Jamaica Kincaid (born, May 25, 1949) is noted for her lyrical use of language. Her short stories and novels have a hypnotic, poetic quality that results from her utilization of rhythm and repetition. Her images, drawn from her West Indian childhood, recall Antigua, with its tropical climate, Caribbean food, local customs, and folklore laced with superstitions. Many of her stories move easily from realism to surrealistic fantasy, as would a Caribbean folktale. She is also praised for her exploration of the strong but ambiguous bond between mother and daughter and her portrayal of the transformation of a girl into a woman. Thus her work touches upon the loss of innocence that comes when one moves out of the Eden that is childhood. These are the features that are found not only in her short fiction but also in her novels, the chapters of which The New Yorker originally published as short stories, and in Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip, a children’s book that was part of a project designed by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the original publisher, who sought to bring together contemporary authors and artists for a series of limited editions aimed primarily at collectors.
Kincaid’s concern with racism, colonialism, class divisions, and sexism is rooted in her history: “I never give up thinking about the way I came into the world, how my ancestors came from Africa to the West Indies as slaves. I just could never forget it. Or forgive it.” She does not hesitate to tackle these issues in her writing. In her nonfictional A Small Place, she directs the force of her language toward an examination of her native island of Antigua, presenting the beauty as well as the racism and corruption rooted in its colonial past. In her fiction, these same issues are not slighted; for example, Annie John and Lucy address various forms of oppression and exploitation.
Jamaica Kincaid’s short stories, strongly autobiographical, are often set in the West Indies or incorporate images from the islands and include many events from her youth and young adulthood. In general, her stories chronicle the coming of age of a young girl. Because the mother-daughter relationship is central to the process, Kincaid often examines the powerful bond between them, a bond that the child must eventually weaken, if not break, in order to create her own identity. Kincaid has been accurately called “the poet of girlhood and place.”
The first of the ten stories in At the Bottom of the River is the often-praised and quoted “Girl.” Barely two pages in length, the story outlines the future life of a young girl growing up on a small Caribbean island. The voice heard belongs to the girl’s mother as she instructs her daughter in the duties that a woman is expected to fulfill in a culture with limited opportunities for girls. Twice the girl interrupts to offer a feeble protest, but her mother persists.
The girl is told how to wash, iron, and mend clothes; how to cook fritters and pepper pot; how to grow okra; and how to set the table—in short, everything that will enable her to care for a future husband. She is told how to smile, how to love a man, and how to get rid of an unborn baby should it be necessary. Most important, however, her mother warns her about losing her reputation because then the girl (and this is unsaid) loses her value as a potential wife. Almost as a refrain, the mother cautions, “On Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming” or “This is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming.” On the island, the girl’s most important asset is her virginity.
The language is a prime example of Kincaid’s ability to work a hypnotic spell. The story consists of a series of variations on particular instruction: “This is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming.” The rhythm and repetition create a lyric poetic quality that is present to some degree in all Kincaid’s fiction. Her prose demands to be read out loud.
“Girl” suggests the child’s future life on the island, but several stories in the collection re-create the atmosphere of her present existence. The story “In the Night” recounts her daily experiences. Thus, details such as crickets or flowers that would be important to her are recorded, often in the form of lists or catalogs: “The hibiscus flowers, the flamboyant flowers, the bachelor’s buttons, the irises, the marigolds, the whiteheadbush flowers, lilies, the flowers on the daggerbush,” continuing for a full paragraph. Here cataloging, a familiar feature of Kincaid’s prose, represents a child’s attempt to impose an order on her surroundings. The young narrator does not question her world but only reports what she observes. Thus witchcraft exists side by side with more mundane activities: “Someone is making a basket, someone is making a girl a dress or a boy a shirt . . . someone is sprinkling a colorless powder outside a closed door so that someone else’s child will be stillborn.” This melding of the commonplace with the supernatural occurs frequently in Kincaid’s fiction. The narrator’s troubles, such as wetting the bed, are those of a child and are easily resolved by her mother. Her plans for the future, marrying a woman who will tell her stories, also are typical of a child. This is an idyllic world before the fall from innocence, a world in which everything is ordered, listed, and cataloged. Nothing is threatening, since the all-powerful mother protects and shields.
In several other stories, including “Wingless” and “Holidays,” the girl is again shown to be occupied by the usually pleasant sensations of living: walking barefoot, scratching her scalp, or stretching, but sometimes, as illustrated in “Holidays,” experiencing pain: “spraining a finger while trying to catch a cricket ball; straining a finger while trying to catch a softball; stepping on dry brambles while walking on the newly cut hayfields.” The trauma, however, is clearly limited to physical sensations. When the child thinks of the future, the images are those of wishful thinking, similar to daydreams. This tranquil state of youth, however, is only temporary, as “Wingless” implies. The narrator, wingless, is still in the “pupa stage.”
The Letter from Home
In “The Letter from Home,” the narrator’s growing awareness makes it impossible for her to maintain the comforting simplicity of her child’s world. Questions about life and death intrude: “Is the Heaven to be above? Is the Hell below?” These inquiries, however, are set aside in favor of the present physical reality—a cat scratching a chair or a car breaking down. Even love and conception are reduced to the simplest terms: “There was a bed, it held sleep; there was movement, it was quick, there was a being.” She is not ready to confront the idea of death, so when death beckons, she “turned and rowed away.” “What I Have Been Doing Lately” • Just as the philosophical questions about life and death disrupt the bliss of childhood, so does the journey toward selfhood, which Kincaid symbolically represents as a journey over rough or impassable terrain or water. In “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” the obstacle is water: “I walked for I don’t know how long before I came to a big body of water. I wanted to get across it but I couldn’t swim. I wanted to get across it but it would take me years to build a boat. . . . I didn’t know how long to build a bridge.” Because the journey is difficult, as any passage to adulthood would be, the narrator is hesitant, afraid of finding the world not beautiful, afraid of missing her parents, so she goes back to bed: She is not ready yet. Soon, however, she will not have the option of retreating and waiting.
The journey toward selfhood necessitates a separation from the mother, as is suggested in the story “My Mother.” The protection that was vital during childhood becomes stifling in adolescence: “Placing her arms around me, she drew my head closer and closer to her bosom, until finally I suffocated.” Furthermore, the girl’s feelings are ambiguous. Realizing that she has hurt her mother, she cries, but then she utilizes those tears to create a pond, “thick and black and poisonous,” to form a barrier over which they “watched each other carefully.” The all-protecting mother of the earlier stories transforms herself into a mythic monster and thus threatens the emerging selfhood of the daughter. The daughter, however, also grows “invincible” like her mother, and she, too, metamorphoses into a similar beast. Strong as the daughter has become, however, she can never vanquish her mother: “I had grown big, but my mother was bigger, and that would always be so.” Only after the daughter completes her own journey toward selfhood is her mother no longer a threat: “As we walked along, our steps became one, and as we talked, our voices became one voice, and we were in complete union in every way. What peace came over me then, for I could not see where she left off and I began, or where I left off and she began.”
At the Bottom of the River
The concluding and title story is also the longest in the collection, at about twenty pages. “At the Bottom of the River” suggests answers to the questions raised in the other stories. Again, Kincaid employs the symbol of a journey through forbidding terrain to suggest traveling through life. What is the purpose of the journey, for what does one ultimately face but death? One man, overwhelmed, does nothing. Another discovers meaning in his family, his work, and the beauty of a sunrise, but still he struggles and “feels the futility.” How can one live with the paralyzing knowledge that “dead lay everything that had lived and dead also lay everything that would live. All had had or would have its season. And what should it matter that its season lasted five billion years or five minutes?” One possible response is suggested in the life of “a small creature” that lives in the moment, aware only of the sensation of grass underfoot or of the sting of a honeybee.
The narrator, who at first knew only the love of her mother, suffers from its necessary withdrawal. Adrift, she embarks on a symbolic journey in which she submerges herself in a river-fed sea. Discovering a solution at the bottom of the river, she emerges with a commitment to the present. Death, because it is natural, cannot be destroyed, but the joys derived from the commonplace—books, chairs, fruit—can provide meaning, and she “grow[s] solid and complete.”
Kincaid’s story “Xuela” became the first chapter of her novel The Autobiography of My Mother (1996). Like many of her other stories, it is set against a rich description of the botany and geography of tropical Dominica, and it continues Kincaid’s meditation on the theme of mothers and daughters. Xuela, the daughter who shares her mother’s name, also shares with many Kincaid women an anger at the mother who has rejected her and a fury at the world which little understands—and little cares—about her needs.
In the story’s first sentence, the reader learns that Xuela’s mother died in giving her birth, and the rest of the story is the record of the first seven years of Xuela’s life. Her father places the infant in the care of Eunice, his laundrywoman and visits her every two weeks when he delivers the dirty clothes he cares for as little as he cares for his baby daughter either physically or emotionally, oblivious as he is to his laundrywoman’s lack of affection for her foster child.
The child, however, knows very well that her foster mother has no use for her, and she grows ever more bitter and withdrawn. When she breaks Eunice’s treasured china plate, she cannot bring herself to utter the words “I’m sorry.” Like the turtles she captures and carelessly kills, Xuela has withdrawn into a shell which threatens to destroy her with enforced isolation.
At that point her father sends Xuela to school. The few other students are all boys; like their teacher they are “of the African people” and unable to respond to the powerful element of Carib Indian in Xuela’s ancestry. The teacher wears her own African heritage like a penance and is quick to label Xuela’s intelligence as a sign of her innate evil. When the child is found writing letters to her father, he removes her from the school and takes her to live with him and his new wife, another woman who has no love for the child. Like her insensitive teacher, her father’s power as a jailer seems to suggest the destructive powers of colonialism, another Kincaid theme.
Through all these trials, the child is sustained by a vision of her mother, who appears to her in sleep. In the dream, she sees her true mother descending a ladder to her, but always the dream fades before she can see more than her mother’s heels and the hem of her robe. Frustrating as it is, the dream also comes to represent the presence of the only person outside herself that Xuela can identify with unreserved love.
The story’s themes of the mother who, from the child’s point of view, has willfully withdrawn her love joins with the theme of the child’s wakening to the use of sexuality to replace her lost mother’s love, linking this story to the rest of Kincaid’s work.
Kincaid’s stories are praised for their strong images, poetic language, and challenging themes, and they are criticized for their lack of plot and sometimes obscure symbolism. Any reader, however, who, without reservations, enters Kincaid’s fictive world will be well rewarded.
Children’s literature: Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip, 1986 (with illustrations by Eric Fischl).
Anthologies: 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.
Novels: Annie John, 1985; Lucy, 1990; The Autobiography of My Mother, 1996; Mr. Potter, 2002.
Nonfiction: A Small Place, 1988; My Brother, 1997; My Garden (Book), 1999; Talk Stories, 2001; Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya, 2005.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Jamaica Kincaid. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998.
Bouson, J. Brooks. Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
De Abruna, Laura Nielsen. “Jamaica Kincaid’s Writing and the Maternal-Colonial Matrix.” In Caribbean Women Writers, edited by Mary Condé and Thorunn Lonsdale. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Ellsberg, Peggy. “Rage Laced with Lyricism.” Review of A Small Place. Commonweal 115(November 4, 1988): 602-604.
Emery, Mary Lou. “Refiguring the Postcolonial Imagination: Tropes of Visuality in Writing by Rhys, Kincaid, and Cliff.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 16 (Fall, 1997): 259-280.
Ferguson, Moira. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
____________.MacDonald-Smythe, Antonia. Making Homes in the West Indies: Constructions of Subjectivity in the Writings of Michelle Cliff and Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Garland, 2001.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Paravisini-Gerbert, Lizabeth. Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Simmons, Diane. Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Twayne, 1994.