Jamaica Kincaid (born, May 25, 1949) is known for her impressionistic prose, which is rich with detail presented in a poetic style, her continual treatment of mother-daughter issues, and her relentless pursuit of honesty. More so than many fiction writers, she is an autobiographical writer whose life and art are inextricably woven together. She began her career by mastering the short story, the form from which her longer fiction grew. Most of the pieces that constitute At the Bottom of the River and Annie John were first published in The New Yorker, as were the chapters of Lucy. Though the individual pieces in each work have a self-contained unity, Annie John and Lucy also have a clear continuity from story to story, something less true of the impressionistic writing of At the Bottom of the River; thus, it is often considered a collection of short stories, while Annie John and Lucy are clearly novels. Nonetheless, it was At the Bottom of the River that won for Kincaid the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award for short fiction and that contained “Girl,” a story written as a stream of instructions from a mother to a daughter, which is her best-known piece.
Kincaid’s native Antigua is central in her writing. This colonial setting strongly relates to her mother-daughter subject matter, because the narrators Annie and Lucy of her first two novels both seem to make a connection between their Anglophile mothers and the colonial English, and also because the childhood experiences of both narrators have been shaped by a colonial background that limits their options and makes their relationships with their mothers that much more intense.
Beginning with Lucy, Kincaid cultivates a detachment with which she explores issues of anger and loss, carefully disallowing any easy resolution. Kincaid seems less interested in solving fictional problems than in exploring contrary states of mind that perceive problems. Admittedly, this style is not to everyone’s taste, and even quite a few readers who were seduced by Kincaid’s earlier works were less pleased with Lucy and The Autobiography of My Mother. However, even if her incantatory rhythms and her tight focus on bleak, emotional situations in her post-Annie John works are not universally appreciated, few readers deny her eye for poetic detail and her ability to achieve a shimmering honesty in her prose.
Kincaid’s first novel, Annie John, is about a talented young girl in Antigua who, while growing into early womanhood, must separate herself from her mother. Fittingly, the book begins with a story of her recognition of mortality at the age of ten. Fascinated by the knowledge that she or anyone could die at any time, she begins to attend the funerals of people she does not know. At one point, she imagines herself dead and her father, who makes coffins, so overcome with grief that he cannot build one for her, a complex image suggesting her growing separation from her family. When, after attending a funeral for a child she did know, Annie neglects to bring home fish, as her mother demanded, Annie’s mother punishes her before kissing her good-night. Though this ending kiss suggests a continued bond between mother and daughter, the next chapter places it in a different context. The title “The Circling Hand” refers to her mother’s hand on her father’s back when Annie accidentally spies her parents making love. Almost as if in contradiction to the reassuring maternal kiss of the earlier story, this chapter offers the rising specter of sexuality as a threat that will separate mother and daughter. Annie learns not only that she must stop dressing exactly like her mother but also that she must someday be married and have a house of her own. This is beyond Annie’s comprehension.
Though Annie never fully understands this growing distance from her mother, she contributes to it. For instance, when she becomes friends with a girl at school named Gwen, she does not tell her mother. In part, she is transferring her affections to friends as a natural process of growing up, but as the chapters “Gwen” and “The Red Girl” make clear, she is also seeking comfort to ease the disapproval of her mother. Gwen becomes her best friend, and Annie imagines living with her, but Gwen is replaced briefly in Annie’s affections by the Red Girl, who is a friend and cohort with whom Annie plays marbles, against the wishes of her mother.
The growing separation from her mother comes to a crisis in the chapter “The Long Rain,” when Annie lapses into an extended depression and takes to her bed. When medicine and the cures of a local conjure woman do nothing to help, Annie’s grandmother, Ma Chess, also a conjure woman, moves in with her. The weather remains damp the entire time Annie remains bedridden, and she feels herself physically cut off from other people. When she is finally well enough to return to school, she discovers she has grown so much that she needs a new uniform; symbolically, she has become a new person. Thus it is that the last chapter, “The Long Jetty,” begins with Annie thinking, “My name is Annie John,” an act of self-naming that is also an act of self-possession. The chapter tells of Annie’s last day in Antigua as she prepares to meet the ship that will take her to England, where she plans to study to become a nurse. A sensitive, detailed portrayal of a leave-taking, this chapter serves as a poignant farewell to childhood and to the intimacy with her mother that only a child can know. This last chapter captures perfectly Kincaid’s ability to tell a story sensitively without sentimentality.
Kincaid’s next novel, Lucy, is a thematic sequel to her first. Lucy is seventeen when the novel begins, newly arrived in the United States from Antigua to work as an au pair, watching the four girls of Lewis and Mariah, an upper-middle-class New York couple. Although the novel is set entirely outside Antigua and Lucy’s mother never appears in it, Lucy’s attempt to separate herself from her mother constitutes the main theme of the novel.
Mariah is presented as a loving but thoroughly ethnocentric white woman. A recurring example of this is her attempt to make Lucy appreciate the Wordsworthian beauty of daffodils, unaware that it is precisely because Lucy had to study William Wordsworth’s poetry about a flower that does not grow in Antigua that this flower represents the world of the colonizer to her. In fact, Mariah’s unselfconscious, patronizing goodwill is exactly what Lucy loves most and yet cannot tolerate about her employer, because it reminds her of her mother.
When Lucy learns that Lewis is having an affair with Mariah’s best friend, Dinah, she understands that this idyllic marriage is falling apart. When a letter from home informs her that her father has died, she is unable to explain to Mariah that her anger toward her mother is based on mourning the perfect love she had once felt between them. At the same time, her own sexuality begins to emerge, and she develops interests in young men. Wanting more space, she moves in with her friend Peggy, a young woman who represents a more exciting world to Lucy, cutting short her oneyear au pair agreement. The novel ends with Lucy writing her name, Lucy Josephine Potter, in a book and wishing that she could love someone enough to die for that love. This ending clearly signals an act of self-possession (much like the self-naming at the end of Annie John), but it also signifies the loneliness of breaking away from others, even to assert oneself. Though Lucy is a much angrier novel than Annie John, Lucy’s anger is best understood in terms of the writer’s earlier autobiographical surrogate in Annie John; the melancholy that debilitates Annie at the end of her novel is turned into anger by Lucy.
The Autobiography of My Mother
The Autobiography of My Mother is a tough, bleakly ironic novel written by a writer at the full height of her powers. It follows Xuela Claudette Richardson, a Caribbean woman who aborted her only pregnancy. If this fact seems to imply that Kincaid has taken a step away from the style of autobiographical fiction, the self-contradictory title and the main character’s last name, Richardson, a name she shares with Jamaica Kincaid, both suggest that this story is not very far removed from the facts of Kincaid’s own family.
The novel begins with the narrator proclaiming that her mother died the moment she was born, “and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity.” This interesting statement reveals as much about the importance of mothers in Kincaid’s writing as about the character Xuela. She lives with her father and a stepmother, who hates her and may have tried to kill her with a poisoned necklace, until she is sent at the age of fifteen to live with a wealthy couple. Ostensibly, she is to be a student, but in fact she is to be the man’s mistress.
Though the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized is important in all of Kincaid’s writing, The Autobiography of My Mother brings it to the foreground in different ways. The first words Xuela learns to read are the words “the British Empire,” written across a map. Meanwhile, her stepmother refuses to speak to Xuela in anything other than a patois, or provincial dialect, as if to reduce Xuela to the status of an illegitimate subject of the empire. When Xuela eventually marries (after many affairs with men), it is to a man she identifies as “of the victors”—the British. She takes a cruel satisfaction in refusing to love him, even though, according to her, he lived for the sound of her footsteps. Though it is never a relationship based on love, she lives with him for many years, and he becomes for her “all the children I did not allow to be born.” Although this is hardly an ideal relationship, it is not a completely empty one.
Toward the end, Xuela declares that her mother’s death at the moment of her birth was the central facet of her life. Her ironic detachment from life seems to have been based on this, as if, devoid of the only buffer between herself and the hardship of life that she can imagine—a mother—she further rejects all other comforts and answers that people wish to propose. If Xuela is the least likable of Kincaid’s main characters, her tough-as-nails approach to the world nonetheless makes her among the most compelling.
As in Jamaica Kincaid’s other fiction, the themes of The Autobiography of My Mother explore what happens to a young woman who grows up in a loveless household, in this case the child of a mother who died at her birth. Intermingled with Xuela’s immediate story is the story of the Caribbean island of Dominica, a land that once lived under the cold stepparent of colonial rule.
Since Xuela never knew her mother, and since her father is a distant figure in her life, her efforts to tell her mother’s story require her to tell her own story, beginning with her father depositing her to be cared for by his laundress, as if she were another bundle of dirty clothes. The laundress has no more warmth for Xuela than she has for her own children. Like others who live in poverty in Dominica, she faces a constant battle for survival, with no time for loving relationships.
As Xuela begins school, some themes emerge that color her life. One is an image of her mother descending a ladder to her; in the vision, Xuela can see only her mother’s heels, although gradually she creates a picture of the whole woman in her imagination and at last imagines an entire history for her. At the same time, Xuela begins to think about her father, a remote man who visits her only occasionally, a policeman whose life seems to suggest the possibilities of power. Already the child is beginning to understand the value in being able to make others do what she wants. Finally, as she attends school, Xuela begins to understand the disparity between what she is taught and what is truly relevant to life in Dominica. Her school is a product of English colonial rule, and its subjects are more suitable for England than for a Caribbean island. Throughout her life, Xuela has a painful consciousness of the legacy of colonialism.
Xuela spends her youth first in the laundress’s home, then in the household of her father and his second wife and her children, and then in the home of a friend of her father. Her ability to control others is coupled with a growing sexual sense as well as a generalized sensuality. As a result, her adolescence and adulthood are marked by a series of sexual encounters and several pregnancies (which she aborts). No one could call these liaisons love affairs, however, for love is impossible for a young woman who feels as abandoned as Xuela does.
In the last sections of the novel, in old age, Xuela imagines her parents’ courtship. Her father was the son of a Scottish sailor and a woman of African parentage; her mother was from the indigenous Carib people. Xuela imagines their clothing (always a subject of interest to her) and how they might have met, at last able to put a face, even though an imaginary one, to her mother’s figure. When finally Xuela marries, it is for power and sex rather than for love. She knows that she will never love children of her own but will remain, perhaps like the island of Dominica, an orphan in the world.
Long fiction: Annie John, 1985; Lucy, 1990; The Autobiography of My Mother, 1996; Mr. Potter, 2002. See Now Then, 2013.
Short fiction: At the Bottom of the River, 1983.
Nonfiction: A Small Place, 1988; My Brother, 1997; My Garden (Book), 1999; Talk Stories, 2001; Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya, 2005.
Children’s literature: Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip, 1986 (with illustrations by Eric Fischl).
Edited texts: The Best American Essays 1995, 1995; My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love, 1998; The Best American Travel Writing 2005, 2005.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.