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Knowing Yourself is Wonderful: A Calabash Reasoning Wtih Jamaica Kincaid

Kwame Dawes and Jamaica Kincaid at Calabash International Literary Festival 2014

Theoretically, the Calabash International Literary Festival has no headliners. But in truth all writers are not equal and from the pack of heavy hitters piled on to the 2014 installation of the festival, Jamaica Kincaid stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Kincaid was being interviewed on the final day of Calabash 2014 by festival director and co-founder Kwame Dawes in the second of the Reasonings Presents interview for the festival. The first had featured Salman Rushdie being interviewed by Paul Holdengraber.

The session opened with Kincaid enchanting the audience with a reading from her latest novel See Then Now. Not surprisingly, the reasoning, used the reading as a point of departure, as Dawes delved into the method behind the naming.

Jamaica Kincaid charms the audience at Calabash 2014“I have to see how the words balance the sentence,” Kincaid responded, explaining that the does take exquisite care in choosing her words. She explained that ‘now’ is an important word in the naming, as well as in her understanding of her work.

“I came to understand in what I was doing is that the present is always the constant,” she said, explaining that right now is what happens whether it takes place in the present or the past.

As outlined in the excerpt she delivered, See Then Now involves quite a few thoughts of people desiring to kill their loved ones. 

“The thing that has come to me is that there is a moment no matter how you love them, you just want to kill them,” Kincaid said, revealing a quirky and often self-effacing sense of humour that quickly had the audience gobbling up everything she had to say.

She would later reveal that for her, writing was the pursuit of the perfect sentence and as well as an attempt to bring something new into the world. The laughingly stated that the hated learning that someone else had thought of something before she had. 

“I just think nothing has ever been done. I’ll start anew,” Kincaid said, charming the audience even further. 

Jamaica Kincaid pointed out that the misleading thing about experiences is that our emotional involvement allows us to think that it will last forever, but change is a constant part of life.Carolyn Cooper (right) laughs uproariously with Harold Shawn, Kincaid's son

“That’s why you mustn’t kill yourself, because the moment you kill yourself you’ll think, darn it, I wish I hadn’t done that,” Kincaid said. “That’s why I never do anything I can’t reverse.”

As Dawes led her toward talking about her experiences as a writer, and later a confession that as a child she pretended she was Charlotte Bronte, Jamaica Kincaid explained that according to the status quo of the image of the writer, she falls short. She explained that the iconic writer is presented as educated, white and male. 

“I was not completely educated and black and female,” Kincaid said. “My idea of the writer was the constipated Paul,” she said. She also revealed, growing up has brought great changes in her personality. 

“I was arrogant. I’m not like that anymore. Life has really humbled me,” she confessed.

Her own personality is not all that has changed over the years, and Kincaid pointed to the globalization of literature as an important development. 

“I think a more profound transformation of globalization than the economic is that of the globalization of literature,” Kincaid said. She went on to remark on the shade of many of the people at the festival.Ngugi wa Thiong'o (far right) enjoys Kwame Dawes and Jamaica Kincaid's Reasoning

“I must say that I’ve never seen so many black people at a literature event,” Kincaid said. She remarked that it was therefore a fantastic experience for her to be there at Calabash, and noted that it’s presence points to the lie that ‘black people do not read’.

“It’s not that black people don’t read,” Kincaid said. “It’s that the people who say that black people don’t read haven’t noticed that not only do black people read, they write.”

As Kincaid and Dawes continued their discussion of her work, she explained that she had received some unpleasant criticism about See Then Now, which pointed to the idea that people thought it was not the kind of topic and the kinds of people she should be writing about. She explained that there is the attempt to confine her to particular topics but she has defied that.

“I was trying to be an artist,” Jamaica Kincaid said. “Apparently I shouldn’t.”

Kincaid also explained that while she is writing, the creation of narrative and plot are not a major factor. 

“I loathe plot, but only in myself,” she said with a laugh. “I have no idea how to develop character. I’m interested in saying something.”

According to Jamaica Kincaid, while there are writers who believe that it should be a part of everyday routine, that kind of idea doesn’t appeal to her.

“Writing is not a profession.” she remarked, explaining that being a writer was not like being a dentist where one had to turn up for work every day. “For me writing is this amazing thing,” Jamaica Kincaid said. “You eat, you sleep, you dream.”

When Dawes, wittily remarked that not writing everyday was therefore not being depressed about, she retorted that being depressed is an important part of being a writer. “Mental illness, I highly recommend it,” she said.

And though she had not presented her thoughts as advice for writers, she did dole out a tiny morsel of such advice. 

“You should know the place you’re from,” she said. “I say this to young writers. The grass under your feet, you should know what it’s called. It’s a part of how you start to know yourself and knowing yourself is wonderful.”

The early afternoon of ‘Reasoning’ is set to join the slew of great moments with writers that the Calabash Literary Festival has brought to the landscape. Dawes, who spends much of the festival showcasing a somewhat silly and irreverent side, displayed the intelligence that helped to spawn the amazing event.

The Calabash Literary Festival took place at Jakes in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, May 30 to June 1, 2014.