She Doesn't See in Black and White

On a visit to Israel this week, author Jamaica Kincaid, who converted to Judaism, spoke about the loveless world inhabited by the heroes of her book `Mr. Potter,' which was published in Hebrew this week.

Shiri Lev-Ari
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Shiri Lev-Ari

A random meeting in an elevator changed the course of author Jamaica Kincaid's life. At the time, she was working as a freelance reporter for various magazines. The man who walked into her elevator was one of the writers for the television show "Saturday Night Live." He arranged for her to meet his friend George Trow, who in turn introduced her to the then-editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn. It wasn't long before Kincaid began publishing articles in the prestigious magazine.

Kincaid has an extraordinary life story. She was born in 1949 on the Caribbean island of Antigua as Elaine Potter Richardson. She was raised by her mother and stepfather, and at 16 was sent alone to New York ("The first-born are frequently sacrificed," she says) to take a job as an au pair ("as a servant," she corrects), and to support her family. For several months, she sent her wages back to her family, but soon sobered up and began to concern herself with her own needs. She completed her high-school studies, began to study photography, and also pursued a bachelor's degree at Franconia College in New Hampshire. In 1973, she began writing articles, and adopted the name Jamaica Kincaid ("I always had an obsession for names; when people or nations gain independence, they always change their name," she says). In 1979 she accepted a position as a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Over the years, she began to write books, including "Annie John" and "Lucy" (published in Hebrew by the New Library), "The Autobiography of My Mother," "My Brother," which described her brother's death from AIDS, and "Mr. Potter," which was published this week in Hebrew by Am Oved. Kincaid married the son of the editor of The New Yorker, converted to Judaism, and has two children. Currently, she is a brand-new divorcee.

This week, she visited Israel as the first guest of the Tel Aviv University Department of English's "Writer in Residence" program. "Everyone I know told me not to go to Israel, including my children," she said, clearly amused, in a lecture held on Tuesday at the university, "but a writer has to meet her readers, and it matters not where they happen to be."

Kincaid, who frequently attends services at a Reform synagogue, was not so interested in talking about her conversion, or about issues of identity. "This issue comes up so much among people, identity. I don't know if I believe in it," she says. "I don't write about being black, or being a Jew, because I don't believe in that kind of group identity. I never integrated being from Antigua, being a black woman, being a woman, being a Jew. It shouldn't prevent me from looking at other people's suffering. I don't think I became a Jew so I could separate the suffering of the Jews from the suffering of other people who are not Jews. I grew up in an old black society, so I took myself for granted and I take you for granted. I don't have an active interest in race; I have an active interest in power and in the abuse of it."

Nor is Kincaid in any hurry to define herself as a post-colonial writer, and finds no connection with literary works of authors with Caribbean roots, such as V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys. "I had no idea that I was in this category. I remember a long time ago, in the early 80's after I published my first book, picking up a magazine in a bookstore that had something in it about colonial studies. It was an article by Edward Said, and there was my name among the post-colonial writers! I was very surprised. It seems to me that I only happen to be writing in this period of post-colonialism."

Kincaid, and many critics may see this as an plus, does not radiate rage and protest against the white man, the subjugator and debaser - neither in her books nor in conversation with her. As with the race issue, here too she reveals ambivalence, and here too she considers the question of who has the power to be the main issue. "I know colonialism and so on, but I think it operates as something larger than the issue of color and gender, because what I am really interested in is balance of power and the abuse of power and the collecting of power - this is the only thing that matters. In the end, it doesn't matter who has the power, whether they're white or black. Antigua now has a black government but they have no hospitals, whereas in the colonial system they had a white government but they had a good health system, and nobody had to go to America for help. The same is true for education."

"Mr. Potter" describes the world of blacks living in a state of perpetual humiliation, a world without human emotion, even without despair. A world in which people learn to hate themselves and cannot help but hate everything around them. "Can a human being exist in a wilderness, a world so empty of human feeling: love and justice; a world in which love, and even that, justice, only exist from time to time and in small quantities, or unexpectedly, like a wild seedling of some necessary and common food (rice would do, or corn would do, or grain of any kind)? The answer is yes and yes again and the answer is no, not really, not so at all."

Can love not exist in a world of subjugation and colonialism? ""Not in a world of colonialism, but in a world of cruelty," she says. "Colonialism is only a word to describe a situation of degradation and alienation, in which it is hard to find love, hard to be generous and to give something to somebody, and expose yourself to chance, to the unexpected in life. Mr. Potter is very repetitive, he does the same things over and over, he is unable to do something new. This is also the style of the book. It made people mad; one reviewer - who loved it - began with `Who will read this book?'"

The book also describes a Dr. Weizenger, a Holocaust survivor who arrived on the island from Prague with his wife. Mr. Potter, a wretched black taxi driver, drives him to his new home. On the face of it, two different people; in actuality, two very similar refugees. "The journey of Mr. Potter and Dr. Weizenger actually begins in 1942," she says. "They were moved from their places, and could not talk about this move."

Kincaid had many reasons to be a political author, but she isn't. She is not even willing to render an opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "In my opinion, it would be rude to come as a guest into someone's home and tell him how to live," she says. "I have opinions, but I express them in private. I am only a guest here."



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