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Kincaid in revolt

MAYA JAGGI on a writer who challenges notions of sexuality, motherhood and mother countries

AFTER a bloodily self-inflicted but triumphant abortion, the heroine of Jamaica Kincaid's third novel prophesies: "I would bear children but I would never be a mother to them ... I would bathe them at noon in a water that came from myself, and I would eat them at night, swallowing them whole, all at once."

Kincaid, whose home is in the United States but whose semi-autobiographical fiction returns to her native Caribbean, has dwelt obsessively on the love-hate attrition between mother and daughter. Admirers of her stark yet lyrical prose include Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie and Nobel poet laureate Derek Walcott - to whom her new novel, The Autobiography Of My Mother (Vintage), is dedicated.

At the house in Bennington, Vermont, that she shares with her husband, composer Allen Shawn, and their two children, Kincaid says the novel was sparked by a realisation that her own mother "should never have had children". The thought came as she watched her mother nurse her step-brother, who died in January of Aids, aged 33. "It was wonderful to see how kind she was to my brother when he was dying," she says, then with venom adds: "She loves us when we're dying - not when we're thriving because then we don't need her."

Kincaid retains the English accent of her upbringing in colonial Antigua, the island she left 30 years ago, aged 17. Nearly 6ft tall, she has the direct gaze of someone with ample faith in herself. She quit her job as a staff writer at the New Yorker last November in a high-profile row with editor Tina Brown ("a bully yellow-haired high-heeled woman from England"), who she feels lowered the magazine's literary tone with an influx of celebrities. The last straw was Brown's choice of TV personality Roseanne to guest-edit a women's issue.

Her self-confessed "narcissism" on arrival in New York in the 1960s - bleached hair, an extrovert wardrobe - was in revolt against low expectations. As the eldest of four, and the only girl, she was apprenticed to a seamstress, then plucked from school, where she was excelling, and sent to the US as an au pair ("really a servant") - a period vitriolically captured in her second novel, Lucy (1990).

A chance meeting opened doors at the New Yorker - "a privileged place dominated by white men from Harvard and Yale, so I was Exhibit A" - and she subsequently married the editor's son.

In her New Yorker stories, which grew into the collection At The Bottom Of The River (1978) and the novel Annie John (1983), a young girl's ties to her mother and her island begin to suffocate her. Harshly guarding her against "the slut you are so bent on becoming", the mother trains her doting child to be servile and ladylike. In A Small Place (1988), a diatribe on Antigua's corrupt legacy addressed to the incoming tourist, Kincaid asks: "Do you ever wonder why some people blow things up?"

Reviews were harsh: "One of the most frightening things for any victor is to have the victim articulate the injustice," says Kincaid. "So what better than to dismiss it as anger - it's nothing, a sulk."

Her latest hypnotic monologue is a study of power and powerlessness distilled into crystalline prose. Like Kincaid's own mother, the narrator, 70-year-old Xuela Claudette Richardson, is a Dominican whose mother was a Carib Indian and her father a policeman. Xuela's mother dies giving birth to her, and her father bundles her off, along with his soiled clothes, to be wet-nursed by his laundry woman. Seduced by a married friend of her father, Xuela takes control through a curious sexual detachment and by refusing to keep his child. She then seduces and marries a white doctor, Philip.

Kincaid insists her subject is not race. "I assume blackness is extremely normal. Powerlessness is the point of obsession for me. But anybody can be powerless, regardless of their complexion."

Xuela is, though, a metaphor for the African diaspora. "For Africans, Africa died the minute they were born into the new world. I'm always thinking about a larger something when I write - how a large event operates within a single person." Yet that symbolism can make the desolately self-willed Xuela unreal. "She is a character in a limited sense," Kincaid admits, "not as in, say, 19th-century literature, like Balzac. She's more mythic and her world is reduced."

Combining authorship with children, she feels writing has made sense of her upbringing: "If one repeats one's childhood, I'ds have had a miserable life. But I fell in love wisely: I marvel at my ability to be kind to myself."