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Monday, April 1, 2013

Jamaica Kincaid

"My writing depends on memory.  I have an unfortunate habit of remembering things that other people have forgotten and would like me to forget.  The trouble with remembering, is it makes it almost impossible to forgive."

— Jamaica Kincaid
Caribbean Novelist
1949 -

I had the privilege of hearing Jamaica Kincaid speak for about forty minutes on Thursday night, March 28, at the Toledo Public Library.   She told a few stories, read from her new book, See Now Then, and talked about time and memory.

Writers are often encouraged to write about what they know, write about their own experiences, and if we do that, we often write from memory, and memory is very fragile and unreliable.  What we remember is not what really happened.  It is what our minds think happened, and the memory is altered and reshaped over time as it is retold again and again in our mind.  Our retelling reshapes the facts, leaving out some and embellishing others.

Readers often want to know what is autobiographical and what is fictional about a novel or a story or a poem, and sometimes they assume it is all autobiographical.  Yet for writers it is hard to distinguish between the two.  As you write your stories, as you share your stories, the two begin to blend together until we have no idea what actually happened and what we imagined happened.  

All great storytellers embellish and expand the truth.  We re-imagine ourselves and our place in events.  We change the events to fit the story we want to tell and this has recently gotten some memoir writers in trouble for adding events that did not happen.  What is truth?  What is fact?  Are they the same or different?  I think they overlap but they are not the same.  Just because something is factual does not mean it truthful.  And just because something is truthful does not mean it is factual.

My memories of my childhood are few and they usually come from stories that were told over and over in my family or from events that were traumatic to the young me.  So while my poems will start with a simple phrase from some memory it will grow and morph into something of its own that may bear no resemblance to fact.

Creative Practice
Your creative challenge this week is to select a memory to write or paint about.  I have a painting hanging in our personal art gallery where the painter paints a scene from her childhood of her mother hanging the wash on the clothesline.  What memory can you paint?  What memory can you write about?

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson on May 25,1949 in St. John's on the island of Antigua 51 days after I was born in Washington, Illinois.  She and I are celebrating our 64th birthday this year.  Jamaica grew up with a passion for reading although her reading matter was limited to the Kings James Bible, the dictionary, and epic poetry.  Once she was punished for misbehaving by having to copy books one and two Milton's Paradise Lost.

At the age of seventeen, Kincaid left her family, the island and her name behind.  She entered the U.S. under the name of Jamaica Kincaid.  Her first job was an au pair for upper class family in New York City.  She became a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine for twenty years.  She tells the story that the first piece she  submitted was 300 words in length and composed of only one sentence.  Long sentences is her trademark style.

Kincaid has published more than a dozen books.  Her most recent novel, See Now Then, her first in ten years, tells the story of a family living in a small town in New England.  Some claim the book is autobiographical and based on her marriage to ex-husband, Allen Shawn, son of the New Yorker's long-time editor William Shawn.

Here is an interview with Jamaica Kincaid.