By Joanne Kaufman
December 15, 1997 12:00 PM

JAMAICA KINCAID LOOKS AMUSED at the mention of Tina Brown, editor of The New Yorker, wife of the former head of Random House and a Manhattan social empress. As a writer in the prime of her career, Kincaid, 48, might be well advised to proceed diplomatically. But no, Kincaid doesn’t mind telling you that when she was a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1992 and Brown, together with some new staff members, took charge, “you felt you were suddenly in the presence of really coarse people.” Kincaid resigned from the magazine in 1995 shortly after Brown appointed Roseanne—yes, that Roseanne—as consultant of a special issue on women. “I like Tina,” says Kincaid. “I just don’t think she should be an editor. She gives wonderful parties. I think she should be a hostess.”

Kincaid is just as likely to cause a stir up in Bennington, Vt., where she lives with her husband of 18 years, classical-music composer Allen Shawn, 49, and their children Annie, 13, and Harold, 9. “Jamaica’s a real hotdog,” chortles James Toohey, a car service driver who sometimes finds himself conducting visitors from the airport to the door of her brown-shingled home. When she speaks, Kincaid sounds like a well-bred Englishwoman with an Antiguan lilt, but straight talk is her native tongue. Even her husband sometimes admonishes her: “Dear, please do mince words.”

The author of half a dozen acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction including My Brother, nominated this year for a National Book Award, she professes to be baffled by the startled reactions her pungent observations sometimes provoke. “I am forthright, I suppose, but what else should one be?” asks the slender, nearly six-foot Kincaid, 48. “If I’d been a slave,” she adds matter-of-factly, “I would have been dead within 10 seconds.”

Powerlessness is, in fact, a central theme in Kincaid’s novels, which include the highly autobiographical Annie John, an account of a mother-daughter struggle; Lucy, the chronicle of a young West Indian woman who comes to New York City to work as an au pair; and The Autobiography of My Mother, in which Kincaid imagines what the life of a woman such as her mother might have been like had she not borne children—and which the Los Angeles Times called “perhaps the best of her splendid books.” The overarching theme of Kincaid’s work grew out of her own experience of childhood: “I felt at the mercy of everybody,” she says.

Hers is a surprising background for a writer of such sophistication and grace. Growing up poor in Antigua without running water or electricity, Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson (the name Jamaica Kincaid would come later) was the eldest of four children and the only girl. She stole books from the library and devoured them in secret. Her mother, Annie, kept house; her stepfather, David—Kincaid met her biological father as an adult in her 30s—was a carpenter.

Elaine was taller and thinner than her peers, who called her Daddy Longlegs. Intellectually gifted, she says she received little or no encouragement in school—or at home. Though she remembers a very early closeness to her mother (“When I wouldn’t eat, she would chew my food for me. I felt very loved”), things changed when Kincaid was 9 and the first of her brothers was born. Money became tighter, Annie’s focus divided, and her temper darkened. “She said she had to be more rough with me than with the boys because I was a girl,” says Kincaid.

At 17, to help shore up the family’s finances, Kincaid was sent to New York City to become an au pair. Later she worked as an assistant in a photo agency, but she had trouble staying with any employer for long. “I started to write because I couldn’t hold a job,” says Kincaid. “If I had a job, I would get so outspoken.” She could also be outlandish: Free to indulge a long-simmering rebellious streak, she bleached her hair blonde and dressed idiosyncratically—wearing jodhpurs or pajamas in public.

She changed her name in 1973, calling herself Jamaica just because she “liked the sound,” she says, and borrowed “Kincaid” from a George Bernard Shaw piece for the same reason. “I didn’t want my parents to know I was writing,” she says of the new identity. “I would have been laughed at. That would have been very wounding, unbearable.”

Gradually, Jamaica Kincaid’s byline began to appear in the New York City alternative newspaper The Village Voice and the teen magazine Ingenue. A chance encounter with George Trow, a New Yorker contributor who became a friend and mentor, led to an introduction to the magazine’s editor at the time, William Shawn. He liked her work, published it and hired her as a staff writer. In short order, he also became her father-in-law: Kincaid and Allen, Shawn’s son, married in 1979, three years after meeting at a party.

“I feel we’ve watched something extraordinary with Jamaica,” says Charles McGrath, a former New Yorker colleague who now edits The New York Times Book Review. “We’ve watched someone develop before our very eyes. In her early years she was kind of casting about, trying out a variety of voices and inflections. Just as she has invented herself to a certain extent, she has invented herself as a writer.”

The strength and clarity of Kincaid’s voice, and her ferocity, are all brought to bear in My Brother, an evocation of the wasted life and AIDS death of her 33-year-old sibling Devon Drew. The impetus to write it “was as simple as ‘I don’t understand some things unless I write about them,’ ” says Kincaid. “And I just knew instinctively that my brother’s life was parallel to mine. We were both dreamers, both lived in our heads. I thought, ‘This could be me.’ ”

In the book Kincaid submerges in a swirl of conflicting feelings about her family, particularly her mother, now 78. “We’re in one of our periods of not talking,” says Kincaid, who doesn’t think her mother has read the book. “She’s just so disrespectful to her children. I thought, ‘Oh no. I can’t take it.’ ”

“Her love for her children when they are children is spectacular, unequaled I am sure in the history of a mother’s love,” she writes of Annie in My Brother. “It is when her children are trying to be grown-up people—adults—that her mechanism for loving them falls apart; it is when they are living in a cold apartment in New York, hungry and penniless because they have decided to be a writer, writing to her, seeking sympathy, a word of encouragement, love, that her mechanism for loving falls apart. Her reply to one of her children who found herself in such a predicament was, ‘It serves you right, you are always trying to do things you know you can’t do.’ ”

“Jamaica’s really brave,” says Kincaid’s close friend, author Ian Frazier. “It takes a lot of courage to write about your family. A lot of people would pull their punches, but she doesn’t. She’s a classic example of someone who, when you say, ‘Keep your voice down,’ will raise it.”

Kincaid’s work bristles with what critic Susan Sontag has called its “emotional truthfulness.” As often as not the emotion is anger, which leads critics, reporters and readers to assume Kincaid herself is angry. “I don’t feel angry,” she protests. “And I certainly don’t feel any more angry than I think most people ought to be. I’m not Timothy McVeigh. What have I done? I’ve just written a book.”

One car per hour passes Kincaid’s three-acre property, much of it given over to her flower, fruit and vegetable gardens. In the front yard are there-mains of a wooden Succoth booth, covered in stalks of grain and leaves, that was constructed for the Jewish festival of tabernacles. Kincaid, who was raised a Methodist and converted four years ago to Judaism, which is also the religion of her husband, is reticent on the subject of faith. “I don’t know why,” she says, “but I do feel that God is a private issue.” She is also, typically, passionate about her belief: Somehow it doesn’t come as a surprise that she is president of the local 100-plus-member Congregation Beth El. “Jamaica will show up at a business meeting in overalls with garden dirt under her nails. She is able to win the respect of CEOs and persuade them to commit time and money to the synagogue,” says Beth El’s rabbi, Howard Cohen. “There is something of the prophet in her writing,” he adds. “She writes a lot about oppression and makes people uncomfortable, which is what the prophets did.”

Religion aside, Kincaid would far rather discuss her conversion to domesticity (current house specialties: corn pudding and fried chicken) and her conversion (obsessive and absolute) to horticulture. Her next book, in fact, will be about her garden.

Her children seem to be thriving as impressively as the clivia and rosemary on the kitchen windowsill. “So far, I think we’ve done a pretty good job because Allen and I are comfortable with who we are,” Kincaid says on an afternoon drive to pick up Annie and Harold at the school bus stop. She recoils in mock chagrin at the jam-spattered plate one of them left on the front seat that morning. “They’re not afraid of being black or Jews. And they don’t feel they have to be anything.

“I see that they will be different from me. I don’t have expectations of them living for me. I feel I serve them and it may not be good service. They do have the final word on that.”

When they write their own books?

“That’s right,” says Kincaid. “And I plan to endorse them wholeheartedly”