The truth is the honor of it
BUCKNER: [Laughter] I just don’t want to assume. I want to be more transparent about why I was asking that question. Part of me thinks it’s important to have black writers and to have black women writers—whatever they write, whether they write about their experiences or not—for a political reason. I could write about a lot of things, but I just feel like my story of being a black person in America and the people who have carried me to this point, to be here talking to you, that that story has not been rendered correctly. Is that [black woman] consciousness in your writing? Or you just don’t think about whether you are a black woman?
KINCAID: A black woman?
BUCKNER: Yes. And whether you are honoring your history?
KINCAID: No. This is where you and I would part because [Laughter] I admire your feeling and obligation really, a loyalty to honor the people you come from, but I don’t take that view in my work. Literally, I am a bastard. My parents were not married. I take the bastard view. I don’t feel I owe any honor to the group of people I come from. Not because I hate them or anything, but it’s just that when I’m writing, I am such a singular beast that I refuse to take in any worldly consideration for the people I’m from. When I’m writing, whatever I’m doing, I’m devoted to that, and if [the people I am writing about] look dishonorable in the telling of the writing, I wouldn’t change it. I feel that the best way to honor them is to be true.
BUCKNER: Even though I have this consciousness [of honoring my cultural lineage] right now, I come to the same result.
KINCAID: I know you do.
BUCKNER: Right. And it’s not flattering. I’m afraid of what my parents will say if they ever get to see what I am writing.
KINCAID: Yeah, I know. I know you do. I see that.
BUCKNER: But I see it as honor.
KINCAID: I totally agree with you. The truth is the honor. The truth is the honor of it. And I’m not sure it’s true in all cases, but I know the truth often makes for a better art. That’s perhaps our way of making art. The truth is an essential part of it, like a cutter or flame for a sculptor; the truth is an essential ingredient in how the art gets shaped. So I’ve never considered what my family would think. The great advantage I had was that I was writing in a different country. No one expected me to write. The person sitting before you is not something anyone expected. So I have the advantage of rising above expectations.
BUCKNER: How did you come to realize or choose to be a writer?
KINCAID: In telling it now, it will sound like I made more conscious decisions. I didn’t understand the consequences of them, so it really was “fools rush in.” The skeletal part of it, the bones of it, is I was in school in New Hampshire. I was studying photography, I was writing out the photographs, then I just one day said, “I want to be a writer, I don’t want to do this.” Literally, in the middle of this, I just packed up and moved to New York in a car. I lived with the family of a friend for the summer of—oh dear! Literally, I just decided I wanted to be a writer, moved to New York, lived and slept on people’s floors, did all sorts of things. By some sheer confluence of things, I ended up in less than a year writing for The New Yorker. I said I was a writer. I couldn’t write really, but I just said I was a writer, and people would say, “Yeah, alright, give that a try.” And I’d write and they’d publish it. None of those decisions had literally any doubt in them because I didn’t know. I didn’t know you could fail. I didn’t know it couldn’t work out. So I just kept on. I must have had a guardian angel. I don’t really take responsibility for it because it’s the kind of thing that if you set out to do it, it’s likely to not happen. If you set out saying, “I want to write for The New Yorker,” and your family sent you to America as a servant girl, you got yourself to college, dropped out, left—it’s unlikely to work out. But that’s exactly what my story is. I was sent away at sixteen to support my family who had just had a baby—my brother who died of AIDS. My father was ill and my mother really couldn’t take care of all of us. They sent me away. I eventually got myself out of that situation by going to college, and when I got to college, I decided I really wanted to be a writer. I just left and started to write. But it’s not likely to work out if you have a plan.
Singular Beast. A Conversation with Jamaica Kincaid
by Brittnay Buckner
Callaloo 31.2 (2008) 461–469