Jamaica Kincaid: Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya

Jamaica Kincaid
Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya
Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2005

 

 

For those who know Jamaica Kincaid from the opening salvo of A Small Place – a withering put-down of the tourists who descend on her island, blithely oblivious of what it is like to live there – this may come as a big surprise.

Among Flowers is an account of a trek she made in Nepal, for the purpose of collecting seeds she could plant in her garden in Vermont. She and her three companions are guided by sherpas and supported by a team of porters (whose names she can never remember) who do their best to meet their demand for creature comforts and keep them safe from the attentions of ‘Maoists’ (caricatured as menacing or infantile throughout) who threaten to spoil their vacation.

It is not easy to believe that they were written by the same person. Perhaps she has gotten more conservative as she has gotten older. It’s not unheard of. Or perhaps we would find it more reassuring to believe that if the first was sincere, the second must be ironic.

I’m not convinced.

In one village she refers to the way she becomes the object of curious attention. ‘One woman did make me understand that she thought I was wearing a mask, that my face was not my real face,’ she writes. Maybe this is Kincaid reminding her readers that authors always ‘wear a mask’, whether it be that of the outraged local or the self-absorbed tourist. In each case, it is as if she is adopting a deliberately exaggerated persona and pushing it as far as it can go.

The first-person protagonist of this story is not unaware of the disparities of power and wealth that separate elite travellers from the people they meet (and rely on). Indeed, her disarming tendency to admit how much she moaned about the facilities or felt let down by the porters brings them into sharper relief than an account by a more ‘sensitive’ traveller who might have made more effort to appear to ‘fit in’.

But even when she consciously reflects on these disparities – for example when she contrasts her own perspective with that of the Nepalese (what for her is treasure may be weeds to them, what is ornament, food, and what is exciting and new, dull and quotidian) – it is the way that these reflections unconsciously rob them of the possibility of finer feeling that is telling rather than the prosaic truth they express.

Above all, that these reflections never prompt searching questions of a moral or political nature – while a Communist rebellion gathers pace around her – may be more eloquent in its silence than an approach that offers simple solutions.

For this reason, I think the ‘tourist’ identity Kincaid assumes in the Himalayas exposes contradictions and paradoxes much more effectively than the ‘local’ identity she assumes in Antigua. Whether this is a deliberate strategy is another question, and possibly an irrelevant one.

Jamaica Kincaid: My Garden (Book):

A quotation from Kirkus Review on the back cover of my copy calls this book ‘quirky’. This is true, on different levels.

Perhaps the most distinctive formal feature is the deliberately excessive use of parentheses, as if the author has set herself the task of illustrating all the different purposes they can serve (clarifying an ambiguous pronoun, glossing an unusual word or phrase, explanation, qualification, specification of relationship, narrative digression, and so on), extending to the very title. It lends these essays an informal, conversational character – often marked by sudden changes of direction or swings of mood.

But the subject matter is highly unusual too. All the essays draw on Kincaid’s experiences as an amateur gardener but it is no more a book about gardening than Beyond a Boundary is about cricket. ‘What do they know of gardening who only gardening know?’ could easily be its epigraph. If it is eloquent on the ways in which the gardener can take delight in the ‘vexations and agitations’ of her craft, and on the impulses that attract her to some plants and repel her from others, My Garden (book) offers various historical and cross-cultural perspectives that make for uncomfortable and provocative reading.

She dwells – some might say perversely – on the quotidian details of buying and selling, underlining the broader economic networks in which she operates (including her own privilege as the owner of a large house in Vermont who can afford domestic help). Having grown up in the Caribbean she is keenly aware of how precious the aesthetic pleasures of the domestic garden are when set alongside the mercenary priorities of plantation agriculture on the one hand and the imperialist ‘botany thieves’ (and the Latin nomenclature they imposed) on the other.

There are few moments of tranquility here. Her reflections on Spring are punctuated by the killing (or fantasies of killing) rabbits, snakes, bugs and slugs, but the contradictions are sharpest in the longest essay in the book, ‘Plant Hunting in China’. As Kincaid describes the organized tour – her attention largely absorbed by the behaviour of her fellow-travellers, the unvarying diet of ‘pork, pork, pork, pork’, and the unsanitary conditions and practices she observes (and must herself occasionally endure) – she comes close to occupying the position of the tourist she famously despises in A Small Place. It certainly seems to confirm that she has now (as she puts it in another essay) ‘joined the conquering classes.’ And here perhaps any comparison with C L R James breaks down. But the book leaves us with much to reflect on.

Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place

Who is speaking in this book? There are several voices here and while their utterances may readily be described as heartfelt or brutally honest, they also feel slightly contrived. It is as if A Small Place is an exercise in invective rather than an expression of it.

I was prompted to re-read A Small Place after being introduced to Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. These letters from defiant young revolutionaries addressed to North American readers were actually written by a US sociologist. C Wright Mills begins and ends the book with reflections of his own, but the narrator in the main body of the text is a composite persona he created on the basis of extensive interviews during his visit to the island in 1960.

Kincaid grew up in Antigua so she is not an outsider like Mills. But she left the island at an early age and by the time she came to write A Small Place she had lived in the United States for nearly thirty years, and so to begin her essay as a native (who gives no indication of ever having been abroad) addressing the reader as a hypothetical tourist arriving in her country is to adopt an identity almost as fictional as Mills’.

And the point of view is equally heterogeneous. If the first part offers a sarcastic assault on the ignorance of the tourist (the most striking, most enjoyable part of the book, the one that most readers remember), the second turns on the white settler elite of colonial Antigua (flavoured with childhood reminiscences), and the target of the third is the corrupt alliance of big business and government that replaced it following independence. Gradually the voice shifts from that of a local who can do nothing but pour scorn on the wealthy visitor to that of an educated outsider who despairs that ordinary Antiguans seem to acquiesce in this new state of affairs, and are unwilling to take responsibility for themselves. By the end the narrator has shed all traces of solidarity with her fellow-islanders, referring to them in the third person: ‘Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.’

There is a hint of an alternative future for the Caribbean, one that builds on the dream of democracy represented by the founding of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union in 1939 and Maurice Bishop’s revolution in Grenada. But characteristically it is Bishop’s fate – ‘at the hands of the Americans’ – that closes off these reflections rather than the uprising against the Duvalier dictatorship two years before the book was published (at the end of the essay Baby Doc still seems to be in power). And so A Small Place ends, calling for Antiguans to develop ‘a different relationship with the world, a more demanding relationship, a relationship in which they are not victims’, but giving little sign that this is likely to happen.

The passion of the book is superficial, for this cynicism empties its passion of any force. ‘And so look at this prolonged visit to the bile duct that I am making, look at how bitter, how dyspeptic just to sit and think about these things makes me,’ she writes. Is there not something unreliable about a narrator who is so archly self-conscious about her own moves? Kincaid declines and conjugates rage in a way that leaves me rather cold.

C Wright Mills: Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba

Reporting on his 1960 visit to Cuba, C Wright Mills did not write a conventional travelogue or journalistic account. He chose to have his book narrated by a composite Cuban revolutionary, and it consists of a series of letters addressed to his North American readers. ‘Most of the words are mine,’ Mills writes in his introduction, ‘– although not all of them; the arguments, the tone, the interpretations, the tang and feel – they are in the main directly Cuban. I have merely organized them – in the most direct and immediate fashion of which I am capable.’

The result is a powerful defence of the revolution, which calls upon its readers in the US to challenge the ‘Yankee imperialism’ that is being pursued in their name and to support this brave experiment that seeks to pursue a middle way between Capitalism (which ‘sacrifices man’) and Communism (which ‘sacrifices the rights of man’) .

The book caused quite a stir at the time and sold close to half a million copies. But it is hardly known today. Listen, Yankee is out of print and has not attracted anything like the critical attention paid to Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, an equally passionate challenge from the Caribbean that accusingly fingers a similar audience, and with which it might be usefully compared.

Elizabeth Burns: Held

The vocabulary used in this collection is perhaps best characterised by what it excludes. There is very little non-standard or ‘new’ English here, very little dialect, vernacular, slang, other languages. The use of proper names is tightly controlled – a few places and people here and there; certainly almost no trace of current affairs, brands, popular culture. It goes without saying that no one talks like this – no one could get far in everyday life with such a restricted stock of words – but it is unusual to find even poetry like this today.

This is one reason why Burns’ poems seem so fragile and precious. It seems almost unbelieveable that they can hold off the teeming heteroglossia that surrounds them. It is certainly noticeable when a slightly low word like ‘shove’ appears (‘An eighteenth-century experiment’) or a slightly specialized one like ‘felucca’ (‘A homecoming’), while the rare specificity of ‘Silloth’, ‘Carstairs’, ‘Cold War’, and ‘Nazis’ draw you into geography and history. And for me these moments give an extra pleasure, not least because they gently remind you that the collection’s persistent themes (bereavement, creativity) always emerge from the evocation of a particular place and time even if the reader couldn’t pin them them on a map or a calendar.

But the most characteristic feature of Held – its signature, even – is its astounding ability to span centuries and continents in a few lines, as the observation of something so humble as a stone coffin, an excavated trench , a river approaching the sea, gives way to a glimpse of its distant past or possible future.

In ‘Transport’, for example, an image of barges laden with gunpowder pulled by horses takes us back to the crofters gathering the kelp ash used in its production and forwards to the sea voyage and explosions on the other side of the ocean. ‘History’ combines in one view – and a sublimely condensed apprehension of human and geological time-scales – the ruins of an abbey and a nuclear power station, ‘whose indestructible / waste is in the seabed where layers of sediment / became the quarried sandstone, heaved over salt marsh // to be turned into an abbey.’

The front cover of the book features a white porcelain moon jar in the British Museum (and the subject of one of the poems), but the material objects in these poems are not trapped in a display case; they are invested with labour, love, power and suffering. As the title suggests, it’s what’s inside them, the secret biographies they harbour, that counts.

Sometimes, it is true, the poems themselves seem a little too laboured and unconvincing. The metaphor of portrait and sitter in ‘Diptych’ feels overextended so that its point becomes unclear. The historical sweep of ‘Holy Water’ from mediaeval monks to nuclear subs packs in more descriptive and explanatory clauses than it needs, I think. And the collection closes with ‘This life’ – whose title I imagine unwittingly duplicates that of the cult TV series: it is the only time we find ourselves in an urban environment, and I wonder if it isn’t just its protagonist (a characteristic ‘you’) but the writer herself who feels uncomfortable there, as she slips into a series of glib, short, generalizing nouns before resting more sure-footedly on the sensuous particular: ‘… but this life with its city streets, // its fizz and mix and mess, its rush of sweet-pea scent, / the lightness of their petals, their brief and lovely bloom.’