For Kincaid, a 'day' to remember in the writing life

March 16, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

Jamaica Kincaid rises slowly from her seat and stands at the lectern, lost at the moment for words. The novelist is waving her big hands, pulling at her gold wedding band and looking out at the crowd as if 175 people in the ballroom at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel just jumped out from behind a couch.

"Oh . . . I, I. I've never been. I've never had my own day. . . . Uh, I never had such a thing happen to me . . ."

How odd it all seems. It is her own day, Jamaica Kincaid Day in Baltimore, so proclaimed by Mayor Kurt Schmoke on the occasion of her appearance yesterday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's seventh annual luncheon celebrating African American History. She's having trouble finding words: "Um . . . I'm trying to do my best here. I can see you ask a lot . . ."

These friends of the library seated under crystal chandeliers the size of swimming pools are looking up from their fruit cups and watching. Ms. Kincaid, 45, hesitates and halts, then picks up her fourth novel, "Lucy," and begins reading from the first chapter. It tells how a 19-year-old West Indian woman, a woman much like Ms. Kincaid, arrives in a big city to work as a live-in nanny for an affluent family.

Now the words coming from the lectern flow and flow, buoyant on her Antigua English accent.

It was my first day. I had come the night before, a gray-black and cold night before -- as it was expected to be in the middle of January, though I didn't know that at the time -- and I could not see anything clearly on the way in from the airport, even though there were lights everywhere. . . . I was reminded of how uncomfortable the new can make you feel.

By the time "Lucy" was published in 1990, Ms. Kincaid was no longer a stranger in Manhattan. This woman who arrived in New York as a 16-year-old from Antigua with nothing but a desire to quit her home was already a member in good standing of the literary scene.

After years of struggle, working jobs here and there and writing for teen magazines, she had been discovered by the New Yorker, had dined with editor William Shawn at the Algonquin, no less. She became a staff writer for the magazine in 1976 and by 1990 had published four books, the first of which, "At the Bottom of the River," was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Reviewers called her work "brilliant," "stunning," "poetic." This daughter of the West Indies was proclaimed the "daughter of Charlotte Bronte and Virginia Woolf and her own inimitable self."

What an odd thing, to be known as a writer, she tells the crowd at the Omni.

"In London, if you say you're a writer, people ask if you went to Oxford, 'Did you go to Cambridge?' But in America people seem to accept it."

She attended college in New Hampshire for two years, quit and returned to New York and wrote.

She wrote because that's all there was. She was alone with her anger about her family, her anger about growing up under the abuses of British colonial rule. She wrote about mothers and daughters and her own country and her own childhood. She wrote because she was qualified to do nothing else, she says.

"No skill, lots of anger -- writer," she says, answering a question about whether she considers it a career. No, not that.

"I certainly wouldn't want one, I hate the word. It implies a caged-in-ness. I wouldn't like such a predictability in my own life," says Ms. Kincaid, a mother of two who lives in Bennington, Vt., and teaches writing and literature at Harvard. Her husband, Allen Shawn, is a composer and the son of William Shawn.

How odd, then, for her to arrive on a morning flight in Baltimore and stand a few hours later before a crowd and have a day proclaimed in her name.

Today, the woman who once said she felt destined for secretarial work in Antigua will be reading for another crowd at the Library of Congress.

"One learns," she says, while signing books in the hotel lobby, "to live with contradictions."

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