In See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel in 10 years, the author reflects on marriage, memory, and motherhood.
In the book, the phrase See Now Then repeats, both gaining and shifting meaning as it does. How much of that reprise comes through revision?
I write a lot in my head. The revision goes on internally. It’s not spontaneous and it doesn’t have a schedule. You know how some people write every day at a certain point? I’m not like that. I carry something around for a long time. I weigh the words and the sentences. I weigh the paragraphs. The process is much more meditative for me. So, when I put something down on paper, I’ve already edited a lot. I don’t think it’s a very efficient way to work, but it’s the way I do it. I am just very careful with what I put down. You know how if you’re making a gravy or something, the recipe calls for you to simmer until it reduces by two-thirds? I seem to simmer [a book] until it has been reduced by two-thirds.
Mrs. Sweet’s children often seem frustrated by her work as a writer. What were your own experiences balancing motherhood and writing?
Children like their mothers especially to be standing still and watching them, even if they are sleeping. At least that’s how I felt. There’s nothing wrong with the self-interest of children; it’s just the way they are. The mother has to make decisions about what will be good for her, too, but children are indifferent. I remember my own children wanting me to go to the play or see field hockey games. I managed, but I was always late.
Is there a different responsibility in writing characters who are children, as opposed to parents or sibling characters?
Ideas regarding the powerful and powerless are themes running throughout my work. Children are so powerless, and when I imagined those children [in the book], I was imagining people with less power. But the most powerless person in the book is the mother, who has a sense of justice and a deep devotion to her obligations. She’s the most childlike and the most damaged. On the other hand, as the narrator, she is also the most powerful.
How did writing this book affect you?
The theme I was trying to work around is time. We weave around dates and hours and so on, but it’s sort of meaningless when considering the formation of the Earth and how small a time humans have been here. Trying to understand the length of a marriage or the age of a child or the age of a mountain can be very destabilizing. After I finished the book, I worried that I was too old to enjoy the things I learned (I’m 63). The book made me aware of time passing—quickly for me, and yet time doesn’t pass at all. It just is. Tomorrow exists even though I may not exist in it.