I drank and drank until all that was left was the bare dry seabed. All the water from the sea filled me up, from my toes to my head, and I swelled up very big. But then little cracks began to appear in me and the water started to leak out -- first in just little seeps and trickles coming out of my seams, then with a loud roar as I burst open. From "Annie John"
Having filled herself with her childhood in Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid, at 35, has let her memories burst open into two books -- the prize-winning "At the Bottom of the River" of last year and the new "Annie John." But, sitting in a hotel room with her 4-month-old daughter, Kincaid is a study in hesitancy and a warrior for privacy.
She wears loose tan pants, a white shirt, purple socks and black flats; her hair is a natural brown, brushed close to her head. All this is changed from an earlier, wildly flamboyant period.
In New York, where she lives with her husband, composer Allen Shawn, it is fairly well known that she created the name Jamaica Kincaid. She starts to tell the story but then withdraws, pleading privacy.
"I'd rather not speak about that. It just brings up too many things, including my mother's feelings. When you write about your life, if you write about things that are private, you have to be careful. There is a profound meaning to it. I don't want to make something I did very consciously into an anecdote," she says.
But already, in the books, she seems to have revealed so much.
In "Annie John," the mother has a trunk under the bed and the girl character is smart, mischievous, funny. Kincaid says her own mother had a similar trunk, her father was a carpenter but she doesn't want to call it autobiographical.
She even withheld her photograph from the book jacket.
"It is deliberate," she says of that choice, and she arches elegantly long hands over her cherubic face.
This is a statuesque woman who once drew so much attention in New York that The New Yorker magazine -- where she is now a staff writer -- wrote about her in its "Talk of the Town" section.
"I just can't bear to mention this. I used to dress in a strange way," she says. "I just was quite odd. I just used to have very short hair, which I dyed blond. I wore anklets. This is in the days when I never saw anyone wearing anklets and saddle shoes. I wore circle skirts or tight skirts. I used to have lots of old clothes. Part of it was I couldn't afford new clothes and part of it was basically I dressed then the way I remembered my mother dressing -- long tight skirts, pedal pushers. I had no eyebrows. I was just expressing myself. It was great fun."
For her first 17 years, Kincaid lived in Antigua, one of four children who lived in the capital city of St. John's in a small wooden house, painted canary yellow with a red roof and a garden of bachelor's buttons and marigolds. Like the "Annie" of her book (Annie is also her mother's and daughter's name) she had a strict education, which she had to spice up for herself and her classmates. "It must be said that perhaps some of it the book clearly is me. I was most mischievous. It must clearly be about me as I mythologized my growing up. The real thing that is autobiographical is the feelings," she says. "If I had written a profile of my mother or my life and The New Yorker fact-checking department had checked it, it wouldn't have gone through."
She evokes childhood thoughts and sensations, such as wanting to see what a dead person looked like, or discovering the joys of a View Master slide viewer, or cringing at a mother's disapproval, or selecting friends on the slightest whim. She writes in "Annie":
I noticed that the girl's hair was the color of a penny fresh from the mint, and that it was so unruly it had to be forcibly twisted into corkscrews, the ends tied tightly with white thread . . . Right away to myself I called her the Red Girl. For as she passed, in my mind's eye I could see her surrounded by flames, the house she lived in on fire, and she could not escape. I rescued her, and after that she followed me around worshipfully and took with great forbearance any and every abuse I heaped on her.
At the end of the book, "Annie" leaves for England to study nursing, the same fate planned for Kincaid.
Here she hesitates again.
"I'd just as soon not bring that up. I hope I am not invading my mother's privacy," she says, "and also that I don't open old wounds."
What finally happened was that she landed in New York in 1966, worked as an au pair girl for two years, then went to school in New Hampshire for two years, where she studied photography.
"I saw a film called 'La Jeta,' a five-minute film made up of still photographs but in the middle, something actually moves. It had a profound influence on me. My life was never the same. In the middle of wanting to be a photographer, I started to write out my photographs," she recalls.
Slowly she added other writers, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, to her schoolgirl models of Dickens, Hardy, Milton, Shakespeare and the Bible. "Some short stories of Robbe-Grillet's I read which were rather impenetrable but I loved them. They just changed my life. I remember reading them and feeling weightless," she says. "It was my first experience with modern expression."
She ended up back in New York, writing features for Ingenue, getting people like Alice Cooper, Gloria Steinem, Yoko Ono and Jim Brown to reminisce about what they were like at age 17. She also wrote about culture for The Village Voice and free-lanced for The New Yorker. She became known as a personality and a style setter.
Now, even while being interviewed, she says she wants to protect her privacy, "even though I am the first person to look at the book jacket to see what the writer looks like," she says.
The source of her delicate and ethereal writing is the Caribbean and the irresolvable status of exile.
"I couldn't live at home anymore but I am not really American. I sort of cling to the West Indies. But the truth is I am really . . . " and she stops, trying to find the right word for the homeless artist. "I am West Indian. It is in my blood. But I can't live there. I am not American. I don't feel black American. If you are a West Indian, you don't really feel black, you just are West Indian. I am permanently nowhere . . . you spend your life writing about a place where you can't be."
Tonight, in her alto accent that is a wonderful marriage of British briskness and Caribbean chimes, Kincaid will be reading from her books at American University's Gray Hall at 8:30.
Though Kincaid feels a kinship to the Caribbean writers, she feels no special link to the black American women writers who have had a wave of acceptance from publishers in the last five years.
"I am from the West Indies and I don't feel like a black writer. I have to say that always feels false to me. I suppose if you are writing, you latch onto anything you can. It is so difficult to write that whatever makes you write, fine. If you feel like a black writer and that makes you write, fine. That wouldn't make me write," she says very slowly. "When I am writing I feel so much like an individual, so different, so unconnected to everyone. So unconnected to any group of anybody that I couldn't write and feel I am a black writer. In fact, I don't know what it feels to be a black anything. I know I am black. I think I feel I know enough about life to appreciate the accident that that is. My just being alive, period, that's enough of an inspiration, that I am alive.