In the short story “Biography of a Dress,” Antiguan-American prose writer Jamaica Kincaid describes the protagonist’s yellow poplin dress by connecting it to themes like mother-daughter relations and identity. Wearing a yellow poplin dress on stage, the autobiographical elements in her work come to life as she takes us into her world.
Kincaid, who is also a professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University (Mass.), delivered the Creative Writing Program’s fourth annual Phillis Wheatley Reading on Sept. 19 in the Goodrich C. White Auditorium in White Hall. Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Tiphanie Yanique introduced Kincaid as a fiction writer “with a poet’s air and a journalist’s eye,” and “one of the most important writers in the world today.” She emphasized the relevance of Kincaid’s work in making connections across humanities — from women and genders studies and psychology, to political science, history and religious studies.
Yanique quoted literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s analysis of Kincaid’s work: “Kincaid never feels the necessity in her writing of claiming the existence of a Black world or a female sensibility,” Yanique quoted. “She assumes them both … so that we can get to the deeper themes of how Black people love and cry and live and die, which after all is what art is all about.”
Kincaid’s works include “Annie John” (1985), “A Small Place” (1988), “Lucy” (1990), “The Autobiography of My Mother” (1996), and “My Garden (Book)” (2001). Her writing has achieved great acclaim. Kincaid received the 1985 Guggenheim Award for Fiction, the 1999 Lannan Literary Award for Fiction and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004.
Born in the Caribbean island of Antigua and later living in New York, her work draws from her diverse geographic identities, often critiquing and exploring the impact of colonialism and mother-daughter relationships.
Since colonialism is central to Kincaid’s work, it was only natural that she opened the discussion with a comment on Queen Elizabeth II’s death, who she called a “great actress” and the “front for the criminal enterprise of the British empire.” This is Jamaica Kincaid: honest, unapologetic and absolutely hilarious.
Being able to read by the time she was three allowed Kincaid to consume a wide range of books.
“I used to pretend I wrote ‘Jane Eyre,’” she added with her eyes twinkling. While talking, she was playful, often poking fun at herself.
Kincaid’s writing is also known for its long sentences, which encompass many themes. For example, in “Biography of a Dress”, the dress is “the same shade of yellow as boiled cornmeal, a food that my mother was always eager for me to eat.” Some of her influences include older authors, like Homer, and older texts, like “Paradise Lost” and the Bible, which she attributes for her well-known use of long sentences.
She read her 1992 short story “Biography of a Dress,” which she described as “an account of the colonial enterprise on a child.”
“I turned two, and to commemorate it, my mother took me to a photographer to have my picture taken,” Kincaid said. “I wasn’t tall enough to stand on the floor by myself, so I had to be placed on the table so I could fit into the photographer’s background, and my mother was about two, three feet away from me, and I was sure that the gap between us could never be bridged and she would never hold me again.”
The specificity of her descriptions — the “slack pleats of skin of the aged,” “skin the color of cream in the process of spoiling” and “what did her insides look like?” — built on ideas that dealt with internal and external worlds, girlhood and aging.
For Kincaid, the effects of colonialism are personal and extends to clothes, an interest of hers. In response to an audience member’s question about fabric and colonialism, she animatedly talked about her outfit, supporting fair trade and her favorite color — yellow.
I recall studying Kincaid’s novel “Annie John” in ENGCW 272W: Intro to Fictionl. It is a novel which deals with personal identity in relation to both mother-daughter and familial dynamics as well as dynamics between people and place. As someone who is fascinated by concepts relating to roots and identity, it made me think about the role of a place in shaping a person, no matter how much you believe it does not define you. The novel, which is semi-autobiographical, also prompted a class discussion on the uses of point of view.
Answering a question about point of view at the event, Kincaid said that she preferred writing in the first person. Instead of seeing it as her own individual “I,” however, she saw it as a more universal, collective “I,” allowing for more intimate connections to be formed between the writer and reader.
“There is no singular truth,” Kincaid said. “There are many truths. There are many, and they’re all true. You just have to hear them.”