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March 18, 2005 > News > Author Kincaid speaks about her childhood influences

Author Kincaid speaks about her childhood influences

Author Jamaica Kincaid described the influence her mother, the Bible and her impoverished Antiguan childhood had on her writing at her President’s Lecture Series speech March 3. Kincaid spoke to about 150 attendees in the Grand Hall of the Student Center.

‘I know I am supposed to say something wise,’ Kincaid said during the lecture. ‘But I never know how to do these things.’

Kincaid has written 10 books, including The Autobiography of My Mother, and has received numerous writing awards.

She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004 and is a visiting professor of creative writing at Harvard University.

At the lecture, Kincaid read from her 2002 novel Mr. Potter and her recent non-fiction book Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya.

President David Leebron greeted the crowd and introduced English professor Justin Cronin, who introduced Kincaid. Cronin said Kincaid’s lyrical rhythm has earned her many accolades. ‘If there is a prize for writing that she hasn’t won, she will,’ Cronin said.

Originally born in Antigua and Barbuda, Kincaid came to New York when she was 17 years old. She worked as a writer for the Village Voice and Ingenue, and in 1976 she became a columnist for The New Yorker.

Her first novel, Annie John, was published in 1985.

Before her reading, Kincaid asked the audience to consider one of her techniques, the use of ‘And’ to begin sentences.

‘Is ‘And’ a command or a bridge?’ Kincaid asked. ‘As a reader, I like to work this hard, so I’ve extended this to you.’

Kincaid, whose fiction is semi-autobiographical, read for about 25 minutes from Mr. Potter, a book about an absentee father.

Kincaid’s birth name is Elaine Potter Richardson, and her own father did not raise her. ‘The book is about a man who is the father of children but doesn’t recognize them, and a daughter who doesn’t accept her father,’ she said before beginning.

During a question-and-answer session following the first reading, Kincaid elaborated on her discussion of ‘And.’

‘You’re told not to begin a sentence with ‘And’ as a child,’ Kincaid said. ‘And I like to do the things you’re told not to do.’

Kincaid said when she was young, she often read the Bible which contains many sentences that begin with ‘And.’

She also enjoyed reading the dictionary. ‘I read the dictionary the way people read Nancy Drew,’ Kincaid said.

The author then spoke about the influence of oral tradition on her work.

Kincaid said her mother’s storytelling inspired her folkloric style and the many mother-daughter relationships in her work.

‘I was an only child for a long time,’ she said. ‘Even when I had brothers, I thought of myself as an only child.’

In her youth, Kincaid’s imagination helped her develop her writing style, she said. Kincaid often fibbed and made up stories, and while she never wrote anything down, she considers her original fables the foundation of her writing.

Kincaid entertained questions from the audience after her speech.

After the question-and-answer session, Kincaid asked the crowd what she should do next. ‘Well, I wanted to read you a little thing,’ she said. ‘But maybe you don’t want to hear it.’ The audience responded with enthusiasm, and Kincaid began to talk about her recent trip to Nepal, the subject of her latest book.

She saves her money to travel the world, she said.

‘I’ve always been poor but loved things that cost a lot,’ Kincaid said.

English graduate student Jeff Jackson said he decided to attend Kincaid’s lecture after reading her book Lucy.

‘I thought that she was great,’ Jackson said. ‘I heard in advance that she does very well at these types of readings. [She was] informal, colorful, enjoyable. … There’s always close overlapping between her work and her life.’

Brown College sophomore Nancy Brown said she thought Kincaid’s talk was awkward.

‘She was amazingly unprepared, it seemed,’ Brown said. ‘She had interesting responses to the questions, but had a really strange presence.’

Kincaid’s speech was the Dominique De Menil lecture, the fourth of five speeches in this year’s President’s Lecture Series.

The final speech in the series will be given by physician and surgeon Michael DeBakey April 15 on the role of government in healthcare.

Michael DeBakey is a pioneer in the field of cardiovascular surgery. He was the first to construct artificial arteries.

He also developed and successfully performed the first coronary bypass.

In 1996, DeBakey visited Russia and was a consultant to former Russian president Boris Yeltsin for his quadruple-bypass surgery.

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