Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow awarded Jamaica Kincaid an honorary degree during the University's 155th Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 22, 2011.
Jamaica Kincaid: Through the alchemy of the written word, you transform the experiences of individuals and small places into compelling stories with deep and profound meaning. Your novels, stories, and essays explore at a human scale the great historical processes that have shaped modern America and the Caribbean. You paint vivid portraits for your readers of the contemporary legacy of slavery and the punishing reality of poverty and prejudice. To those who have never experienced them personally, you convey powerfully the distinctive qualities of the African diaspora and women’s lives. You have the ability to translate deeply troubling personal encounters into startlingly beautiful prose, and you can celebrate the pleasures of a garden while reminding us of its complex social and political context. Jamaica Kincaid, you said that as a child it was the books that you read—in secret, under your house—that gave you great satisfaction and inspiration. Through your contributions to the literary canon, you have amply repaid your debt to the great English novelists you first encountered while growing up on Antigua. For your many contributions to literature, I am honored to confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
JAMAICA KINCAID was born on the island of Antigua in 1949. At the age of seventeen, she was sent by her family to America to work, so she could help support her much younger siblings. She arrived in New York City in 1966 and began what became an award-winning literary life, and did not return home again until 1986. Her daring personal rebirth has added to American fiction a provocative and poetic voice that has reframed our understanding of how the personal and political intertwine to forge our identities.
Kincaid’s eight novels never stray from the first person, yet they are not autobiographical. Rather, she says, “In my writing I suppose I’m trying to understand how I got to be the person I am. The truth is important, but it’s a certain kind of truth.”
Kincaid’s decision to leave her island home was rooted in a growing emotional isolation from her mother and her increasing contempt for the demands of colonialism and subservience to British rule. As the main character in her first novel, Annie John (1985), realizes: “My unhappiness was something deep inside me, and when I closed my eyes I could even see it. It sat somewhere—maybe in my belly, maybe in my heart; I could not exactly tell—and it took the shape of a small black ball, all wrapped up in cobwebs.”
Her first job in New York was as an au pair. After working and attending night school for three years, she went to Franconia College in New Hampshire on a full scholarship. But she felt too old to be a student, and after a year returned to New York to write for a teenage girls’ magazine.
Her work in the Village Voice and Ingenue drew the attention of The New Yorker writer George W.S. Trow, who introduced Kincaid to the magazine’s editor, William Shawn. “It was William Shawn who showed me what my voice was,” Kincaid said in a 1996 interview. “He made me feel that what I thought, my inner life, my thoughts as I organized them, were important. That they made literature.” From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, she was a featured columnist for the magazine.
Kincaid’s writing challenged conventional fictional genres from the start. Her first book of short stories, At the Bottom of the River (1983), contains the highly regarded “Girl,” a single-sentence stream of how-tos on everything from laundry to cooking to proper behavior, spoken by a mother to a daughter.
Personal and societal histories intertwine in her work. In her fiction she explores the meaning of existence, including in A Small Place (1988), Lucy (1990), and The Autobiography of My Mother (1996). In the latter, she writes: “It is sad that unless you are born a god, your life, from its very beginning, is a mystery to you.” Her nonfiction, including My Brother (1997), My Garden (Book) (2001), and Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya (2005), chronicles her own experience, yet still evokes universal truths.
Kincaid began teaching in 1992, starting at Harvard University, where she held appointments in the English and African-American Studies departments. She has been a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College since 2009. Kincaid is the recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Award, a Guggenheim Foundation award, and the Prix Femina Etranger award. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.