Jamaica Kincaid, the American Book Awards, and the Limits of Autobiography

[By Meredith Wiggins]

On August 14, the 19 honorees for the 2014 American Book Awards were announced.  Among them was Jamaica Kincaid, the Antiguan-American semi-autobiographical novelist and essayist recognized for See Now Then (2013), her first novel since 2002’s Mr. Potter.

The American Book Awards
recognize “excellence in American literature without restriction or
bias with regard to race, sex, creed, cultural origin, size of press or
ad budget, or even genre.”  Now in their 35th year, the ABAs have no set categories, no nominees, not even a standard number of awards; instead, Ishmael Reed’s Before Columbus Foundation allows the “natural process” of diversity to occur, recognizing the multiculturalism that the BCF sees as the inherent definition of American literature.  

See Now Then is both literally and figuratively multicultural.  It tells the story of a Vermont family, the Sweets, in dissolution after the failed musician husband leaves his wife for a younger woman.  Mrs. Sweet moved to the U.S. from a place her husband disparagingly refers to as a “stupid little island,” and Mr. Sweet considers her “that horrible bitch who’d arrived on a banana boat.”

Readers familiar with Kincaid may recognize some similarities to the author’s real life.  But Kincaid steadfastly resists the notion that the work–any of her fictional works, really–should be read as autobiography.  Elements of her life may appear, she asserts in this interview with the New York Times, but that’s hardly the same thing.  (And she explicitly states that her own ex-husband, unlike Mr. Sweet, never made such racist comments to her.)  Still, critics like Dwight Garner read See Now Then, and what they see is, in large part, Kincaid’s life–both as it was then, and as it is now. 

In a 2002 interview with Kay Bonetti for The Missouri Review, Kincaid embraced the contradiction of being an autobiographically inclined author whose works nevertheless stand alone as imaginative fiction.  Discussing her novel Mr. Potter, she stated, “I write about myself for the most part, and about things that happened to me.  Everything I say is true, and everything I saw is not true.  You couldn’t admit any of it to a court of law.  It would not be good evidence.”

Just as people mischaracterize Kincaid’s work as merely “angry” because she is a black woman who allows herself and her work to express legitimate anger, her fiction is misread as autobiography because she allows herself to explore the psychic and imaginative space between fact and fiction.  This award–given to writers, by writers–speaks to the importance of Kincaid’s novel as a complicated literary experiment in time, myth, and identity.