Jamaica Kincaid was born as Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949, in St. John's, Antigua. Her mother's people had land in Dominica, and her grandmother was a Carib Indian and practitioner of obeah, the magical medicine similar to voodoo. On the other side, her paternal grandfather was a Methodist policeman. Her mother moved to Antigua from Dominica at the age of sixteen, as Annie's does in Annie John. Jamaica's father was Roderick Potter, a taxi driver. Her parents never married. Later, her mother married David Drew, her stepfather, a carpenter and cabinetmaker. Kincaid went to a Moravian school, the Antiguan Girls School, and Princess Margaret School, and was also, as is mentioned in the last chapter of Annie John, apprenticed to a seamstress for a short time.
In 1958, Kincaid's first brother was born, followed by two other boys. These three stepbrothers arriving when Kincaid was nine interrupted the closeness with her mother, who was occupied with the younger children. The brothers are not in the autobiographical novel, Annie John, where Kincaid represents herself as an only child. In addition, her stepfather, who was an older man, was ill, requiring care. The economic hardship to the family caused Kincaid to have to withdraw from school to help with family finances. In 1965, her mother sent her to New York to become an au pair in Scarsdale. Later, she had jobs as receptionist, file clerk, and secretary in New York City. She got a high school diploma from the New School for Social Research where she studied photography. She also attended Franconia College in New Hampshire.
She began publishing articles and stories in 1973 as a freelance writer for Ms., Ingenue, and the Village Voice. She took Jamaica Kincaid as her pen name. In 1976, she was a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, becoming friends with editor William Shawn. She married his son Allen Shawn, a composer, brother of Wallace Shawn, the actor and playwright, in 1979. They had two children, Annie and Harold. In 1983, she won the Morton DauwenZabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for her short story collection, At the Bottom of the River. She was also nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award. Annie John was published in 1985, the same year she gave birth to her daughter Annie. It was a finalist for the international Ritz Paris Hemingway Award. In 1988, she published the nonfiction A Small Place, and the novel Lucy (1990) continues the story of Annie John as she is an au pair in New York. The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), is a biography showing the mother's version of the story in Annie John. In 1997, the author published My Brother, a memoir about her youngest brother, Devon Drew, who died of AIDS. In 1999, she won the Lannan Literary Award for fiction.
Kincaid was a staff writer for the New Yorker for twenty years as a featured columnist for “Talk of the Town.” The collected pieces were published in 2001 as Talk Stories. Mr. Potter followed in 2002, and See Now Then in 2013, for which she won a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award.
Kincaid lived for years in Bennington, Vermont, where her husband was a professor at Bennington College, and she raised her children and discovered gardening. Gardening became a topic of her New Yorker columns. She divorced Shawn in 2002 and as of the mid-2010s teaches regularly at Claremont McKenna College in California and at Harvard.