Second Chance Blown, Jamaica Kincaid

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.

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3 thoughts on “Second Chance Blown, Jamaica Kincaid

  1. Hi Dana, thanks for the response. Why don’t we become facebook friends? I couldn’t find a link here (you said your blog is connected to FB)but if you go to my blog, you can click on facebook…or twitter.
    I just love your creative approach to life…I think we have that in common.

  2. Hi Dana,
    Wow you give JK a hard time here. What bothers you the most about her writing- is it her style or her focus on autobiography?

    I am compelled by her writing style and her life. I have read nearly everything she has written…and much of what has been written about her. She seems to enjoy feeling miserable and is not actually a plant collector.

    I’ve been to her hometown-island (Antigua). This November, I’m going to Dominica-her mother’s island (Kincaid lived there for a while.

    I am interested in your reaction because you’re a writer and are expressing a strong reaction. Have you read “A Small Place”?

    btw I would love to go to the Himalayas. It’s strikingly beautiful. Have you been there?

    Why don’t you connect your actual name on your blog? (-many writers do want the visibility–but a few don’t because they write personal diary style)

    I’ve had my doubts about how to approach this issue, too. I decided to just be clear about it. I’m Cynthia Pittmann (I write from Puerto Rico). Glad to meet you.

    Love the photographs here! I also enjoy creative work but I haven’t done any projects (besides writing) in a while. (I want to paint.)

    • Hi Cynthia, thanks for the response. It’s always good to hear from someone reading these pages.
      As for Ms. Kincaid, she is such a negative person. I guess that is what I object to most of all. I tend to be more positive, and find the constant whining intolerable.
      Her style, well, it reminds me of Gollum’s monologues in Lord of the Rings-a lot of self obsessed ramblings and litanies of perceived injustices to his person. Kincaid seems to be cut from Gollum’s form. One can get a certain amount of information from such grumblings but after a while they just get tiresome. I find Kincaid tiresome.
      I would jump at the chance to go to Tibet, Nepal, heck, I would settle for a trip to Chicago. Despite the hardships encountered I think every adventure should be approached with eagerness and excitement.
      I hope I have answered your questions. I am glad you like the photographs. They are, like this blog, my way of engaging in the creative, records of what I am thinking and seeing on the daily adventure. And, btw, my name is Dana and this blog is linked to my Facebook Page which has a lot more details about my life. I decided not to duplicate information here.
      Thanks again, Cynthia for writing.

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