Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Jamaica Kincaid Reads from Her Past

The director of the community library in mostly working-class Barre, Vermont, is Karen Lane. She gave a concise, professional introduction this evening for author Jamaica Kincaid, referring to Kincaid as the "very distinguished" guest of the Aldrich Public Library. The author noted right away that she loves being included in Vermont society and culture -- so when Lane contacted her, putting together the two words library and Vermont, Kincaid accepted the invitation with pleasure.

Several of the audience members expected a conversation about plants and gardens, familiar with Kincaid's most Vermont-associated work, her 1999 book MY GARDEN (BOOK). Instead, Kincaid treated the group to readings of four of her noted and sharp-tongued New Yorker "Talk of the Town" columns from 34 or 35 years ago -- her first professional work. Teasing gently, she told her listeners she hoped to make them laugh. And indeed, she succeeded, holding them spellbound for twice as long as the event had been planned for. Hurrah!

That was another era, Kincaid pointed out -- one where the cult of "celebrity" had just begun. Kincaid and her friends assumed it was a fad and would soon fade. So with tongue firmly in cheek, she opened the evening with her irresistibly funny "conversation reported" column called "New," in which one (presumably quite pushy!) woman tells another what the "new man" is going to be like. (Alan Alda is the prime example!) A second piece, "Expense Account," poked fun at Mr. and Mrs. Milton Friedman, Society figures of the time. Said Kincaid with merriment, "I never liked him [Friedman]. You shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but I think under the circumstances, with him, you can!" Her column briskly heaped contempt on both Friedman and his ostentatiousness; Kincaid also detested his notions about Chile.

By this point, I confess I had succumbed to the delight of being entertained with quick wit and naughty jabs, and readings three and four, one that poked great fun at a talk given by Jackie Kennedy's social secretary Letitia Baldridge and the other, "Memorandum," about a mayor's office report on a drama group that included a naked overweight woman performer, gave more bold strokes to the picture of Kincaid as young journalist. She revealed that her poverty in those days made her depend on the society events as the only good meals she was likely to eat! But that didn't stop her from tossing the social absurdities into view. Some become more absurd in reflection from today: Kincaid described the theater performers as Eastern Europeans who had escaped the world war to treasure artistic freedom in the United States.

"I can't imagine," she commented, "that a group of people would come to America to see artistic freedom any more -- well, you know the drill!"

Audience members then eagerly asked her to read from her newest work, which is AMONG FLOWERS: A WALK IN THE HIMALAYA (2005; paperback being released this summer). Kincaid chose a segment in which she sees herself as the spoiled and whimpering Westerner, accustomed to comforts, and deprived of them in the vagaries of tramping the mountains in Nepal. In particular, her group became frightened by repeated threats from Maoist guerillas, who held them up for money and appeared willing to shoot them. Detouring away from their planned route, in order to dodge the terrifying Maoists, they stumbled into a campsight one evening that turned out to be overrun with leeches -- not just blood-sucking soft creatures, but the kind that can leap upward to land on your skin, even your face, and whose bites left gushing streams of blood behind.

"At some point I stopped distinguishing between the Maoists and the leeches," Kincaid read aloud.

And all this, in order to collect some exotic plants to bring home to the Vermont garden!

In the event finale, Kincaid declined to talk about her current writing project: "Ah, that can't be answered. If I told you, I would stop writing because it wouldn't be interesting to me anymore." Judging by the nodding heads around me, quite a few listeners knew just what she meant.

As they clustered afterward for cookies, juice, and a chance to thank Kincaid and even ask her to sign a book, people talked about how they'd enjoyed the chance to meet her, to hear her, and to be surprised by what she chose to read. She earned a lot of appreciation for her smoothly flowing work and the vivid images.

One woman nudged me as we approached the exit: "I'm afraid I'll dream all night of leeches," she admitted.

A clue to one future topic for the gifted essayist and novelist: She reads mostly nonfiction, and said she's currently reading Reginald Farrer's account of walking in the Dolomites -- "Because I'm going to be walking in the Dolomites!"