Jamaica Kincaid on when to be arrogant

Here, in an MIT lecture, Jamaica Kincaid reads and discusses some of her early contributions to The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town.” She recalls being astounded when her work started to appear in the magazine, because at the time she was reacting against the way everyone else there was writing. One of her pieces, about a book reception for the economist Milton Friedman,

consists entirely of an inventory of the costs of the event to her and other participants (all rigorously fact-checked, Kincaid notes). She felt hostile to Friedman, because he was in those days an advisor “to a cruel government in Chile,” and Kincaid wanted to express this but “didn’t want to just say it.” When “Mr. Shawn published it, it was amazing to me.”

Reading this old work reminds her, she says, how to be daring. “Be arrogant and vain when you’re young,” she advises her audience. “That’s the only time it looks appealing — and it’s also the only time it’s forgivable.”

During this hour-and-a-half lecture, Kincaid also reads her “Biography of a Dress.” She often writes from life, but once she includes a memory in her writing, “I’ve dispensed with it and it is no longer of any literary interest to me.” And she “rule[s] out the memoir… The minute you start thinking of things as memoir, it caramelizes and beautifies things. Implied in memoir is forgiveness that I don’t feel. I never forgive and I never forget, and I’m never cathartic.” See also Kincaid’s The Estrangement.


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