tough times for writers

09/05/12 08:24

I went to the 2012 Undergraduate Convocation at Nova Southeastern University yesterday because Jamaica Kincaid was the keynote speaker. After brief words from a few university administrators, and the Teacher of the Year, the acclaimed author took the stage.

She spoke a while on the theme of this academic year, "Life and Death," and then started reading from one of her books. It was a passage about the death of her brother. Actually, it was a passage about her reaction to the death of her brother. Writers are renowned for their ability to particularize, and Kincaid had taken an immense, inexhaustible subject and narrowed it down to one sorrowful moment in her life.

The reading went on for quite a while, much longer than her remarks had. I checked the program and verified that under her name appeared the words "Keynote Speaker" (not "Keynote Reader"). I thought of Julian Barnes, who once advised a fellow author: "Never read at a reading. People would rather hear what you had for breakfast." I wondered what his advice would be for the keynote speaker at a convocation.

Finally Kincaid stopped, looked up, and asked, "Would you like me to continue?" No one said a word. Normally I find student apathy annoying, but at this moment it seemed admirable. Kincaid mumbled something that sounded like, "Yes death, it's very sad." Then she thanked the audience, which gave her less than a rousing ovation.

Before abandoning the lectern, she said: "Would you like to ask me questions?" And once again, a beautiful silence reigned.

At the reception, Kincaid sat in a corner signing books, putting the finishing touches on her transmogrification of an academic ceremony into a marketing event.

By Thomas Swick • Category: hometown, writers

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