Jamaica Kincaid on Libraries, Censorship, and the Power of Writing

January 27, 2013

“You are the gatekeepers between reader and writer. For someone like me, you have no idea how beautiful your existence is.” Author Jamaica Kincaid enthused about librarians throughout the Freedom to Read Foundation Banned/Challenged Author event, held Saturday night at Town Hall Seattle in conjunction with the 2013 ALA Midwinter Meeting. Kincaid was the event’s featured speaker, and her talk was a fascinating, funny, and heartfelt series of tangents, reminiscences, and ruminations. She kept the large crowd rapt and laughing, particularly with stories detailing a life-long relationship with libraries and librarians that stretches back to her childhood in Antigua.

“I owe much of my life to libraries and librarians,” Kincaid said. “But I’ve had such a difficult relationship with libraries. As a child, I found it difficult to part with books, so I often kept them.”

Young Kincaid hid her large collection of print contraband under her family’s house. Her devotion to these books was all encompassing, so much so that it led to a life-changing event. Kincaid withheld details, other than to say it involved her younger brother. She was supposed to be watching him, but instead she was reading her books. Whatever transpired had such an effect on the boy that Kincaid’s mother removed the young girl’s books from the crawlspace, arranged them in a pile, and burned them.

The image of her prized books aflame has stuck with Kincaid in adulthood. She used it as a springboard to discuss the horror of book burning and censorship in both historical and personal terms, from German armies destroying medieval texts during WWII, to discovering the controversial Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lady Chatterley’s Daughter(“That one was really good. It was just so dirty!”) as a child, to being shocked, saddened, and proud that her own work has been banned, particularly her 1990 book, Lucy, which was challenged in 1994 at a Pennsylvania high school as “most pornographic.”

Kincaid delved into the autobiographical nature of her work, as well. Her new book, See Now Then, which is being released on February 5, follows suit. Kincaid read a brief passage that covers how she dealt with the news that her brother was dying—the same brother who suffered as a child as a result of her book obsession. She handled the news by writing about it. She wrote about it again and again and in great detail.

“I had to write about it, so that I wouldn’t die,” said Kincaid, her soft, Antiguan-accented voice struggling as she remembered losing her brother. The writing was therapeutic, but Kincaid alluded to it serving another purpose—one that highlights the parallels between death and censorship. Writing kept her alive. It keeps all authors alive, as long as their work is available.