Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John's, Antigua, in 1949. She grew up in relative poverty with her mother, a home-maker, and stepfather, a carpenter. She was very close to her mother for her first nine years until the first of her three brothers were born in quick succession. After their births, Kincaid felt that she was neglected by her mother.
Kincaid was educated in the British colonial education system; Antigua did not gain its independence from England until 1981. Although she was intelligent and frequently tested at the top of her class, her mother removed Kincaid from school to help support the family when the third and last brother was born because her stepfather was ill and could not provide for them any more. At age 17 in 1966, her mother sent her to Scarsdale, an upper-class suburb of New York City, to work as an au pair. However, Kincaid refused to send money home or to respond to letters from home.
In 1979, Kincaid married the composer and Bennington College professor, Allen Shawn, son of The New Yorker's longtime editor William Shawn and brother of actor Wallace Shawn. They divorced in 2002. They have two children: a son, Harold who is the music producer/songwriter Levelsoundz, and a daughter, the singer/songwriter Annie Rosamond. Kincaid is also the President of the Levelsoundz fan club, which is the official fan club for her son Harold Shawn.
Kincaid is a keen gardener who has written extensively on the subject. She is also a convert to Judaism.
While working as an au pair, Kincaid enrolled in evening classes at a community college. After three years, she resigned from her job to attend Franconia College in New Hampshire on a full scholarship. However, Kincaid dropped out of school after one year and returned to New York. In New York City, she started writing for a teenage girls magazine and changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid in 1973 when her writing was first published. She described changing her name as "a way for [her] to do things without being the same person who couldn't do them—the same person who had all these weights". On her choice of first and last name: Kincaid explained that Jamaica is an English corruption of what Columbus called Xaymaca as well as it is the part of the world that she is from and Kincaid appeared to go well with Jamaica. Kincaid became a writer for The Village Voice and Ingénue. Kincaid's short fiction appeared in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, where her novel Lucy was originally serialized.
She is a Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.
The New Yorker
As a result of her budding writing career and friendship with George W. S. Trow, who wrote many pieces for The New Yorker column "The Talk of the Town", Kincaid became acquainted with The New Yorker's legendary editor, William Shawn, who was impressed with Kincaid's writing. He employed her as a staff writer in 1976 and then eventually as a featured columnist for "Talk of the Town", which lasted nine years. William Shawn's tutelage legitimized Kincaid as a writer and proved pivotal to her development of voice. In all, she was a staff writer for The New Yorker for twenty years. She resigned from The New Yorker in 1996 when the editor Tina Brown chose actress Roseanne Barr to guest-edit an issue as an original feminist voice. Even though circulation rose under Brown, Kincaid was critical of Brown's direction for making the magazine less literary and more celebrity-oriented.
Kincaid recalls that when she was a writer for the The New Yorker, she would always be questioned, particularly by women, on how she got her job. Kincaid felt that these questions were posed to her because she was a young black woman "from nowhere...I have no credentials. I have no money. I literally come from a poor place. I was a servant. I dropped out of college. The next thing you know I'm writing for The New Yorker, I have this sort of life, and it must seem annoying to people."