Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya by Jamaica Kincaid. Published by National Geographic, Literary Travel Series, 2005.
If I had to summarize Jamaica Kincaid’s “Among Flowers” I would be tempted to call it self-absorbed, repetitive, whining. Here is a woman, a writer, given the opportunity by National Geographic to “write a book, a small one, about any place in the world I wished, and doing something in that place I liked doing” and through out her little book about seed gathering in the Himalayas all she does is complain about the sanitary conditions, leeches, rats, bats, and Maoist guerillas. Certainly not pleasant things to deal with under any circumstances, but it’s not like she didn’t know what she was getting into. She had been warned, she knew what she was heading into. And she is in Nepal! Surely there are other things on which she could focus her attention- history, philosophy, geography, flora, fauna, culture.
She is on a seed gathering expedition. So where are the descriptions of Himalayan scenery, the awe of seeing thirty-foot tall rhododendrons, the sounds and smells of an environment so very different from the garden she left behind in Vermont? No where. There are long descriptions of walking up hills and down hills, and up hills and down hills and there are brief mentions of crossing small rickety bridges and deep mountain gorges. There are occasional lists of plants collected, latin names only, but lists only. No description, no indication of what makes these particular plants worthy of collecting, what makes them different.
Mostly there are complaints. The porters don’t arrive at camp on time. The sherpa won’t translate for her. There is nothing to buy (no souvenirs) in the little villages where they camp. She can’t eat the food. Even the plants they find (she is traveling with three professional horticulturists) are not the right ones for her garden.
I was disappointed in the nearly complete lack of interest or focus on the aspect of seed gathering in the book. After all that was the purpose of the trip. Kincaid did little of the actual collecting, less of the cleaning and labeling, and probably none of the identifying of plants and seeds of interest. Her lack of interest, which she explained by saying that there was no reason to collect plants that would not survive in her zone five garden, seemed pretty pathetic, and unlike what one would expect from a serious or committed horticulturist.
As for the writing it was standard Jamaica Kincaid- run on sentences, convoluted syntax and tedious repetitions. I had hoped for better. I chose to read “Among Flowers” in hopes it would redeem my opinion of Kincaid’s writing style. I thought, perhaps a different venue would enliven her writing, move the focus away from the self absorbed misery so prevalent in “Autobiography of My Mother”. All that changed was the setting.
Just like “Autobiography of My Mother” there was little reason to read beyond the first fifty pages. There is nothing new to discover. Just like the continuous trekking Kincaid describes in “Among Flowers”, after a while you are numb to all that is around you and you can walk/read without pain, frustration, or comprehension. Jamaica Kincaid, following her usual pattern, made an adventure into a long walk on a tread mill.
If anyone is thinking about reading this book, don’t bother. Even Kincaid admits in the book; there are better accounts of trips through the Himalayas. It’s unfortunate that she found the trip to be such a waste of her time. I wonder, having read the book, if the real reason she went to Nepal was because National Geographic paid her to do it.
This is the second of the Literary Travel Series of National Geographic I have read. The first- John Edgar Wideman’s “The Island: Martinique- was possibly worse than Kincaid’s book. I didn’t even get through the first fifty pages ( sort of my litmus test of books- fifty pages or die) of Wideman’s account of his trip to Martinique. I wonder if National Geographic isn’t approaching literary travel writing from the wrong angle. Perhaps they should be asking experienced travel writers for their literary best instead of asking literary icons for their travel best. So far what I have read is shallow self- aggrandizement in a foreign place. Very disappointing.