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Talk Stories

Kincaid, Jamaica

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Talk Stories is a collection of Jamaica Kincaid's original writing for The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town," composed during the time when she first came to the United States from Antigua, from 1978 to 1983. Kincaid found a unique voice, at once in sync with William Shawn's tone for the quintessential elite insider's magazine, and (though unsigned) all her own-wonderingly alive to the ironies and screwball details that characterized her adopted city. She meets Miss Jamaica, visiting from Kingston, and watches Tammy Wynette autograph a copy of Lattimore's Odyssey; she learns the worlds of publishing and partying, of fashion and popular music, and how to call cauliflower a crudité. The book also records Kincaid's development as a young writer-the newcomer who sensitively records her impressions here takes root to become one of our most respected authors.

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Review:

Restraint, it turns out, is a highly effective critical strategy. In Talk Stories, her collection of New Yorker "Talk of the Town" pieces dating from 1974 to 1983, Jamaica Kincaid writes prose as bare and bright as a light bulb. Her sentences are so clean that she seems to know exactly what she's talking about. And that's what allows these morsels of reportage to transcend their genre and become small, pointed, thrilling judgments on the world. In "Romance," a piece on a conference of Harlequin romance writers, Kincaid writes, "The women, each of whom looked freshly coiffed, sat at tables in the middle of which were large bowls of yellow and gold chrysanthemums. The women seemed very excited." There we have subjectivity in the cool guise of objectivity. On the other hand, when Kincaid is for something, she comes right out and says it. The oddity is where these hosannas land. A knitting shop in Connecticut, for example, is "perhaps the nicest store in the world, because it is run and owned by perhaps one of the nicest women in the world--a woman named Beatrice Morse Davenport."

In her introduction, Kincaid writes: "All sentences, all paragraphs about this part of my life, my life as a writer, must begin with George Trow." The latter, who discovered Kincaid, wrote the kind of dry, clever occasional prose that flourished in the New Yorker in the 1970s and 1980s. Kincaid's Trow-like writing is the weakest, most attention-hungry in the book. "Party" is written in the style of a Nancy Drew mystery, "Two Book Parties" is written as a quiz, and "Expense Account" is just that--an expense account of a press breakfast, including the coy entry, "Cost of clothes other reporters wore to press breakfast (too complicated to make even a wild guess)." These pieces too closely resemble her mentor's work--clever but not actually, you know, funny. The structural fanciness seems cheap next to Kincaid's fine, goofily opinionated reporting. Still, after these wobbly forays into experimentation, she began to write the fiction that made her famous, so her fooling around seems to have paid off in the end. --Claire Dederer

About the Author:

Jamaica Kincaid was born in St. John's, Antigua. Her books include At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother, and My Brother, all published by FSG. She lives with her family in Vermont.

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