‘An improbable story, my life’
Jamaica Kincaid is surprised that many people still wonder at the fact that she converted to Judaism. It seems natural to her to be Jewish – and even to have served as president of her synagogue in Vermont. “Yes and I’m black and I’m a woman. Oh boy, it keeps piling on,” she laughs. “I don’t even think about it anymore. I haven’t talked about it in a long time, no one has asked me about it. I forget that it might be interesting to anybody.”
Kincaid was born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson in 1949 on the Caribbean island of Antigua. At 16, her mother sent her off to work as an au pair in New York to help support the family. In 1973 she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid, published her first article, and began writing for various publications. In 1976 she began to work at The New Yorker, where she was a staff writer until 1995. She married Allen Shawn, son of William Shawn, the legendary longtime editor of The New Yorker, and they had two children, who Kincaid says define themselves as both black and Jewish. She divorced Shawn – but adds that she certainly did not “divorce” Judaism.
Kincaid, who was in Israel last month as a guest of the Jerusalem International Writers Festival, is among America’s prominent writers and a central figure in the world of Caribbean literature. Works that have been published in Hebrew translation are “Annie John” (originally published in 1985 ) and “Lucy” (1990 ) – two novellas about female adolescence, in which she revisits her own youth and the circumstances of her leaving Antigua and relocating to the United States. In subsequent books, not translated into Hebrew yet, she depicts her mother’s life (“The Autobiography of My Mother,” 1995 ) and her brother’s death from AIDS (“My Brother,” 1997 ). In her most recent work of fiction, “Mr. Potter” (2002 ), which was translated into Hebrew by Yaarit Tauber Ben-Yaakov , Kinkaid writes about her biological father, with whom she had virtually no contact.
Her recent visit was not her first to Israel. This time, she says, she was struck when visiting Bethlehem upon seeing a new Jewish settlement across the way.
“I wondered what they thought of each other when they looked across, two reflections,” she says, adding: “I understand the impulse to put up the separation fence, but I also find that the imagery of the separation is so reminiscent of other images: the walls, the barbed wires. You think: Here’s the thing about human beings and bad things – we do it again, but in a somewhat different form. The same thing doesn’t happen twice. The same thing happens, but differently. Everyone would like to be the only victim. We don’t make room for the fact that the other people are capable of narratives, that they are people.”
Israel is going through a difficult time in terms of identity, Kincaid continues: “You can’t have a democratic state and a privileged group of people. But it will work itself out. The bad guys in this story are also the good guys of another story, so it’s very confusing. I think it is fascinating to see such confusion – you don’t know whether you are bad or good. Sometimes you think: ‘We have been treated so badly,’ and then you turn around and do bad to others. I don’t know if I have ever seen a country like this.”
When it comes to taking a clear stand on Israeli politics, however, she has reservations: “I hesitate because I shouldn’t come to someone’s country and talk about them as if I know what to do. I want to make it clear that I didn’t come here to preach to Israelis. We come from a country that’s done horrible things and is doing horrible things in the world even with a president that I love. I love Obama, I think he is a great president, but he does things that I cannot agree with. He is a president of a country that is a pretty horrible country, and I don’t think Israel is a horrible country.”
She believes it is easier for Israelis to criticize Israel than for Americans to do so: “If we Americans say what we think, we go home [afterward] and meet American Jews who are really willing to do everything to destroy our lives. We meet American Jews who are devoted to Israel in their way – and I don’t think it’s in Israel’s interest – but they will attack us and paint us as anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. It’s very difficult to say anything critical of Israel. For instance, if you make an observation that some of the ways in which Israel has organized itself are awfully familiar and the familiar is apartheid, well, there might be a campaign to fire you from your job or not hire you.”
Kincaid says she is sometimes astonished at her fellow Jews: “You’d never have thought the Jewish people were ignorant. I mean the admiration for someone like Sarah Palin – it’s not widespread among Jews, but [is felt] in certain circles. And you think: How did Jews become ignorant? It’s like one of these biblical moments where ‘they all fell into a pit.’ I think power is blinding. And then, you know, you have idiots from the other side who would say ‘boycott Israel’ …
“The Israeli situation is not South Africa. It looks like it sometimes, but it’s not. When you see the separate roads, it’s shameful. When I was in Bethlehem yesterday and saw Rachel’s Tomb – that’s pretty hard, you know. The worshiping of the existence of it was for me so disturbing. Haven’t you heard: ‘Thou shalt have no graven images’? The tomb is a graven image.”
This interview took place before the Gaza flotilla affair, but in a piece that appeared afterward, in the special Haaretz edition marking Hebrew Book Week, Kincaid wrote about American television coverage of the incident: “To go from channel to channel is to hear from the same people, the same words and phrases: We were set up; they had weapons; they had slingshots and metal pipes and marbles; they used our guns against us; we were defending ourselves; international waters; a provocation; the fight against terror is not an easy choice; a hard choice; we had no choice; Israel should; Israel should not; Gaza, Egypt and Hamas; these people are not peace loving; we are a peace-loving people.
“It’s the Israeli ambassador to the United States [Michael Oren] who is really fascinating. He does not falter in his defense of his country’s right to do anything. Right after the ‘incident’ (a word that I think goes well with that other word, ‘situation’ ) – when I first saw him on the air, he looked shaken. But then later, he was in full-throated form. He seemed to me to be saying that, in a world full of bad actors, why wasn’t Israel allowed to be one of them.”
When speaking about her illustrious career, Kincaid explains her decision years ago to change her name: “I didn’t want my parents to know I was writing. I didn’t know if I would succeed at it, but I wanted to be a writer. In fact, I thought I would fail at it, and if I failed under another name they wouldn’t laugh at me.
“I was very young when I did it. I was interested in style, I had cut off all my hair, bleached it blonde, and I had no eyebrows. I wore very odd clothes. And so I picked a name that was a combination of an island name and a very English name. Havana was one choice and Dominico was another, but I liked the combination of Jamaica Kincaid.
“I came from a background where to be a writer was unheard of. But I always wanted to write. I loved Charlotte Bronte when I was little, and I wanted to be Charlotte Bronte the way people want to be a princess. I had no idea what it meant, that it would be something to be responsible for, something that would have a meaning.”
Kincaid’s mother never accepted her new name, nor her profession, even when she became successful. Yet nothing changes in her singsong tone of voice as she explains: “[My mother] always thought that my becoming a writer was a form of putting on airs. She always thought I wanted to be something that I wasn’t, that I was pretentious. She was never proud of me.
“She did see my success. People would go to Antigua to interview her about me, and she would charge them [money] and would give them the impression that I didn’t support her, and would say: ‘Well, you have to pay me.’ I never minded it because it allowed me to write more. She would say she didn’t read [my work] and I thought: Good! I can say anything.”
Do you really think she never read your work?
Kincaid: “She did read it. She was jealous of me. She just simply couldn’t believe it. It really is an improbable story, my life. I mean, I grew up in this poor place, with very limited circumstances, at about 16 years of age was sent by my family to work, and instead of remaining in the position into which I was sent, I somehow worked my way out of it without any help from anyone, just luck. You know, I met someone who said: ‘You should meet the editor of The New Yorker.’ The editor said: ‘Could you try to write something and I’ll see if you really can write.’ I wrote something, he published it, and that was that. But it’s all luck. It’s improbable.
“I was in despair that my mother could have sent me out into the world all alone. I thought: How could she do that? How can I survive? I had no family, no friend. I went off to college in New Hampshire. I left my job as an au pair, spent a year in college, left because I wanted to be a writer, moved back to New York and in a year I was writing. And it’s not because I’m especially brilliant: It’s really [a case of] one of those fools going where angels wouldn’t go.”
You made decisions that most people do not make. You changed your name, you converted to Judaism.
“You mean my Hebrew name?”
You have a Hebrew name?
“Of course! Doesn’t everybody? It’s Ruth, what else?”
Of her decision to convert, she says: “It seemed so natural. It’s not that I didn’t give it a thought; there wasn’t any reason to be thoughtful about it. It had become such a part of my life. I was trying to get the children to integrate all the different strands of their ancestral memory – that my family came from one part of the world through a certain set of historical events; their father’s [Jewish] family, through a certain set of events, came from another part of the world and had its own ancestral memory. So I tried to say: ‘This is who you are or who you could be,’ and would take them to synagogue from when they were little. I realized they wouldn’t stay if I just dropped them off and picked them up, so I began to stay and help out. Over time I became so involved in the synagogue that it was just clear I was a part of the life of the people [there], so I converted and never looked back.”
Her husband and his family were actually disconnected from Judaism, and certainly did not ask her to convert, she adds. “I like the truth, and it was a true thing for my children that their father’s family had a long attachment to the Jewish people through blood and memory. My children’s grandmother grew up in a kosher home, so I didn’t want them to wonder, you know: ‘We find ourselves not being able to eat meat [in other places] and don’t know why.'”
Kincaid has a tendency not to let the reader identify with or like the protagonists she writes about.
“First of all, I think I’m writing very autobiographically, and my experience with the people I’m writing about – including myself – is not sentimental. It’s very … I want it to be true, to be real, and I think that romanticism interferes with what is true. And I think you should love the naked thing and then you can dress it up.”
In general her work reads like a historical study of her own past, yet it also has the repetitiveness of prayer. She repeats sentences that create a feeling of emotional detachment . For example, in “Mr. Potter”: “[A]nd he drove along the road almost in a stupor and said nothing to himself and sang nothing to himself and thought nothing to himself, Mr. Potter drove along and nothing crossed his mind and the world was blank and the world remained blank.”
In a review of the Hebrew translation of “Mr. Potter” in the Haaretz literary supplement in 2004, Omri Herzog wrote: “Kincaid’s writing stems from a wound – a wound that is as natural to the body as breathing. Kincaid attests that she wanted to write to forget the wound, in other words to forget herself and who she was ‘then’: a teenage girl in Antigua, present in the hall of mirrors of colonial, familial, class and gender oppression. The option of being a writer was perceived not as a medium for political liberation, but rather for suspending the physical pain. Thus writing is not a means for self-knowledge or self-awareness; it is the refuge from all these.”
Kincaid says her relationship to the English language is likewise complicated, since it was the language of the British colonizer in Antigua until 1981, when the island won independence.
“My relationship to it is not an easy one, but it’s what I got. What I got was English. My consciousness is influenced by Shakespeare, Milton, the Brontes – you name it. Franz Fanon writes about this thing called the double consciousness. Yes, I’m someone with it, and now I have a triple consciousness. But actually it turns out that that’s a truly modern existence – you have more than one consciousness. It started out [as something that] was imposed, the colonialism and so on, but the more [people] meet each other, the more conscious we are of each other.
“The English language started out as a distortion in my life, but nothing remains the same, and so the distortion is now just normal. That is one of the things that will happen to all distortions: They become normal and turn into something else.”
(Tags: Conversion, Israel, Black Jew, Books)