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

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
March 3, 2013

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 Vermont. 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 living in Vermont; 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.” [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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