Writers & Company

Jamaica Kincaid on family, place and the beauty of language 

In this 2002 conversation, the celebrated Antiguan-American writer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about exploring the mysteries of love and longing.
Jamaica Kincaid is an acclaimed Antiguan-American author. (Kenneth Noland)

This episode originally aired on September 22, 2002.

In April 2022, the Paris Review presented Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Of Kincaid's signature style, Paris Review publisher Mona Simpson said, "I can't think of another writer whose voice contains such intensities of rage and love. It is a sound incantatory, biblical and full of music."

Born Elaine Potter Richardson in Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid moved to the United States when she was 17. Once there, she wrote highly autobiographical fiction such as Annie John, Lucy and The Autobiography of My Mother, as well as a memoir about her brother who died from AIDS. Inspired by the life of her father, Kincaid's 2002 novel Mr. Potter tells the story of an illiterate taxi driver living in Antigua. 

Kincaid spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in Toronto in 2002.

A man named Potter

"I didn't want to write about Mr. Potter in the way I wanted to write about my brother.

"The book about my brother was deliberate. It was nonfiction. I have written about my mother in other books. The book Autobiography of My Mother is about my mother and people like her. It's not entirely, you know, focused on her. This book is not entirely about my father any more than it is entirely or even about my father at all, or even about me. 

"It's about a man who has the same name as my father, and he has children, one of them who has my exact same name. I really wanted to write about certain issues surrounding a man like that. 

"He's typical of a certain kind of man in the West Indies, or at least in the English-speaking West Indies, certainly on the island of Antigua. I could have changed the names after I'd written it. I didn't. And the reason I didn't is because with the names comes a certain rhythm of language, certain sentences. 

The names are important, but only as words. They are not as important as my father and my name and me.

"The way the novel is structured, the names had to be those names. Or I would have had to use another set of words. The names are important but only as words. They are not as important as my father and my name and me. The names led to certain kinds of words, certain ideas. I needed the names. 

"But it's not about him. Even though it is about him."

No real responsibility

"Mr. Potter is a kind of a man who has many children with many different women. He bears no real responsibility for them. They are brought up by their mothers or their mothers' relatives, friends. In the way history feels no responsibility towards him, he feels no responsibility towards the children that he has made and contributed to their history. 

The feeling of no responsibility for actions becomes a part of this individual's narrative and a part of this individual's very breathing.

"The way the past — as it's recounted by Europeans, for instance — doesn't feel that it needs, in any way, to account for extraordinary murderous acts and destruction. The way, for instance, you have people in Europe speak about these immigrants who 'ruin their tradition' without feeling any responsibility for the fact that they have ruined these varied peoples' traditions. 

"That's the way that kind of irresponsibility functions in the life of a Mr. Potter. The feeling of no responsibility for actions becomes a part of this individual's narrative and a part of this individual's very breathing. 

"Those are the things I am thinking about when I am writing a book like this. I do believe that if you benefit from something, you also have to take the bad side of it. So it's now my legacy." 

The mysteries of love

"I really had no idea what I was getting into when I had my own children. This sense of overwhelming love for them and just concern for them. I don't know how to account for that. They mystify me. And what's really interesting is that it's true: even though they're growing into people, they actually look like people I would meet on the street. I can't understand how I could love someone who just looks like anybody. They just look like people. They no longer look like my little children. It's very mysterious, these feelings. 

"I don't know if it's necessary to love and hate your parents. It would make sense that they go together. It would seem to me that you are bound to feel something for someone that you love. So you're bound to feel the opposite — because the love is so helpless. No one likes to feel that helpless. You just love.

I don't know if it's necessary to love and hate your parents. It would make sense that they go together.

"My children love me. They can't help it. I can't help it. Much easier for me to admit that along with the love they feel for me is something that is its opposite, than for me to admit that I feel that way about them. 

"I can't bear to think that I would feel that way about them, but it's very easy for me to admit that they love and hate me." 

Jamaica Kincaid's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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