Diane Simmons, Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994. 155 pages.
There were few women among the pioneers and first- generation writers of Anglophone Caribbean literature—Jean Rhys, Una Marson, Phyllis Shand Allfrey, Louise Bennett, Sylvia Wynter, and Paule Marshall being the most notable exceptions. Jamaica Kincaid, the subject of Diane Simmons's book-length study in Twayne's "United States Authors Series," belongs to the formidable group of Caribbean women writers who were born during and after World War II, began to publish their work in the 1970s and 1980s, and have since then rapidly overshadowed their male counterparts, with only Caryl Phillips gaining a reputation equal to that of his predecessors. Like Erna Brodber, Zee Edgell, Merle Hodge, Michelle Cliff, and Joan Riley, Kincaid has opted for fiction as her preferred means of creativity. (Other writers such as Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison, M. Nourbese Philip, Grace Nichols, and Dionne Brand divide their energy between poetry and fiction.) Like Merle Collins, Kincaid grew up on one of the smaller islands (Collins in Grenada, Kincaid in Antigua); like Cliff, Philip and Brand, she left the Caribbean at an early age and has been living in North America.
Diane Simmons is a novelist in her own right—her second novel, Dreams like Thunder, won the 1993 Oregon Book Award for fiction—and Jamaica Kincaid is based on the prize-winning doctoral dissertation she wrote for the City University of New York. The result is a sensitive, well-written, and well-researched study of Kincaid's life, and her work: the collection of stories, At the Bottom of the River (1983); the two novels, Annie John (1985) and Lucy (1990); and the nonfictional exploration of tourism and the postcolonial condition in Antigua, A Small Place (1988); with frequent references to her uncollected short fiction and nonfiction. After an extensive biographical chapter, the book divides into two parts: chapters two to five focus on elements found in all of Kincaid's work (the mother figure, obeah, the rhythmic prose, the rewriting of the Western canon—in particular, John Milton's Paradise Lost and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre); chapters six to nine offer close readings of the four volumes that Kincaid has published to date. The procedure meshes extremely well: it highlights the biographical (especially Kincaid's traumatic relationship with her mother) as the single most important root of the author's creativity and covers her oeuvre as a whole before delving into the specificity of a given work. College students, for whom this study is primarily meant, can experience the carefully orchestrated unlocking of a difficult text such as At the Bottom of the River; through an efficient index and a brief bibliography they are also enabled to roam through the book in pursuit of particular themes and preoccupations of the author.
One such theme/preoccupation frequently found in the life and work of postcolonial writers is (re)naming. Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in 1949 and left Antigua for New York in 1965; Simmons's study explains that it was not until 1973, when her first articles were published in Ingenue magazine, that she renamed herself. However, it seems the choice of name and the act of renaming were not politically motivated. Simmons quotes Kincaid from an interview that was conducted by Allan Vorda and published in the Mississippi review in 1991:
At the time I changed it, I didn't know there were African names, although I don't think I could have done that because by this time I have as much connection to Africa as you do. The connection I have to Africa is the color of my skin and that doesn't seem enough to have changed it to an African name. My new name unconsciously had the significance I wanted it to have, since that is the area of the world I'm from. Jamaica is an English corruption of what Columbus called Xaymaca. Kincaid just seemed to go together with Jamaica, but there were many combinations of names that could have been chosen one night when my friends and I were sitting around.
Since then, and especially since writing A Small Place, Kincaid has consciously explored the relationship between (re)naming and colonial domination. For example, as Simmons writes,
One theme of Kincaid's gardening columns [published in the New Yorker since 1992] is the way in which plants have historically been seized as part of the treasure of conquest, how they have been taken from their native environments, renamed, and then transplanted in a new land. Sometimes the plants are used to enrich the new land, sometimes to beautify, sometimes to replace the failing indigenous flora. For Kincaid, this gathering, renaming, and transplanting is a form of, and metaphor for, conquest. The 'cocoxochitl' is taken from Mexico and Central America to Europe, for example, and 'hybridized by the Swedish botanist Andreas Dahl,' who renames the plant after himself. Thereafter, the 'dahlia' becomes a European possession losing all connection to its native Central America.
In this context it is more than ironic that Jamaica Kincaid is published in Twayne's "United States Authors Series."
Reinhard W. Sander
Copyright © Diane Simmons