Burning books

This past weekend Jamaica Kincaid was in Seattle promoting her latest novel, See Now Then. She spoke at a fundraiser in Seattle as guest of the Freedom to Read Foundation, an organization that advocates for First Amendment rights, particularly among libraries (FTRF is affiliated with The American Library Association).
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There was something wonderfully ironic in Kincaid’s admission to her audience of mostly librarians that her first exposure to books was often associated with punishments in school (copying out passages from Paradise Lost, forced to read Jane Eyre), which, once the reading bug took hold, would be followed by frequent thefts from her local library. The young girl secretly stashed her prized books under her family’s house. Kincaid claimed with false modesty that “cleverest thing” she ever did was learn to hide books between her legs and smuggle them out under the librarian’s nose.

Kincaid then addressed the topic of book burning — in her words “the most lethal” form of censorship — by means of an episode that has taken on near-mythic proportions in her autobiography. The episode was framed by a long passage from the closing pages of her 1997 novel My Brother. No one hearing or reading the passage can doubt that Kincaid’s style rises to a rare level of speculative prose.

For many years I wrote for a man named William Shawn. Whenever I thought of something to write, I immediately thought of him reading it, and the thought of this man, William Shawn, reading something I had written only made me want to write it more; I could see him sitting (not in any particular place) and reading what I had written and telling me if he liked it, or never mentioning it again if he didn’t, and the point wasn’t to hear him say he that he liked it (though that was better than anything in the whole world) but only to know that he had read it, and why that should have been so is beyond words to me right now, or just to put it into words now (and it was only through words that I knew him) would make it either not true, or incomplete, like love, I suppose: why do I love you, why do you love me? Almost all my life as a writer, everything I wrote I expected Mr. Shawn to read, and so when I first heard  DSCN6492of my brother dying and immediately knew I would write about him, I thought of Mr. Shawn, but Mr. Shawn had just died, too, and I had seen Mr. Shawn when he was dead, and even then I wanted to tell him what it was like when he had died, and he would not have liked to hear that in any way, but I was used to telling him things I knew he didn’t like, I couldn’t help telling him everything whether he liked it or not. And so I wrote about the dead for the dead, and all along as I was writing I thought, When I am done with this I shall never write for Mr. Shawn again, this will be the end of anything I shall write for Mr. Shawn; but now I don’t suppose it will be so. It was because I had neglected my brother when he was two years old and instead read a book that my mother gathered up all the books I owned and put them on a pile on her stone heap, sprinkling them with kerosene and then setting them alight; I cannot remember what they were about (they would have been novels, at fifteen I read only novels), but it would not be so strange if I spent the rest of my life trying to bring those books back to my life by writing them again and again until they were perfect, unscathed by fire of any kind (My Brother, 197-8).

William Shawn is of course the longtime editor of The New Yorker who died in 1992. Kincaid’s younger brother died of AIDS in 1996. “And so I wrote about the dead for the dead,” Kincaid says, a fearsome phrase effortlessly carried off by the author’s powerful yet unassuming style. The past tense adds to the phrase a perhaps unintended trace of its posthumous future. Unless the temporality here as elsewhere in Kincaid is that of a permanent moment of trauma; the historical trauma wrought by colonialism, by the ‘Mother Country,’ as well as that wrought by the outsized and domineering character of Kincaid’s own mother. Speaking in Seattle of the scene in which her mother burned her books, the author stated that “I became a writer — perhaps — in that very moment.” And she added, insisting on the mystery of that fleeting temporal instant, a long moment spanning a life from beginning to closure, “There was something in that moment that sealed it.”

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