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She is a successful writer now, but she has also been a tutor, a model, and even a nightclub singer who wore only a few bananas wrapped around her waist at a Halloween party.

Read on to learn more about Jamaica Kincaid.

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A young Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid

Elaine Potter Richardson was born on May 25, 1949 is St. John’s, Antigua.

Antigua is a small island in the West Indies. Her mother, Annie Richardson, and her stepfather, David Drew, raised her. Her birth father, Roderick Potter, was not a part of her life growing up. Only after she left her home for New York and began writing did she take the pseudonym (sue-do-nem, false name) Jamaica Kincaid.

She took the name both because it has a nice ring to it and because she did not want her family back home to know she was writing.

Early Life

Can you imagine living in a house without running water, regular plumbing, or electricity? It may seem surprising, but Kincaid’s family did not have these basic things, even in 1949. The family was very poor.

Still, when she was young her life was not bad. She was an only child and so received more attention from her parents. Her mother taught her to read when she was just three years old. When she was seven her mother gave her a dictionary, and a lifelong reader was born. She used to visit the library a lot and even hid library books under the family’s front porch. She read Jane Eyre many times, and she even enjoyed plays by William Shakespeare. However, as she got older things became difficult.

She was picked on at school, and she spent more time in the library because it was safe. When she was nine, her mother and stepfather had another child. Eventually, three sons were added to the family, and there was not enough money and attention to go around. Kincaid came to feel lonely and neglected. She even had to learn to defend herself at school by fighting the bullies back on her own. She later explained that reading and writing became a form of self-rescue for her after her brothers were born and her family life deteriorated. She said:’I don’t know if having other children was the cause for our relationship changing–it might have changed as I entered adolescence, but her attention went elsewhere.

And also our family money remained the same but there were more people to feed and to clothe and so everything got sort of shortened, not only material things but emotional things, the good emotional things I got a short end of that. But then I got more of things I didn’t have, like a certain kind of cruelty and neglect. In the end it didn’t matter.

When I was first a young person it did matter a lot because I didn’t know what had happened to me. If I hadn’t become a writer I don’t know what would have happened to me; that was a kind of self-rescuing.

A Big Change

In Antigua and many other small islands, young girls were not encouraged to pursue an education beyond grade school, and many don’t go that far. Jamaica Kincaid wanted an education. She wanted to go to one of the colleges in Antigua, but her family did not encourage her ambition, and she could not make her dream happen on her own. Instead, in 1966, Kincaid was sent to New York to work as an au pair (oh pear, which is a live-in tutor or teacher) for a wealthy family. Her family sent her so that she could send money home to her family in Antigua, but she did not.

She ignored the letters her family sent. She was angry because her needs were neglected and because her brothers had been treated better. When asked about this part of her life she responded:’My family . . . my mother and stepfather planned distinctive lives. My brothers were going to be gentlemen of achievement.

One was going to be Prime Minister, one a doctor, one a Minister, things like that. I never heard anybody say that I was going to be anything except maybe a nurse. There was no huge future for me, nothing planned. In fact my education was so casually interrupted, my life might very well have been destroyed by that casual act, that might have been what removing me from school might have been like if I hadn’t intervened in my own life and pulled myself out of the water.’

A New Career and a New Life

A seasoned Jamaica Kincaid

Kincaid held a variety of jobs before she became a writer. She tried working as a secretary, singing in a nightclub and modeling.

She lived a carefree life and gave new meaning to the phrase, ‘I am woman; hear me roar.’ At a Halloween party, she dressed up as Josephine Baker, wearing only a few bananas wrapped around her waist. I guess you can say she was for free speech and free clothing.

After leaving the family in New York she was working for, Kincaid earned a high school equivalency diploma and went to the New School for Social Research to study photography. In New Hampshire, she studied at Franconia College, but she did not graduate.Jamaica Kincaid began contributing articles for a teen magazine and was later mentored by William Shawn, who gave her a job at the New Yorker. Her column was called The Talk of the Town.

Kincaid worked at the New Yorker for 20 years. During that time, she met, married, and had 2 children with William Shawn’s son, Allen Shawn.

Short Stories

In 1978, Kincaid published her first short story entitled, Girl in The New Yorker. She wrote about her experiences in Antigua and about many of the interesting people in her community.

In 1983, she published At the Bottom of the River, which was a collection of short stories.


In her novels, Kincaid focuses on the relationships between mothers and daughters. She admits this is because of her unhappiness with her own relationship with her mother.

Her novel, Annie John, was published in 1984 and Lucy was published in 1990.



Kincaid also wrote some works of non-fiction, meaning that these stories are about situations and events that actually occurred. The Autobiography of My Mother (1996) tells the story about her relationship with her mom. My Brother (1997) is about her brother and how he died. See Now Then (2013) is a reflection of Kincaid looking back on her past.

Lesson Summary

Jamaica Kincaid, whose real name is Elaine Potter Richardson, was born on May 25, 1949 in St. John’s, Antigua. She moved to New York in 1966 to work as an au pair and later a secretary, model, and nightclub singer. She is most known for her novels about mother-daughter relationships and life in the West Indies.

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