After recently opting to read part of Paradise Lost instead of her own (relatively) brand-new novel, See Now Then, at PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature, Jamaica Kincaid talked to The American Reader about her career, as in, how it has been so awesome that she can get up onstage and read a little Milton if she wants to. She’s sort of earned the right to read whatever strikes her fancy, which is probably the secret desire of every aspiring writer — to get up onstage and talk about whatever the fuck.
Kincaid’s conversation with Reader’s Alyssa Loh wandered over all the typical writer-interview territory (was this novel really autobiographical? what made you write about this, now? favorite color? favorite V.C. Andrews book?) except for when Loh asked Kincaid about the mixture of anger and humor in her authorial persona. Well? How could it be that Kincaid’s writing seemed so “angry” when she herself seemed so funny in person? Did she stub her toe before sitting down at her writing desk? Did she huff paint before speaking in front of large, bookish crowds?
Neither of those, actually. Kincaid’s answer was extremely thoughtful and incisive:
People only say I’m angry because I’m black and I’m a woman. But all sorts of people write with strong feeling, the way I do. But if they’re white, they won’t say it. I used to just pretend I didn’t notice it, and now I just think I don’t care.
There are all sorts of reasons not to like my writing. But that’s not one of them. Saying something is angry is not a criticism. It’s not valid. It’s not a valid observation in terms of criticism. You can list it as something that’s true. But it’s not critical.
You may not like it because it makes you uneasy—and you can say that. But to damn it because it’s angry…. They always say that about black people: “those angry black people.” And why? You’re afraid that there might be some truth to their anger. It might be justified.
I promise you, if I had blonde hair and blue eyes this wouldn’t be an issue. No one ever says, “That angry Judith Krantz…” or whatever.
People are afraid of anger, both the broad, socially disenfranchised kind, and the interpersonal kind, like when you get in trouble with a childhood authority figure for eating a fistful of rubber cement...or whatever it is you’ve done wrong. The fear is being caught in the act of being wrong, because being so wrong that someone gets mad at you means having to, at the very least, apologize. Maybe you even have to take a hard look at yourself and decide to make serious, substantive changes, which is a really hard thing for anyone, let alone a hegemony of rubber cement-eaters, to do.
Image via AP, Katy Winn