose, speaks to him of should have and could have and why didn’t I? His disaffection speaks to him of lives beyond the mountains seen from the kitchen window, of selves that were Then (what was), that are most decidedly not selves that have become Now (what was and still is).
And so he leaves her.
What a classic yarn! When Jamaica Kincaid published See Now Then, reviewers oh so gleefully detailed its seemingly autobiographical elements. For He (Allen Shawn) did leave Her (Jamaica Kincaid): in a small village, with two children, for another woman. Many reviews focus on similarities between the fictional account of Kincaid’s life that is See Now Then and her actual life. Yes, it is titillating to connect, point by point, all that is similar. But what we have here, with See Now Then, is Kincaid’s inimitable meditation on time. Time that is everything and nothing of all of our days, sifted through her life so as to tell us about ours. Time that, despite its’ passing, does not guarantee that we truly ever know another person, even the person with whom we spend most of our time, or the people of our own flesh. Time that we steal from others; time that others steal from us.
For in a small room off the kitchen, Mrs. Sweet writes. Here she comes alive “in all of her tenses, then, now, then again.” Here, in a space cordoned off from husband and children, “she would think about her childhood, the misery that resulted from that wound, eventually becoming its own salve, from the wound itself, she made a world and this world that she had made out of her own horror was full of interest and was even attractive.” Here Mrs. Sweet creates, as Kincaid did, her name, her future and her presence as a writer because she must, in order to live.
But Mrs. Sweet’s creation, as with all creation, also means death. It means attention away from the needs of Mr. Sweet, from the needs of small children: “he sensed she was longing to go back to that much-hated room, the room just off the kitchen, the room in which she would commune with the vast world that began in 1492, the room in which lay her mother and her dead brother and her other brothers and all the other people whom she sought out even as they had turned their backs on her, that room, that room: burn it down, cried her children, burn it with her in it, cried Mr. Sweet.”
In another small room, this one above the garage, Mr. Sweet composes music away from noises of daily life, his son banging about, the thud of the clothes dryer. In his small room, he resents her small room. His “was not a funeral parlor, it’s only that he was in mourning for and conducting a funeral for his life, the one he had never led.” In Mrs. Sweet’s imaginings of her children’s imaginings, “Mr. Sweet will not emerge from the studio above the garage as Mr. Sweet, he will emerge from the studio above the garage inside a mauve velvet-covered coffin, an imitation of a jewelry box, Mr. Sweet will be dead.”
In their imaginings of the other person’s death, the marriage dies. The Marriage Has Been Dead for a Long Time. Yet one thing that happens when reading Kincaid, when we are taken from the shore, is that blame unmoors. Her long sentences, so perfectly wrought, decolonize. For who is the victim? Who is the perpetrator? We are always both even if at times more one than the other. For truth, as time, is like seawater: “But no matter, hate being a variant of love, for love is the standard and all other forms of emotion are only forms that refer to love, hatred being the direct opposite and so being its most like form.”
It’s not that there isn’t culpability and suffering and responsibility and rage for colossal wrongs in Kincaid’s words. There are material differences in living that the journey of Mrs. Sweet, and thus the journey of Kincaid herself, embodies: “for behind her eyes lay scenes of turbulence, upheavals, murders, betrayals, on foot, on land, and on the seas where horde upon horde of people were transported to place on the earth’s surface that they had never heard of or even imagined, and murderer and murdered, betrayer and betrayed, the source of the turbulence, the instigator of the upheavals were all mixed up, and the sorting out of true, true truth and the rendering of judgments, or the acceptance of wrongs, and to accept and lay still with being wronged will wear you down to nothing…”
Yet we are memories of betrayals both intimate and seismic, an endless loop between person and People. In the quotidian—the knitting of socks, the preparation of dinner, the expression of love grown small—is Then and Now at once: “All that is to come will change the way right now is seen; right now is so certain, right now is forever; what is to come will make, distort, and even erase right now; right now will be replaced by another right now: and right now is all there is and all there is over and over again…”