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Jamaica Kincaid’s office at Claremont-McKenna college, where she is a literature professor, is filled with hints of her political leanings. There’s an Obama mug, a statuette of the Lincoln memorial, andâ€””just for provocation,” she insistsâ€”a miniature bust of Karl Marx. When I showed up to interview her a few weeks before the election, and the topic inevitably arose, Kincaid paused abruptly and looked down at her outfit in mock horror. “I’m not wearing my Obama T-shirt!” she exclaimed. “I rushed out of the house! This is seriousâ€”it’s a talisman. I wear it every day.”
Her political sensibilities are not surprising, given the prominence of class and race in her work, not to mention her personal history. Born Elaine Potter Richardson in colonial Antigua, Kincaid came to the United States at 16, sent by her cash-strapped family to work as an au pair in Scarsdale, the tony New York City suburb. By 25, Kincaid had landed a staff writer job at The New Yorker, where she would remain for 20 years. Now 63, she has churned out a dozen booksâ€”including Annie John, Mr. Potter, and Autobiography of My Motherâ€”hauled in countless awards, and, to top it off, has stayed startlingly hip: She’s hooked on Game of Thrones and Homeland, and when her cellphone goes off, the ringtone is Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Ni**as in Paris.”
Out next week, her new book, See Now Then, reveals just how current she really is. Her first novel in nearly a decade, it is very loosely based on the dissolution of her marriage to composer Allen Shawn (son of William, former editor of the New Yorker.) It’s a stark, modern anatomy of married life that packs in everything from a cross-dressing neighbor to a Nintendo-junkie son. In our wide-ranging chat, Kincaid talked about her motherly shortcomings, converting to Judaism, and her brief career singing backup for a celebrity drag queen.