Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson, in St. John’s, Antigua, on 25 May 1949. The young girl never knew her biological father, a taxi driver named Roderick Potter. Her mother, Annie Richardson Drew, and stepfather, David Drew, a carpenter, nurtured Elaine as their only child until she was nine. During that time, she was well educated under the British educational system and won a scholarship to the Princess Margaret School. When she was nine, her life changed when the first of her three brothers were born. After their births, Kincaid felt that she was neglected by her mother.
Kincaid was educated in the British colonial education system because Antigua gained its independence from England in 1981. Although she was intelligent and frequently tested at the top of her class, her mother removed Kincaid from school to help support the family when the third and last brother was born because her stepfather was ill and could not provide for them anymore. At age 17 in 1966, her mother sent her to Scarsdale, an upper-class suburb of New York City, to work as an au pair. However, Kincaid refused to send money home as well as open or respond to letters from home.
In 1973, Elaine changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid in order to write anonymously.
That year Kincaid’s first published piece, an interview with Gloria Steinem, led to a series of articles titled “When I was Seventeen.” For three years, Kincaid worked as a freelance writer until William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, hired her as a staff writer. In time she took over the “Talk of the Town” column. Encouraged by her editor, Kincaid began to write fiction, which was often published as installments in the New Yorker.
Kincaid’s first collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River (1983), won the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The predominately autobiographical Annie John (1985) was critically acclaimed for its universal appeal as a coming-of-age story and for its treatment of indigenous Caribbean culture. Not having returned home in over twenty years, Kincaid wrote the book-length essay A Small Place (1988), which chronicled Kincaid’s outrage at the devastation of postcolonial Antigua: the corruption of the new leaders and the exploitation resulting from the influx of tourism. In 1989, Kincaid received the Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1991, after the publication of Lucy (1990), Kincaid received honorary degrees from Williams College and Long Island College.
In 1996, Kincaid’s youngest brother Devon died from AIDS at 33. That year she resigned from the New Yorker. The Autobiography of My Mother (1995), My Brother (1997), and Mr. Potter (2003) have received critical acclaim. Kincaid’s love of horticulture has taken center stage in My Favorite Plant (1998), My Garden Book (1999), and Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas (2004).
- Talk Stories (2001)
- My Garden (1999)
- My Favorite Plant (editor) (1998)
- My Brother (1997)
- The Autobiography of My Mother (1996)
- “Song of Roland.” New Yorker (12 April 1993)
- At the Bottom of the River (1992)
- Lucy (1990)
- “Ovando.” Conjunctions14 (1989)
- A Small Place (1988)
- Annie John (1983)
- “Antigua Crossing.” Rolling Stone (29 June 1978)
- Family life
In 1979, Kincaid married her editor’s son, Allen Shawn, and they had a daughter, Annie, in 1985 and a son, Harold, in 1989. Kincaid and her family reside in North Bennington, Vermont. She is currently a visiting lecturer on African and African American Studies and on English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University.