Two of Our Greatest Living Artists Made an Irreverent, Charming Kids’ Book

jamaica kincaid
Jamaica Kincaid and Kara Walker in ConversationMiranda Barnes
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“One of the things knowledge doesn’t save you from,” Jamaica Kincaid says, “is yourself.” It’s the type of searing insight the Antiguan-American writer has become known for over the course of her 50-year career. The author of such classics as 1996’s The Autobiography of My Mother, Lucy (1990), and A Small Place (1988) has always resisted categorization or sentimental conclusions. The thread through her work—whether in the early days of her 20-year tenure at The New Yorker or her nonfiction pieces on botany—is a keen intelligence laced with mischief.

It’s those qualities that make Kincaid’s voice adaptable to children’s literature. Though she has often been asked to author children’s books, An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children—out this month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux—is her first original book for young readers in nearly four decades. For this project, she tapped renowned visual artist Kara Walker to collaborate on the illustrations. Walker has also been wary about working on picture books. Too often, she says, “they lack delight and irreverence and wrongness. Yes, and misbehavior and misdirection.”

The book the two have produced is a sly, thought-provoking exploration of the plant life that has made up the colonized world. With the kind of otherworldly illustrations that live in children’s imaginations, and associations and allusions that can provoke young and old alike, An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children feels lovingly defiant, especially amid America’s current moral panic over children’s literature.

Below, Walker and Kincaid speak with Harper’s Bazaar about the project.


How did you two come to work together?

Jamaica Kincaid: I’ve had this idea for a long time. But I couldn’t think of who would do these things justice, who wouldn’t make [the pictures for the people] running the Department of Children’s Literature. I didn’t want that kind of person.

So I asked Hilton Als if he would introduce me to Kara. And he said of course—he’s so generous. He immediately sent me Kara’s email. I wrote to Kara, but I was absolutely sure that this was an insulting idea to her, that she would say no. So when she responded yes, I probably didn’t read the whole email, I just immediately wrote back.

kara walker
ARI MARCOPOULOS

Kara Walker: We haven’t actually met face-to-face yet. During the pandemic, I was learning to garden, sort of, [and had] acquired some land. I suddenly had my hands in the dirt, and it became a very clear therapeutic experiment for me. I brought Jamaica’s My Garden (Book) along, which really helped. That’s part of the reason you were fresh in my thoughts … thinking about the various meanings and pleasures of gardening, and the histories of the plants that you’re encountering and changing the meanings of. I was rekindling my Jamaica Kincaid knowledge and love.

Hilton mentioned that you were on Instagram, so I would see your flowers. I suddenly felt a connection that I really needed. Being an artist and Black woman and feeling somewhat isolated … I needed a figure who was not just a friend, that I felt mentored by, in a way outside of the art. I picked up another book on garden design, and there was a picture of you in there as I was flipping through it. There was a picture of you and somebody else working on the gardens. I mean, I can’t build a garden like that. But I’m really impressed.

So, we’ve sort of been in proximity to one another in certain places, but I’m pretty sure I would’ve been too intimidated to approach you. And Hilton, sort of just let me know that you had inquired, and I said, “Sure. Absolutely.” I sort of jumped at the chance. It wasn’t a hesitation, which is funny.

JK: Yeah, it’s very funny. Even more suspicious, I know.

What makes gardens and gardening a place to start a children’s storybook?

JK: The text that inspired my interpretation of the garden is the Garden of Eden in the Bible. I came to understand a garden there in this way. There are many layered things about it, but the garden in particular, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge—I’ve interpreted the Tree of Life as agriculture, and the Tree of Knowledge as horticulture.

Invariably, when people start to garden, they grow food first. But in every civilized civilization that you can think of, where [there] is the garden, it’s because they have enough to eat. You only start to make a garden—grow things just because they’re beautiful, they inspire thoughtfulness, reflection—after you have enough to eat.

We West Indians, we say, someone is very bright, we mean they’re very smart. It’s sometimes almost pejorative—“She’s very bright, you know.” It just means the person has a lot of familiarity with knowledge that is not only limited to survival. After you have enough to eat is when you can afford to do all sorts of things, mostly bad things. It’s when people have an excessive amount [that things can go wrong].

If you look at the world, for instance–it’s after 1492, when Europeans got a lot of stuff, that they started out on this dehumanization of other people and of themselves. One of the things knowledge doesn’t save you from is yourself.

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A Kara Walker watercolor in An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored ChildrenKara Walker

KW: When you made that analogy just now about only growing flowers, I was thinking about my aborted attempts and the land that I have. I would like very much to grow vegetables, but I’m not there often enough to do it. So it would be just for the other animals that live there, which would be incredibly wasteful, I guess, to me, to others.

JK: It really is.

KW: Absolutely, the animals would be around all the time.

As far as the garden, I do think that doing a children’s book, or a book that says it’s for children—I didn’t want to be restricted by the ideas of what a child is. Children have imaginations. My imagination is not that far removed from my child’s imagination.

The first drawings I did for the book, I think, were the nude figures in Garden of Eden, and I was like, “Is this allowed? I don’t know. It’s never even occurred to me that that would be a problem.” And then I just said, “Well, forget it.” I mean, that’s my work. And that’s always been in my work.

The question of whether my work is child-friendly or child-unfriendly has come up so many times in museum contexts. My first big exhibition opened at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis when my daughter was about seven. And there’s a big sign in the front that says, you know, “Parents are strongly cautioned by the themes in the work.” And I pointed it out to her, said, “This is your warning. This is your mother, and this is your warning.”

But there’s nothing overtly offensive in the drawings, although there’s something suggestive. I think that children enjoy the risk, enjoy being given the responsibility. The shame that comes with looking is so prevalent nowadays. If I were to extend the metaphor of the Garden of Eden, I think that there is the garden in the imagination that gets cultivated and trimmed into these little boxy shapes, these tidy-looking gardens that a child’s education often resembles—you know, topiary, control, control.

So there’s aspects in my work for this book of at least trying to just be a little bit free, responding to the prompt of the text, but definitely making whatever came to mind.

I think it came at the right time in the flow of where things were going in my own work. I wanted to explore how honest or direct I wanted to be. Over the years, other publishers have come to me because of the graphic nature, the lyrical nature of my work and said, “Would you be interested in doing a children’s book?” And I’ve always said no, because it seems kind of weird. I just had a lot of suspicions about it. Very good children’s books are very hard to come by. There’s a lot of trash. I’ve picked up a lot of them. My daughter’s well versed. We know which ones really work and which ones are just on the market. You know, nothing worse than a celebrity children’s book. Someone else has written it. Somebody’s had an idea that doesn’t necessarily comport with what children need. It’s about politeness, maybe. How to be a good person.

Or publishers would send these really sad, beautifully drawn children’s books, and it would be like, Wow, I wouldn’t want to sit around looking at this one with my kids. They might be award winners, but sometimes they’re just that. They lacked delight and irreverence and wrongness. Yes, and misbehavior and misdirection.

The book is very clear, in its title, that it is “for colored children.” Why choose that phrase?

JK: The English publisher wanted us to remove the word colored. She said colored is the N-word. You know, there used to be signs and windows that said, “No Irish, colored, or dogs.” And so of course, all the Irish people came to America and put up their own signs: “No colored or dogs.” Because that’s the function of America.

But I said to Kara, “You can’t let these people dictate for you. You can’t let white people tell you what you should be afraid of and shouldn’t be afraid of.”

Is them not the word colored? The word colored applies to all. If you’re going to use it to designate one group of people, it’s all people. White is a color—it’s not the absence of color and the rest of us are a color. White is a color, too. You could say “for all children,” but I love the word colored. I didn’t want “children of color.” No, no.

I’ve never shied away from saying what I thought was true. I’d rather be dead than be cowed by stupid people. Okay, I could be cowed by Zeus or, you know, God. I have never not said in my work what I thought. I wanted to go to England, Britain, personally, with my own boat and rescue all the Black people, bring them or get them out of that place. Just so awful.

KW: In your initial email, you told me that people have said to you in the past, “There should be more books for children of color.” But your proposal was a book “for colored children.” And I thought, “Well, that seems like the book that I could work on … a book that can grab, embrace, and hold that language in its place and examine it for all of its particularities, for all its strengths and its weaknesses and let it be a part of real living, breathing part of our shared experience in the colonized world.”

JK: See, she got it right away.

This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

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