Talk Stories

by Jamaica Kincaid

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

247 pages, 2001

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Talk Jamaica

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


Trying to describe Jamaica Kincaid's voice is like trying to describe silk: the way it shimmers in the hand or captures the light. When Jamaica Kincaid writes, she speaks to you so clearly and beautifully sometimes you have to catch your breath. And there's no wondering if she is speaking to you: there is seldom any doubt.

Talk Stories includes 77 short pieces Kincaid wrote for The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" column between 1974 and 1983. What we see is the author of At the Bottom of the River, Annie John and others develop her voice and her style. As Kincaid writes in her introduction:

It was only afterward, long afterward, that I came to see that writing for the Talk of the Town was a kind of apprenticeship, that I was supposed to do it for just so long and go on to my actual writing.

In an affectionate foreword to Talk Stories, Kincaid's friend and fellow New Yorker alumnus Ian Frazier muses that:

Within certain boundaries -- which could be crossed if you had luck and knew how -- you could write about anything you liked in any way you liked.... For Jamaica, the discipline was a challenge and the freedom heady. One week she decided to submit as her Talk story a list of the expenses incurred in reporting the story. Another week she wrote a long, introspective letter in the first person describing a train trip she had taken from New York to Cleveland.

It goes without saying that some of these experiments were more successful than others but the voice does not falter, even when it riffs. Writing about the Philadelphia vocal group Blue Magic in 1975, Kincaid writes:

Sometimes they pirouette while standing up straight, sometimes while leaning backward, sometimes while leaning forward, sometimes with hands on hips, sometimes with arms outstretched, sometimes while appearing to curtsey. It is at once graceful and dazzling. At the end of the performance, they disappear in a big cloud of blue smoke. Just like that.

And -- just like that -- Kincaid evokes her image. The language is so simple it is barely there and yet, 25 years later one can almost see the footlights she implies.

In "Free-ee-ee," a Talk column about the singer Deniece Williams, Kincaid writes:

As she told us these things, she mixed some hot water, lemon juice, and honey in a cup. Then she went into the bathroom and closed the door. From where we were, we could hear her sing in her upper register, "God is truly amazing." She sang this over and over, sometimes stretching out and emphasizing the word "amazing." The she sang some la-la-las in the upper register. When she came out of the bathroom, she said "Yuk."

For "Talk of the Town" Kincaid was required to write "in the 'We' voice and I did not like it a little bit at first and then I did not like it altogether." Kincaid's "we" was thus handled regally and, as with everything she has done, in her own style. In many of her "Talk" columns it seems as though she's part of some impossible troupe of talented observers, with Kincaid herself at the head. And when "we" had two enjoyable encounters with Garland Jeffreys or when Richard Pryor talks to "us" or when "we" noticed an ad at the subway station you sometimes get the feeling that the crowd is within her: the passionate young writer, the dispassionate journalist, the immigrant, the outsider and, in some cases, the fan.

Later, Kincaid sometimes managed to bypass the "We" entirely. "Luncheon," for example, reads almost entirely like fiction. Here the journalist is not present at all: Kincaid has become the fly on the wall. In "Notes and Comment" Kincaid sneaks in a first person narrative by beginning with this line: "A letter from a young woman we know:" might be Kincaid's own tale of moving to a different apartment. It might be fiction. Or a skillful blend of both. However: it probably is not a letter from anyone besides Kincaid herself wangling a way to get out of her crowd.

Talk Stories is the seasoning of a young writer, the tempering of a great talent and a complete delight. In Kincaid's prose, we seem to watch her grow from green immigrant from Antigua barely out of her teens to the woman who, by the time of the end of her stint at The New Yorker, was well on her way to becoming one of America's best-loved writers. As Kincaid says in Talk Stories, "I became a writer and that writer became me. This is the person who is writing this." | February 2001


Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.