Time Rules In Jamaica Kincaid's New Novel, 'See Now Then'

Mar 3, 2013
Originally published on March 3, 2013 3:44 pm

Author Jamaica Kincaid is out with a new novel, her first in 10 years.

Kincaid is perhaps best known for her books At the Bottom of the River and The Autobiography of My Mother. Her new book, See Now Then, tackles some difficult themes.

The novel opens with a scene of a seemingly idyllic home life in small-town New England. But it is soon clear the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Sweet is anything but sweet.

Critics have drawn parallels to Kincaid's own life. Mrs. Sweet, like Kincaid, is an avid gardener; her marriage to a composer ends in divorce.

But Kincaid says critics who classify the novel as a masked autobiography are diminishing the work.

"Why does it matter?" she asks Celeste Headlee, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

She adds: "It's painful, in its way, to be dismissed because, 'Well, it's about her marriage and revenge or something.' It's not that at all."

See Now Then traces the painful unraveling of the Sweets' marriage in an unusual narrative that bucks the traditional style.


Interview Highlights

On the book's narrative:

"It's not a book in the usual way of and then and then and next. It doesn't have what you'd call a traditional structure or a traditional narrative. But it's very structured, it's very mannered, actually, in the way your mind might work. I mean, I've come to think that the traditional way of writing is the artificial way that that's not the way things work at all. It's not the way thinking works."

On the character of time:

"Time is the main character. Time is the element that controls the consciousness, the very being of the people. I started out thinking, 'What is this thing we call time?' And it started in this way: Every day I see a photograph of myself taken when I was 2 years of age. And I would look at it and wonder, 'Well, what happened to that 2-year-old, where did it go?' ... And so it's from that really I began to contemplate all the things that had happened."

On drawing from her own life in the novel:

"My own everyday life was not on my mind so much, but how to render something that had happened. How to make sense of it. You know, men write about their life all the time. You know, Norman Mailer would put himself in his books, and no one made it seem that he was doing something less. ... If I had looked different, my autobiography in the book, or any kind of autobiography in the book, would not be held against it. ... Sometimes I feel that there is a certain kind of book that I should have written, that is expected of someone like me: the travails of the black woman ... (The book is) not about the black woman, or the black this, it's about a human experience."

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Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Author Jamaica Kincaid is back with a controversial new novel, her first in 10 years. Perhaps best known for her books "At the Bottom of the River" and "The Autobiography of My Mother," Kincaid's new book tackles some hard themes.

"See Now Then" opens with a scene of seemingly idyllic home life in small-town Vermont, but it's soon clear that the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Sweet is anything but sweet. The book traces that marriage's painful unraveling in an unusual narrative that bucks the traditional style. In the decade since Kincaid's last novel, she says she's kept busy writing, and tried to figure out how to make this book work.

JAMAICA KINCAID: It's not a book in the usual way of, and then and then and next. It doesn't have what you'd call a traditional structure or a traditional narrative, but it's very structured. It's very mannered, actually, in the way your mind might work. I mean, I've come to think that the traditional way of writing is the artificial way, that that's not the way things work at all. It's not the way thinking works.

And in the book itself, I mean, it made sense because the characters in it are not like characters who cross the street and brush their teeth. They never brush their teeth. You would think they must be very fragrant people.

HEADLEE: They're not flesh and blood.

KINCAID: No, they're not. They are mythic.

HEADLEE: Yeah. And you've named many of the characters after Greek...

KINCAID: That's right.

HEADLEE: ...mythology.

KINCAID: That's true. The son is named Heracles, and the daughter is named Persephone. And they're always described as the beautiful Persephone, the young Heracles.

HEADLEE: Well, Persephone was beautiful, but she was also the queen of the dead.

KINCAID: The underworld, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

KINCAID: She was the queen of the dead, but she was captive and away from her mother. And her mother mourns for her and longs to see her and so on. And all of those things are particular to the story. They are symbolic in the story, and they are also real in the story. The book operates on two levels, you know, in a - with a sort of reality and then a sort of interpretation.

HEADLEE: I mean, as you were alluding to earlier, it's not chronological. It almost is like a dream in that things just happen. And because of that, and the title and the fluidity of time in the novel, I wonder if maybe time isn't the real flesh and blood real character, memory.

KINCAID: Oh, you must have really read this novel. Time is the main character. Time is the element that controls the consciousness, the very being of the people. I started out thinking, what is this thing we call time? And it started in this way: every day I see a photograph of myself taken when I was 2 years of age. And I would look at it and wonder, well, what happened to that 2-year-old? Where did it go?

And there are all sorts of explanations. You know, we grow up, we grow old, we change, but none of it is a good explanation for where is the 2-year-old. And so it's from that, really, I began to contemplate all the things that had happened, how I came to be the person sitting in a small village in New England.

HEADLEE: And that's kind of a subplot to me, anyway. What I took away was how our memories are created, and you can't trust them. I mean, you don't even know in the novel what is real and what isn't.

KINCAID: Yes.

HEADLEE: And you have created some scenes that are graphic and horrifying...

KINCAID: Yes.

HEADLEE: ...visions of decapitation. It's as though you're trying to suggest that we can't trust our own memory.

KINCAID: Yes. But that is, I think, to some degree - no, not to some degree - that is wholly true that you can't trust it. For one thing, the thing that is happening to you might be so unpleasant, you may need to subtract from it or add to it so that in the retelling, you can manage it.

HEADLEE: You know, a lot has been said and written about the parallels between this book and your own life.

KINCAID: Mm-huh.

HEADLEE: The main character, Mrs. Sweet...

KINCAID: Yes.

HEADLEE: ...is also a writer.

KINCAID: Yes.

HEADLEE: She also lives in a small New England town.

KINCAID: Yes.

HEADLEE: She also is an avid gardener.

KINCAID: Yes.

HEADLEE: I don't have to go through all them. There are a lot of parallels.

KINCAID: Yes.

HEADLEE: But I wonder why it matters. I mean, if it's a great piece of art...

KINCAID: That's the thing...

HEADLEE: ...who cares?

KINCAID: ...that is interesting to me, why does it matter? It doesn't matter to me that it's autobiographical. But it seems to matter to people as a way to read it, you know, except I think it's a way of diminishing what I think might be remarkable about the work. And it's painful, in its way, to be dismissed because, well, it's about her marriage and revenge or something. It's not that at all.

None of that was on my mind. My own everyday life was not on my mind so much but how to render something that had happened, how to make sense of it. You know, men write about their life all the time. You know, Norman Bailey would put his self in his books...

HEADLEE: It's true.

KINCAID: ...and no one made it seem that he was doing something less.

HEADLEE: No. They were just drawing on personal experience.

KINCAID: Yes. I do have to say that I noticed - and I don't like to say these things, but I just think that it has to be said, that if I had looked different, my autobiography in the book or any kind of autobiography in the book would not be held against it.

HEADLEE: You mean if you were not a female or if you were not from Antigua or if you were dark skinned?

KINCAID: All of the above and more that sometimes I feel that there is a certain kind of book that I should have written that is expected of someone like me: the travails of the black woman, the travails of history. There is all the travails of history, certainly, is in the book, but it's not about the black woman or the black this. It's about a human experience, that the life of this family doesn't depend on the color of their skin.

HEADLEE: No. Although the husband is racist, and his family was too.

KINCAID: I wouldn't say they were racist. I would say that they didn't understand her, and she didn't understand them. Why are they racist?

HEADLEE: Were you asking me why I thought they were racist?

KINCAID: Yes.

HEADLEE: Well, I mean, the continued emphasis on her coming in from a banana boat, the continued assumptions they make about her...

KINCAID: Uh-huh.

HEADLEE: ...based on where she came from and based on her race.

KINCAID: That's not the way I meant it at all. That particular section, you know, has to do with the history of certain powerful actors, for instance, the British Empire. It's her foreignness not her race. Race is almost not the way I think so much, but I see that it's something that is attributed to me. And the way people perceive me is by race. I perceive the world as powerful and powerless. And Mrs. Sweet comes from the history of the powerless.

So the thing about race, one can imagine that if the world had gone the other way, we'd be talking about these things in a different matter. I mean, if you look at life, in a way, as a kind of musical chairs and when the music stops who's sitting down and who's standing up, at one point, it very well might have been that the people from Europe are the ones doing the standing and the people who look like me might be sitting down and pushing them around.

It's all very arbitrary. It's why you can't take these things not only for granted but you can't assume that they're fixed. They're always in flux. Maybe not in our lifetime, yours and mine, but they're in flux.

HEADLEE: Jamaica Kincaid. The new book is called "See Now Then." Thank you so much for joining us.

KINCAID: Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.