These separations, these lines that tell us this is fiction or non-fiction, that this is history or this is a novel, are often useless. Guernica: With the new novel, See Now Then , people seem to care quite a bit about the possibly autobiographical nature of the book. Is it really?
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Jamaica Kincaid: [ Laughs. And that to me is so interesting. What do they think I am? A famous person? What is it about me that makes people want to know?
There is something about this new book that drives people mad with the autobiographical question. Even if the book is autobiographical, think of Philip Roth. He wrote a book called My Life as a Man. He started to tell me about it. He uses things from his life all the time. People do it all the time.
There is something about See Now Then. It was as if I had no right to write about this, even if it is my own life. The unknowability of a person. The unknowability of oneself. And it was as if some reviewers decided that I, a black woman, had no right to think about life in such a speculative way. That I was only entitled to write about the hardship of racism. What do you see as the line marking the distinction between the genres?
Do you think that line is at all important? A wonderful writer from Guadeloupe, and a wonderful book that defies categories. Often the lines that define the traditional European arrangement of fiction, non-fiction, history, etc. These lines can distort the world we, people who look like me, live in—and by the world, I mean our personal experience of it.
The Wretched of the Earth could easily be a book of fiction, an imaginative work. You could also put it in the category of Politics.
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The point is you can put it in all sorts of categories, but it does not sit comfortably. For people who have a memory of what happened, none of the categories that exist are useful. Could you speak a bit about how you use anger in your work? Shaping it on the page. How you negotiate that. Jamaica Kincaid: Oh, that. A situation in which human beings often choose to violate each other. The history of race relations in America. Had Europeans done such a thing in the far corners of the earth, rather than on their own doorstep, it might not be mentioned in the history books.
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But that they did something in the midst of themselves was unimaginable. They did something that they started in Africa, and then it came back. The more important thing is, is it true? Do these things really happen? In truthful tones! Does truth have a tone? Guernica: Another big subject of your work is human relationships. Jamaica Kincaid: Someone who knew me well once accused me of being unromantic.
I think that influenced my view that romance is false, that the thing we call romance is a diversion from something truer, which is life. There are things that make us choose, on certain days, on certain nights, the opposite of love, in all its variations. The slave trade was globalism. Why people insist that globalism, after its hideous history, is a good thing, I do not know.
Her hands get pale and dry. Though people interpret that image in racial terms. But what I meant by that image is that newness has a substantiveness, and that after much hard work that substantiveness fades.
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Things fade. The paleness of her hands had nothing to do with race. And the idea of complicity, too. Jamaica Kincaid: Of course. The complicity.
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Here I am, a product of something really vicious, right? You and me, here we are, products of the Atlantic slave trade. And yet, you know, I give nary a thought to some of the awful things happening right now in the world. The things that happen in Vietnam, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Guernica: So what do you think we must be willing to do, as people, to improve things, to advance the human bond? What elements need to be in place?
I know that the fantastic amount of profit that people want to make on anything is damaging. And that none of us seem able to resist it. None of us seem to think that we should draw a line under what would be a satisfactory amount of wealth. I was just looking at moving to Cambridge, and a house I was looking at cost a million dollars. Am I going to be Niall Ferguson, that horrible man? But what to do about it? You know, eventually, all these questions about political arrangements come down to how much stuff you want.
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We figure when we die, the children can throw it out. We guard our shit, and we kill a lot of people so we have a lot of stuff our kids can throw out when we die.
I was so pleased when I realized I could do that. The family lives in the Shirley Jackson house, and at some point, the mother is apologizing to the son about her failures. It made me laugh so hard when I included that. I thought it was so amusing. But when I read that part of the book to an audience, the younger people listening absolutely get it. That was my favorite thing: the fact the older people miss it and the younger people get it.
Guernica: Are there other details in the book that matter to you, but which people have missed? Jamaica is an island full of folklore, magic, and spirituality, with a rich culture of traditions, customs, and rituals, many of them religious in origin although by no means all. Jamaican traditions are often a mix of African and European customs — modified and adapted over the years to create the unique Jamaican culture that exists today. As with any religion, there are of course different branches of Revivalism, but generally speaking a Revivalist ritual involves lots of singing, drumming, dancing, hand-clapping, and foot-stomping.
After death, one of the souls goes up to heaven and the other stays on earth. Obeah is a belief system that is officially outlawed, although nowadays it's rare for anyone to be convicted for adhering to the practices. The fact that some obeah men take money for their services means they are sometimes accused of preying on the vulnerable by profiting from their superstitious beliefs and poverty. Kumina is a Jamaican religious ceremony involving music, dance, and spirit possession, and is a way of celebrating and appeasing ancestors.