Reading Women Talk Jamaica Kincaid and Sara Collins
This Week on the Reading Women Podcast
From the episode:
Kendra: Our first discussion pick is Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. This is Jamaica Kincaid’s second novel, and it was published originally in 1990. The paperback now is out from FSG. And this is about Lucy, who is a teenage girl from the West Indies who comes to, I believe, New York City to be a nanny and like live-in maid for this white, affluent family. And they seem like the perfect family. So you have these two parts of the book where Lucy is trying to, you know, adjust to a new culture, but also realizing that the family she works for has an immense amount of privilege and they really have no idea about how privileged they are. And so there’s a lot of discussion about that. And this book is—I feel like I need to know—only like 163 or 164 pages. So Jamaica Kincaid tells this entire well thought out and fleshed out story in such a short amount of space. And overall, I was just blown away by how great her writing is.
Jaclyn: I listened to this one as an audiobook. And I feel like I just flew through it because once I started, I just couldn’t put it down. I was so mesmerized by her writing and just getting to know Lucy and the world as she was describing it. And, yeah, I loved it too.
Kendra: One of the reasons why I picked up this book was because C Pam Zhang recommended it to me in her interview. And at the time we recorded the interview, I was researching frantically trying to find a discussion book because I’d read a lot of books from Caribbean women writers. But nothing had just like struck that, you know, sparkling spot of like, “I’m obsessed with this book” kind of place that I really want, you know, my discussion picks to find because I really prefer them to be like, in Bookstagram language, like five-star reads. And so. . . .
Jaclyn: And lots to discuss as well.
Kendra: Right. Exactly. And I want them to have a lot of literary depth. And so I thought this was a great opportunity to read Jamaica Kincaid. So I thought we could talk a little bit about her and her background and where she comes from because a lot of her own personal life has informed her writing in a lot of ways.
So Jamaica Kincaid is from Antigua. And so I had never read an author from Antigua. And this really makes me think about what Laura said in our last episode about how a lot of times certain countries in the Caribbean are represented more than others. And that really got me thinking about the books that we were choosing and where they were from because—as we know here on Reading Women—even though we talk about certain themes about specific groups of people or whatever, there’s a lot of diversity within those. So that was an interesting discussion to have with Laura as we were discussing her books, but also here as we were choosing our discussion picks. So I watched an interview with Jamaica Kincaid, and it was a few years ago, I think, when it was originally published. But she talked about how . . . she says, “My parents had too many children.” And so they sent her to America when she was a teenager to work as a servant, as she describes. And so I believe a lot of LUCY comes from her own experience of immigrating to United States and working as a housekeeper or whatever she did as a teenager. And so she had a very vibrant imagination from really early on. And she imagined herself as a writer. But as she says, she imagined herself as a lot of things, particularly imagined herself as an English person, not a white person. She imagined that “British” was a term beyond such things as race. But later on, she realized that it was a much bigger conversation. And she kind of laughed at herself and her own, like, childhood self imagining like “English person” was like this magical creature beyond us mere mortal designations. And I had to laugh along with her, to be honest.
Jaclyn: I’ve listened to a similar interview. And I found those comments about her own personal experience really interesting because I didn’t know them going into the book. So I guess when I was reading it, it felt so vivid the way she was describing everything. And one of the things I mentioned on our last episode was one of the things that really stood out in her writing for me was her . . . like the depth of her observations and how well she articulated and conveyed so much in a sentence. I think you were saying that, too, as well. I just. . . . There was so much that she . . . yeah, I feel like she has a very impressive way of conveying a lot in a very short amount of words.
Kendra: Oh, yes. And, you know, I love a lot of books for their storytelling or their structure, but I feel like it’s definitely a rare book that really just impresses me by its prose alone. And so when . . . I agree 100 percent with C Pam Zhang that Jamaica Kincaid is just such a great prose stylist because she writes so beautifully and includes so much in her sentences and can tell an entire story in a sentence. And it’s just mind boggling how amazing she is. And this is just her second novel. And while I believe she wrote a work of nonfiction between her first and second novel, that’s just very impressive for how early on in her career she was.
Jaclyn: And she also writes short stories, I believe.
Kendra: Yes. Yes. And she just does it all, apparently.
Jaclyn: Yeah. I mean, I haven’t. . . . This is the first and only I’ve read by her, but to have that sort of dexterity over so many different forms, I think that’s always impressive in writers.
Kendra: I interviewed Meena Kandasamy earlier this year about The Portrait of the Writer As a Young Wife, and she talked about her experience with autofiction and saying that she wanted to separate, you know, the art and the artist. And she didn’t want people looking into her own personal life to find out what was “real” and what wasn’t real. And I am reading up on the research for this episode. There a similar conversation with Jamaica Kincaid that, yes, a lot of her work is based on some of her experience, like loosely inspired by. But she didn’t want people to think that she was writing like word-for-word or experience-by-experience upon her own life. And she wanted that separation as well. And I find that interesting that so many women are just having to have this conversation like over and over. It’s like people are just so obsessed with women writers, like what is real from their life and what is fiction.
Jaclyn: Yeah, there’s almost like this implication that it’s beyond her imagination because it’s something that she actually experienced firsthand. And I think, you know, she’s clearly separating her own experiences in real time to how she’s writing her characters. I think that’s a point that I really took away when I listened to your interview with Meena Kandasamy.
Kendra: Yeah, yeah, and I think about how really it’s a lack of imagination on literary critics’ part if they can’t understand that, yes, there is universal truth in a novel. That’s what makes a great novel. So that’s what makes great literature is these universal truths. So, yes, the book is truthful, but it’s not like her experience, if that makes sense. And I feel like women more often so than men—some men do also receive this kind of weird commentary—but mostly women who write these books, and it’s always like, “Oh, well, what did you experience?” And all of this stuff. And so I feel like Jamaica Kincaid wants her books viewed as art. And I really highly respect that because, I mean, it is an incredibly beautiful book. And that’s a thing that I think we need to give more women is that they are creating art, not just telling a story about their life, if that makes sense.
Kendra: So we’ve talked a lot about her prose. And so early on, I started this audiobook. And normally I I, you know, walk the corgi. Or I fold laundry. Or, you know, I ship book blind dates while I’m listening to books. But I stopped in the middle of everything I was doing, and my mouth just dropped open because of the gorgeous prose that was just in the book really early on. And so the narrator, Lucy, has recently moved to the United States. And she talks about her experience of having recently moved and her experience with homesickness. So she writes, “In books I had read from time to time when the plot called for it, someone would suffer from homesickness. A person would leave a not very nice situation and go somewhere else, somewhere a lot better, and then long to go back where it was not very nice. How impatient I would become with such a person, for I would feel that I was in a not very nice situation myself and how I wanted to go somewhere else. But now I too felt that I wanted to be back where I came from. I understood it. I knew where I stood there. If I had had to draw a picture of my future then, it would have been a large gray patch surrounded by black, blacker, blackest.” And you learn so much about Lucy as a character in that single paragraph.
Jaclyn: Yeah, it’s beautiful prose.
Kendra: And I feel like that really gives you a lot of insight to who Lucy is as a character. And throughout the book, she discusses a lot of things like her own sexual experiences, her own relationship with the children that she watches, how she watches the woman—the mother in the story, Mariah—how her marriage kind of spirals and dissolves in front of her eyes. But you still have so much insight into who she is as a person, even though the book is only 163, 164 pages.
Jaclyn: And it really is a study in her character. Like you said, there’s no plot to speak of. It’s just a deep dive and an exploration of her, her character and all of these observations and how she’s perceiving the changes in from where she’s been to where she is now. And one of the things that I really enjoyed in the writing was the way that she would describe nature or food and then draw those comparisons that way. I found that a really effective aspect of the writing.
Kendra: Yeah, she just does a great job with Lucy as a character. And like, you can see her and hear her voice in your head. And even down to the chapter titles? So there are about, I don’t know, five or six chapters in the book. And there’s this one called “The Tongue.” And it begins with, “At fourteen, I discovered that a tongue had no real taste. I was sucking the tongue of a boy named Hanner. And I was sucking his tongue because I liked the way his fingers looked on the keys of the piano as he played it. And I liked the way he looked from the back as he walked across the pasture. And also, when I was close to him, I liked the way behind his ears smelled.” And I’m just like, “If that’s not a fourteen-year-old’s mind, like. . . .
Jaclyn: That’s so perceptive. And they’re all things that we may have all seen or sensed ourselves. But she just puts them together in a way that is so unique and gorgeous. That’s a stunning sentence.
Kendra: And she uses a lot of concrete imagery as well, like the fingers on the piano, like the way his ears smell, like you can see that. And you’ve had experiences like that in your memories. Like when I think about my fourteen-year-old self, those are the types of things that I remember. And the way that she’s able to capture those memories and use that familiarity in the book to create feelings for the reader and that connection is just so skillful. And that’s a rare talent that I see, even in writers I love and enjoy.
So one of the things I want to touch on, because we’re going to talk about this again in a more serious way, I guess, in our next discussion pick. But here, you know, Lucy works for a white woman in New York City. And she has a lot of affluence and privilege, and she’s just not really well aware of it. She’s kind of oblivious, and she doesn’t understand where Lucy comes from. And while well-meaning, Mariah really is just kind of that well-meaning, clueless-minded, liberal person kind of character. And I feel like that’s something important to note because, you know, as a white woman, I want to make sure that I’m listening to people when they tell me their stories. And I feel like that’s something that Mariah doesn’t do. She doesn’t listen to Lucy and who she is as a person. She makes a lot of assumptions about Lucy’s life and what she experienced.
Jaclyn: And I think Mariah very much wants Lucy to experience the life that she’s had. So there was a scene really early on where she’s telling Mariah about, you know, you’ve got to see these—I think it was daffodils—she was talking about these yellow flowers in the park. And she was like, you’ve got to see them. We’ve got to go away to this place so you can see them. And I felt like it was a really effective scene to cement that she didn’t really want her to experience it for any other reason than it was just something that she’d had, and she wanted to impose that experience on her in a sense. And I wondered whether it was emblematic of more. I just thought that was really well done as well.
Kendra: And I feel like this is a—many generations removed from the white women that we’re going to discuss in our next discussion pick—but I think you can definitely see that there still echoes of that privilege and experience in Mariah to a much smaller degree. But there’s just an obliviousness, a well-meaning obliviousness. And I really appreciate the way that Jamaica Kincaid handled this in such a very precise like—I hate this term—but like razor-sharp way, like she got to the point very quickly and portrayed it and a lot of concrete examples of what that privilege looks like.
Jaclyn: Yeah, I think that’s a perfect way of explaining it.
Kendra: So obviously, we love Lucy. I’m just so impressed. And there’s a reason that she is a classic. And I’m 80 percent sure she’s gonna be on the Reading Women Challenge next year because she’s just that good.
Jaclyn: And it was great as an audiobook as well. The narration was mesmerizing. Like, I listened to this in one sitting. It was . . . they had me hooked completely.
Kendra: And I mean, you all know, I love Robin Miles. Like, I’m obsessed with her. And she reads this book. And I, like, lost it. I’m pretty sure I screamed out loud on this, like, backroad that I walk on when I hit play, and Robin Miles’s voice came through my earbuds. She’s so good at what she does. She reads N. K. Jemisin’s audiobooks and all of this stuff. So if you have Hoopla, it’s on Hoopla. And you can just log on and get it. It’s also on many other audiobook places.
Jaclyn: She narrated The Warmth of Other Suns as well, didn’t she?
Kendra: She did. She did.
Jaclyn: Yeah, because I think that’s where I first recognized her voice because we listened to that for our last episodes that we recorded together. And I was like, it sounds so familiar.
Kendra: We’re just gonna have to include a Robin Miles audiobook for our next theme, apparently. This is now the Robin Miles show. Definitely not sad about. So that is Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. And the paperback is out from FSG Books.
This episode is brought to you by Penguin Random House Audio.