Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Jamaica Kincaid's Dominica Exile

Oasis in Dominica: Meetings and Mothers
I have read most of the Caribbean author, Jamaica Kincaid's writing. In the course of my research, I have learned about her biography. Recently (Sunday), I came back from her mother’s home island of Dominica. While there, I looked at everything with concentrated attention-this is where Jamaica Kincaid arrived when her mother sent her away for dropping her newborn baby brother on the floor. Her mother said she intended to kill him. (This autobiographically based scene is described in Kincaid's second novel, Annie John, but is referred to in various interviews.)

While at the conference, I met a young girl who was the Prefect of her class. I remembered the scene where Kincaid loses this same position of honor because she ornately writes in a textbook under a color plate of Christopher Columbus, "The Old Man Can No Longer Just Get Up and Go." Annie had just left her mother's house, where a letter from Dominica had arrived with what normally is bad news. It stated that Anne's grandfather's health was declining, and her mother's cold reaction was the above statement. This scene is narrated in the chapter, "Columbus in Chains" and overlaps with the author's life. (Don't be confused with the names because in real life, Anne is Jamaica Kincaid's mother's name-and also Kincaid's daughter's name. In the the book, Annie John, is the character that most closely resembles Jamaica Kincaid. Oh and that is not her birth name either! She was born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson)

I was astounded by the coincidence of meeting a girl in Dominica at the conference who was also a Prefect of a local school, since only adult scholarly types usually attend. (I confess I teased her about being a perfect Prefect!) I asked her if she knew who Jamaica Kincaid was or if she had read any of her work. After hearing her negative reply, I located her teacher and asked why they don't read Jamaica Kincaid's books. She said that her work was too difficult. I'm pretty sure she was not talking about writing but more about Kincaid's controversial character portrayal and subject matter.

While walking around, I keep thinking, "Kincaid saw these people (Okay-maybe their relatives!) and rode on these roads."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Dominica is a beautiful tropical island-with very little catering to the tourists. The streets are roughly repaired, the sidewalks are cut off by a cement drainage system and people crowd every space with merchandise-unless it’s Sunday. On Sunday, all is quiet. A few of us Caribbean Cultures Conference attendees went for a bright Sunday walk through the streets of Roseau.

An Extremely Hot Walk

The sun blazes through the atmosphere turning the wet earth into a steaming bath. I was uncomfortable in the delicious way that Kincaid describes in her travel book A Walk in the Himalayas, and aware that I could be one of the tourist she cuts down in A Small Place. I’m so please that I was able to be in this tropical atmosphere for a while.

I imagine the sketchy character in the short story, Girl (At the Bottom of the River) and question, why do I appreciate her work? What does it tell me about life? I don't actually relate to the challenging proud girl-except that I also had an independent mother. I don’t think I was vocally rebellious but I often had independent thoughts. Like Kincaid, I struck out on my own at seventeen and tried to cutout my own life path (which came with many mistakes!)

I appreciate Kincaid's writing style but also her character's conflict and confusion. I honor the effort she made to become a writer who is now internationally known and respected.

While at the Eastern Caribbean Cultures conference, I was introduced to the social activist and novelist, Marie-Elena John. She wrote her first novel, Unburnable in 2006, and was describing the writing and how it connected to her personal biography. (interview)Her talk was fascinating. I learned that she grew up in Antigua but her mother was from Dominica. She spent time in Dominica as a child but especially absorbed its culture through contact with her mother. She has this in common with Jamaica Kincaid. I asked her what was the double-edged sword of being compared to Jamaica Kincaid, which she had mentioned in her talk. She said that it is an honor to be compared to such a well known author, but that as a child her mother and other older Antiguan women were shocked by her tell all writing style. She heard them say, "How could she do that to her mother? She is still alive and walking around here!" John said that recently while conducting a writer's workshop at the University of Puerto Rico, she told the aspiring writers that they had to be committed to the writing and where it wants to go. You have to be willing to write about what might be considered private-even when it's difficult. (I will read John's novel soon.) John said that she was going back to New York (on a six month contract) to work on another women's grant writing project. Though I know her work is important, I hope she writes her second novel soon-while the trail is still hot!
Speaking of hot-let's get back to the Sunday walk tale and how I met Marie-Elena's mother and aunt. But maybe I should wait a bit on that one! I don't want to overload you with detail. So friends-Let's look at more photographs a bit later? Until the next time...


  1. Cynthia, thanks for introducing us to these writers. Their stories are compelling.

  2. I love stories with strong female characters. Thanks for the background and info. It sounds as if you were having a wonderful adventure.

  3. Cynthia, it sounds like you had an intellectually stimulating time in Dominica. It is always a blessing to be able to walk on similar ground to that of people you admire. I will have to investigate these authors as their stories sound very intriguing. Thanks for a wonderful read. Lokking forward to more pics of your recent journey.

  4. I'm glad you had such a stimulating and interesting time. I don't know either of the authors, we don't get too many books over in the UK from the USA let alone anywhere else!Unless they are really established best sellors.

  5. Hi
    As a Dominican I lament that not many here seem to be aware of Kincaid's work or her ties to the island. Very interesting post. Thank you and hope you enjoyed your stay.

  6. Hello Cynthia, I have you on my followers list but I don't seem to have visited or heard form you. I love the Caribbean. Have been on missionary trips to Belize and been to Jamaica and love the culture. I am doing a daily birthday month shout out to my followers. You are up for Friday. I am so glad I found you, again.

  7. I enjoyed this post very much. I am embarrassed to say that I am unfamiliar with the writers that you mentioned, but intend on changing that soon. :D

  8. How horrible for Kinkaid to grow up with that story of sibling rivalry and banishment! She would have had to become a novelist to overcome her past, creating her own stories. I loved Annie John. It was interesting to get the story behind it and a view of Dominica. Hearing her story, I can see how this author would call to you. I haven’t heard of Marie-Elena John – thanks for the introduction.

  9. Oh Cyn, you've done and continue to do such interesting things.

    As for Jamaica Kincaid - 'girl' was one of the pieces I had to study a couple of years ago on a Literature and Gender course. I've got to say that it never made me want to read anything else (or longer) of hers, but then maybe I'm doing her a disservice.

    Hope you are feeling well

  10. Cynthia,

    I look forward to your next installment, but thank you so much for sharing your trip to Dominica, your meeting the perfect Prefect and Marie-Elena. I used to be a prefect so I can relate to the honor. I also wore a similar school uniform - white shirt, grey or maroon tie, grey skirt (that had to fall below the knees).

    You make me homesick for Kenya, for those days gone by.

    I did not know of Jamaica Kincaid's childhood traumas...thanks for sharing.

  11. I have had the pleasure of doing a review of "Oasis Writing Link " and I'm more than happy to inform you that your blog has been added to Blogging Women.

    I want to commend you for the fine job you are putting forward with this blog and I'm very honored to add you to our women's blog directory.

    Please continue your outstanding work and watch for the monthly blog contest where you can win a spot to have your blog listed in the Featured Blogs section!

  12. Interesting post, Cynthia. I am curious to hear what else you have to say about Dominica. I'm hoping you will write more about the people you met there.

    I agree,Kincaid has had an interesting life and she had made the most of bad situations. For that she deserves admiration. I still think her writing style gets in the way of her story.


  13. I never did get to Dominica when we lived in PR...One time driving back from Rincon to where we lived in Hatillo, we picked up some guys hitch hiking...turned out they had come over from Dominica in a row boat, landed in PR under the cover of darkness, and were on their way to find fellow exiles...I often wondered how they fared. I hope they weren't picked up and deported.

  14. Cynthia,
    I am embarrassed to admit I own at least 3 of Kincaids books and still haven't gotten around to reading them! (is it possible I have too many books?!) Some, i've had for years. I'm moving them to the top of the pile now, thank you for this most informative post!

  15. Cynthia, I read a bunch of your blogs this morning. I also read a couple last night. Eizabeth Von Arnim has a great book called The Minister's Wife that I was going to give one summer. I got them very cheap, but they arrived after the class was over so I gave them away. I think I still have one.
    Dog saga was entertaining. It reminded me of MaryAnn. Some of these blogs that I read might be so old that you have forgotten yourself.
    I hope to see you today. Mark


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