Kincaid, Jamaica 1949-
Jamaica Kincaid 1949-
(Born Elaine Potter Richardson) West Indian-born American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
For additional information on Kincaid's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.
An outspoken critic of British colonialism in her native Caribbean island of Antigua, Kincaid is best known for thought-provoking novels, short stories, and essays that focus on such themes as gender hierarchies, class divisions, exploitation, power relations, motherhood, sexuality, and the ever-present influence of history. She began her career writing magazine articles in the mid-1970s and gained wide acclaim with her first two publications: the short story collection At the Bottom of the River (1983) and the novel Annie John (1985). In these and other writings, including the memoir My Brother (1997), which was nominated for a National Book Award, Kincaid employs a highly poetic literary style that is celebrated for its rhythms, imagery, characterization, and elliptic narration. She is singled out for her ability to combine poetic abstraction with realism and is praised for her willingness to delve into unpleasant subject matter while examining universal truths.
Kincaid was born in 1949 in St. John's, on the small island of Antigua in the West Indies. Her biological father, Frederick Potter, abandoned the family, and Kincaid was raised by her mother, Annie Richardson, and her stepfather, David Drew, a carpenter. Her mother taught Kincaid to read when she was three and sent her to the Antiguan Girls School and the Princess Margaret School, where, as was typical in British colonial schools, she was taught in English and studied English literature extensively. While Kincaid later wrote bitterly about her education, she also allowed that this exposure to canonical Western literature provided her with a solid foundation for her own writing. The first of Kincaid's three younger half-brothers was born when she was nine years old; she has stated that the births of her brothers created distance between herself and her mother, and many critics agree that Kincaid's unsettled home life heavily influences her writing. In 1966, in response to financial difficulties at home, the seventeen-year-old Kincaid was sent to New York to work as a nanny. While there, she earned her high school diploma and took classes in photography at the New School for Social Research (now New School University). Awarded a full scholarship, Kincaid later studied at Franconia College, a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire. After a year there, she returned to New York and entered the publishing business, working at Art Direction magazine. Subsequently fired for writing what was considered a controversial piece on black advertising in the United States, Kincaid began writing articles for Ingenue magazine.
In 1973 she changed her name from Elaine Potter Richardson to Jamaica Kincaid and soon thereafter began writing articles for the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" column; she remained a staff writer for the magazine until 1995. Impressed by her writing style as it developed in the column, the New Yorker's then-editor, William Shawn, encouraged her to try her hand at fiction writing. In 1977 Kincaid's short story "Girl" became her first published piece of fiction (the one-sentence story filled an entire page of the New Yorker). Six years later, she found herself squarely in the literary limelight as an up-and-coming new voice in fiction with the publication of the collection At the Bottom of the River. In 1985 she married Allen Shawn, William Shawn's son, a composer. She has taught writing at Harvard University and Bennington College in Vermont, though her primary focus has been to continue her own writing. In 1997, she became a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN Faulkner Award for the novel The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), which won the Boston Book Review Fisk Fiction Prize. In 2000 Kincaid published some of her early "Talk of the Town" columns in a collection entitled Talk Stories. In addition, she has written such works as Mr. Potter (2002), a fictionalized account of her biological father, a taxi driver in Antigua, and Among Flowers (2005), which details her plant-collecting journey to Tibet.
Kincaid's literary success began in earnest with the publication of At the Bottom of the River, a collection of ten short stories that critics have occasionally deemed "prose poems." One of the most quoted among these pieces is "Girl," which consists almost entirely of a mother's orders to her daughter: "Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry…." Kincaid's first novel, Annie John, was originally published as a series of short stories in the New Yorker. Focusing on the life of the precocious title character, who struggles to assert her individuality and escape the influence of her domineering mother, Annie John, like At the Bottom of the River, draws upon Kincaid's experiences growing up in British-ruled Antigua in the 1940s and 1950s. In A Small Place (1988), an essay that takes a critical look at Antigua both from the perspective of the tourist and the point of view of the islander viewing the tourist, Kincaid describes the aftermath of colonialism in her native island, calling attention to the damage that the corrupt postcolonial government has wrought on the impoverished nation. The novel Lucy (1990) is a first-person narrative in which the nineteen-year-old title character leaves her homeland to work in an unnamed American city as an au pair for a wealthy, white couple. In this novel, which closely parallels Kincaid's own experiences, Lucy not only expresses feelings of rage, but struggles with separation from her homeland and especially her mother. The Autobiography of My Mother follows Kincaid's two previous fictional efforts in its West Indies setting and vivid, poetic prose. The book's narrator, Xuela, is an elderly woman who recounts her difficult life, beginning with the death of her mother at Xuela's birth. In what reviewers have termed a chilling, unsparing tone, Xuela describes her childhood abuse at the hands of a stepmother; the corruption of her father, a policeman; and her decision to abort her unborn child after she realizes the baby is intended for its father and his barren wife. At the end of the novel, the narrator calls her account a story of the mother she never knew, of her unborn baby, and of "the voices that should have come out of me, the faces I never allowed to form, the eyes I never allowed to see me."
In My Brother, Kincaid writes about the last years of life of her youngest half-brother, Devon Drew, who died of complications from AIDS in 1996 at the age of thirty-three. Kincaid reminisces about how she left Antigua when her brother was three years old; when she returns home they are veritable strangers to each other, and she only learns of his bisexuality after his death. In Mr. Potter, Kincaid relates a story about an illiterate chauffeur who fathers numerous children with various women and abandons them all. The idea is based on Kincaid's own father. In addition to her autobiographical fiction and nonfiction, Kincaid has produced several books on gardening, a longtime interest. In 1998 she edited a collection of essays on gardening entitled My Favorite Plant; her next volume on gardening, My Garden (Book), appeared in 1999. Among Flowers describes in meticulous detail Kincaid's trials and tribulations of hiking in the Himalayas in order to gather plants for her Vermont garden.
Kincaid has received near universal critical acclaim for At the Bottom of the River. Indeed, a number of commentators have observed that the lyrical quality of the language juxtaposed with the gritty details of her characters' mundane lives creates an interesting mixture of oppositions in the work. Annie John has earned similarly lavish praise. While some critics have evaluated the novel in terms of the classic form of a bildungsroman, others have claimed that Kincaid actually inverts the generic type. The characters come of age in Kincaid's stories, these critics maintain, but the author seldom allows for the typical resolution offered by the genre, leaving her characters in the midst of dealing with the stormy emotions they encountered throughout the narrative. For many critics, the emo- tional content of Kincaid's work resonates more than the lyricism of her prose style. Commentators have remarked that Kincaid's intensely personal narrative voice enlivens such universal themes as parent-child relationships and conflicted feelings of nostalgia for one's homeland in Lucy, while it expresses outrage at oppression and tyranny in A Small Place. Several critics have taken exception to Kincaid's blunt condemnation of Antiguan politics in A Small Place, asserting that the author judges too harshly the island, its tourists, its policies, and inhabitants. Many commentators have praised Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother for its lush, rhythmic prose style and its sophisticated characterization. In fact, some critics have compared Kincaid to Gertrude Stein, noting that her experimental narrative technique and complex characterization, especially in The Autobiography of My Mother and Mr. Potter, share stylistic similarities with Stein's literary "portraits."
At the Bottom of the River (short stories) 1983
Annie John (novel) 1985
Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip [illustrated by Eric Fischl] (prose sketches) 1986
A Small Place (essay) 1988
Lucy (novel) 1990
The Autobiography of My Mother (novel) 1996
My Brother (memoir) 1997
Generations of Women: In Their Own Words [contributor of introduction] (essays) 1998
My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love [editor, and author of introduction] (essays) 1998
Poetics of Place (essay) 1998
My Garden (Book) (essays) 1999
Talk Stories (essays) 2000
Mr. Potter (novel) 2002
Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas (nonfiction) 2005
Nicole C. Matos (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Matos, Nicole C. "‘The Difference between the Two Bundles’: Body and Cloth in the Works of Jamaica Kincaid." Callaloo 25, no. 3 (2002): 844-56.
[In the following essay, Matos argues that Kincaid associates the complementary and dependent relationship between the body and cloth in many of her writings with the larger and more complex connection between the powerful colonizer and the oppressed colonized.]
In an autobiographical story, sadly and slyly entitled "Biography of a Dress," Jamaica Kincaid reflects upon a photograph of herself as a toddler, taken to commemorate the occasion of her second birthday. While the photograph itself captures a single moment—an image of the author backed up against a painted vista, staring out with a look of resigned anguish—the story captures a weeks-long chain of preparations, culminating in the final hours before the picture is snapped:
On the day I turned two years old … small hoops made of gold from British Guiana (it was called that then, it is not called that now) were placed in the bored holes in my earlobes … a pair of bracelets made of silver from someplace other than British Guiana (and that place too was called one thing then and something else now) was placed one on each wrist…. That afternoon, I was bathed and powdered, and the dress of yellow poplin, completed, its seams all stitched together with a certainty found only in the natural world (I now realize) was placed over my head, and it is quite possible that this entire act had about it the feeling of being draped in a shroud. As [my mother] walked along with me in her arms … I placed my lips against one side of her head (the temple) and could feel the rhythm of blood pulsing through her body; I placed my lips against her throat and could hear her swallow saliva that she had collected in her mouth; I placed my face against her neck and inhaled deeply a scent … [that] is not of animal or place or thing, it was (and is) a scent unique to her, and it left a mark of such depth that it eventually became a part of my other senses, and even now (yes, now) that scent is also taste, touch, sight and sound.
In this crucial passage, a story of conflict and futility is distilled into opposing impressions: a dress and a shroud; a mother's sewing hands, a mother's beating heart. From these drifting juxtapositions emerges a much-needed instant of stasis, an interval in which forces are accounted for—the certain and the uncertain, the personal and the political, the things known then and the things known now—but momentarily suspended. But even more important, these juxtapositions set up an elastic and evolving dichotomy between body and cloth, naked and clothed, which continues evocatively not only within this single text, but throughout many of Kincaid's other writings. In Annie John, Lucy, and The Autobiography of My Mother as in "Biography of a Dress," interactions between the competing and yet mutually dependent elements of body and cloth contribute another level to Kincaid's exploration of domination, oppression, and resistance in the West Indies. The subtle, almost mystical battles between these forces in the everyday lives of her characters underscore, reflect, and in some sense, allegorically represent dimensions of the perpetual struggle between colonizer and colonized.
Julia Kristeva's psycho-linguistic theories, and, in particular, her delineation of the interactive categories of the "symbolic" and the "semiotic," illuminate Kincaid's conceptualization of body and cloth as oppositional yet mutually dependent forces. In "The System and the Speaking Subject," Kristeva proposes a method for studying this interaction between the symbolic and the semiotic, explaining the difference between traditional semiology and her proposed alternative of "semanalysis":
The theory of meaning now stands at a crossroad: either it will remain [based] on a conception … of meaning as the act of a transcendental ego … or else it will attune itself to the theory of the speaking subject as a divided subject (conscious/unconscious) and go on to specify the types of operations characteristic of the two sides of the split, thereby exposing them to those forces extraneous to the logic of the systematic; exposing them, that is to say, on the one hand to biophysiological processes (themselves already inescapably part of signifying processes, what Freud labeled ‘drives’); and on the other hand, to social constraints (family structures, modes of production, etc.).
The first "hand" established by Kristeva, the one referring to uncontrolled, resistant bodily drives, describes the semiotic; the second "hand" corresponds with the structures, both linguistic and political, of the surrounding social world. These regulatory structures, constituting our social language (Revolution 72), are identified as the domain of the symbolic. The interplay between the semiotic flows of the body and the directives of the symbolic is complex. Although the two are inseparable in practice, their relationship is nonetheless antagonistic: "though invariably subject to the signifying and/or social codes, [biological operations] infringe the [symbolic] code in the direction of allowing the subject to get pleasure from it, renew it, even endanger it" ("System" 30).
Kristeva's views are echoed in a specifically postcolonial context by Michael Dash in his essay, "In Search of the Lost Body: Redefining the Subject in Caribbean Literature." Here, Dash explains that colonized peoples may choose to celebrate the domain of the body in their literature as a "refusal of corporeal determinism" (24), that is, as a declaration of self-rule. In such literature, the unencumbered body functions as an emblem of "revolutionary potential" (24), an "endlessly suggestive sign through which the process of ‘subjectification’ is mediated and expressed" (20): a dangerous weapon which those in power must attempt to defuse.
On some level, passages from Kincaid's works parallel the views of both Kristeva and Dash. In the opening pages of Autobiography, Xuela Claudette Richardson begins the story of her own life in infancy, at a point just after her mother's death. The beginning of the novel describes the manner in which the tiny Xuela is delivered into the care of a female neighbor:
When my mother died, leaving me a small child vulnerable to all the world, my father took me and placed me in the care of the same women he paid to wash his clothes. It is possible that he emphasized the difference between the two bundles: one was his child … the other was his soiled clothes. He would have handled one more gently than the other, he would have given more careful instructions for the care of one over the other, he would have expected better care for one than the other, but which one I do not know.
The image of Xuela's father disposing with equal indifference the living body of his child and a pile of dirty laundry strikes a jarring chord which prepares us well for the stark lovelessness of Xuela's childhood and later life. But it also establishes an iconography that accords well with Kristeva's systemization: the pile of clothing representing that which would strive to organize and censor the semiotic; the infant Xuela, as little more than a drive-ridden body, representing that which would seek to override and undermine the symbolic. For Kincaid as for Kristeva, in all signifying practices each force manages to infect the other. The clothing, subject to wear, tear, and bodily secretions, gets dirty; the baby, for cleanliness and ease of carrying, is constrained—"bundled"—in a blanket.
The motif of the unencumbered body as an image of potential and liberation that Dash discusses also appears frequently in Kincaid's work. In Kincaid's writings, however, this theme is counterbalanced by the use of clothing as a primary image of suppression, a means by which oppressors can disguise, inhibit, and appropriate subjects' treacherous bodies. Kincaid's novels deal with different stages of Antiguan history and culture—the late colonial period in Autobiography, and the transitionary age, at least a full generation later, in Annie John and Lucy —yet her protagonists share the same overall social circumstances. As young female descendants of non-white colonized peoples, Kincaid's protagonists occupy positions in their respective societies that offer them little in the way of traditional power and autonomy. Rejecting the modes and trappings of colonial authority and freeing the revolutionary body are represented as essential means of protest, a manner in which to challenge the status quo.
For Kincaid's protagonists, cloth's victories over the body are associated with moments of powerlessness and pain. Physical discomfort with articles of clothing often emerges when characters are exposed to otherwise oppressive or threatening environments. In Autobiography, for example, Kincaid details a harsh Antiguan missionary school: "[This] was the first time I had worn such things as shoes and socks, and they caused my feet to ache and swell, the skin to blister and break" (13). And in Lucy, she underscores the cold, impersonal grit of New York City: "The undergarments were all new, bought for the journey, and as I sat in the car, twisting this way and that … I was reminded of how uncomfortable the new can make you feel" (4).
Significantly, the association between psychic vulnerability and discomfort with clothing is often so strong as to be reciprocal. Finding the reality of life in the United States considerably different from her fantasies and her escape from cultural and familial pressures, at best, incomplete, Lucy refers to her continuing depression as if it were an article of clothing: "Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act … I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent" (Lucy 7). In reflecting upon the cruelties of her early education, Xuela too envisions pain as if it were clothing, an enveloping materiality capable of being passed on: "[My teacher] was of the African people … and she found in this a source of humiliation and self-loathing, and she wore despair like an article of clothing … a birthright which she would pass on to us" (Autobiography 15). For Xuela, this pain is a kind of false skin, usurping one's natural skin: "I could not like what [my education] would lead to: a humiliation so permanent that it would replace your own skin" (Autobiography 79).
While the texts quickly make it clear that virtually no article of clothing can be cursorily dismissed as devoid of meaning and therefore disassociated from the unending struggle between victors and vanquished, the body's submission to cloth seems all the more painful when involving even more overtly "expressive" garments and fabrics. Just as Kincaid's protagonists recognize many other everyday objects—daffodils, cocoa—as parts of the story of colonization, they perceive the story of domination perpetuated within the threads of (what truly is) "imported" cloth. Interpreting and exposing the history of cruelty, theft, and lies which enabled the existence of such cloth and which then became, in a sense, part of its very nature, become major priorities: "My sister wore a dress of white silk; it came from far away, it came from China, but it was said that she was married in English silk" (Autobiography 127). The strength and vigilance required by this task (and the always imminent danger of failing in it) is illustrated most explicitly in Lucy's first dream upon her arrival in the United States: clutching a beautiful nightgown, lured by printed Christmas scenes which appear almost supernaturally real, Lucy has a sudden compulsion to check the label, only to find that the garment was made in Australia, a former penal colony for the indigent and despised (8-9). Unable to wrench themselves completely outside the system of colonial commercialism, Kincaid's protagonists instead resist its seduction by striving to expose what is suppressed within it, that it is precisely the human cost of such cloth which increases its loveliness and value: "For this man … sits in a chair made from a fabric that is very valuable because its origins are distant, obscure, and involve again the forced labor, the crippling, the early death of the unnamed many" (Autobiography 135).
Clothing's ability to preserve within itself a sort of memory and to transmit that memory to successive wearers is explored at length when the fifteen-year-old Xuela is brought by her father into the home of his business associate Monsieur LaBatte. Although aware of the household's mysterious, unspoken tensions, Xuela allows her usual guard to slip somewhat under the nurturing attentions of the childless wife of the house, Madame LaBatte. Only when Madame LaBatte begins to make gifts of her own clothing does Xuela begin to perceive the ulterior designs behind Madame's kindness:
One day, without any preparation, she gave me a beautiful dress that she no longer wore; it still fit her, but she no longer wore it. As I was trying on the dress I could hear her thoughts…. She wants to make a gift of me to her husband; she wants to give me to him, she hopes I do not mind. I was standing in this room before her, my clothes coming off, my clothes going on, naked, clothed, but the vulnerability I felt was not of the body, it was of the spirit, the soul.
The most remarkable aspect of this experience is not that Xuela receives this revelation but that the act of putting on Madame LaBatte's clothing appears to cause her to receive it. Incredibly, the clothing itself seems to act as a medium of clairvoyance, a supernatural conduit through which Xuela can perceive Madame LaBatte's innermost motives. The clairvoyant message and instinctive bodily repulsion Xuela experiences is so strong that the means ultimately loom larger than the end, with the idea of being forced to wear Madame LaBatte's clothing—and to communicate with her so intimately—invested with more horror than that of being manipulated into an affair with Monsieur LaBatte for the purpose of bearing the couple a child:
She [Madame LaBatte] was stitching me a garment from beautiful old cloths she had saved from the differ- ent times in her life, the happy times, the sad times. It was a shroud made of memories; how she wished to weave me into its seams, its many seams.
This image of utter destruction—the self totally annihilated, the body reduced to raw material shaping a remembrance of someone else's past—not only demonstrates the magnitude of cloth's power over the body, but also the nature of that power. Although the interactions between cloth and the body manifest themselves in the commonplace happenings of day-to-day life, representing equally commonplace conflicts between oppressors and oppressed, Kincaid portrays the essential energy within the two forces as mystical and magical; shirts become shrouds, cloth consumes, while bodies inexplicably shrink and swell. With their supernatural potencies well-established, body and cloth appear to function in Kincaid's social settings almost as sacred abstractions, rival gods vying for attention and devotion, each demanding and receiving worship in a complex set of rituals and rites.
Although people of both sexes participate in the symbolic cult of clothing, women seem to play an especially important role in producing and molding new initiates. In her discussion of the "chora," Kristeva identifies the mother as the first to usher her infant into the world of the symbolic: "The mother's body is therefore what mediates the symbolic law organizing social relations and becomes the ordering principle of the semiotic chora" (Revolution 27). Continuing what they started, mothers often remain the primary social educators of their offspring long after infancy, and sometimes even childhood, has passed. Both the strong complicity of motherhood and the symbolic and quasi-religious social significance of cloth is displayed as Annie John, led by her mother, helps with the family laundry. The simple domestic chore vaguely takes the shape of a liturgy, a pilgrimage, its final destination suspiciously like an altar:
If it was a Tuesday and the colored clothes had been starched, as [my mother] placed them on the line I would follow, carrying a basket of clothespins for her. While the starched clothes were being dried on the line, the white clothes were being whitened on the stone heap. It was a beautiful stone heap that my father had made for her: an enormous circle of stones, about six inches high, in the middle of our yard.
Perhaps because a mother's devotion to cloth ultimately hinges on her devotion towards her child, specifically, her not unwarranted concerns for that child's future social survival, the covert ritual that the elder Annie guides her daughter through has a more innocuous feel than would generally be expected. Interestingly, the most immediate and dynamic dangers that Kincaid's characters face in the conflict between body and cloth originate not in their mothers, but in those women who have most literally dedicated their lives to cloth: seamstresses and laundresses. High priestesses in the cult of cloth, laundresses, and seamstresses make it their vocation to clean all stains and mend all tears: to erase all signs of the resistant, revolutionary body.
Particularly in Autobiography and Annie John, laundresses and seamstresses seem endowed with special—and often formidable—powers. The effects of these mysterious powers can be incredibly long-lasting and far-reaching: years after a short and, by her own admission, fairly typical apprenticeship to a seamstress, Annie still dreads even walking by her house (138). Even when not fully justified by the (surface) circumstances, the trauma experienced remains very real; Annie, as Moira Ferguson notes, forever describes despair in "the gendered language of sewing" (Land 61).
Unlike Annie's experiences with the unnamed seamstress, mentioned only after the fact and then seemingly only in passing, confrontations between Xuela and Eunice, the washerwoman who received the surrender of the two bundles, retain much of their original urgency and chilling detail. A supreme laundress figure, the highest of all high priestesses, Eunice has no use or need for subtleties. Instinctive enemies, Eunice and Xuela work their way through private attacks and counterattacks before arriving at the definitive battle, when Xuela destroys Eunice's most adored idol, a china plate painted with images of the English countryside:
When I broke the plate and would not say that I was sorry, [Eunice] cursed my dead mother, she cursed my father, she cursed me. The words she used were without meaning…. She made me kneel down on her stone heap, which as it should be was situated in a spot that got direct sun all day long, with my hands raised high above my head and with a large stone in each hand.
Spraying unintelligible curses, Eunice exacts a penalty that is out of proportion for a simple household "accident" but that does befit a (barely) disguised spiritual rejection. The insult which most enrages Eunice primarily results from the exercise of Xuela's intellect; it is not so much that her lips or throat cannot form the desired apology, but that her mind is determined not to let them. Eunice nonetheless launches her assault against the most brazen symbol of Xuela's opposition. Roasted by the sun, weighed down by rocks, forced into a position mimicking genuflection and exultation, this variation on a traditional Caribbean punishment renders Xuela's treacherous, subversive body an offering at another backyard altar: a human sacrifice to someone else's god.
But even the desecration of Xuela's body cannot prevent her from understanding that this episode of contention and punishment, while masquerading as something private and self-limiting, is actually a representation of something epic and expansive. It is a single scene in a drama destined to repeat, with different performers, over and over again. This violation also cannot prevent her from exposing the impermanence of Eunice's victory, or from recognizing that nothing, however powerful, can ever completely stave off certain inevitable natural processes, be they the workings of the body, or of time itself:
Why should this punishment have made a lasting impression on me, redolent as it was in every way of the relationship between captor and captive, master and slave, with its motif of the big and the small, the powerful and the powerless … and Eunice standing over me, metamorphosing into a succession of things furious and not human with each syllable that passed her lips—with her dress of a thin, badly woven cotton…. The dress again—it had once been new and clean, and dirt had made it old, but dirt had made it new again by giving it shadings it did not have before, and dirt would finally cause it to disintegrate altogether.
Even as Eunice employs her sorcery to transform herself into something indeterminately alien, Xuela seizes upon her own brand of magic to convert Eunice back into something merely, almost pathetically human. Noting the dirt on Eunice's dress, Xuela uncovers a humorous paradox which deflates the mighty, vengeful goddess into a figure exhausted, expended: a laundress whose very labor makes it impossible to keep her own clothing clean. From those incidental streaks and splotches, Xuela finds the reserves to envision a future, tracing out a cycle of defacement, rejuvenation, and destruction, which promises Eunice's eventual defeat.
Like Xuela, Kincaid's other protagonists take heart in outward signs of the body's triumph over cloth, correlating soiled and torn cloth with moments of particular happiness and strength. The generic rebellion of destroying clothing often becomes paired with another, more specific rebellion, something absolutely, expressly forbidden, like dancing in the schoolyard: "At the end of recess … the pleats of our linen tunics became unset, the collars of our blouses were pulled out, and we were soaking wet all the way down to our bloomers" (Annie John 80). Both Annie and Lucy choose role models (the Red Girl and Peggy, respectively) whose primary qualifications seem to be an utter disregard for appearance and hygiene: "What a beautiful thing I saw … [her feet] were naked … her dress was dirty, the skirt and blouse tearing away from each other at one side" (Annie John 57). Overall, disheveled clothing is associated with more than just defiance. In some cases, it is associated with fear—"[My teacher] said my words were a lie, libelous, that she was not afraid of me … I could see … pools of perspiration stained the underarms of her dress" (Autobiography 21)—and fury—"My declaration … must have enraged Roland's wife, for she grabbed my blue dress at the collar and gave a huge tug, it rent in two from my neck to my waist" (Autobiography 172)—as well as other passionate, uncontrolled emotions.
The disruptive force of the body in these novels can surface at any phase of a character's life, perhaps even in utero: "For instance, the flowers on the chemise, the first garment I wore after being born, were not put on correctly, and that is because when my mother was embroidering them I kicked so much that her hand was unsteady" (Annie John 21). Yet creativity in such symbolic elusiveness seems to peak in adolescence. While childhood instances of resistance frequently center on the body in motion, the same resistance in adolescence focuses on the body in evolution. In a phenomenon unique to this period of life, Kincaid's women evade cloth by shape-shifting, undergoing rapid, radical bodily growth. This shape-shifting, while perhaps not conventionally willful, functions as a dramatization of deep-seated, often inchoate, feelings and desires. As Annie is caught in the turbulence of the unforeseen "young-lady business," her longing for renewal is reciprocated and provided for by her developing body: "I had to go to the seamstress to be measured for new uniforms, since my body now made a mockery of the old measurements … I began to look forward to my new school. I hoped everyone there would be new" (Annie John 29).
In an even more spectacular reaction, Xuela's body instantaneously swells to match a sudden, much needed, burst of confidence: "I was young, so young, and felt my convictions powerfully; I felt strong and felt I would always be so … And at that moment the clothes I was wearing became too small" (Autobiography 65). Through startling, sometimes miraculous, rates of growth, Kincaid's protagonists flaunt the inherent threat to stability that characterizes any growth—the type of maturity that Diane Simmons calls "a kind of crime against the social order" (Ja-maica 102). In essence, their straining, gaping clothing affirms and concretizes a Kristevan inevitability, "a symbolic code which cannot ‘hold’ its (speaking) subjects" ("System" 30).
The intensely physical nature of these adolescent transformations suggests that the most socially objectionable aspect of maturity for the societies Kincaid portrays concerns not emotional or mental capacities as much as simple sexual viability. While generalized body development merely stretches and misshapes clothing, conventional benchmarks of female sexuality—first menstruation and first intercourse, respectively—are marked out indelibly, quite literally, in blood. With the stakes so high, even the most rudimentary of sexual encounters becomes invested with a certain desperate ferocity, leaving stains to be claimed as badges of honor or of shame:
A boy I knew very vaguely … got up, walked over to me, and pressed his lips against mine, hard, so hard it caused me to feel pain, as if he wanted to leave an imprint … But after he pulled his head away I did the same thing to him, only now I placed my tongue inside his mouth. The whole thing was more than he bargained for, and he had to carry his schoolbag in such a way as to hide the mess in the front of his trousers.
Lucy's experience with the boy in the library typifies a version of sexuality not at all uncommon in Kincaid's works: sex as calculated tactical maneuver. Surprised but only momentarily disarmed, Lucy instantly (and perhaps not incorrectly) interprets the boy's advances as an inexpert, impulsive grasp for power, seeking not so much to derive pleasure as to inflict pain. Mingling offense with defense, Lucy returns and intensifies his gesture while at the same time detaching herself from its urgency—merely "placing" her tongue in his mouth, in a spirit of cool, scientific inquiry. The most remarkable aspect of this interchange, however, is the tacit understanding that Lucy and the boy share concerning the conditions of the contest. The distinction between winner and loser seems to hinge on a physical marking, a sort of sexual branding. Lucy claims her victory only after the boy, having failed to "imprint" himself on her body, finds his clothing successfully imprinted.
Interestingly, as both Lucy and Xuela become more mature and experienced, they often choose to transgress societal proscriptions in a manner which actually mimics a kind of compliance. The more absurdly complex the subterfuge necessary to disguise a particular sexual act, the more exciting and appealing that particular act becomes. In one of the most erotically charged episodes in Lucy, a teenage girl named Myrna enters into an unusual liaison with a middle-aged fisherman:
[Myrna] said that she used to meet Thomas (she did not call him ‘Mr’ now) under a breadfruit tree that was … near the entrance to the back of the alley that was at the back of her house, and she would stand in the dark, fully clothed but without her panties, and he would put his middle finger up inside her.
For Lucy, Myrna's experience becomes the epitome of eroticism; awestruck and jealous, she wonders and fantasizes about it, associating the incident with later moments of desire. Although Lucy herself does not explicitly identify what she finds so appealing about the story, instead dwelling vaguely on its secrecy and its strange deficiencies ("She had made no mention of kiss on the hair, fierce tongue in the ear or mouth … hands caressing breasts" 108), the allure of the situation can be attributed to its deconstruction of clothing as a signifier of respectability. By Myrna's design, the socially demanded conditions that would seem to preclude sexual contact, the necessity of remaining more or less fully dressed, are not openly defied or disregarded. Instead, they are modified so that they actually enhance the pleasure they were intended to prevent.
A strikingly similar episode occurs in Autobiography between Xuela and Roland the stevedore, with whom she has a brief but uncharacteristically passionate relationship:
I was wearing a dress made from another piece of cloth he had given me, another piece of cloth taken from the bowels of a ship without permission, and there was a false pocket in the skirt, a pocket that did not have a bottom, and Roland placed his hand inside the pocket, reaching all the way down to touch inside me.
Although the dress in question has been fashioned from a bolt of "Irish linen" (172)—the same sort of imported cloth so often associated with colonization and oppression in Kincaid's novels—the fact that the dress was stolen complicates this superficially straight-forward relationship. The addition of the false pocket does not observably change the dress, but allows for alternative uses; the dress can repel or enable intimacy equally well, depending on whether Xuela wishes to reveal its secret. Incorporated into the scene on the public jetty, the dress serves as both a boundary and a blurring of boundaries—between Roland and Xuela, between the risqué and the illegal, between a pocket of cloth and a pocket of the body.
The ingenious construction of this dress and the shifting and merging of meanings it allows demonstrates Xuela's growing sense of confidence. Now well be- yond adolescence, Xuela feels secure enough to experiment with modes of resistance that are not merely functional, but also novel or aesthetically pleasing. While feelings of joy and power are still associated with the body's evasion of clothing and confinement, the means of evasion are engaging in their inventiveness and artistry: "When he [Roland] saw me looking … I started to perspire because I felt hot … because I felt happy … and the water seeped through my dress … revealing, as plain as a new print, my nipples" (Autobiography 165-66).
But if these evasions are infused with a sense of play, they are also infused with a strong sense of risk. The protagonists of Kincaid's novels openly display antipathy towards the power of cloth as well as a deep alliance with the powers of the body. It is therefore indeed significant that the texts as a whole reveal the dangers of total immersion in either of the two elemental forces. The hazards associated with affiliation with the repressive, socially constructed world of cloth remain clear throughout; by identifying too wholly with a "collection of externals" (Autobiography 159), characters risk annihilating their integral, organic—naked—selves. In many ways Xuela's father serves as the quintessential example of a person whose identity has come to depend entirely on his clothing. The pale-skinned son of an African mother and a Scottish father, Xuela's father quickly rejects his mother and her heritage to more fully exploit his father's station and celebrity. This decision, the beginning of a lifelong contempt for the indigent and powerless and a longstanding identification with white colonial authority, is described in the language of clothing: "And so … in my father there existed at once victor and vanquished, perpetrator and victim, he chose, not at all surprisingly, the mantle of the former, always the former" (Autobiography 192).
As Xuela's father progresses through his career as a policeman, garnering the stripes and patches which mark advancements in power and prestige (Autobiography 100-1), he undergoes the human equivalent of a scrambled metamorphosis, slowly becoming not an adult butterfly, but a sort of adult cocoon. At first the transformation remains indistinct and limited. As Xuela tries to reflect on her father's inner being, her attention begins to be deflected to his clothing, the cut and color of his suits, the design of his jailer's uniform. As time passes, the particulars of her father's personality and the particulars of his dress become so intertwined that they virtually merge: "My father had invented himself … [his personality] was like a suit of clothes … and eventually he wore it so long it was impossible to remove" (54). Eventually, in the final stages of what Xuela sees as an irreversible process, nearly obsessive dedication to clothing seems to corrupt not only the innermost reaches of her father's psychology, but the outermost structures of his body:
And even now, as he stood over me, he did not wear the clothes of a father: he wore his jailer's uniform, he was in his policeman's clothes. And these clothes, these policeman's clothes, came to define him; it was as if eventually they grew onto his body, another skin, because long after he ceased to wear them, when it was no longer necessary for him to wear them, he always looked as if he were still in his policeman's clothes. His other clothes were real clothes; his policeman's clothes had become his skin.
Like Annie John's vision of finding her own body hanging in a shop window "among bolts of cloth, among Sunday hats and shoes … [and] men's and women's undergarments" (Annie John 94), Xuela's account of her father's condition depicts a scenario in which the resistant forces of the body are wholly disarmed and the differences between the body and cloth effectively erased. With his body invaded, colonized, and made (into a) uniform, with his skin displaced and replaced with "another skin," an anti-skin, a skin made of cloth, Xuela's father is nothing but a stuffed shirt, his clothing the center and whole of him, his totality and definition.
And yet, the consequences of Xuela's father's utter devotion to the symbolic world of cloth are not significantly harsher than—or even very different from—those offered as the possible consequences of utter devotion to the semiotic resistances of the body. When Lucy escapes a party of New York socialites by following a young man named Hugh outside to the bushes, a scene of spontaneous pleasure "beyond anything [she] had known so far" (Lucy 66) just as suddenly dissolves into lingering "confusion and dread" (67). In refusing to allow her bodily drives to be externally regulated in any way, in impulsively disregarding, among other things, Mariah's perennial warnings about contraception, Lucy must face the prospects of a different, but equally drastic form of bodily colonization: an unwanted pregnancy.
An even more tragic fate awaits a young schoolboy in Autobiography when he too allows overwhelming desire to completely override his rational judgment. While crossing a swollen river on their way to school, Xuela and a group of other children, stripped naked and carrying their uniforms on their heads, suddenly encounter a woman submerged near the mouth of the river:
One day when the river was very high and we were crossing naked, we saw a woman in the part of the river where the mouth met the sea. It was deep there and we could not tell if she was sitting or standing, but we knew she was naked. She was a beautiful woman, more beautiful than any woman we had ever seen, beautiful in a way that made sense to us.
Seduced by the inexplicably resonant beauty of this woman, tempted by the "tantalizing" (36) fruits which mystically surround her, and driven by her "mesmerizing" (35), yet nonsensical, song, a boy ventures after her, only to be mysteriously repelled and ultimately, destroyed:
When he seemed to get to the place where she was, she moved farther away, yet she was always in the same place; he swam towards her and the fruit, and each time he was almost near, she became farther away. He swam in this way until he began to sink from exhaustion; we could see only the top of his head, we could see only his hands; then we could see nothing at all, only a set of expanding circles where he used to be.
Enticed far out onto the unstable, almost animate waters—into the depths of a river that changes course on its own (17)—the boy is swallowed up and ruthlessly fragmented, the actuality of his body reduced to vibration, to further disruption in the already muddy waters. The woman in the river, a goddess figure in many ways analogous to the earlier Eunice, personifies the often indiscriminate disruptiveness of the revolutionary body. The boy's relentless and excessive pursuit of this woman, and his subsequent death, illustrates the very real possibility of being swept away and dismantled by a force beyond reason.
In the final tally even Xuela—her father's polar opposite, the baby against which the laundry is appraised and balanced—pays a stiff price for her radical rejection of the shrouds and veils of white colonial authority and social respectability. Years of aloof nakedness leave Xuela as mystified as to the nature of herself ("Who am I? … I refused to belong to a race, I refused to accept a nation … Am I nothing, then?" [Autobiography 226]) as her father's stripes and patches left her mystified as to his nature. Xuela's lifetime of manipulative and indulgent sexuality eliminates any possibility of true intimacy with her lovers, leaving her cut off from essential human relationships. At the end of the novel, as the youthful and desirable body she and others once worshiped shrivels and stiffens, "shrinking into itself … like fruit dying on a vine" (225), Xuela has come to be what she has made herself to be: an undefinable, unintelligible, socially isolated world unto herself.
The uncertain and ambiguous condition in which Xuela is left—in a state not pitiable—the opposite of pitiable—but not exactly admirable either; a member of the vanquished, and yet not precisely so—accords with the keystone of Kincaid's style, what Giovanna Covi calls her "continuous attempt to turn away from any definitive statement and to utter radical statements" ("Canons" 345). It also encompasses Kincaid's philosophy of characterization, in which her protagonists ultimately emerge as Kristevan "sujects en proces"—subjects who, on the one hand "submit to the law … yet who, on the other hand, [do] not entirely submit, cannot entirely submit" (Interviews 26). With this in mind, it is perhaps not so surprising as disconcerting to find that the war between body and cloth running through Kincaid's works plays out in an arena where all triumphs are ephemeral triumphs—a place, as Xuela says, like the Caribbean itself, where "wars are fought, but there are no victories, only a standoff, only an until-next-time" (Autobiography 220).
Many thanks to Jon Hauss of Rhode Island College for suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.
Covi, Giovanna. "Jamaica Kincaid and the Resistance to Canons." Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature. Ed. Carole Boyce Davies and Elain Savory Fido. Trenton: Africa World, 1990.
Dash, Michael. "In Search of the Lost Body: Redefining the Subject in Caribbean Literature." Kunapipi 11.1 (1989): 17-26.
Ferguson, Moira. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. New York: Noonday, 1983.
———. The Autobiography of My Mother. New York: Penguin, 1996.
———. "Biography of a Dress." Grand Street 11 (1992): 92-100.
———. Lucy. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
———. "The System and the Speaking Subject." The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Simmons, Diane. Jamaica Kincaid. Twayne's U.S. Authors Series. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Maria Helena Lima (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Lima, Maria Helena. "Imaginary Homelands in Jamaica Kincaid's Narratives of Development." Callaloo 25, no. 3 (2002): 857-67.
[In the essay below, Lima investigates Kincaid's remaking of the traditional bildungsroman form and speculates on the identity of her proposed audience in Lucy.]
They should never have left their home, their precious England, a place they loved so much, a place they had to leave but could never forget. And so everywhere they went they turned it into England; and everybody they met they turned English. But no place could ever really be England, and nobody who did not look exactly like them would ever be English, so you can imagine the destruction of people and land that came from that.
(A Small Place 24)
It was because I had neglected my brother when he was two years old and instead read a book that my mother gathered up all the books I owned and put them on a pile on her stone heap, sprinkling them with kerosene and then setting them alight; I cannot remember the titles of these books, I cannot remember what they were about (they would have been novels, at fifteen I read only novels), but it would not be so strange if I spent the rest of my life trying to bring those books back to my life by writing them again and again until they were perfect, unscathed by fire of any kind. For a very long time I had the perfect reader for what I would write and place in the unscathed books; the source of the books has not died, it only comes alive again and again in different forms and other segments. The perfect reader has died, but I cannot see any reason not to write for him anyway, for I can sooner get used to never hearing from him—the perfect reader—than to not being able to write for him at all.
(My Brother 196-97)
Towards the end of My Brother, Jamaica Kincaid confesses that she became "a writer out of desperation"; that the act of writing about her own life (in fictional accounts of the artist's youth) has actually saved that life. Kincaid's ongoing narrative, then, is cumulative rather than linear: when seen together her characters constitute a single bildung—that of the writer. In My Brother, readers will find the same overbearing mother, whose "love for her children when they are children is spectacular, unequaled […] in the history of a mother's love," but whose "mechanism for loving them falls apart" when her children are trying to become adults and pursue a career as a writer (17). Antigua is the "same" underdeveloped place Kincaid has spent most of her writing life up to now trying to recreate. Her last book is only different from the others on the surface, in that it does not disguise itself as fiction. Kincaid attempts to understand both her brother's life in Antigua and her (non-)place in it until the moment he begins to die of AIDS.1 In order "not to die with him," Kincaid tells her readers, "[she] would write about it" (195-96). Writing this book, obviously, is not meant to save her brother's life: she notes that her book is "about the dead for the dead" (197).
It is on the "for the dead" part of the statement that I want to focus, since, in a way, My Brother is also meant as an eulogy / epitaph for William Shawn, her editor / father-in-law, whom she claims is her "perfect reader," and who died just before her brother. With the intricacy that characterizes her style, Kincaid weaves layers of complexity as she links the loss of her brother to that of her "perfect reader" when telling the story of why she becomes a writer: in an effort to bring back to life the books her mother has burned to punish her for reading books rather than fulfilling what should have been natural to her as a woman—taking care of her baby brother.
Although Kincaid does not hide the guilt she feels for that first neglect (when her brother was a baby), it is hard to tell what the dominant feeling is in her description of the last time she sees her brother alive:
I did not kiss him goodbye when I was returning home to my family, I did not give him a goodbye hug. I said to him at the end of my visit (four days), Goodbye, and he said, So this is it, no hug no nothing? (and he said it in that way, in conventional English, not in the English that instantly reveals the humiliation of history, the humiliation of the past not remade into art).
(108, my emphasis)
It is, I believe, significant that Kincaid brings more of the Antiguan creole into My Brother than she has done in her other works. This move from Standard English to Creole speech is meant not only to underscore the class differences between Kincaid and her family of origin, but it also makes manifest, as François Lionnet writes of Michelle Cliff, "the double consciousness of the post-colonial, bilingual, and bicultural writer who lives and writes across the margins of different traditions and cultural universes" (324). What is different in Kincaid's use is the way she seems to devalue the Creole form by calling it "the English that instantly reveals the humiliation of history, the humiliation of the past not remade into art." Can readers therefore consider Kincaid's autobiographical fiction to this date—her continuing bildungsroman—an effort to remake the humiliation of the past into art? I am, of course, assuming here that Kincaid means not only the individual humiliation of growing up undervalued and with little hope, but the collective humiliation of history that she describes in A Small Place. If her ongoing bildungsroman is indeed her effort to remake the humiliation of the past into art, who is she really writing for?2
Caribbean writers "at home" and in the diaspora have used the bildungsroman form to represent their quest for personal and national identity, to explore precisely the complexities and contradictions of growing up in a region where (neo-)colonial relationships exacerbate an already oppressive patriarchal situation. In "Decolonizing Genre: Jamaica Kincaid and the Bildungsroman," I've tried to understand how Kincaid has modified the conventions of the European novel of development, to offer her own counternarrative to "progressive development" and "coherent identity." Now I want to focus primarily on Lucy to continue to explore Jamaica Kincaid's use of the bildungsroman form and also attempt to answer the question of intended audience I have just raised. The genre's traditional goal of accommodation to the existing society, of ending the novel with a character's "precise stand and assessment of himself and his place in society" (Hirsch 298) seems even less possible in the Caribbean context, where a history of foreign domination, slavery, imperialism, and neocolonialism parallels a not always evident heritage of revolt, resistance and struggle to assert cultural and intellectual freedom.3
I cannot help but continue to wonder what dangers lie in the form itself, given its central historical role in determining our notions of human identity. Since humanism's unstated goal, in both social and cultural realms, was to constitute a "center of humanity" that would function as an ideal norm and model of emulation for all peoples, what is the bildungsroman genre, recognizably one of the main carriers of humanist ideology, indeed helping to reproduce? If Marc Redfield is correct in his assessment of the reason for the indestructibility of the bildungsroman—that the content of the genre is never simply a "content," but is always also Bildung, the formation of the human as the producer of itself (380)—can the form be anything but normative? Since the bildungsroman narrates the acculturation of a self—the integration of a particular "I" into the general subjectivity of a community, and thus, finally, into the universal subjectivity of mankind—the genre can be said to repeat, as its identity or content, its own synthesis of particular instance and general form (Redfield 378). While the "choice" of the bildungsroman in a way helps to reproduce the cultural imperialism that inevitably separates the Third World intellectual from the community and culture of her birth, Kincaid's rewriting of many of the conventions that have shaped the genre also allows us to see its use in the Caribbean and in the diaspora as a form of resistance. As I have argued before, the set of available narrative conventions that allows a Western novelist to constitute her character's subjectivity does not serve as a model for the life-history of a girl growing up in a primarily female-centered world in Antigua before independence. Kincaid reconstructs the bildungsroman by transforming its narrative values. Like Annie John, Lucy does not conform to the structural model for the genre that Susan Suleiman identifies: she does not seem to evolve from ignorance (of self) into knowledge (of self). She does not move from passivity to action (Suleiman 65). Lucy continues to explore the intersections of colonialism, racism, sexism, and heterosexism in contexts that almost prevent access to the "selfhood" that traditional renderings of the genre have claimed possible. We can almost say Lucy and Annie John are the same character—both versions of the developing artist herself.
Leaving home at age 19 to become an au-pair for a wealthy New York city family is central to the character's development as a writer. Although she is fulfilling Annie's dream of "living apart from [her] family in a place where no one knew much about [her]; almost no one knew [her] name, and [she] was free more or less to come and go as [she] pleased," the feeling of "bliss, the feeling of happiness, the feeling of longing fulfilled that [she] had thought would come with this situation was nowhere to be found inside [her]" (158). Exile for Annie John/Lucy, however, is more than the "act of planned separation from her mother" (Mahlis 170). In New York, Lucy finds herself in an "expanding world" (55) that seems to require representation. Using photography to reshape her reality, she "would try to make a print that made more beautiful the thing [she] had seen, that would reveal to [her] some of the things [she] had not seen" (160). While Lucy does not feel she succeeds, Kincaid's readers are able to notice the artist-in-formation in the way she defamiliarizes the ordinary experiences of life, making the strange familiar, and the familiar, strange. Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she feels connected to other artists, a sign that although she does not realize at that point that she is indeed an artist, she "will be with the people who stand apart" (98). While Lucy "identifies with the yearnings of [Gauguin]" (95), the situation surrounding their exile differs greatly: she first has to wear the mantle of a servant.
Exile has been the first significant feature of anglophone Caribbean writing, according to Kamau Brathwaite, as he identifies the need—or the imagined need—to emigrate to metropolitan centers in order to exist as writers.4 At the same time, migration creates the desire for home, which in turn, as Carole Boyce Davies explains, produces the rewriting of home: "home as a contradictory, contested space," and home as a longing for that single origin (113). For in Kincaid's narrative the postcolonial protagonist is trapped within a futile but continuous process of gesturing towards the "source" of identity, towards the grounds of cultural origins, towards conflicting images of home. While the traditional bildungsroman requires a constructed harmony between external and internal factors to provide, according to Franco Moretti, "a homeland to the individual" (116), Kincaid's novel of development exposes the impossibility of such a fictional harmony. While in most 19th-century novels the youthful protagonist leaves home in quest of selfhood only to discover that the "truth" lies in what he has left behind and so returns home (Peterson 23), for Kincaid's protagonist there is no possibility of return. Lucy is immediately disappointed with the "reality" of places in the developed north that exist primarily in her imagination.
In Lucy, the Americas are also to be understood as places of many continuous displacements: of the original pre-Columbian inhabitants, the Arawaks, Caribs and Amerindians, permanently displaced from their homelands and decimated; of the displacements of slavery, colonization and conquest. Lucy characterizes the maid's room she occupies in the New York apartment as "a box in which cargo traveling a long way should be shipped. But I was not cargo. I was only an unhappy young woman living in a maid's room" (7). The New World also stands for the endless ways in which Caribbean peoples have been destined to "migrate," of the Antillean as the prototype of the modern or postmodern New World nomad, as Stuart Hall writes, continually moving between center and periphery ("Cultural" 234).5 The nomadism that is enforced through hostile labor conditions in the Caribbean, as Supriya Nair argues, makes "migration, unfinished identities, and lack of regular employment far less causes for celebration than they seem from [Paul] Gilroy's [Black Atlantic] vantage point" (71).
Kincaid continues her subtle critique of center-periphery relations in the character of Mariah, a typical North American liberal, who spends her time with organizations trying to save the earth, failing to make any "connection between their comforts and the decline of the world that lay before them" (72). Lucy feels sure that Mariah's kindness is the result of her "comfortable circumstances." And her kindness is also the reason why Lucy cannot point out to her that
if all the things she wanted to save in the world were saved, she might find herself in reduced circumstances; I couldn't bring myself to ask her to examine Lewis's daily conversations with his stockbroker, to see if they bore any relation to the things she saw passing away forever before her eyes.
One of Lucy's many unanswered questions is how a person gets to be that way, the way of Mariah, "the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also" (41). In an interview with Moira Ferguson, however, Kincaid seems to recognize in herself a person who "contributes to pretty horrendous things" (183). For, like her character Mariah, Kincaid lives "in a nice house in a country that does pretty horrendous things" (183). The longer Kincaid feels like an American, the harder it will become for her to continue to "express the voice of the decolonised subject […] journeying back and forth between empires and colonies of the past and the present," as Giovanna Covi posits, "always refusing to adopt the language of either the vanquished or the victors" (60). It will be more difficult for her protagonist (and for Kincaid) not to acknowledge both in herself and do away with the binary altogether—at least in her writing.6
While Kincaid claims that if she had "not become a writer, [she] would have been insane" (Ferguson 169), she places her writing directly in the British tradition, naming Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare as sole influences: she had "never read a West Indian writer when [she] started to write" (Ferguson 169). Such youthful reading experiences take on crucial importance in the lives of the protagonists of the novels of development Kincaid writes, since their reactions and desires are to a large extent guided by the literature they read.7 Mariah is unable to understand Lucy's rage at daffodils: where Mariah sees beautiful flowers, Lucy can only see sorrow and bitterness because she has had to memorize "a long poem about some flowers [she] would not see in real life until [she] was nineteen" (30). As early as age fourteen, Lucy has refused to sing "Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never, never shall be slaves" in choir practice; that she was "not a Briton and that until not too long ago [she] would have been a slave" (134-35). While in the traditional bildungsroman the process of growth for the individual occurs largely through the medium of literature, as both Peterson and Kontje emphasize, since the heroes of the period are all avid readers, in post-colonial novels of development reading almost prevents development. Lucy does not realize how changing her name would have meant compliance rather than rebellion. After contemplating Emily, Charlotte, or Jane, among "the names of the authoresses whose books [she] loved" (149) for her new name, Lucy almost settles on Enid, after Enid Blyton, an extremely popular British writer of children's literature, whom Bob Dixon ex- poses as extremely racist in the characters she creates. Lucy keeps her given name, fortunately, once she knows its origin:
The stories of the fallen were well known to me, but I had not known that my own situation could even distantly be related to them. Lucy, a girl's name for Lucifer. That my mother would have found me devil-like did not surprise me, for I often thought of her as god-like, and are not the children of gods devils?
To compensate for the homesickness she initially feels, Lucy writes home using "flourishing words and phrases" to "say how lovely everything was," "as if [she] were living life in a greeting card" (10, my emphasis). Whereas before, when reading about homesickeness in books, Lucy would feel impatient with the character who would "leave a not very nice situation and go somewhere else, somewhere a lot better, and then long to go back where it was not very nice," now she understands the feeling and "[longs] to be back in the place that [she comes] from" (6, my emphases). Kincaid makes clear the confusing doubleness of the colonized self who oscillates between what she sees and the images she has been fed:
In a day-dream I used to have, all these places were points of happiness to me; all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul, for I would imagine myself entering and leaving them, and just that—entering and leaving over and over again—would see me through a bad feeling I did not have a name for. I only knew it felt a little like sadness but heavier than that. Now that I saw these places, they looked ordinary, dirty, worn down by so many people entering and leaving them in real life, and it occurred to me that I could not be the only person in the world for whom they were a fixture of fantasy. It was not my first bout with the disappointment of reality and it would not be my last.
Despite being homesick, Lucy refuses to respond to her mother's letters, but she cannot stop recalling and recreating her throughout the novel: a "face that was godlike, for it seemed to know its own origins, to know all the things of which it was made" (94, my emphasis). Lucy and Annie John share the overwhelming longing for the absent mother/island, and the futile attempts at escaping that influence:
for I had spent so much time saying I did not want to be like my mother that I missed the whole story: I was not like my mother—I was my mother. […] I knew that if I read only one [of the nineteen unopened letters], I would die from longing for her.
While the patterns of the female European novel of development have been largely circular—women in fiction remain at home—(Ferguson, M. A. 228), Annie John/Lucy chooses not to replicate the life of her mother and instead leaves Antigua. In doing so, ironically, they recreate the mother's own journey away from Pa Chess and the island of Dominica, thus reinforcing a familial pattern of rupture. The contradictions in mastering the educational system, in apparently rejecting the mother and in leaving for the mother country (or neocolonial equivalent) make them both seem completely indoctrinated in western values and beliefs. But by the end of the novel, we know what Lucy has rejected, but not what she will adhere to. While the entire process of the bildungsroman aims towards that moment when the individual applies the knowledge acquired, Lucy seems not to have learned anything. When we leave Lucy at age 20, she knows as little about herself as she starts out with; the only certainty she has is of not belonging:
Everything I could see looked unreal to me; everything I could see made me feel I would never be part of it, never penetrate to the inside, never be taken in.
Growing up in a society of extreme diversity and grave fragmentation of both European and African cultures does not allow for any coherent sense of self. In none of these worlds can Lucy / Annie John posit herself as a subject: she will not be British in the way that the educational system has tried to make her, and she refuses be the docile woman her mother expects her to become:
Whatever my future held, nursing would not be a part of it. I had to wonder what made anyone think a nurse could be made of me. I was not good at taking orders from anyone, not good at waiting on other people. Why did someone not think that I would make a good doctor or a good magistrate or a good someone who runs things?
Lucy wants to believe that the girl her parents expected her to be had gone out of existence in the one year away from home; that since, as she writes home, "life as a slut was quite enjoyable [, she] would not come home ever" (30). Her mother's reply is similar to the one Annie John hears before leaving Antigua: "that she would always love me, she would always be my mother, my home would never be anywhere but with her" (128). Lucy seems permanently displaced, both here [New York] and there [Antigua], and neither here nor there at one and the same time.
The solution for Lucy's longing for home [mother and island] is, as in Annie John and other Caribbean novels of development, to become a writer. In both novels, the female writing subject comes into existence to try to recover that something—the lost mother / stolen land—as a reaction to the homelessness imposed both by patriarchy and colonization.8 When Lucy / Kincaid invents herself as an artist, her art becomes her homeland. While the search for identity always involves a search for origins, according to Stuart Hall, it is impossible to locate in the Caribbean a single origin for its peoples:
Questions of Caribbean culture and identity are not separate from the problem of political mobilization, economic and cultural development. […] Questions of identity are always questions about representation. They are questions about the invention, not simply the discovery of tradition. They are always exercises in selective memory.
At issue, then, is the relationship between the experience of cultural displacement and the construction of cultural identity. Reading Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room," the poem Kincaid claims showed her how to write (Krelkamp 168), offers yet another clue to the gradual process of education of the artist.9 The occasion of Bishop's poem seems simple enough: a child in a waiting room who, reading the National Geographic of February 1918, realizes she does not have to be "one of them." The speaker's questioning follows:
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
And those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
Or made us all just one?
How—I didn't know any
word for it—how ‘unlikely’ …
How had I come to be here,
like them, […]
Of course the context of Bishop's poem seems on the surface very different, but the question it raises is also that of not-belonging, of refusing to conform to someone else's expectations or family script. The relationship between the experience of cultural displacement and the construction of identity, according to Angelika Bammer, is marked by the tension of the historically vital double move between marking and recording absence and loss and inscribing presence (xiv).
We could characterize Kincaid's ongoing bildungsroman as marked by such tension between recording absence and loss and inscribing presence. As the prototypical narrative of individual development in society, the bildungsroman typically recounts the youth of a sensitive protagonist who is attempting to understand the nature of the world and her place in it. The conventional bildungsroman, as Gregory Castle writes, duplicates in literary form a cohesive set of cultural codes whose primary function is to govern social integration in such a way that young men and women fit into society (22). For this integration to take place, more importantly, the novel must convey a social order that appears legitimate. The genre's primary function of legitimation in narrative of the process of socialization itself requires that the protagonist know her limits and accept her place in the order of things (Castle 22). Kincaid's readers by now agree that such a model does not fit her protagonist's reality and needs, for not only does her character have to reject the social order and carve a space for herself, but she still has all that justified anger to overcome / express. As I expect my first epigraph to convey, and as Kincaid writes in My Brother, "the source of the books has not died, it only comes alive again and again in different forms and other segments" (198). Not one of Kincaid's readers would deny that the impact of her narrative voice has only grown with each work. Whereas before Antigua was only a place, paradoxically, both to mourn and decathex, the place she claims "forms the foundation of the person" she is ("In History," 166), now it seems to me Kincaid's presence in the island may become more and more necessary. Will this presence change her narrative stance? At the same time, embracing her American citizenship may become more difficult the longer this indiscriminate war against terrorism lasts. I also wonder what difference another "perfect reader" would make.
1. Kincaid's brother, Devon Drew, was three years old when she left Antigua. He died of AIDS on January 19, 1996, at the age of 33.
2. I am not suggesting here that the notion of an intended audience, an implied reader, must coincide with Kincaid's "perfect reader." Kincaid's statement only complicates the question since she does not seem to be writing for the Caribbean—and I am not implying that she should.
3. It is important here to emphasize that this teleology, ending the novel with a character's "precise stand and assessment of himself and his place in society," remains unfulfilled by most texts; it is, according to John Smith, an "ideological mask of the 19th century which is constantly torn off by the novels themselves and should be further challenged in critical readings" (220). The conservative discourse on the bildungsroman that has been reproduced by genre critics has indeed little to do with the reality of most of the 19th-century texts, which are not as confident in the legitimacy of the society they depict, as Smith emphasizes, or anxious to suggest ways in which both hero and reader can find a productive place within that world.
4. Brathwaite explains how Caribbean literature begins with Claude McKay's exile (see Home to Harlem, New York, 1928) and ends its first phase with George Lamming (The Pleasure of Exile, London, 1960) (42).
5. The Caribbean has unfortunately become a model for transnationalism in contemporary critical discourse not only because the region shares a legacy of ethnic, racial, and linguistic diversity that distinguishes it from anywhere else in the world, but for the disapora. For no other part of the world has experienced population movements of the magnitude that the Caribbean has witnessed since the abolition of slavery, as George Gmelch notes (qtd. in Olwig 27). Glamorizing transnationalism somehow normalizes what most of the time is forced displacement; and by forced displacement I mean not only migration due to real economic need. There is definitely a danger in romanticizing "deterritorialization" and "homelessness" to the extreme of redefining "home" as "rooted mobility," as Karen Olwig does.
6. As Kincaid attempts to answer the question, ‘What is America to me,’ in "The White Issue" of the journal Transition, her pronouns shift from "they" to "us," in a passage that has acquired even more significance at this historical moment:
They can do whatever they want. The fact is, there isn't anything we can do today that they could not do then, and we consider ourselves free people. We consider ourselves such an example of free people-ness that we kill other people in the world if we find they can't agree to our present idea of free people-ness. So who needs this document, which proclaims, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?’
("The Little Revenge from the Periphery," 70-71).
7. Todd Kontje indeed suggests that the bildungsroman is the genre that examines how reading transforms reality (144). The early bildungsromane themselves, he argues, are less the realistic depictions of individuals than metafictional reflections on the changing function of reading and the institution of literature at a time when secular fiction, written primarily for the middle class, first develops. In a country [Germany] that experienced neither the gradual political reforms of England nor the revolution of France, Kontje argues, literature assumed a crucial role in the development of the middle class.
8. Kincaid suggests a parallel between the intrusion that the father and three brothers bring to the mother/daughter symbiotic space, and the loss of place/identity/self brought about by colonization.
9. I'm grateful to Michael P. Funk for bringing the Bishop poem to our class for his presentation on Kincaid.
Bammer, Angelika, ed. Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. The History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry. London: New Beacon, 1984.
Castle, Gregory. "The Book of Youth: Reading Joyce's Bildungsroman." Genre 22.1 (Spring 1989): 21-40.
Covi, Giovanna. "Jamaica Kincaid's Prismatic Self and the Decolonisation of Language and Thought." Framing the Word: Gender and Genre in Caribbean's Women Writing. Ed. Joan Anim-Addo. London: Whiting & Birch Ltd., 1996. 37-67.
Davies, Carole Boyce. Black Women, Writing and Identity. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Dixon, Bob. Catching Them Young: Sex, Race, and Class in Children's Fiction. London: Pluto, 1977.
Ferguson, Mary Anne. "The Female Novel of Development and the Myth of Psyche." The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Ed. Elizabeth Abel et al. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1983. 228-43.
Ferguson, Moira. "A Lot of Memory: An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid." The Kenyon Review 161 (1994): 163-88.
Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. 222-37.
———. "Negotiating Caribbean Identities." New Left Review 209 (January/February 1995): 3-14
Hirsch, Marianne. "The Novel of Formation as Genre: Between Great Expectations and Lost Illusions." Genre 12 (1979): 293-311.
Krelkamp, Ivan. "Jamaica Kincaid." Writing for Your Life #3. Pushcart, NY: W. W. Norton, 1997. 166-70.
Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985.
———. "In History" (orig. in Callaloo). The Best American Essays, 1999. Ed. Cynthia Ozick. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998. 163-72.
———. "The Little Revenge from the Periphery." Transition: An International Review 73 (Spring 1997): 68-73.
———. Lucy. New York: Plume, 1990.
———. My Brother. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
———. A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988.
Kontje, Todd. "The German Bildungsroman as Metafiction." Michigan Germanic Studies 13.2 (1987): 140-55.
Lima, Maria Helena. "Decolonizing Genre: Jamaica Kincaid and the Bildungsroman." Genre 26.4 (Winter 1993): 431-59.
Lionnet, Françoise. "Of Mangoes and Maroons: Language, History, and the Multicultural Subject of Michelle Cliff's Abeng." De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. Ed. Sidonie Smith & Julia Watson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. 321-45.
Mahlis, Kristen. "Gender and Exile: Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy." Modern Fiction Studies 44 (Spring 1998): 164-82.
Nair, Supriya. "Expressive Countercultures and Postmodern Utopia: A Caribbean Context." Research in African Literatures 27.4 (Winter 1996): 71-87.
Moretti, Franco. "The Comfort of Civilization." Representations 12 (Fall 1985): 115-39.
Olwig, Karen Fog. "Global Relations, Local Identities: Family Land as a Cultural Site in the West Indies." General Seminar Paper, Institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power & History Johns Hopkins University (December 6, 1994).
Peterson, Carla L. The Determined Reader: Gender and Culture in the Novel from Napoleon to Victoria. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
Redfield, Marc. "Ghostly Bildung: Gender, Genre, Aesthetic Ideology, and Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre." Genre 26.4 (Winter 1993): 377-407.
Smith, John H. "Sexual Difference, Bildung, and the Bildungsroman." Michigan Germanic Studies 13.2 (Fall 1987): 206-25.
Suleiman, Susan Rubin. Authoritarian Fictions: The Ideological Novel as a Literary Genre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
Linda Lang-Peralta (essay date 2006)
SOURCE: Lang-Peralta, Linda. "‘Smiling with My Mouth Turned Down’: Ambivalence in Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy and My Garden (Book)." In Jamaica Kincaid and Caribbean Double Crossings, edited by Linda Lang-Peralta, pp. 33-44. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2006.
[In the following excerpt, Lang-Peralta examines the connection between the ambivalence expressed in both Lucy and My Garden (Book) and the history and politics of Antigua.]
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This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Justin D. Edwards (essay date 2007)
SOURCE: Edwards, Justin D. "Understanding Jamaica Kincaid." In Understanding Jamaica Kincaid, pp. 1-14. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.
[In the following essay, Edwards provides a biographical summary of Kincaid's life and an overview of her literary career.]
Jamaica Kincaid achieved fame as a writer of fiction in 1983 when her first book, a collection of short stories titled At the Bottom of the River, was published to wide critical acclaim. That collection launched her career as a force in contemporary American literature: it won the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award and the American Academy and Institute of Letters Prize. More honors followed for her second book, a novel titled Annie John (1985), which was a finalist for the international Ritz Paris Hemingway Award and which was widely and favorably reviewed by critics, who generally described the novel as poetic, emotional, and direct.1 In 1989 she was the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and in 1991 she received honorary degrees from Williams College and Long Island University. With the publication of The Autobiography of My Mother in 1997, Kincaid won the Lannan Literary Award. This established her place as an important contemporary writer and paved the way for her election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004. Kincaid had been writing pieces for the New Yorker long before the publication of her first book. As early as 1974, she wrote an article called "West Indian Weekend," which was the first of eighty-five unsigned "Talk of the Town" pieces to be written for the New Yorker over a period of ten years. In 1976 she was appointed as a staff writer for the New Yorker, where her gardening column appeared regularly until 1996. In all of her early writings, Kincaid developed a distinctive prose style, combining complex poetic abstractions with fluid and direct language.
The daughter of Annie Richardson and Frederick Potter, Jamaica Kincaid was born in St. John's, Antigua, on May 25, 1949. Soon after her birth her parents gave her the name Elaine Potter Richardson, but she decided to change her name legally to Jamaica Kincaid in 1973. Changing her name was, as Kincaid says, a liberation that gave her the freedom to write whatever she wanted. She also states that she chose this name because it reflected her complex identity as a Caribbean woman who was marked by a British colonial education system. The name of the island of Jamaica is, after all, an English corruption of what Columbus called "Xaymaca," and "Kincaid" is a common surname throughout the English-speaking world. The combination of the two names, then, provided her a new identity for her new life in the United States. But it was also a name that connected her to her roots in the Caribbean and her colonial past. This process of renaming is a theme that appears throughout Kincaid's works, for renaming is often used as a metaphor for conquest and colonial domination.
Kincaid's mother, Annie Drew, was born in Dominica, and she moved to Antigua when she was a young woman. Annie appears in many of Kincaid's fiction and nonfiction writings; she is often referred to as a loving, and yet stifling, maternal figure, as well as a dedicated homemaker, gardener, and a political activist. Kincaid's biological father was an Antiguan taxi driver who abandoned his wife and children. He is the subject of the novel Mr. Potter (2002), wherein Kincaid describes the father she did not know. When Kincaid was very young, her mother was remarried to a man named David Drew. Her biological father did not play a significant role in her childhood, while her stepfather, a cabinetmaker and carpenter, was the man she called her father.
At the age of three, Kincaid was taught to read by her mother, and she was also enrolled in the Moravian School. While a child, she also attended the Antiguan Girls School and the Princess Margaret School before being apprenticed to a seamstress. In 1958, when Kincaid was nine, her mother gave birth to Joseph Drew, the first of Kincaid's three brothers. After the birth of Joseph, Kincaid's mother shifted her attention away from her daughter, focusing her efforts on the raising of her male child. It was around this time that Kincaid also began to be critical of her native island. Both of these events gave rise to two of the central themes in her fiction: the inequality of gender relations and the aftermath of colonization. At an early age, Kincaid recognized that daughters were treated very differently from sons and that Antigua had been severely scarred by its history of British imperial rule. She thus began to criticize gender hierarchies, as well as those colonized subjects who had internalized the views and ideologies of the colonial subjects who had internalized the views and ideologies of the colonial power. As a result, she began to question her education: an education that was tainted by gender divisions and narratives passed down by the British—narratives that ignored the Antiguan history of slavery and subjugation. Her critical mind and analytical eye meant that she became identified as a troublemaker by her teachers.2
During interviews Kincaid often speaks of her youth as marked by hardships and losses, but she also describes moments of peace and harmony in a place that sometimes offered her a sense of tranquility and spiritual fulfilment. At the same time, though, what shines through in most of her writing is a depiction of the small attitudes and oppressive atmospheres that encompassed her childhood on Antigua. Indeed the sunshine, warmth, and picturesque surroundings found in her depictions of the island are usually offset by the images of imprisonment and suffocation in this "small place." A frequent theme of Kincaid's fiction is the way that this ten-by-twelve-mile island traps its citizens and discourages them from reflecting upon their experiences, analyzing their situations, or controlling their destinies. Antigua is, Kincaid states, a kind of prison.
In 1965, shortly following her sixteenth birthday, Kincaid left Antigua for the United States. Her first job in her adopted country was as an au pair in Scarsdale, New York. In her article, "Jamaica Kincaid's New York," she describes her first American employers as sympathetic and generous people who, while somewhat patronizing, gave her the freedom to explore the exciting urban world of New York City: "That was the first thing I wanted to do," Kincaid writes about her arrival in Scarsdale, "take the train to New York."3 In fact, her attraction to the city would remain a significant factor throughout her youth, inspiring her to leave her job in Scarsdale for a position as an au pair with a wealthy family on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. At this time she also found it important to continue her education, and soon after immigrating she began to take classes at Westchester Community College in White Plains, New York, and then later at Franconia College in Franconia, New Hampshire. Her interest in the visual arts also led her to take photography classes at the New School for Social Research, but ultimately she was drawn into the publishing world when she found a job with Art Direction magazine.
She was fired from Art Direction for writing a controversial article on black American advertising.4 The political commitment and confrontational style that marks her later writing is shown in this early piece. Kincaid has never shied away from expressing her views even if those views will make others angry and result in opposition or protest. She then did a series of successful articles for Ingenue magazine in which she interviewed celebrities and asked them what they were like between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. Kincaid refers to these articles as the texts that began her writing career.
After choosing a new career in a new country, she also chose a new name. In 1973, at the age of twenty-four, Elaine Potter Richardson became Jamaica Kincaid. She has accounted for this change in three ways. First, it established a distance between her and her family, giving her the anonymity needed to adopt intensely personal material for her writing (such as the recurring theme of the love-hate relationship between mother and daughter). Second, her chosen name identified her with a specific region of the Americas—a region marked by exploitation and the violent history of slavery (another important theme in her writing). Third, it marked a transformation from an old sense of self to a new identity (a theme that is explored in all of her novels). Just as Frederick Douglass recognized the importance of taking on a new name at the end of his slave narrative, Kincaid writes that, for her, the process of being named by someone else was a mark of possession and ownership. Conversely, the naming of oneself is a powerful assertion of agency, freedom, and liberation.5
In September 1974 the New Yorker published Kincaid's first "Talk of the Town" article. This piece was in fact a series of notes that William Shawn—then the editor of the magazine—decided to print without telling Kincaid. The article is a description of the annual Caribbean carnival held in Brooklyn, but the piece takes a typically autobiographical turn, for Kincaid uses the event to write about her relationship to her mother. These kinds of autobiographical references are also present in some of her other "Talk of the Town" articles: at times she refers to her education in Antigua, at other times she refers to her father, and sometimes she even comments on her life in Manhattan. Not all of these pieces draw on personal experiences, but many of them include autobiographical content that Kincaid also explores in her major novels.
Kincaid's first work of fiction, a short story titled "Girl," appeared in the New Yorker in 1977. Occupying only one page, this single-sentence story is told in a voice that is quite distinct from her earlier journalistic pieces. The voice of "Girl" delves into many layers of discourse, and the story explores the way in which a mother's language can affect the psychological state of her daughter. In fact, the oppressive voice of the mother lies behind the words that seem to be resonating in the head of the child. The story is not composed using the conventions of narrative development or sequential coherence. Instead the reader is presented with a long detailed list of commands and rules that speaks to the internalization of discourse in the mother-daughter dynamic as well as the regulation of specific gender codes of conduct. The voice of the mother holds a commanding presence in the story, suggesting that one is never truly free of the maternal voice and the instructions that pass from mother to daughter.
"Girl" also appeared as the lead story in Kincaid's first book, At the Bottom of the River (1983). Some critics were puzzled by the surreal and fragmentary style of this book, but all of the reviews identified Kincaid as offering a unique and refreshing voice. In a review in the Washington Post, for instance, Doris Grumbach focused on the originality of Kincaid's voice: "Hers is a voice you have never heard before," Grumbach writes, "exhilarating to read and impossible to forget."6 Susan Sontag went as far as to say that some of the stories were "thrilling," "sumptuous," and "irresistible," and they constituted some of the best writing in years "by a writer from this continent."7 And Derek Walcott said that he read the book with "that soft succession of ‘yeses’ that we silently give to what Hemingway called ‘the true sentence.’"8
Kincaid's connection with the New Yorker continued to be beneficial for her writing career. After the success of her early journalism and fiction, the magazine published Annie John as a series of short stories before its publication in book form in 1985. When Annie John appeared in bookstores, it received rave reviews in North America and the United Kingdom. Writing in the Boston Herald, Paula Bonnell, for instance, commented on the impressive economy of the prose, stating that "rarely has so much been done in so few pages."9 Susan Kenney, writing in the New York Times Book Review, thought the story so "touching and familiar it could be happening in Anchorage, so inevitable it could be happening to any of us, any time, any place. And that's exactly the book's strength, its wisdom, its truth."10 The review in the Washington Post was representative of the novel's reception, for it focused on Kincaid's commingling of realism and poetic abstraction. The reviewer called the novel "movingly real" with "poetry that is grounded in detail, in the lovingly rendered life of its adolescent heroine."11
Kincaid's burgeoning literary success in the 1980s was not impeded by the growth of her family. In 1979 she had married the composer Allen Shawn, who was the son of William Shawn, the New Yorker editor. By the time Annie John was published, she had given birth to a daughter, Annie, and in 1988 the couple had a son, Harold. Kincaid has spoken about the convergence of her writing and her family life. "I am essentially a person very interested in domestic life," she told Donna Perry in a interview, "and very interested in things that we think of, either in a good or a bad way, as women's things…. In fact, I think I reduce everything to the domestic situation…. It's not anything deliberate or a statement or anything, that's just how I understand things."12
Understanding things is an important theme in the book that followed Annie John. A Small Place (1988) is a long essay that offers a candid and powerful account of the island of Kincaid's youth. It is an expansive work that touches on everything from the history of colonization to the contemporary American tourist industry that is essential to the island's economy. Kincaid's third book was not as well received as her first two. Robert Gottlieb, the editor of the New Yorker who replaced Shawn, refused to publish it because he felt that the essay expressed too much bitterness and anger. This same criticism was expressed by several reviewers. A writer for the New York Times, for instance, said that the book was "distorted by [Kincaid's] anger."13 And a reviewer for New Statesman and Society wrote that Kincaid "loses control of her material, and inexplicably descends into a snivelling attack on the sins of the nasty—and long departed—colonial power."14 On the other hand, a number of reviews were extremely positive. Caryl Phillips's review for the Los Angeles Times Book Review heralded the essay's "rich and evocative prose," calling the book an "urgent and poetic" piece that offered important, yet difficult, truths about the past and present.15 And Salmon Rushdie's review of A Small Place praised the text as "a jeremiad of great clarity and force that one might have called torrential were the language not so finely controlled."16
Kincaid returned to fiction in 1990 with the publication of Lucy. This novel tells the story of a nineteen-year-old West Indian girl, Lucy, who sheds her clois- tered colonial upbringing for a job as an au pair in New York City. Lucy's developing subjectivity occurs alongside the deterioration of her employers' marriage, and the eventual divorce of the couple triggers Lucy's memories of family life. In fact, Lucy's search for a sense of belonging leads to her disturbing reflections about the nature of "home" and attempts to establish a new homeland in a foreign country. The novel continues to explore some of the themes found in A Small Place —exploitation, colonization, and power relations—but Lucy also returns to many of the themes covered in Annie John. Indeed Lucy picks up where Annie John leaves off: the girl has now left her home in Antigua and tries to forge a new life for herself in the United States.
In general, Lucy received positive reviews. Many critics were interested in Kincaid's combination of autobiography and fiction, while others applauded her forthright depiction of a West Indian immigrant who tries to create a new life for herself in New York. Other critics saw the novel as a progression in Kincaid's literary growth—a book that built upon the themes first expressed in Annie John. Jane Mendelsohn's review in the Village Voice, for instance, praised Lucy for its "subtle evocation of shifting patterns" and added that the novel "reveals more gradations in quality of possible experience than any of Kincaid's previous work."17 A reviewer for the Wall Street Journal wrote that Lucy "confirms Jamaica Kincaid as both a daughter of Charlotte Bronte and Virginia Woolf," while a writer in USA Today stated that the "lyrical simplicity with which she [Kincaid] tells this story makes it enormously moving."18
In 1996 Kincaid published another highly autobiographical novel titled The Autobiography of My Mother. This book is set in Dominica and depicts the haunting story of Xuela Claudette Richardson, the daughter of a Carib mother and half-Scottish, half-African father. Xuela's mother dies giving birth to her, and her father leaves her to be raised by his laundress. The writing style is similar to Kincaid's earlier work: she combines clear and economical sentences with lyrical phrases that express deeply charged emotions. Like Annie John and Lucy, this novel is an account of a woman's love, fear, loss, and the forging of subjectivity within an oppressive community that is marked by gender hierarchies, class differences, and a legacy of colonization. In fact, in her review for the Times Union of Albany, New York, Margaria Fichtner writes that Xuela is, like Kincaid, "obsessed by conquest, colonialism, class and culture, the clouded process of identity and the travails of stumbling toward adulthood bereft of the sweet cushion of material love."19 Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Cathleen Schine described the book as "pure and overwhelming, a brilliant fable of willed nihilism."20 And indeed many reviews commented on the bleakness of the novel, pointing out that it contained less hope for the future than Kincaid's earlier fiction.
During the mid-1990s, Kincaid's brother, Devon Drew, suffered from AIDS and eventually died in January of 1996. Devon became the subject of her 1997 memoir, My Brother, which recounts the story of Devon's life, illness, and death. Kincaid writes about how she was summoned back to Antigua from Vermont (where she continues to live) and how she experiences conflicting emotions on her visit "home": on the one hand, she wants to forgive the suffering caused by her mother's narcissism and her brother's self-destructiveness, but, on the other hand, she must also distance herself from her pain and her family's power to consume her life. Some reviewers were disappointed by the book. Peter Kurth writing in Salon, for instance, called My Brother one of the most "overrated books of 1997," and he criticized Kincaid for writing a "bitter diatribe" on her mother rather than a sympathetic portrait of her brother's struggle with AIDS.21 Somewhat less harsh was Meredith Maran's review in the San Francisco Chronicle; she stated that "despite Kincaid's self-absorbed criticisms of others' self-absorption, there is much brilliant writing and thinking in the pages of My Brother. "22
Those critics who published negative reviews of My Brother tended to criticize the book for focusing too much on the author herself rather than on the tragedy of Devon Drew's disease and premature death. The title is somewhat misleading, for the book is not, in fact, about Kincaid's brother. Instead it is, like her earlier work, a meditation on gender relations, sexuality, power, and motherhood. The bond that ties Kincaid to her brother is simply a springboard from which she dives into other subjects, including the bonds between mothers and daughters, adults and children, men and women, colonizer and colonized.
Kincaid's most recent novel, Mr. Potter, appeared in 2002. The text is a speculative piece of fiction about her father—a man whom she did not know. "All I had was his birth certificate, his death certificate and his father's birth certificate to go on," Kincaid told Kim McLarin in an interview, "I didn't know anything about him except that he was a chauffeur."23Mr. Potter follows the life of an uneducated chauffeur as he works and lives in Antigua. The book is written from the perspective of the narrating daughter who has never had a relationship with her father and who tries to piece together his life through a series of specula- tions and repetitions. The reception of Mr. Potter was generally positive. Jeremy Taylor's article on Kincaid in Caribbean Beat calls the novel a powerful and thought-provoking work about an illiterate man "who remains blank, unaware of the rest of the world, without a context for what happens in life."24 And Adam Mars-Jones's review in the Observer stated that the novel was "entertaining and seducing," and he called attention to Kincaid's "bewitching" and Steinian prose style.25 With this focus on her father, Kincaid once again turned to her family tree for inspiration and material. Kincaid touched on this relationship between her writing and family ties in a recent interview with Kim McLarin: "It is not difficult for me to think about my family or write about them," she said, "because my family makes up a great deal of my literary imagination."26
Overall, Kincaid's fiction is concerned with the way an individual conducts her life in the face of social, familial, economic, political, and gendered hierarchies. From At the Bottom of the River, with its focus on the complex gender and racial divisions in the Caribbean, to Annie John, which expresses the feelings of loss and anger when faced with the disparities between sons and daughters, the author explores power relations in the context of personal identity. Such themes are also treated in The Autobiography of My Mother, which depicts the history of a poor, abandoned girl who is able to draw on her sexuality (which is also sometimes used as a weapon against her) to gain status and economic stability with a white man. Taking on the American immigrant narrative in Lucy, Kincaid shows how conceptions of gender and racial divisions can influence the life of the individual in the United States. And in Mr. Potter she offers the portrait of a philandering man from the perspective of an abandoned daughter who never knew her father.
Ever since the publication of The Autobiography of My Mother —a novel about a woman who obsessively tries to weave together the history of the mother who died giving birth to her—critics have compared Kincaid's writing to that of Gertrude Stein.27 After all, The Autobiography of My Mother has a formal and stylistic connection to Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), a text in which Stein plays with the generic conventions of the autobiography and mixes together fact and fiction. The repetitive style of Mr. Potter has also been compared to the repetition that Stein cultivated in her literary "portraits" of modernist artists such as Pablo Picasso and T. S. Eliot. In his review of Mr. Potter, for instance, Adam Mars-Jones writes that Kincaid has "venture[d] into the parlour of modernism and pick[ed] up Gertrude Stein's abandoned knitting."28
Kincaid's writing has also been likened to Toni Morrison's fiction. This is because both writers tell of the importance of understanding history, particularly a past that is marked by colonization and slavery. Both writers also develop psychologically complicated protagonists who are meant to spark intense emotions in the reader. But most important, both writers recognize the importance of depicting racial difference alongside gender distinctions. Kincaid is, like Morrison, a writer who cannot be clearly delineated as either a black writer or a feminist writer. She is both, and her literary sensibility does not allow one of these identities to take precedence over the other. Kincaid, then, is similar to Morrison in that she is not limited by the large theme of racism, but her texts express an understanding that racial inequities must be comprehended alongside other aspects of subjectivity such as gender and class.29
The only conventional autobiographical works by Kincaid are My Brother, some of her material on gardening, her travel writing, and a few pieces that she wrote for the New Yorker. However, it is clear that Kincaid's novels and short stories, when compared with the narratives she tells about herself in interviews, are based on her childhood experiences in Antigua and her adult life in the United States. Life and fiction merge in her writing, and thus her work is intensely personal. "To speak to me," she says, "is really to read my books. I don't know why I write sometimes, because if you just sat down I would tell you everything in them."30 Moreover, Kincaid asserts that all of her writing is always, in some sense, autobiographical. "I am driven to write," she says, "so it has to be autobiographical…. I'm not interested in things for their own sake. I'm only interested in explaining something for myself…. But what I write is also fiction. It wouldn't hold up in a court of law."31
Almost all of Kincaid's novels and short stories are first-person narratives. Her fiction thus delves into the emotional and psychological state of the narrator—someone who expresses a subjective perspective on the world. As the narrator tells her story, the text usually proceeds in a linear fashion, but memories and important events from the past, as well as further information about episodes that have occurred in the narrator's life, are revealed as they come into her mind. Thus Kincaid's stories tend to be both chronological and thematic: her texts follow the development of a narrator's life while at the same time returning to common themes such as power, death, loss, mourning, and the haunting presence of history. Her narrators are also extremely self-reflexive, and they constantly comment on the actions that happen around them, usually in precise and powerful language that is thoughtful and poetic.
From this perspective, Kincaid's writing can be read as a cycle of autobiographical and putatively fictional writings that explore her complicated relations with her family in an attempt to work through the problematics of a personal, literary, and historical identity. All of her texts represent a series of journeys that are, in the end, circular. They begin and end with the same motif: one must find self-empowerment through the rejection of ancestry and antecedents while simultaneously recognizing that a complete rejection of the past can never be achieved.
1. For more information on the literary awards won by Kincaid, see Ike Onwordi, "Wising Up," Times Literary Supplement (London), November 29, 1985, 13.
3. Jamaica Kincaid, "Jamaica Kincaid's New York," Rolling Stone, October 6, 1977, 71.
4. Selwyn R. Cudjoe, "Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview," Callaloo 12, no. 2 (1989): 396-411. Reprinted in Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe, 215-32 (Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux Publications, 1990).
5. Kincaid discusses her change of name in an interview with Allan Vorda published in the Mississippi Review 20, no. 1 (1991): 7-26.
6. Doris Grumbach, quoted in Diane Simmons, Jamaica Kincaid (New York: Twayne, 1994), 18.
9. Paula Bonnell, Boston Herald, March 31, 1985, 26.
10. Susan Kenny, "Paradise with Snake," New York Times Book Review, April 7, 1985, 6.
11. Jacket copy for Annie John.
13. Alison Friesinger Hill, "Jamaica Kincaid," New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1988, 19.
14. Adewale Maja-Pearce, "Corruption in the Caribbean," New Statesman and Society, October 7, 1988, 40.
16. Salmon Rushdie, quoted in Simmons, Jamaica Kincaid, 19.
17. Jane Mendelsohn, "Leaving Home: Jamaica Kincaid's Voyage Round Her Mother," Village Voice Literary Supplement, October 1990, 21.
18. Both statements appear on the jacket cover of Lucy.
19. Margaria Fichtner, "‘Mother’ Is the Invention of Kincaid's Necessity," Albany (N.Y.) Times Union, January 14, 1996, 10.
20. Cathleen Schine, "A World as Cruel as Job's," New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1996, 2.
21. Peter Kurth, review of My Brother, Salon, October 9, 1997, http://www.salon.com/books/sneaks/1997/10/09reviews.html (accessed January 2007).
23. Kim McLarin, "An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," Black Issues Book Review, July-August 2002, 7.
24. Jeremy Taylor, "Looking Back in Anger," Caribbean Beat 67 (July-August 2005): 6.
25. Adam Mars-Jones, review of Jamaica Kincaid's Mr. Potter, Observer (London), July 28, 2002, 25.
26. McLarin, "Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," 7.
27. The influence of modernism and early-twentieth-century literature on Kincaid is not surprising when we consider her comment in a recent interview: "I thought writing died at the beginning of the 20th-century, because all of the works I read as a child were from that time. I thought writing had gone out of fashion until I came to America and lived with a family, and the man was a writer. It was then that I realised people were still writing and that I might do it." See McLarin, "Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," 7.
28. Mars-Jones, review of Jamaica Kincaid's Mr. Potter, 25.
29. Some critics, such as Louis James, have suggested that Kincaid's writing does not fit into any of the fashionable schools of Caribbean writing. Other critics, such as Laura Niesen de Abruna and Helen Tiffin, see connections between Kincaid's fiction and the Caribbean writing of Jean Rhys and Erna Brodber.
30. McLarin, "Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," 7-8.
31. Quoted in Simmons, Jamaica Kincaid, 5.
Holcomb, Gary E. "Travels of a Transnational Slut: Sexual Migration in Kincaid's Lucy." Critique 44, no. 3 (spring 2003): 295-312.
Considers the themes of travel, sexuality, and transnational identity in Lucy in order to argue that "Kincaid's seizure of the agency permitted the travel writer is a powerful assault on colonialism because it attacks the very mechanisms built into racist hierarchy."
Page, Kezia. "‘What If He Did Not Have a Sister [Who Lived in the United States]?’: Jamaica Kincaid's My Brother as Remittance Text." Small Axe 21 (October 2006): 37-53.
Identifies My Brother as a "remittance text" based on the fact that Kincaid provided support for her brother in Antigua from her home in the United States, and because the author, in writing about her experiences revisiting her homeland and recording her recollections from her childhood in Antigua, "preserv[ed] home from the outside."
Scala, Arlene Holpp. Review of Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid. Radical Teacher, no. 69 (spring 2003): 41-3.
Relates student interactions during a discussion of Kincaid's Annie John.
Additional coverage of Kincaid's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African American Writers, Ed. 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 13, 56; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:2; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 63; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 125; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 47, 59, 95, 133; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 43, 68, 137, 234; Contemporary Novelists, Eds. 4, 5, 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 157, 227; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules, Eds. MULT, NOV; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1:2; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 1; Novels for Students, Vol. 3; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 5, 7; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 72; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.