Authors and Editors in Conversation
Jonathan Galassi: Jamaica, this is your first novel in a decade. How has your writing changed in the intervening period and what have you been thinking about in terms of writing?
Jamaica Kincaid: “This is your first novel in a decade.” There are so many strange things in that brief statement. The word “decade” is one of them; the word “novel” is another. Do you know who I am, who I really am? Well, I don’t know that, either.
The first real novel I read was Jane Eyre. I was about ten years of age or so. Before that I read mostly poetry: Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and the Bible, King James version, and the Concise Oxford Dictionary; also Nancy Drew mysteries and everything written by Enid Blyton. Enid Blyton was the first person I pretended to be when I was a child. After that, I wanted to be Charlotte Brontë. It’s possible my writing has gone from Enid to Charlotte. I would be so pleased if someone would say that about it. As for thinking about my writing: I do wish I could go beyond 200 pages, I do wish I would write one of those books with so many pages that no one ever finishes the reading of them, but alas, I seem unable to do this. Of course, there are many reasons not to finish reading a book, apart from the length of it.
JG: I recall your saying once that you composed your sentences in your head, memorized them, and then wrote them down. Is that still the case?
JK: It is still the case and this is not a good thing in the long run, for now it has become the short run, I am sixty-three years of age and I glean that the brain, which apparently is essential to memory, is not one of those glorious things that improves with age. Age is its mortal enemy. All the same, with me, habits become habitual. I so like to walk around with a sentence or two in my head. Of course with me, a sentence can be a couple hundred words. It would be easier if my sentences were five words: I see the cat jump. But I have no such luck. I think this is why it is so hard for me to memorize poetry; I have filled up that part of my memory chamber that I should have reserved for all of Robert Frost and all of Derek Walcott with my own sentences. And of course my own sentences are not as nourishing to me—or to anybody, come to put it exactly—as a line from ‘Nights in the Gardens of Port of Spain’ or any line of Frost’s. It would be so much more useful to the world all in all if I would give up my own sentences and commit to my memory other sentences worthy of residing there. But there you have it, there it is.
JG: In See Now Then, which is one of the most powerful works of fiction I’ve read in ages, the story of a marriage coming apart, of a family fracturing becomes profoundly mythologized. You might say the action seems to slow down, almost like a Kabuki dance, to be analyzed and run over and over through the writer’s—and the reader’s—mind. Almost the way one goes over and over the surface of a sore tooth. How did you come to approach your material this way?
JK: A sore tooth! Now there’s an idea. But I don’t like it. I would go immediately and have something done about it, that sore tooth. All that aside, I do tend to want to make a myth of everything, truly everything, even the chair I am sitting on, I want it to be more than a chair. I want it to be a chair of chairs and among other chairs and I want it to do something. I tend to want to turn all nouns into verbs and here is why: by definition a noun is a name, a place, a thing; by definition a verb is action, or indicates action, confers action on the thing associated with it. A myth is a noun, but it is full of people and events that are not fixed, people and events who are not only up and about in their own time but up and about over time, up to the time we are encountering them.
Marriage is defined as a noun. But I don’t accept that at all, anymore than I accept the idea that a person is a noun. A person is a verb is what I say. It makes sense to me to make a noun of a place or thing, for place and thing are at rest, place and thing are contained, there, just there, stilled. But a person is not just there, stilled, even if they mimicked a moai, those stone statues on Easter Island, even then they would not be completely fixed, especially then they would not be completely fixed. And if a person, all alone, isolated and singular, is in constant flux, active, more so is that true when you say a marriage, for a marriage is made up of two of them, at least up to now.
What I want to do is to write about people who will be married to each other and then one of them will do something that will be forgivable one day and then unforgivable the next and then, on the day that one of them does something unforgivable, the injured one pours a glass of port into the seams of a shirt that is worn by the unfaithful partner that night as they go dancing and generally rendezvousing with someone else, and then, when least expected, the seams of the shirt burst and consume the two who are enjoying themselves in their treachery. They are reduced to ashes and then an unexpected fierce wind comes and blows the ashes into the mouth of the Congo River, whose forceful flow of water plunges the ashes into the deep cavern that has been made by that river in earth’s floor.
JG: Wow! I feel as if we’ve suddenly entered a new Jamaica Kincaid book here. I think your answer speaks volumes about how writing works for you—almost as if it is infused with a spirit that gives it a life and energy of its own. It takes off from a suggestion—even as banal a suggestion as my question—and immediately metamorphoses. How do you direct the flow of this river? Is it yours? Or does it in fact have a life of its own?
JK: Well now, there you have it, that’s the trouble with me, I am always answering questions in volumes, as you say, but did I answer your question at all?
When I read something, or when I am asked a question, I immediately break it up into its many parts and each part demands my attention and when I look up after considering some of the parts, I come to see that I am so far from the response that I haven’t answered the question at all. I am always writing. When I am talking to someone, a few moments into the conversation, I am thinking of what they are saying in a way that is far removed from them. I am often wondering: when they say this, do they mean that or do they mean something else and am I responding to what I think they mean or what they really mean? Well, I can’t go on like that all the time, so I file it away, and lots of it gets lost but remains is what I go over and over, that sore tooth, to quote you, my tongue moving over it again and again, until… what?
Until I have an idea about the world as I am experiencing it and then I begin to get the sentences that I need to fill up that world. And so for me, writing is total absorption with the self, not my own self, but a self that I don’t really know, a self that is essential if I am to write.
JG: To return to See Now Then, it seems to me that you are conducting some original experiments in time in the book, as the title suggests, which are intrinsic to the mythologizing of your material. How are “now” and “then” related in the book?
JK: See Now Then is the latest incarnation of the first piece of fiction I wrote, a short story called “Girl,” which is one sentence and 300 words long. You might say that story is the embryo of this book. I am always trying to reconcile the person I was with the person I am with the person I will be. I have a vague sense, an inkling of a feeling, that they are all there, and if I turn around quickly, I will see it all at once, it will all be unified. But no, I am not quick enough. Now and Then, time and again, time and time again!
In any case, all I am trying to do is avoid writing these words: “The next day…” Or, “Ten years after her first date with the guy who removed the mercury filling from her teeth…” And especially this: “The minute she walked in the room she could tell that things had changed.”
But to return to how Now and Then are related: In my mind, how could they not be? Is the ten year old in 1958 irretrievably lost to that same person in 1998? I am not psychologist, a psychiatrist, a forensic detective of the unconscious; nor do I understand the bounty that has been retrieved by those explorers who have ventured into brains. Though we seem able to understand the make of the brain, its physical parts and its chemical arrangements, something about it is not accessible to us, in the way we cannot know ourselves.
But how did I get here? I was trying to say something about how Now and Then are related. They are, but I fully accept that I will not right now explain them so.
JG: I have always felt that in essence your books are all parts of one great book.
JK: One Big Book, yes, that must be it, I have been writing one book. In looking at the books I have written, all those little books, not one of them over 200 pages long, I can easily imagine, and then say with certainty, that I have been trying to unite their influence on me in One Big Book. There are other books that have emboldened me along the way. Jane Eyre made me pretend I was a writer. I used to pretend I was Charlotte Brontë when I was ten even though I had no idea who she was or any other thing about her except that she had written this book which was thrust at me by my French teacher. On the back of the book it said that Charlotte Brontë had lived in Belgium and was poor, so I used to pretend that I had written Jane Eyre and I was poor and living in Belgium and Belgium was cold. In my real life, I was living in a perpetually hot climate, an almost hell for those of us for whom it was home.
JG: A long way from the Northern world of See Now Then. If your characters tend toward the mythological, how do landscape and place figure in the meanings of your work?
JK: Landscape and place have an overwhelming influence on my configuration of a world. When I write about a person, among the things that make them up, place, landscape, is an essential ingredient. Most anything I say about it here can only seem trite and in any case, I have said something about it, lots of things about this in writing about the garden. The garden is never far from my mind and a garden always has a person in it, the gardener herself. Right now, this very moment, I am in a garden in Maui, Hawaii. It is a garden of palms, only palms, towering palms, under-story palms: this garden has been planted by the poet William Merwyn. It is so much fun to walk around it with him leading the way, telling me the name of each palm, most of which he grew himself from seeds he ordered from people who go around collecting them. It’s like walking around Eden, that original paradise, and the tree of life and the tree of knowledge: well, it’s all palms.
Jamaica Kincaid was born in St. John’s, Antigua. Her books include At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother, and My Brother, all published by FSG. See Now Then—her first novel in ten years—is now available.
Jonathan Galassi is the President and Publisher of FSG.