Born in Antigua in the West Indies, Jamaica Kincaid has cultivated a voice distinct from male Caribbean writers such as Derek Walcott and Caryl Phillips. Using life to inspire fiction, Kincaid often explores the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, the effects and aftereffects of colonialism, and alienation more generally. Her work also transcends Afro-centric and feminist perspectives. Her deceptively simple prose is marked by poetic lyricism, vivid imagery, and nonlinear time.
On May 25, 1949, she was born as Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John's, Antigua, an island that would not gain full independence from British colonial rule until 1981. The young girl never knew her biological father, a taxi driver named Roderick Potter. Her mother, Annie Richardson Drew, and stepfather, David Drew, nurtured Elaine as their only child until she was nine. During that time, she was well educated under the British educational system and won a scholarship to the Princess Margaret School. When she was nine, her life changed when the first of her three brothers was born.
Later, as an adult, the author would express the following about this situation and her relationship with her mother:
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... If I hadn't become a writer I don't know what would have happened to me; that was a kind of self rescuing.
Once the center of her mother's attention, Elaine was sidelined while her brothers were encouraged to achieve a university education. At 13, Elaine's mother pulled her out of school to help her ailing stepfather. At 17, she was sent to America to work as an au pair, to support her family in Antigua, and eventually to become a nurse. Feeling embittered and alienated, Elaine refused to respond to her mother's correspondence or send money home. Instead of nursing, she studied photography. In 1973, Elaine changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid in order to write anonymously.
That year Kincaid's first published piece, an interview with Gloria Steinem, led to a series of articles titled "When I was Seventeen." For three years, Kincaid worked as a freelance writer until William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, hired her as a staff writer. In time she took over the "Talk of the Town" column. Encouraged by her editor, Kincaid began to write fiction, which was often published as installments in the New Yorker.
Kincaid's first collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River (1983), won the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The predominately autobiographical Annie John (1985) was critically acclaimed for its universal appeal as a coming-of-age story and for its treatment of indigenous Caribbean culture. Not having returned home in over twenty years, Kincaid wrote the book-length essay A Small Place (1988), which chronicled Kincaid's outrage at the devastation of postcolonial Antigua: the corruption of the new leaders and the exploitation resulting from the influx of tourism. In 1989, Kincaid received the Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1991, after the publication of Lucy (1990), Kincaid received honorary degrees from Williams College and Long Island College.
In 1996, Kincaid's youngest brother Devon died from AIDS at 33. That year she resigned from the New Yorker. The Autobiography of My Mother (1995), My Brother (1997), and Mr. Potter (2003) have received critical acclaim. Kincaid's love of horticulture has taken center stage in My Favorite Plant (1998), My Garden Book (1999), and Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya (2004).
Kincaid married her editor's son, Allen Shawn, and they had a daughter, Annie, in 1985 and a son, Harold, in 1989. Kincaid and her family reside in North Bennington, Vermont. She is currently a visiting lecturer on African and African American Studies and on English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University.