Author Jamaica Kincaid distracts herself from writer’s block with interests ranging from astronomy to butterfly collecting, but her most abiding hobby — and the subject of her most recent book — is gardening, she said at a reading in Sterling Memorial Library Thursday afternoon.
Kincaid read a selection from “Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas,” a book about her trip to Nepal to gather flower seeds, to a standing-room-only crowd of about 150 people in the library lecture hall. The reading, which was followed by a reception and question-and-answer session, was organized by Emmanuel Raymundo, a doctorate candidate in African American Studies.
Kincaid said gardening helps her fight writer’s block because, like writing, it is both creative and constructive.
“The original gardener apparently was a wordsmith herself or himself,” she said.
Kincaid, who was born in Antigua but came to the United States at the age of 17 to work as an au pair, discussed her early career as a writer for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section and read a humorous piece she wrote for the magazine titled “New,” about a conversation she overheard at a party. Kincaid said the flexibility she allowed herself in her early works has had an important effect on her current style of writing.
“When I first started to write, I began to experiment with the form,” she said. “A lot of my fiction is based on or a continuation of those experiments.”
Kincaid has published several acclaimed novels and short story collections over the course of her career, including “Annie John,” “Lucy” and “A Small Place.”
“[Kincaid] is a terribly important writer,” Raymundo said. “She’s one of the clearest, most singular voices in American literature, and she’s had an interesting career.”
It was her passion for gardening that led Kincaid to join the seed-collecting trip to Nepal that became the subject of “Among Flowers.” The selection Kincaid read in SML concerned an excursion she took with a small group of botanists to hunt for a rare specimen of flower called the variegated Pieris.
Though Kincaid called gardening a “benign” interest, she said her trip to Nepal was not without its dangers. She described being attacked by blood-sucking leeches and having several run-ins with Maoist guerillas, who made an attempt on her life.
After the reading, Kincaid answered questions from the audience about gardening and her earlier works. Several of the questions dealt with her more controversial work, which includes themes of colonialism and empire.
Kincaid also responded to questions about the role writing has played in her life.
“I think if I hadn’t [written] I would have come to a very bad end,” she said.
Jade Pagkas-Bather ’06 said she was impressed with how much Kincaid’s writing was reflected in her personality.
“I thought she was very funny and witty and also very honest, which is the kind of thing that comes through in her prose,” she said.
Diane Charney, the writing tutor for Timothy Dwight College and an avid gardener, said she agrees with Kincaid’s analogy between gardening and writing.
“There needs to be a sense of discovery in both writing and gardening,” she said. “I thought she made that clear.”