Author Jamaica Kincaid muses on landscape, memory

On Thursday, April 11, Jamaica Kincaid gave this year's Alex Krieger '95 Memorial Lecture. The critically acclaimed author has written several books and short stories, including "A Small Place" and "Girl."

[Correction (Thursday, Apr. 18): We issued a reprint of this edition of The Miscellany News due to an error in identifying the individual on the cover photo, which was for this article. The Miscellany News sincerely apologizes for this insensitive oversight.]

In her weekly Sunday email, President Elizabeth Bradley called renowned author Jamaica Kincaid a “force for understanding.” Anyone who attended the lecture on Thursday, April 11 would back that assessment; Kincaid touched on numerous topics that enlightened and amused the crowd.

Kincaid had been invited to give what is arguably the most anticipated lecture of the year at Vassar: The Alex Krieger ’95 Memorial Lecture, a series which takes place each spring in memory of its namesake, a talented former student who tragically passed away in an automobile accident in the spring of his freshman year. In the last two years alone, the lecture has been delivered by writers like Junot Diaz and Zadie Smith. To honor Alex’s memory this spring, the Krieger family joined the Vassar community in welcoming acclaimed author Jamaica Kincaid.

Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana quelled the buzzing excitement of the Villard Room with a personal introduction: “Professor Kincaid’s writing, to me, came at a very important time—when I was getting all sorts of questions on why Caribbean Studies matter,” he stated. “I first read Professor Kincaid’s work as a first-year student. For me, this happened at a pivotal moment of my academic journey when I was constantly being questioned and asked to defend and articulate the value of doing research in El Caribe, the Caribbean and specifically on why Puerto Rico matters. Through her writing, she taught the Caribbean has so much to say about history, justice and our world.”

When Dean Alamo introduced Kincaid, the Villard Room erupted in warm applause.

Kincaid is a professor of African and American Studies at Harvard, and she holds a lifetime’s worth of important literary awards. Her books and short stories, “A Small Place,” “See Now Then,” “Girl” and “Annie John” have earned her numerous honors, including the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards and an election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Attendee Sophia Kapur ‘22 shared her takeaways from the event. “I found it fascinating and inspiring to hear Kincaid speak, as the way that she jumped from one complex thought to the next truly provided a glimpse into her thought process,” she commented. “I read ‘A Small Place’ for Anthro first semester, and am reading it again for Geography right now, so it was invaluable to have the opportunity to discuss the book I am studying with the author herself after the lecture.”

Although Kincaid broached a number of topics in her whimsically insightful lecture, most of her talk focused on the exploration of landscape and memory. More specifically, she spoke about how an author’s memory shapes their personal assessment of landscape.

Her interest in the subject came from reading African-American literature, specifically the genre of the slave narrative. Professor Kincaid recounted, “I began to notice that the things in landscape are so crucial to a person’s identity … the landscape is a problem for the narrative of African-American literature.” From the perspective of an enslaved person, the forest occupies a space somewhere between captivity and freedom: “Someone very much wants to escape this horrible thing, bondage, and they manage to get away, they hide in the woods, and the woods betray them.” In most prose and poetry, Professor Kincaid explained, “The woods are very beautiful…in this narrative, it’s a blockage to freedom.”

Much of Professor Kincaid’s work explores her relationship with her native land of Antigua, a Caribbean country with a history of English, French and Spanish colonial influence; she left Antigua in the early 1970s for the United States. Kincaid related the subjects of landscape and
memory: Similar to how the woods are a barrier in slave narratives, the water is a barrier surrounding Antigua. She explained, “So much of the Atlantic Ocean is full of horror for people like me.”

Kincaid’s effort to probe such connections between geography and emotion led her to examine time, and how, like the landscape, it is, “completely indifferent to this, it goes on, it crumbles…we are separate from it though we are a part of it.” She reflected personally on the matter: “I was looking at a photograph of myself taken when I was seven, the age I am really. Though I am almost seven times that. Everything you see about me is the first seven years of my life, aged like a cheese.”

The end of her exploration into landscape and memory is her most recent book, “See Now Then.” In “See Now Then,” the characters slip between times while Kincaid slips between the narrators. At times, she is the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Sweet (though they are not sweet at all), and at other times she is the children, Persephone and Heracles (names borrowed from the Greek myth “Apollodorus”). Kincaid offered a brief insight into the esthetic of her writing, illuminating the reason why the Sweets’ house is the “Shirley Jackson House” and not the “Robert Frost House.” She explained, “The words Robert Frost do not really go in any of the sentences in this book. It unbalances the sentences.” The observation was a window into the aesthetics of her prose, which often nudge up against poetry.

Kincaid commented on these characters: “I put them in a work of fiction. But it’s really not fiction. It is and it isn’t.”

She read one selection from the beginning of “See Now Then.” Immediately, her musings on time and memory were evident. In one description of the family she tells stories about several characters while occupying the mind of Mrs. Sweet. The neighboring house that holds civic gatherings reminds her of her son’s dated fascination with toy fire trucks. That memory reminds her of a neighbor who died after shooting the largest deer of his life, and she subsequently describes his funeral. Kincaid read, “[H]e looked so much like himself, to ask him if he would come to paint her house, the Shirley Jackson house, or could he come and something, anything, fix the pipes, clean the gutters of the roof, check to see if water had leaked into the basement, because he appeared to be so like himself, but his wife said to her, Homer shot the biggest deer of his life, and he died while trying to put it in the back of his truck; and Mrs. Sweet was sympathetic to the worldly-ness of the dead.”

The winding, five-and-a-half-page exposition is just one sentence.

Throughout the talk, she subverted many commonly accepted conceptions. For example, she denounced the rule of “show not tell” in writing, and was even unsatisfied with laws of nature: “[D]eath for instance isn’t discriminating, it comes to everybody, and I think that is very un- fair. Some people die and some people shouldn’t.”

The audience burst into laughter when she brought up the first ever photograph of a black hole which recently made headlines: “I don’t know if you saw the black hole recently, yes I was wondering if that is where Trump will go.” When she took the podium she had joked, “I thought why don’t I stay [on campus?] But no, I must go. You don’t want me to stay, after a while I may say things you don’t want to hear.” She paused, then countered, “though many years later you may feel they changed your life.”

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