October 20, 2003

Jamaica Kincaid Presents Works

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Jamaica Kincaid addressed a standing-room-only audience in Goldwin Smith’s Hollis E. Cornell auditorium on Friday. Kincaid read a sampling of her works as part of the James McConkey Readings in American Fiction series, sponsored by the English department’s Creative Writing Program and funded by Fred Parkin ’63.

Visiting Cornell for two days, Kincaid met with many students and faculty in a variety of settings. She participated in an intimate discussion with students and faculty on “The Craft of Fiction” in the English department faculty lounge on Thursday afternoon. Kincaid also took part in a luncheon with current students in the MFA in Creative Writing program on Friday. Her close contact with the aspiring writers was part of a stipulation by Parkin in which authors must spend significant time with students during an extended stay at the university.

Opening Friday evening’s reading, Prof. Lamar Herrin, English, said “all of us here owe a great deal to [Prof. Emeritus] Jim McConkey,” who was a founding member of the Creative Writing Program. Herrin gave a brief history of the program and explained how the McConkey Reading series began. In order to recognize the success of the Creative Writing Program, Parkin, in the mid-90s, sponsored recently-published graduates of the MFA program to discuss their works and successes to current students. He soon approached the university, proposing to “do something bigger than this,” he said, and began funding the McConkey series.

Prof. Stephanie Vaughn, English, introduced Kincaid with a short biography and much adulation for the writer. Kincaid, born in Antigua while it was still a colony of the British Empire, moved to New York at age 17. She joined the staff of The New Yorker, printing unsigned columns about the city, and published her first short story in 1977, at age 28.

“The act of reading is an act of consumption,” Vaughn said. Looking directly at Kincaid, she added, “a good piece of writing, though, will eat the reader.” At the end of her introduction of Kincaid, Vaughn told the audience to prepare to be affected by the reading. “I have an idea tonight that many spines are going to tingle,” she said.

Kincaid took the podium afterwards and read her short story “Girl,” dedicating the reading to Vaughn. Written in one sentence with no defined setting, the story is, Vaughn said, “a very unconventional piece of writing.”

“I didn’t know what you shouldn’t do in a piece of writing,” Kincaid said regarding that first piece and her later works. Kincaid continued, saying that she believes ignoring the rules is what has made her so successful.

After reading “Girl,” Kincaid chose a short selection from her most recent novel, Mr. Potter. The book is one that “only another writer would like,” Kincaid said. She joked, “I really think nobody likes it, and that’s why I like it best.”

Kincaid, the faculty of the English department and members of the MFA in Creative Writing program ended the evening by joining Parkin and McConkey in a reception at the A.D. White House.

The third reader of this bi-annual series, Kincaid’s predecessors are authors Tobias Wolff (in 2001) and Tim O’Brien (in 1999). Kincaid’s other works include At the Bottom of the River, A Small Place, Lucy: A Novel, Annie John, Autobiography of My Mother, My Brother, and My Garden (Book). She has also published numerous short stories and essays in a variety of magazines.

Archived article by Melissa Korn