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Jamaica Kincaid's My Brother

And the death of New Yorker editor William Shawn

Jamaica Kincaid. After loss of her mother’s entire attention, she turned to books.
  • Jamaica Kincaid. After loss of her mother’s entire attention, she turned to books.

Author: Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson, May 25, 1949, to a carpenter father and housewife mother in St. John’s, Antigua, in the West Indies. During Kincaid’s childhood, St. John’s was a sleepy capital city, ruled over by the British. (Antigua would not achieve independence from the British until 1981).

Kincaid, the first of four children, grew up in a house without electricity and running water. She attended government schools, where her teachers found her unusually bright and unusually difficult. When Kincaid turned nine, she ceased being her parent’s only child. With the advent of three brothers and the loss of her mother’s entire attention, Kincaid turned to books. She recalls repeatedly reading Eyre. She recalls, too, that in order to feed her reading hunger, she stole books and stole money to buy books.

At 17, after graduation from high school, Kincaid left Antigua for a job as an au pair in upstate New York. She would not return to Antigua for almost two decades. During those years, she made her way to Manhattan where she found work as an au pair for Michael Arlen’s family (Arlen, for many years a New Yorker writer, is son of Michael Arlen, the elder Arlen remembered for his novel, The Green Hat). Kincaid left the Arlens after four years, attended college for a year, then dropped out.

In 1973, she found work writing interviews for Ingenue. It was then that she changed her name from Elaine Potter Richardson to Jamaica Kincaid. The name change, Kincaid told a reporter in 1990, became “a way for me to do things without being the same person who couldn’t do them.” At about this same time, Kincaid began to spend time with George Trow, then writing pieces for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town.” Trow often took Kincaid along on his “Talk” assignments and quoted her in them, describing her as our friend Jamaica Kincaid and our sassy black friend. Kincaid soon began to write her own “Talk” pieces. The late New Yorker editor, William Shawn, admired the pieces and printed them. Her first New Yorker story, “Girl,” appeared in the magazine in 1978, and she remained on the magazine’s staff until recently. Previous to her ending her association with the New Yorker, Kincaid not only contributed “Talk” pieces and fiction to that magazine’s pages, but also wrote there about the development of her Vermont garden.

In 1979, Kincaid married Shawn’s older son, Allen, a composer. The couple has two children. Kincaid is author of At the Bottom of the River (1984), a collection of stories; Annie John (1985); and three novels, including the recent The Autobiography of My Mother (1996).

My Brother; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997; 198 pages; $19

Kincaid’s memoir, a National Book Award nominee, finds its immediate action in her younger brother Devon’s falling victim to AIDS. Born when Kincaid was 13, Devon is someone Kincaid hardly knew. When she returns to Antigua to bring him the AZT that is unavailable there, it has been 20 years since she last saw him. The best description of what the reader will find in My Brother is a passage from the book itself “I became a writer out of desperation, so when I first heard my brother was dying I was familiar with the act of saving myself: I would write about him. I would write about his dying. When I was young, younger than I am now, I started to write about my own life and I came to see that this act saved my life. When I heard about my brother’s illness and his dying, I knew, instinctively, that to understand it, or to make an attempt at understanding his dying, and not to die with him, I would write about it.”

Toward My Brother's end, Kincaid writes about William Shawn’s death. I said, when Ms. Kincaid and I talked recently, that the book seems as much about Shawn’s influence on Kincaid as a writer and Shawn’s death, as it is about the death of her brother.

“Yes. Yes. You’re quite right. It’s really interesting how you find a touchstone in your life. I could not have written about Mr. Shawn in that way without my brother. I couldn’t have. It was my brother and then my brother’s death tied up with the loss of Mr. Shawn. I didn’t know that that’s what I was doing until I had finished it and realized I had written an account of how I became a writer.

“That [Shawn’s death] actually was the only part I cried about when I was writing. That was the only part. That was the first time I really faced what I’d lost. Losing my editor. My reader. I really didn’t care who liked my writing as long as he read it. And if he liked it, it was great. But just as long as he read it.”

I asked how Mr. Shawn was, for Kincaid, as an editor.

“I can just tell you little stories. This is how our conversation among writers in the office [at the New Yorker] would go. ‘Did you finish your piece?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What did Shawn say? What did Shawn think?’ And then it was, ‘Well, he said it was okay. He said it was good.’ But then there were things he would say that you would just know he really liked it. Including the fact that you would get paid some astronomical amount of money that was out of the ordinary, and sometimes you’d think it was a mistake. You’d go say, ‘You know, Mr. Shawn, I’ve already been paid.’ And he would say, ‘Oh, well.’ As if it was a mistake that was all right. And it happened enough times that you knew he really meant to pay you more money.

“Our whole life, our whole way of looking at the world was. Boy, this would be great to tell Shawn. And to tell him in writing. I never realized how I took it for granted until it was taken away from me. The new editor at the New Yorker isn’t interested in writing, at all. At first I didn’t understand that she wasn’t interested in writing. That she was, you know, interested in giving a good party or having a good chat. But that private moment, that private part of a writer which is a spiritual life really, no matter what comes out of it, you’re talking about communing with some kind of deity.

“It’s crucial, actually, to a democratic society, this private life of thinking that everybody should have. Shawn was an advocate of freedom in the form of a writer’s private thoughts. He wanted to know your private thoughts as a writer, not who you were sleeping with, but how something was for you. And I never knew that until he wasn’t there. I didn’t understand. When I think of how I took him for granted! I will never find another reader like that. It’s just not possible. It was just a gift.

“He would sometimes timidly suggest ideas to us, you know, that we should write about, and we’d say to him, ‘Aw, no, that’s terrible, that’s terrible.’ And he would just say, ‘Oh yes, yes.’ And back away, feeling no doubt that he had transgressed. And now you know, you went from that to someone calling you up and saying, ‘We’re doing a special issue on such-and-such. Could you write a piece?’ ”

Was it amazing, I asked, the first time you earned money for what you wrote?

“Yes! And Mr. Shawn gave it to me. He gave me $1000 for a ‘Talk’ story. And in those days, I think, they only paid $400. But it was an example of liking something so much that he paid me this incredible sum of money. This was in 1974. I’d never seen so much money in my life. I had never expected to be paid for my writing. And when I started to garden, I didn’t know I could be paid for writing and thinking about gardening. These are all things I got from him, really. This idea of being paid for this pleasure. And the idea also that my work might be pleasure. I can no sooner think of writing than I think of Mr. Shawn. Which is to say I think of Mr. Shawn every day. I’m not alone in this. This is an experience many people have.”

Until recently, the New Yorker “Talk” pieces were printed without byline. Kincaid talked about the “beauty” of that anonymity. “Updike,” she said, ’was a ‘Talk’ writer. Almost every New Yorker writer of any note was a ‘Talk’ writer. And the beauty of it, it was anonymous. I was saying to someone the other day that it’s quite possible that there is a relationship between the greatness of a work and its also being anonymous. Anonymity is a kind of grace. It’s like anonymously giving."

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