This is an audio transcript of the FT Weekend podcast episode: Jamaica Kincaid and Enuma Okoro on writing

Lilah Raptopoulos
The writer Jamaica Kincaid never really got what was so great about being white.

Jamaica Kincaid
I never really understood the concept of whiteness and white spaces, and it always looked so unappealing. There wasn’t anything about being white that I thought, God, I would love to do that.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Jamaica Kincaid is black. She was born on the island of Antigua, and today she’s one of America’s most respected writers on race and colonialism. She’s published five novels and many short stories and essays, mostly for The New Yorker, where she was a staff writer for 20 years. Though it’s worth mentioning that she found the magazine pretty ridiculous when she started.

Jamaica Kincaid
The New Yorker is full of these, I later admit I was wrong, but it was full of these white men, you know, who wrote five different articles about Grey. And they just seemed so old and full of themselves. I have no idea why I was so arrogant as a young black woman in America in 1973/74.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Last month, I hosted a conversation with Jamaica and the writer Enuma Okoro, who writes the weekly FT column, The Art of Life. It was live at the FT Weekend Festival in London, and it was really interesting to hear two black women writers reflect on their journeys, which were similar in some ways, but different in many others, and a few decades apart.

Enuma Okoro
So I’m always trying to get people to think about how do we live our lives? That’s all I’m doing. It’s how do we live our lives and how do we do it with intention and how do we do it recognising that we all have responsibilities to ourselves but also to each other?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
Today, we spend the whole episode at the FT Weekend Festival. First, we bring you my conversation with Jamaica and Enuma, and then we hear from you. We had a table set up in the middle of the action and we were chatting with people all day — from friends of the podcast like Esther Perel to listeners who stopped by. You all shared some incredible, cultural lessons, cultural recommendations and cultural obsessions. This is FT weekend. I’m Lilah Raptopoulos.

[MUSIC FADES]

Lilah Raptopoulos
So we’re at the FT Weekend Festival. It’s early September on Hampstead Heath, the sun is shining. Nearly 3000 people are walking around, watching panels, drinking aperol spritzes. And I’ve got two writers that I really admire on stage with me. Jamaica Kincaid, who’s a legend, really. Her work has been compared to Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf and Enuma Okoro, a brilliant writer and thinker and my colleague.

So both of you write fiction and non-fiction. Both of you have very strong, recognisable writing voices. So I’d love to start by just introducing the audience to your stories. How you became the writers that you are, how you started to think of yourself as a writer. So Jamaica, when you were young, growing up in Antigua, you were a voracious reader, right?

Jamaica Kincaid
Yeah. That’s true. Yes.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Could you tell us about those early years, like what you were drawn to intellectually? What made you start to want to write?

Jamaica Kincaid
My mother was a reader, though I didn’t know what that meant, except it meant she didn’t pay attention to me and so I would bother her. And she thought that if she taught me to read, I would leave her alone. And she taught me to read from a book. She was reading a biography of Louis Pasteur. And I think it was registered because she told me about the relationship between him and my milk. Why she boiled my milk and it was pasteurised and so on. So I began to read, but I still bothered her and she sent me to school and I could just read anything. Eventually I got to thinking that everything I read, I had written myself and I would pretend I had written it. And so writing and reading became very collapsed in my mind.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Right. Enuma, you grew up in four countries, on three continents. I read that you used to pore over Greek mythology in the encyclopedia. Can you tell us about your childhood relationship with words and writing and reading?

Enuma Okoro
Oh, gosh, I can’t even tell you. I don’t know. I’ve always been in love with words and with storytelling words when I could, even before I could read them, but also when I could read them. And yes, I would pore over the encyclopedia. And I loved Greek mythology. I was raised in the Catholic Church and so I also loved the aesthetics. I didn’t necessarily like going to church as a child, but once there I was always in awe of the aesthetics of the church and of the stories I heard. And so I feel as though I’ve always had the sort of fascination with the otherworldly. And I think storytelling and reading were a way of me sort of entering that mysterious space that, that I inhabited. I can’t imagine not reading. And so as far as writing, when writing, I think as soon as I learnt to write, writing became a way that I could think about how to, A, to understand the world and think about my own place in it. And uh, yeah, so writing has just always been a way that I try to make sense of things in my interior life and in the exterior worlds as well.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Enuma and Jamaica have a few things in common. Both came to the US in their late teens, a pivotal time. Enuma was born in New York, but she grew up in Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire and the UK. And in both cases their work makes you question the way things are. Their subject matter is usually pretty different. Jamaica’s writing is biting and fearless. She points out realities in the world around us that a lot of times we’d rather not see. Enuma’s is more focused on our private internal lives. Her columns in the FT explore things like pleasure and grief and anger, and often she explores them through their depictions in art.

Jamaica you moved to America to nanny for a family, and?

Jamaica Kincaid
Yes, I was sent away by my family to be a servant in a household. And the, to take care of children.

Lilah Raptopoulos
And could you tell me about sort of those first, I don’t know, 10, 15 years in New York, that sort of building your career at The New Yorker? I wonder what it’s like to kind of find your voice as a writer.

Jamaica Kincaid
I didn’t know there were such things as careers. A lot of things you, your progress in the world just sounds so wonderful to me. I was sent away because my parents had too many children that they couldn’t afford. And so being the eldest, I was sent away to help support them. And I was very resentful of it. And after a while, I stopped sending my salary home and would shop at very expensive stores. I was the best-dressed nanny you ever saw. I went to college, dropped out, decided I wanted to be a writer because people who knew me as a child are not surprised that I became a writer because I was always pretending I was writing. Now . ..

Lilah Raptopoulos
You mean you would say, like “this book is actually by me”?

Jamaica Kincaid
Yes, and I wouldn’t say it, but it was clear that I thought I had written it. And I was interested in your seeing yourself in the world. I never thought of seeing myself as, as I am. For instance, I was punished a lot because I was very disruptive in school and I think I was about 9, 10. I was given a copy of Jane Eyre to read and in a corner. That was my punishment and not recess. And I read it and pretended I was Charlotte Bronte. And it never occurred to me that neither Charlotte Bronte nor Jane Eyre looked like me. I just felt I was them. Racial identity didn’t come into my imagination until I went to America, because where I come from, everyone is black. So if you say, Oh, the black guy, you would say which one? Because . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
(Laughs) Jamaica, what was it like? You know, it was the ’70s, being a woman and a black woman in an organisation that was mostly white, mostly men. What was it like? I mean, you said a lot of people didn’t agree with you or were hostile and then it didn’t bother you?

Jamaica Kincaid
Well, in the early days of being in New York, my friend, a New Yorker writer, took me to meet the editor, William Shawn, and he said, well, she could give it a try. Didn’t look as if I could possibly write for them. And I did write something about the West Indian Day carnival. And I made notes and I gave it to him, thinking he would rewrite, have someone rewrite it. Well, it appeared just the way I had written it. And I looked at it and I said, “Of course that is my voice”. And from there I just started to write. But there were no black people at The New Yorker, and there were, in the world of literary New York then there were no black people. But America, everybody tries to be white. But I’d been brought up in a British colony in which (chuckles) in those days only certain people were white. And so when I came to America and I met all these white people, there were people from Lebanon, Poland, Spain, and they said they were white. And I just thought, no your not and I just ignored them. So I have my distortion of race. I have to thank the English people. (Laughter)

Enuma Okoro
Lilah, and I would like to say about the racialised identity. The funny thing is, when I, when I speak of seeing myself in the world, I didn’t mean through race, but it was more seeing myself as this child who had lived in these different cultural spaces and had a struggle to understand what home meant. As a person in the world I was made up of many places and many cultures. I had my Nigerian parents telling me something and then my English boarding school experience and then coming to America for university and realising, oh, I’m supposed to feel a certain way because I’m black. What does that even mean? So for me, identity and place and location initially was not about blackness, it was about culture. And America is a very distinct place.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah. So how, could you tell me about how you found your writer’s voice or how you sort of.

Enuma Okoro
I don’t know. I’m still finding my writer’s voice.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Enuma Okoro
Yeah, I am. Or in the sense of, I’ve always written. Yeah, you know, even before I published anything I’ve, I have folder still in storage of just stuff I wrote for myself. I never, writing as a child, a young adult, I never thought I was going to be a writer. I sort of came into writing as a vocation because I was called into it. Right. Because someone said, Oh, we’d love you to, have you ever thought about writing a book? And I said, “are you kidding me”? It was one of those things. I just, it was so natural to who I was, and I just wasn’t thinking about it as, “oh, this is something you could do for life”. And I also have Nigerian parents. So writing and going into the arts is not one of the options that was offered to me as a child, as a young adult. So finding my voice as a writer was a lot of risk taking and sort of just putting things out there. But I still also believe in hope that as I continue to learn and experience and live life, I may have a strong writing voice now. But I hope in 20 years I sound different. (Mm hmm) Even when I’m, when I’m writing right now, I may still sound recognisable, but I hope I’ve had experiences and that I’m even more firmly rooted in my own self. I’m pretty rooted right now, but there’s always room to be more rooted, I think, as a woman in the world.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah . . . What do you think is the interesting question or conversation that we should or could be having about women writing in the world, as is the name of this now.

Enuma Okoro
It’s so interesting. I feel like it’s a, it’s an ongoing conversation. It’s not new. I mean awe of women, to be honest. I think that women are the backbone of so much. (Laughs) And I think women sort of, so much of the work behind the scenes are because women’s hands are involved. And when I think of, of women writing, I think of the interior, interior lives of women. I think for so long, historically, our voices and our interior lives have not been seen as important or valuable for everyone. Maybe they’re valuable for a group of women coming together to have a book club or . . . And I don’t I, I did not, I don’t set out in any sort of intentional way to be, I’m going to speak on, you know, for women, I just feel my voice is important. And I know that there are other women’s voices that I love, that I also feel are important. And it always frustrates me when there, I experience the microaggressions of being a woman with an active mind. And also when I see sort of the larger, on the larger landscape and, and think about the history of how women’s voices have been permitted or not permitted in certain spaces, not just in literature, everywhere, in boardrooms. I mean, it’s everywhere. So I don’t, I don’t set out to be identified. It’s not like I want my bio to read Enuma, the woman writer. But it is, it is as much a part of who I am as being a woman born to Nigerian parents, raised in X, Y and Z countries. Those are all particularities of my experience that I bring to how I live in the world. And so just as much as I wouldn’t want anyone to tell me, “Oh, I don’t even see you as black”. Well, I wish you would see me as black because that’s a part of who I am. So it’s the same thing with, with being a woman and I’ve just learnt so much from, from other women writers and I just think our minds and our interior lives are really valuable to the world.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Jamaica, how about you? How do you think about your identity about . . .?

Jamaica Kincaid
Oh gosh, so, so many things you, you said I totally agree with but, not but, and I so love conjunctions., Complicated because when you speak of women, I think you’re right. But then in America, you know, you can almost say the foundations of white supremacy is fuelled by white women. Thus, you said, if it is a different conversation and yet not, but I admire your clarity to speak so of women. I can’t. I see a lot of layers of things. And I voted, for instance, reluctantly for Hillary Clinton because who couldn’t, given her opponent? But I’ve never really forgiven her for not leaving that stupid man she was married to. (Clapping and laughter)

Lilah Raptopoulos
What do you think is the interesting question to make, to ask about  . . . 

Jamaica Kincaid
About?

Lilah Raptopoulos
 . . . being women, about gender, about . . . 

Jamaica Kincaid
(Long sigh) You know, women? I mean, for instance, I would start with my mother who taught me to read and so on, but I often described my mother as Cronus, who gave birth to us. You’re interested in Greek mythology — who gave birth to us in the morning and ate us at night? Every day. So that would be my beginning with the women. And, but on the other hand, my experience, some of the most wonderful, supportive people have been women. And when I got to The New Yorker, all the women who were white and had gone to Radcliffe and all these high-toned schools, they were secretaries and receptionists and so on, and not writers. And they would say to me, more than one would say to me, “How did you get your job”? And I would say, “Well, I met George and then (unintelligible). They said, “no, no, no. How did you get your job”? And it was really a problem. So finally I said to George, “these women keep asking me how I got my job”. And he said, “Oh, just tell them your father owns the magazine”. And when I did, they stopped. (Laughter) But it’s my age. I think you have more. your experience with women is more cohesive than mine.

Enuma Okoro
Women are complicated right now, so no. And I think to raise this is, is really important because I, when I speak of the need to hear women’s voices, because I do think it is important collectively, but to enter that conversation of how do women or how don’t women support each other? And then to enter the other conversation of black women and black women intellectual property and white women, there’s a whole another conversation. And I could, I could talk to you about that for an hour. Oh, or a year. Women are not all supportive of each other. And that’s not the point I’m making. The point I’m making is I think women’s voices are important and women’s interior lives are important, and the world has not always held that up. It’s another conversation to me to talk about what women do to one another and to talk about the history of black women and white women. That’s, that’s. yeah. We can have a series of panels, right? You could teach a course on. But I do think even to bring up the complications and to name them in this kind of conversation is, is really important to do (unintelligible).

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
This was a fascinating conversation. And Jamaica and Enuma had a lot more to share. So we’ve put this full conversation on YouTube and have linked to it in the show notes. I’ve also linked to an excellent profile of Jamaica that was published in FT Weekend and a few of my favourite essays by both writers.

[MUSIC FADES]

Lilah Raptopoulos
The day of the festival was an endless happy flow of people, old friends, past guests of the podcast, new listeners. It was really fun and it was partially so fun because in the weeks before, we asked you to stop by, say hi, and share your cultural recommendations with us in person. And you did. My producer, Lulu Smith, and I pulled out our recorders and got dozens of thoughtful insights from you on tape. We found out what you love and what you like to learn. Here are a select few.

OK, so we’re with the wonderful Jamaica Kincaid. We were just on a panel together, and she’s going to give us one cultural recommendation in the form of a book!

Jamaica Kincaid
Uh, Mahogany The Costs of Luxury in Early America. That’s what I’m reading.

Lilah Raptopoulos
OK. And could you tell us a little bit about what you love about it?

Jamaica Kincaid
Oh, what I love about it is that it adds again to my knowledge of what the so-called new world was like, what Europeans met when they went to the West Indies or South America, and how they immediately described it as paradise and immediately destroyed it.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Right. Thank you, Jamaica!

Jamaica Kincaid
Thank you!

[Unintelligible conversation]

Esther Perel
Right now? Your cultural recommendation is for the Londoners to go see Cabaret.

Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s therapist Esther Perel. You might know her from her podcasts, “Where do we begin” and “How’s work?”

To see Cabaret. Why?

Esther Perel
Because it is excellent theatre. One of a kind. Because it is so timely. (Right) Because the acting is transcendent. And I, and I hadn’t seen it in so long, and I was like, oh, and because they modernised it, they gave it a new twist. It is exquisite choreography. It almost feels like the ensemble is better than the acting itself. But that’s my cultural recommendation.

Arrow Michael Henry
My name is Arrow Michael Henry.

Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s Arrow from our sound design episode.

Arrow Michael Henry
It’s an allegorical question, but I think people should be thinking about freedom, thinking about freedom of expression, thinking about learning new things and redeploying what they already know. And I think more people pursuing freedom will have more people that are free. That’s what I’d like people to, to ponder.

Lisa Hench
My name is Lisa Hench, and I am a doctor living in Geneva. And as I am a palliative care specialist, I would say death, because people tend to live like they’re going to live forever. And I find that people who do think about death and talk about death and prepare what it is that they want in their last period of life, actually die better. (Really?) Yeah. And more peacefully.

Suzette
So I’m Suzette. I’m from London. And I love the question. If you could have the podcast cover something in depth, what would it be? And I think I would look at friendship, because it’s something that so often we take for granted, and yet so many people struggle with it in so many different ways, whether it’s creating new friendships in the workplace or having friendships while maintaining a relationship. What does friendship look like? There are so many different nuances.

Lilah Raptopoulos
What was your name?

Bill Schwartz
Bill. Bill Schwartz. I’m from London. I retired from teaching last year. I’ve just read the biography of Claude Mackay, Harlem Renaissance black guy in the ’30s who came to Britain and the first world war. (Unintelligible) he became a Bolshevik and then a Catholic, and he wrote these wonderful, beautiful novels about black seamen and Marseille, which are erotic and funny and political.

Andrew
I’m Andrew. I’m from Paisley in Scotland. I always set cultural recommendations because I’m Scottish as well. Music in Glasgow is really good and I would always say you should go up for a trip and go for a few days and go see some of the bands and some of the local venues. I think that’s always a massive thing. There’s a place called (unintelligible). It’s been going for quite a while and as a bar, and in venues in the basement there’s one next door called Broadcasts as well, so they’re pretty good.

Chris
My name is Chris and I am Greek and I live in London.

Lilah Raptopoulos
What is one thing that you wish that you could learn instantly?

Chris
I don’t know that it’s something that I could learn, period. But I’d be very interested to learn how to speak Dog.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Dog! Yeah. Do you know how many people have said languages?

Chris
Really?

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah. No one has said that.

Chris
Yeah, I guess the, the thing is that in the same way as we assume things about people, we assume things from, in terms of the communication that we have with our dogs. It would be quite interesting to see if you’re totally wrong or if you know where you actually . . . you know, you think that you’re playing, you’re playing a game, you know that your dog likes chasing the ball, but the dog is just thinking, oh, screw you. You know, I just want to sit there chewing the ball. Quit throwing it around me. Yeah.

Lilah Raptopoulos:
Yeah. Like leave me alone.

Unidentified woman
(Unintelligible) Such a good answer! Convince her.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Thanks to everyone who stopped by. We had a really good time and we always love hearing from you. So today we’re putting out a listener callout. We would like to challenge you to challenge us. So, OK, here is the challenge. The question is, what is one thing that you think most people would think is boring, but we could make interesting on the Podcast? It can be anything. It can be a philosophical concept. It can be an obscure piece of music, a scientific theory. I would love to hear some historical gossip. We’re open. All we need from you is a topic that you want us to cover that seems kind of niche and we’ll make it great.

So we’ve put a link in the show notes. All you have to do is tap it and it’ll bring you to a website where you can leave us a message from whatever device you’re on. It’s really easy, and it’s possible that we’ll even play that message on the show. Don’t overthink it. Just get in there. We can’t wait to hear them.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s the show this week. Thank you for being such a great audience and for listening to FT Weekend, the podcast from the Financial Times. If you think we had too good a time at the Festival, don’t worry. We spoke to some detractors too.

Unidentified man
Podcasts are a load of hype. They have to sex them up and hype them and hype and hype. And, you know, it’s boring. I’d rather have the columnist that reads the facts what I want.

Lilah Raptopoulos
If you’d like to say hi in other ways, we love hearing from you. You can email us at ftweekendpodcast@ft.com. The show is on Twitter @ftweekendpod and I’m on Instagram and Twitter @lilahrap. You can keep up with these call-outs and cultural conversations that feed into the show on my Instagram. Links to everything mentioned today are in the show notes alongside a link to the best offers we have available and a subscription to the FT. They’re really good. Those offers are at ft.com/weekendpodcast. You can also watch all the panels from the FT Weekend Festival on demand if you couldn’t be there. I linked to that too with a special discount code. I am Lilah Raptopoulos and here’s my exceptional team. Katya Kumkova is our senior producer. Lulu Smith is our producer. Molly Nugent is our contributing producer. Our sound engineers are Breen Turner and Sam Giovinco with original music by Metaphor Music. Topher Forhecz is our executive producer and special thanks go as always to Cheryl Brumley. Have a lovely weekend and we’ll find each other again next week.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Comments

Comments have not been enabled for this article.