October 23, 2003

Mother Wit

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In an overcrowded and stiflingly warm auditorium on Friday evening, Jamaica Kincaid worked a bit of magic on a group of devotees that included everyone from the head of the creative writing program to regular students who were simply interested by the author and excited to be there. Reading first her famous short story “Girl,” Kincaid swept us all up in her warm and soothing voice, giving life to the main character of the story, a young girl who we only get a few actual words from. In one long sentence, we learn a great deal about this unnamed girl, including everything she’s supposed to be when she grows up, everything her mother is trying so diligently to teach her.

Kincaid’s reading of this particular story seems to be a personal favor to her presenter, Professor Stephanie Vaughn, of the English Department, but I found it to be very applicable to college students. Here we all are, being molded by our teachers, our friends, our parents, ourselves, molded into the sort of people who we have to be, who we’re supposed to be. College is a time for solidifying what we believe in and who we are. Even though it seemed incidental, I thought that the reading of this story was especially appropriate.

The other selection that Kincaid chose to read was an excerpt from her most recent book Mr. Potter, published in 2002. Before she began reading, Kincaid warned the audience that her selection was the kind of writing that’s generally classified as “writer’s writing,” the sort of writing that only other writers get excited about. So if you were expecting a clear-cut story, something definitive that you can sink your hands into, this is not the instance in which you will receive it.

Kincaid’s selection from Mr. Potter was definitely a bit of challenging work. It read almost like poetry, with rhythm and colour that sprang from Kincaid’s voice as well as the wording of the work. Repetitiveness ran rampant, descriptions were simultaneously vague and distinct, and time had no meaning as it folded back in on itself in memories and daydreams. What came through most was a sense of overpowering heat and despairing isolation, both from the setting of the story and its characters. I know that the little slice of the book I heard desperately intrigued me, and that I desire to read the rest to be blasted once again by the beauty of Kincaid’s words. Of course, I’ll have to keep in mind that it just won’t be the same without Kincaid herself reading to me.

Kincaid is even more fascinating than her prose. Born Elaine Potter Richardson on the island of Antigua (located in the Caribbean, southeast of Puerto Rico), Kincaid is a product of the colonial school system imposed on the island by Great Britain, a system that tried to eradicate all sense of identity among the local populations of the island. Kincaid was sent to Westchester, New York to work as an au pair in 1965. After making a few friends and beginning her career at the prestigious New Yorker Magazine, she gave them her first foray into fiction to see if they wanted to publish it: that foray was “Girl,” and the world of fiction has never been the same since. Her form was seen as revolutionary, as was her content. Here was a woman who wrote with regard to her own personal experiences, who drew on what she knew, didn’t relegate it to a back corner, or shun it as “un-literary.”

While so many authors strive to be literary and come across as pompous, Kincaid works her simple magic and produces beautiful works of fiction. Not only is her writing disarmingly honest and direct, but her own mannerisms are as well. After her glowing introductions on Friday, Kincaid was extraordinarily modest and unassuming, to the point of self-deprecation. Her warmth flowed easily as she stammered out ‘thank you’s’ in an awkward and sincere way, instantly endearing her to all of her audience. The last thing I expected was to hear Jamaica Kincaid almost speechless!

It’s a great privilege to attend a University like Cornell, as much as we knock this institution and gripe about it on an hourly basis. One of the benefits of being a student here is getting the opportunity to hear the most talented and learned in their profession host lectures, engage in discussions, and pass their knowledge on to us. Hearing Jamaica Kincaid speak was one of those opportunities that made me realize just how lucky a person I am to be here at this school. Her gift for writing is breathtaking, and made all the more poignant by her modesty and kindness. Even though I had to sit on the floor and ignore my numb arse for an hour, it was worth every moment to hear this incredible woman speak.


Archived article by Sue Karp

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