By Jennifer Ciotta
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949 in
the capital of Antigua and Barbuda, which is called St. John’s.
Antigua and Barbuda are small islands in the Leeward Island chain;
today they are known for their pink sand beaches and high class
resorts. She lived with her mother, who doted on young Jamaica, but
her father was absentee thus her stepfather took on this role. She
flourished in her studies, since she was usually at the top of her
class, learning at the Princess Margaret School, winning her entrance
by scholarship. Under the strict British education system, the author
has said in a past interview with Salon magazine, she felt she was
being prepared for an MFA at a young age. Jamaica read classics by
British authors such as Kipling and Carlyle. She also observed her
mother who read extensively, in particular biographies of famous
However, Jamaica’s world came crashing down at age nine. Her mother
gave birth to three boys consecutively thus her attention was shifted
from her only girl. Jamaica felt such a strong sense of abandonment
that this theme would resound throughout her later writing. Five
years later, at age 13, Jamaica, a gifted student, dropped out of
school due to the sudden illness of her stepfather. Family
responsibilities fell upon her shoulders resulting in deeper feelings
of anguish and neglect. Finally at age 17, Kincaid left Antigua for
good, since her parents shipped her off to Scarsdale, New York to work
as an au pair.
Once in the United States, she quit the job and moved to Manhattan.
She then obtained new au pair work, but this time for Michael Arlen,
who was a New Yorker writer. She remained at this job for four years
thus receiving her first taste of the literary writer lifestyle.
Kincaid earned her GED, took photography classes and won a scholarship
to Franconia College (New Hampshire) but dropped out. Upon moving
back to New York City in 1973, she took various jobs, such as modeling
and secretarial work, to support herself.
In the whole time she had been in the United States, Kincaid refused
to open letters from her mother, and did not send home any money to
help the family. Cutting these ties, she felt a newfound sense of
freedom thus she decided to become a writer. However, still Elaine
Potter Richardson in 1973, she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid to
keep her writing a secret from her family back in Antigua. Shortly
thereafter, Ingenue magazine published the budding author’s first
article. Then came her biggest break: meeting George Trow, staff
writer for the New Yorker. This meeting subsequently led to Jamaica
acquiring a position as a staff writer at the magazine for its famed
Talk of the Town section. Later on, Kincaid was introduced to William
Shawn, the editor. Eventually, she met Shawn”s son, Allen, and
married him in 1979, and later bore two children.
Kincaid went on to publish At the Bottom of the River, her first book
of short stories which received a Zabel Award in 1983. Annie John
came out in 1985, which received numerous praise by publications such
as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times Book Review. Since
then she has published works such as: Lucy, My Brother (finalist for
the National Book Award), My Garden Book and most recently Mr. Potter
in 2002. Her work has been highly regarded since “critics have long
praised Kincaid’s lyrical, incantatory prose, which is characterized
by rich colorful details about life in the Caribbean” (SparkNotes).
Today Jamaica Kincaid, divorced from Allen Shawn, lives in Bennington,
Vermont and continues to write. She is also an avid gardener and a
visiting professor at Harvard University.