Jamaica Kincaid 1997Introduction
Many readers and critics had long suspected that Jamaica Kincaid's fiction was highly autobiographical, and the publication of My Brother, which was nominated for a National Book Award for nonfiction, confirmed those suspicions. Ostensibly inspired by the death of her younger brother Devon Drew from AIDS in 1996, this memoir is most striking for the way that Kincaid presents her own memories and thoughts about her family in light of this tragedy. While her relationship to Devon, who was just three when Kincaid left Antigua in 1966, is important to the book, it's her corrosive and wounded relationship to her mother that readers will remember.
My Brother has been widely praised, and occasionally criticized, for its striking style. Kincaid's sentences are full of short blunt words, but they're intricately constructed, often circling back on themselves in such a way that they mimic the disorderly way that human beings recall their most unsettling memories. Another hallmark of the book is its disarming honesty. Kincaid doesn't shy away from difficult feelings, anger chief among them. Devon's unhappy life is, Kincaid believes, the one she might have lived had she not left Antigua for The United States. Anna Quindlen, writing in the New York Times, observes: "Ultimately that is what that memoir is about, about the chasm between the self we might have been and the one that we have somehow, often inexplicably, become. It is about leaving, and leaving people behind, about being a stranger in your own home, to your own family."
In My Brother, Kincaid's memoir of the illness and subsequent death of her youngest brother, Devon Drew, many details of her own history emerge. Kincaid has three younger halfbrothers, and the four siblings have all struggled with their difficult mother. Three years after Devon was born, Kincaid left Antigua to live in the United States. The event that precipitates this memoir is the death of Devon on January 19, 1996, at the age of thirty-three. He died of AIDS.
Because My Brother is an unconventional memoir, other biographical facts are not revealed. Kincaid was born on May 25, 1949, in St. Johns, Antigua, and was named Elaine Potter Richardson. In 1966, Kincaid immigrated to the United States to be a live-in babysitter for a family in Scarsdale, New York, a job she's told interviewers should be rightfully called "servant." Later, she worked as an au pair for a family in New York City. During these years, Kincaid took classes at Westchester Community College and studied photography at the New School for Social Research. In 1973, she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid, choosing the new name because Jamaica evoked the Caribbean, and Kincaid, a name she says she borrowed from a George Bernard Shaw piece, went well with Jamaica; the new name, she says, gave her the freedom to write without worrying about her family's reaction.
While living in New York, Kincaid befriended George Trow, a New Yorker columnist who began to quote her observations in the magazine and later helped her get her own work published in the "Talk of the Town" section in the magazine. In 1983, Kincaid published her first book, a collection of short fiction entitled At the Bottom of the River ; it was immediately hailed as an important work of literature.
A devotee and close friend of former New Yorker editor William Shawn, Kincaid, in 1979, married his son, Allen Shawn, a composer and Bennington College professor. The pair live in North Bennington, Vermont, with their two children, Annie and Harold. Kincaid was a longtime staff writer for the New Yorker but quit in 1995 after a much-publicized feud with former editor Tina Brown. Kincaid criticized the magazine for treating celebrities and pop culture too reverently. Although Kincaid is often described as "angry," in 1997 she told Mother Jones magazine that "whatever I say in my writing, in my personal life I'm really incredibly lucky. I suppose that's what gives me the freedom to express negatives."
Kincaid sets the pace for the nonlinear story she tells in the opening paragraph when she describes first visiting Devon in the Gweneth O'Reilly ward of the Holberton Hospital, where he was said to be dying of AIDS; she then skips immediately to the circumstances of his birth. The ostensible connection between these thoughts is tenuous at best: Devon is the only one of Kincaid's mother's four children who was not born in a hospital. The logic of this leap makes increasing sense as the reader learns to follow Kincaid's idiosyncratic and winding thought processes.
Kincaid describes having distanced herself from her family only to have been drawn back into their orbit by her brother's illness. She reminisces about her family, especially her mother, discussing everything from her mother's dislike of her daughter's faculty for remembering to her mother's skill at gardening. She talks of the sorry state of health care in Antigua, the dirtiness of the Holberton Hospital, and the isolation of AIDS patients. At one point, Kincaid thinks that something good has come of Devon's illness: it's made her realize she loves him. She tells Devon of her love, and he responds in kind.
Kincaid procures the AIDS drug AZT for Devon, and he soon begins to recover and eventually leaves the hospital. But wellness is not a perfectly happy state for him. While Devon was hospitalized, his oldest brother, Joe, moved into his house. Devon returns home to live with his mother, sharing a bed with her. Kincaid also learns that Devon is having unprotected sex with a woman who doesn't know of his disease and that he is drinking beer every night. This section ends as Kincaid learns that her brother is once again ill.
The opening words of this section summarize what's to come: "My brother died." And yet Devon does not die in the simple terms that Kincaid first suggests with that three-word sentence. Instead, his death is relived many times, from different perspectives. First, Kincaid describes the last time she saw her brother alive. She then recalls the moment that she learns he has died. Having returned home from a trip to Miami, she checks on her sleeping children, Harold and Annie, and they ask her to climb into bed with them and snuggle. She falls asleep, and in the morning, her husband wakes her and tells her that Devon has died. Kincaid's first response is to be relieved that the grieving is hers, not his, because she loves her husband dearly and would prefer to be in pain than to worry about his suffering.
Once again, Kincaid circles back to the last time she saw Devon alive, recalling that she didn't kiss him goodbye. At that moment, she felt anger, and "my anger was everything to me, and in my anger lay many things, mostly made up of feelings I could not understand …" This mention of anger leads her to a discussion of her mother and the still fresh anger she feels toward her. She then relates the defining story of her relationship to her mother. At fifteen, Kincaid was asked to baby-sit for Devon. Instead of watching the two year old, she spends the day reading, allowing Devon's dirty diaper to go unchanged. The sight of this neglect so enrages Kincaid's mother that she sets fire to Kincaid's most prized possessions: her books.
As is typical of this book, many of the stories are told aslant. Before hearing of Devon's funeral, the reader learns of the funeral of a four-year-old child whose mother vomits thin liquid at the horror of his death. Later, instead of confronting Devon's homosexuality directly (which can't be done; the fact is learned third hand through an Antiguan woman who approaches Kincaid in the United States after he has died), Kincaid writes about Freeston, an openly gay man who feels it's his duty to speak of having the HIV virus but is reviled for his honesty.
Perhaps because grief is irrational and sometimes incoherent, Kincaid's story becomes even more disjointed after Devon's death. Kincaid learns that as Devon was dying, he called out for all the members of his family but not for his sister. His last word is "Styles," his nickname for his brother Joe, the one he didn't get along with as an adult.
The penultimate scene is Devon's funeral. At the funeral, Kincaid is displeased with the minister's sermon. When the minister suggests that the family will be reunited after death, she thinks that she'd rather not see any of these people again. She then discusses how she is writing about her brother's death in order to understand it, how writing has been her salvation. And she ends this memoir on a very personal note, describing how she wrote for William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, a man she calls "the perfect reader." Although Mr. Shawn has died, she continues to write for him.
In this portrait of Kincaid's mother, there's one central and shocking truth that Kincaid revisits many times: "my mother hates her children." In an interview in the Boston Globe, Kincaid said, "Mother loves us best when we are dying. We need her. It's when we're walking around that she's critical of us. When we're thriving." In an interview in Salon Kincaid says that the core of her novel The Autobiography of My Mother is "drawn from an observation I've about my own mother: That all her children are quite happy to have been born, but all of us are quite sure she should never have been a mother."
Capable of deep maternal devotion, Annie Drew cares for Devon tirelessly and with great tenderness when he is ill. Likewise, Kincaid recalls that when she was a child with a clogged nose, her mother would suck the mucus from her nostrils, and, when eating felt too tiring, her mother would chew her daughter's food and then return it to her mouth. Drew possesses the traits of a maternal woman; she is a gardener with a knack for growing all sorts of vegetables and herbs.
Although occasionally kind, Annie Drew's cruelty is what strikes the reader most forcefully. When Kincaid is struggling to become a writer in New York City, her mother's words are typically harsh: "It serves you right, you are always trying to do things you know you can't do." Not only is she capable of blistering cruelty, but Annie Drew is a woman who refuses to apologize for her actions, nor will she ever subordinate herself to anyone. Kincaid's brothers live with their mother, not vice versa, because she would never allow herself to be in the position of living with anyone. Drew has so enraged her grown children that neither Jamaica nor Dalma, who lives with his mother, will eat any food she's prepared. Dalma and Devon until he becomes ill refuse to call Annie Drew "mother," instead calling her "Mrs. Drew." Dalma believes his mother is evil and will not speak to her. Once when Joseph, the oldest of the three brothers, dated a woman against his mother's wishes, Annie Drew was so furious that she threw stones at him.
When Kincaid returns to Antigua after having spent twenty years distancing herself from her family, she looks at a soursop tree that is now nothing more than a charred trunk. Kincaid's mother says that the tree became the home of a colony of parasitic insects and to rid herself of the insects, she burned down the tree. Kincaid attributes this easy way with destruction to her mother's powerful sense of herself. She sees her mother as a tyrant. "It's possible that in another kind of circumstance the shape of the world might have been altered by her presence. But this woman, my mother, had only four people to make into human beings."
Dalma is the middle brother, and he is eleven years younger than Kincaid. In contrast to Devon, who was careless with his life and health, Dalma is industrious. At the time of Devon's death, Dalma held down three jobs: accountant, peddler of imported foods, and bass steel-drum player in the most prominent steel band in Antigua. Yet for all his hard work, Dalma must live with his mother, a woman whom he describes as evil and to whom he no longer speaks. He refuses to eat anything his mother has cooked, and he refers to her as "Mrs. Drew," not "mother."
Born at home on May 5, 1962, Devon Drew was intelligent, well-read, athletic, and deeply troubled. Kincaid is frank about his shortcomings. At age fourteen, Devon was involved in a gas station robbery in which the attendant was murdered; Devon testified against his friends, and his mother used her political connections to reduce his sentence, but he still spent time in jail. As an adult, he lived as a Rastafarian, a religious group whose members view Africa, and especially Ethiopia, as the promised land. Devon also used marijuana and cocaine, had many sexual partners, both men and women, and stole from his mother and brother Joe.
• My Brother was adapted into an audio book performed by Jamaica Kincaid. The audio book runs for 360 minutes and was published by Penguin Audiobooks.
Despite his many failings, Devon was deeply charming. Kincaid sees him as a brilliant man who would have spoken to the world in an important way. Although Devon appreciates what Kincaid says about him, he can neither act on nor even fully imagine her vision of him:
But he was not even remotely aware of such a person inside him. It is I who told him this and he agreed with me at the moment I told him this, and he said yes, and I saw that he wished what I said were really true, would just become true, wished he could, wished he knew how to make the effort and make it true. He could not. In his daydreams he became a famous singer, and women removed their clothes when they heard him sing.
Above all, Kincaid sees her brother Devon as a dreamer, an observer, and a man who never fully knew himself. For the reader, Devon is a disturbing figure. When his AIDS virus goes into remission, Devon becomes convinced he's been cured, and he resumes sexual relations without using adequate protection. After Devon dies, Kincaid learns that her brother was probably a homosexual, a man who couldn't admit his own sexual inclinations to his family and friends in Antigua.
The oldest of the three brothers, Joe, is an electrician. Devon nicknamed him "Styles" because he is meticulous about how he dresses. Once, after his mother became irrationally angry at him and began to stone him, he threw her to the ground and broke her neck.
Jamaica Kincaid, the narrator of My Brother, is an Antiguan who left home as a teenager and is compelled to return only when she learns her much younger brother is dying of AIDS. Because of her geographical distance, Kincaid can understand and comment upon the Antiguans and the family members she left behind. She is now a successful writer in the United States, happily married with a husband, two children, and a garden, and she's put so much distance between herself and her past that she can barely understand the Antiguan patois that her family speaks. Equally, they find her diction either funny or incomprehensible.
Because Kincaid is the narrator of this story, her character traits tend to emerge by inference. Readers know that she has an exceptional memory, a faculty that she feels her family, especially her mother, resents. "This is what my family, the people I grew up with, hate about me. I always say, Do you remember? "As a child, Kincaid's memory was a source of pride to her mother, but as she grew up, it became an irritant. Kincaid speculates that her mother hates her daughter's ability to remember because Kincaid recalls unpleasant things that her mother wants forgotten.
Kincaid is an enormously honest narrator, one who doesn't shy away from confronting contradictions and even perversities in her own personality. For instance, she both enjoys her role as healer, the successful family member who can now afford the AIDS drug, AZT, while feeling weighed down by the responsibilities she's assumed. Nor is Kincaid afraid to articulate the negative feelings she harbors. Kincaid tells us that she wishes her brother would die and be done with it. When she returns to the United States, she feels relief, but she also admits, "I missed him. I missed seeing him suffer." One way that Kincaid and Devon are alike is that both are dreamers; she describes Devon as an observer, a man who likes events best when they ask nothing of him, and this description fits Kincaid as well. That the illness of her brother forces her to become an active participant in her brother's tragedy is apparently the source of some of her anger.
Finally, Kincaid is deeply curious about people and their motives, eagerly delving into her brother's life and death, so that she can better understand herself. Kincaid wonders what her own life would have been like, "if I had not been so cold and ruthless in regard to my own family, acting only in favor of myself when I was a young woman." In that way, there's yet another source of kinship with Devon, who acts on his own sexual urges despite his highly contagious disease.
Dr. Prince Ramsey
Dr. Ramsey is a figure of Antiguan possibility, and his goodness stands in contrast to most of the other islanders. He is, for instance, punctual, something Kincaid says that most Antiguans are not. "He was something I had long ago thought impossible to find in an Antiguan with authority: he was kind, he was loving toward people who needed him, people who were less powerful than he; he was respectful."
Kincaid tells us that she loves her husband deeply and that he's a man who "takes suffering too seriously, too hard."
Mr. William Shawn
The fabled editor of the New Yorker was Kincaid's mentor. She says she was driven to write because she loved his praise. Knowing Mr. Shawn would read her work made writing worthwhile. Kincaid describes Mr. Shawn, as she calls him, as having been curious about things that he would not have wanted to know about. She envisions him as the person she writes for: the perfect reader.
Anger is a recurring theme in both Kincaid's feelings toward her family and toward Antigua, the country of her birth. Kincaid reflects on her own anger, admitting that anger often manifests itself in small transactions. When Devon asks Kincaid to go for a walk alone with him, she suspects that he'll ask her for something of hers and that she'll resent the request. She remembers how Devon had once asked her for the khaki shorts she was wearing and can articulate why the request annoyed her: "I did not like giving them to him at all. I did not want them back, I wanted not to have had to give them in the first place."
In Kincaid's family, quarreling is a way of life. One family member often stops talking to another, and these angry silences take on a life of their own. At one point, Kincaid identifies her own mother as "his mother," meaning Devon's mother, noting that "she is my mother, too, but I wasn't talking to her then, and when I am not talking to her, she is someone else's mother, not mine." After Devon temporarily recovers, she remembers, "He and my mother had huge quarrels and unforgivable things were said, but after the quarrels were over, they would both feel that everything said had not really been meant." Anger has its own rules in Kincaid's family, and people who have done and said terrible things can also be unexpectedly loving.
Mothers and Motherhood
Closely linked to the theme of anger are issues of mothering and its aftereffects. Kincaid says that the extraordinary thing about her mother's love for her children is its ability "to turn into a weapon for their destruction." Critics have observed that Kincaid's fascination with mother-daughter relationships stems from her preoccupation with colonialism, which is essentially the coercive and quasi-parental relationship of one nation toward another. In A Small Place, Kincaid spoke of the English people who colonized Antigua in terms that would also have described her mother's parenting style: "no natural disaster imaginable could equal the harm they did."
Topics for Further Study
- Research how Antigua became independent from British rule and discuss the implications of that event for the modern-day Antigua of Kincaid's memoir.
- Kincaid never discusses psychology explicitly, but she is clearly interested in the mother-daughter dynamic. Research what psychologists say about children separating from their mothers and apply it to the feelings Kincaid harbors toward her mother.
- Up until very recently, people suffering from AIDS in the United States didn't want to discuss their disease publicly. Research how attitudes toward people with AIDS have changed, concentrating on how legal protection against discrimination of people suffering from this disease has helped change attitudes.
- Consider how My Brother differs from more conventionally structured family memoirs. Ask yourself why Kincaid chose to arrange her story the way she did.
- Kincaid describes at length how encountering the Antiguan woman from her AIDS support group and learning that Devon was a practicing homosexual was not like the falling and breaking of a miniature water-filled glass dome that is associated with childhood. Why does Kincaid use the metaphor of the glass dome in such a contradictory fashion?
Although Kincaid is unequivocal in her harsh portrayal of her mother, she understands that the role of mother must almost, by definition, inspire negative feelings from time to time. Kincaid talks about how her son loves her and hates her, and how this is necessary and right: "This state of profound contradiction, loving me and hating me, is what will be for the rest of his life, if I am a good mother to him. This is the best that it can be. If I should fail him—and I very well might, the prime example I have is not a good one—he will experience something everlastingly bitter and awful: I know this, the taste of this awfulness, this bitterness, is in my mouth every day."
Gardening is one link connecting Kincaid with her mother. Kincaid recognizes that her own love of gardening, as does Devon's, springs from her mother. "What would my brother say were he to be asked how he became interested in growing things? He saw our mother doing it. What else?"
Throughout, gardening is Kincaid's metaphor for nurturing. When she talks of Freeston, the Antiguan who openly acknowledges that he has AIDS, the harmony of his family is apparent in the flourishing houseplants: "he lived with [his mother] in a house with a beautiful garden full of zinnias and cosmos and some impatiens and all sorts of shrubs with glossy and variegated leaves." Yet the gardening metaphor is most effective and poignant when Kincaid uses it to describe Devon: "in his life there had been no flowering, his life was the opposite of that, a flowering, his life was like the bud that sets but, instead of opening into a flower, turns brown and falls off at your feet."
Sex and sexuality
Gardening can be equated with nurturing, but it also is a link to Kincaid's themes of birth, death, and sexuality. Sexuality is central to this memoir because Devon has contracted a fatal disease through his own undisclosed sexual activities. One of the discoveries Kincaid finds most disturbing about her brother Devon is that even though he has a fatal disease that's transmitted through sexual contact, he continues to have sex with women, without first informing them he has AIDS. Devon is not particularly concerned about the danger to which he exposes his sexual partners; his rationale for his irresponsible behavior is "that he could not live without sex, that if he went without sex for too long he began to feel funny." His attitude seems consistent with prevailing views in Antigua. There, men who attend Dr. Ramsey's lectures on AIDS leave and go immediately to the section of town where the prostitutes are found. It's well known that a majority of these women ("butter women" they're called because they're from Santo Domingo and have light skin) are HIV positive. The men cavalierly tell Dr. Ramsey that "they would rather die than leave the butter women alone."
Like other subjects, sexuality is not simple to Kincaid. She is frank about her own interest in sex: "on the whole I like to know whom people have sex with, and a description of it I find especially interesting. My own life, from a sexual standpoint, can be described as a monument to boring conventionality. And so perhaps because of this I have a great interest in other people's personal lives." Yet for all her desire to glean facts about her brother's sexual past, she doesn't learn the truth until after Devon's death, when she's told that he sometimes had sex with other men.
The diction of each family member is revealing. Kincaid's writing is formal, almost distant, and her carefully constructed sentences stand in direct contrast to the casual island diction of her mother and brothers. Devon speaks in an island dialect by which AIDS is always referred to as "de chupidness." Kincaid can no longer readily understand her brother—she's always asking him to repeat himself—and he finds her way of speaking comical.
Diction is one metaphor for what separates Kincaid from the family in which she was raised. There's also a sense in which the cruelty of Kincaid's childhood has now manifested itself as adult sickness, a physical metaphor for the psychological pain she and her brothers experience. Not only has Devon become fatally ill, but after Kincaid's mother visits her in the United States, she recalls, "I was sick for three months. I had something near to a nervous breakdown, I suffered from anxiety and had to take medicine to treat it; I got the chicken pox, which is a disease of childhood and a disease I had already had when I was a child."
In Kincaid's memoir, metaphor sometimes leads in unexpected directions. When Kincaid learns that her brother was probably a closet homosexual, she sees his life as a flower that failed to bloom, the bud becoming brown and dropping off at her feet. And here, the failure of metaphor to carry her readers to its logical end haunts her. "But the feeling that his life with its metaphor of the bud of a flower firmly set, blooming, and then the blossom fading, the flower setting a seed which bore inside another set of buds, leading to flowers, and so on and so on into eternity—this feeling that his life actually should have provided such a metaphor, so ordinary an image, so common and so welcoming had it been just so, could not leave me …"
Although Kincaid uses metaphor throughout this memoir, she's also distrustful of the potential for using the device to reach overwrought or incorrect conclusions. When Kincaid hears the opening of the zipper on the bag that contains her dead brother Devon, she compares it to a dangerous reptile announcing its presence.
Here's how Anna Quindlen describes Kincaid's writing style in a 1997 New York Times review of My Brother: "The stylistic ground she covers in this book is also recognizable from her past work, the endless incantatory sentences a contrast to the simple words and images—a tower built of small bricks."
Kincaid's style is consistent both with a rigorous search for truth and an acknowledgement that the truth can never be known. As Kincaid repeatedly tells the reader things they take for granted—that Kincaid's husband is the father of her children, that Kincaid's mother is the mother of her brothers—she makes the point that there are no givens, everything must be examined and either confirmed or refuted.
Repetition is a style consistent with not knowing where one's thoughts are leading or should lead. At her most ambivalent, Kincaid is also her most repetitive. "My talk was full of pain, it was full of misery, it was full of anger, there was no peace to it, there was much sorrow, but there was no peace to it." Twice in a single sentence, Kincaid reminds us that she derives no peace from talking about her brother and his illness.
Antigua is a small West Indian island, twelve miles long and nine miles wide. Christopher Columbus arrived in Antigua in 1493, and he named the tiny island after the Church of Santa Maria de la Antigua in Sevilla, Spain. Soon after, Antigua was settled by the Spanish, French, and British, and in 1667 it became a British colony under the Treaty of Breda.
Although Antigua was still governed by the British, when Kincaid was growing up there, it became self-governing on February 27, 1967, and was known for the next fourteen years as an Associated State of Britain. In 1981, Antigua became an independent nation within the Commonwealth. Because Antigua was an outpost of British rule for so long, the educational system was British, which accounts for the fact that Kincaid and Devon both love John Milton, and Devon's favorite sport is cricket. In a New York Times interview, Kincaid said, "In my generation, the height of being a civilized person was to be English and to love English things and eat like English people. We couldn't really look like them, but we could approximate being an English person."
In A Small Place, Kincaid recalls that May 24th, Queen Victoria's birthday, was a holiday in Antigua. Instead of being incensed because the birthday of this unappealing person was meaningless to Antiguans, the Antiguans were grateful for a holiday from work. When Kincaid grows up and finds herself sitting across from an Englishman at a dinner party, he laments that he too celebrated the meaningless event. Her response is that at least he understood that Queen Victoria was dead. In that angry book, Kincaid writes that she has no tongue other than that of the criminal and that her language is built to express Englishmen's points of view. English cannot, she believes, adequately contain or express the horror, injustice, and agony of the criminal's deeds.
One of Kincaid's trademarks is writing about the curiously ambivalent feelings the colonized harbor toward the colonizers. This is evident in her fiction as well as in My Brother. She recalls that Devon was obsessed with "the great hero—thieves of English maritime history: Horatio Nelson, John Hawkins, Francis Drake … he thought (as do I) that this history of ours was primarily an account of theft and murder ("Dem tief, dem a dam tief"), but presented in such a way as to make the account seem inevitable and even fun … he liked the people who won, even though he was among the things that had been won."
Kincaid writes about the odd ways of Antigua in A Small Place. She describes her birth place as hopelessly disorganized; for instance, a sign saying the library was damaged in the earthquake of 1974 and is pending repairs, hung there for more than a decade without the repairs being made. And yet she doesn't feel that it's right to criticize today's Antigua without noting that the country is the way it is because Antiguans lived under the dysfunctional and infantilizing relationship of colonialism for so long.
Fittingly enough, one of Kincaid's fortes—writing about anger—has earned her extreme critical reactions. One review of My Brother opens this way: "Jamaica Kincaid is great at describing rage." Sarah Kerr, the author of that review, believes that Kincaid's memoir of her brother succeeds because it ultimately moves beyond rage. "Still, rage is only one shade on the spectrum of human experience. Kincaid's new memoir is more expansive than her fiction—and at times more moving—because in it, she begins to explore some of the others."
In one of the more glowing reviews of My Brother, Anna Quindlen praises Kincaid in the New York Times for her ability to recreate the disorderly way human beings remember their lives. "Memory feels exactly like My Brother, " Quindlen writes. And later she observes, "Kincaid moves with strange naturalness from the dying of her brother to his birth to his place in their family to her own place, providing, among other things, the deep satisfaction of recognition. This is what the mind does when it remembers. This is not real life, but real life recollected."
Not all critics are so enthusiastic. Some take Kincaid to task for writing an ostensible memoir of her brother that isn't really all that concerned with his life. Diane Hartman, writing for the Denver Post, comments that it's "hard to figure why Kincaid wrote this book." She also complains, "the book isn't a tribute or memorial and has no moral or discernible point." Writing in Time, John Skow calls My Brother"an irritating navel contemplation," in which Kincaid "repeats the pattern of familiar, well-written complaint." His central criticism revolves around the fact that the memoir is only glancingly a portrait of Kincaid's half-brother and its "real subject is Kincaid's scalded psyche."
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of My Brother is its style. Some critics applaud the circularity of the sentences, while others are put off by the repetitiousness. Hartman calls the style "infuriating," noting that Kincaid "repeats facts over and over, not adding a different perspective or subtle shade of meaning, just providing the same facts. This may remind someone of Gertrude Stein; I found it condescending." And while Quindlen is mainly enthusiastic about Kincaid's style, she thinks the experimentation sometimes goes too far. "There are pitfalls to this," she writes. "Some of the sentences are snarled string, some of the repetitions a tiresome tic."
Judd is a freelance writer and book reviewer for Salon and the New York Times Book Review. In the following essay, she discusses the ways in which Kincaid uses various stylistic devices to explore and illustrate the dynamics of familial distance within her memoir My Brother .
"Desire," wrote Longinus, a philosopher in ancient Greece, "is full of endless distances." In My Brother, Kincaid makes a related but highly personal point: "I am so vulnerable to my family's needs and influence that from time to time I remove myself from them. I do not write to them. I do not pay visits to them. I do not lie, I do not deny, I only remove myself." My Brother is Kincaid's account of both the strong desire she feels for her family when separated from them and of the time she spends back in their orbit. From the safe distance of her new life as a successful American writer, she can plumb the depths of who her brother Devon is and what she herself might have become had she not left Antigua at the age of sixteen. In an interview in People Weekly, Kincaid says she wanted to write My Brother because "I just knew instinctively that my brother's life was parallel to mine. We were both dreamers, both lived in our heads. I thought, 'This could be me."'
One reason why Kincaid's writing has been described as economical is that she takes a single idea—distance is just one example—and lets it gather meaning until it comes to represent many important and complex truths. The distance Kincaid has personally travelled is evident in many ways, and Kincaid explores all of them, including geographical and cultural distance. Seeing the hospital where Devon is being treated, she is appalled. At Holberton Hospital, the furniture is dirty, the dusty ceiling fans present a danger to patients who have trouble breathing, and even something as ordinary as aspirin is sometimes impossible to come by. As an American, Kincaid is easily able to procure the AIDS medicine AZT for her brother, and the hospital staff is amazed when Devon begins to gain weight and recover his strength.
Physical distance is the most concrete type of distance in this memoir, but emotional distance is what's central to Kincaid's project. The gravity of Devon's illness collapses some of the longstanding emotional barriers in Kincaid's family. Kincaid once again returns to Antigua, allowing herself to be affected by the tragedy of one of her family members. Kincaid's mother excels at caring for her adult son, going so far as to sleep in the same bed with him. Yet most members of this family have also taken drastic steps to distance themselves. When Devon was a drug addict, he stole valuable tools from his oldest brother, Joe, and then sold them; to protect his property, Joe ran a live wire around his bedroom with enough current that it electrocuted a puppy. This dangerously charged wire represents the power of Joe's desire to keep Devon out of his life.
Yet the children reserve their most ingenious distancing maneuvers for their mother. One form of rebuke is refusing to eat the food she's prepared. When Devon rejects her cooking, Kincaid considers his action "part of a separation he wished to make between himself and his family." For Kincaid even distancing herself from her mother represents a sort of twisted intimacy, because the habit of refusing her mother's food began when she was a young child: "not eating food my mother cooked for me as a sign of distancing myself from her was a form of behavior I had used a long time ago, when I felt most close to and dependent on her."
In this family, quarrelling is perfectly natural. At any given time, one family member is generally not speaking to another. Like communication, silence has its own code of conduct: "(and this not speaking to each other has a life of its own, it is like a strange organism, the rules by which it survives no one can yet decipher; my mother and I never know when we will stop speaking to each other and we never know when we will begin again)." By downplaying these silences, placing the explanation of them within parentheses as if such silences are so commonplace they need no elaboration, Kincaid paradoxically heightens their significance. Only a member of a deeply troubled family would deem withholding speech unremarkable.
For the members of Kincaid's family, emotional distancing is a form of self-protection. On the morning when Kincaid learns of Devon's death, she chats with the other mothers at the bus stop, and she discovers she can enjoy herself by not acknowledging her brother has died. At another key moment, when Kincaid is visiting Devon two months before his death, she writes,
"I was thinking of my past and how it frightened me to think that I might have continued to live in a certain way, though, I am convinced, not for very long. I would have died at about his age, thirty-three years, or I would have gone insane. And when I was looking at him through the louvered windows, I began to distance myself from him, I began to feel angry at him, I began to feel I didn't like being so tied up with his life, the waning of it, the suffering in it. I began to feel it would be so nice if he would just decide to die right away."
When truth becomes too uncomfortable, Kincaid finds refuge in anger and emotional distance.
What Do I Read Next?
- National Book Critics Circle Award winner The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997) is Anne Fadiman's nonfiction story of a Hmong child diagnosed with severe epilepsy. The girl's parents, now living in Merced, California, are refugees from Laos, and their notions of what will cure their daughter are desperately at odds with the American medical establishment.
- Kincaid's Annie John (1985) is a coming-of-age story told in eight separate chapter vignettes, stories that span the Antiguan girl's childhood from the age of ten to seventeen. Like much of Kincaid's work, the stories are preoccupied with Annie's love for (and subsequent anger with) her mother. At the end of the book, Annie leaves home, headed for England.
- The slim but emotionally intense A Small Place (1998) has been described as an "anti-travel narrative." It's Kincaid's imagined visit by a North American or European tourist to a Caribbean island that his or her people have colonized. Although Kincaid is critical of the corruption of present-day Antigua, she repeatedly reminds the reader that the island's problems stem from its long history of colonialism.
- Like all of Kincaid's work, Lucy (1990) borrows heavily from the details of the author's life. Having moved from her Caribbean home to New York City, Lucy works as an au pair in the home of an upper-middle-class couple, and there she witnesses the disintegration of the couple's marriage.
- In her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (1998), Edwidge Danticat covers much of the same emotional terrain as Kincaid does. The novel begins when Sophie leaves her happy existence with her aunt and grandmother in rural Haiti to live with the mother she's never known in New York.
Distance, Kincaid believes, was necessary for her to fulfill herself. She writes, "I could not have become a writer while living among the people I knew best, I could not have become myself while living among the people I knew best." Similarly, Kincaid views Devon's decision to become a Rastafarian as a distancing maneuver, one she applauds. "The impulse was a good one, if only he could have seen his way to simply moving away from [our mother] to another planet, though perhaps even that might not have been far enough away." Kincaid's outlook on death is naturally shaped by her own longing for separation, since death is the ultimate distance between individuals. Although she mourns her brother, she's displeased by the minister's suggestion in his funeral sermon that the family will be reunited at some later date: "I did not want to be with any of these people again in another world."
One of Kincaid's most intriguing strategies for creating and enforcing distances is her writing style. Diction is the most noticeable sign of the chasm that now separates Kincaid from her brother.
I had lived away from my home for so long that I no longer understood readily the kind of English he spoke and always had to have him repeat himself to me; and I no longer spoke the kind of English he spoke, and when I said anything to him, he would look at me and sometimes just laugh at me outright. You talk funny, he said."
How each sibling speaks is a sign of who he or she has become, but Kincaid consciously magnifies the gulf in the way she chooses to describe the problem. The semicolon in that long first sentence indicates the barrier between two linguistic worlds. In the first half of the sentence, Kincaid is a famous writer speaking as Americans do; in the second half, she's a person whose speech is outlandish to her own brother. Each separate truth exists on its own side of a grammatical divide.
Kincaid's repetitions are another stylistic decision that reinforces the emotional distancing underway. By repeating herself, Kincaid both emphasizes her various messages and then desensitizes the reader to the painful meaning of her words. Hearing that someone's brother has died carries an emotional charge. But when the fact of that death is repeated several times in close succession, the reader becomes deadened to the impact of that sorrow, and the emotions become more remote. Thus, when Kincaid writes, "And my brother died, for he kept dying; each time I remembered that he had died it was as if he had just at that moment died, and the whole experience of it would begin again; my brother had died and I didn't love him," the death itself ceases to shock, but the emotional distance of the speaker and her lack of love for her brother are now what capture the reader's attention.
Distance may be a necessity, but throughout, Kincaid wishes her life could have been otherwise, that she had loved her brother and that her mother wasn't someone she needed to escape. In Interview magazine, Kincaid says that she would have preferred a less remarkable mother than the force of nature who, in fact, raised her: "An ordinary mother would have served me better, one that didn't require great distance to escape from." Distance has saved Kincaid from Devon's fate, but she also realizes that emotional distance comes at a high price because it is the pain of closeness that makes life meaningful. On the morning Kincaid learns that Devon has died, she begins to wish "that this, my brother dying, had not happened, that I had never become involved with the people I am from again, and that I only wanted to be happy and happy and happy again, with all the emptiness and meaninglessness that such a state would entail." Her three repetitions of "happy" make the state seem vapid, frivolous, undesirable.
Perhaps the most wrenching sign of familial distance is conveyed by the way these individuals address one another. Kincaid explains that Devon and Dalma call their mother "Mrs. Drew," and at many times in the memoir, Kincaid is equally unwilling to claim kinship with her. She writes, "He stole from his mother (our mother, she was my own mother, too, but I was only in the process of placing another distance between us, I was not in the process of saying I know nothing of her, as I am doing now)." The language is convoluted because the emotions are snarled, impossible to make simple and smooth again. For a writer who never lets any judgment pass unquestioned, one who always denotes relationships with hairsplitting accuracy (her mother is Mrs. Drew or the mother of her brothers), Kincaid has chosen the most poignant of all possible titles for her memoir. In the intimacy of writing this book, Kincaid has claimed Devon as her own again. By naming Devon's relationship to her with the utmost directness, the two words "my brother" become the sweetest of all possible endearments.
"Kincaid's repetitions are another stylistic decision that reinforces the emotional distancing underway. By repeating herself, Kincaid both emphasizes her various messages and then desensitizes the reader to the painful meaning of her words."
Elizabeth Judd, Critical Essay on My Brother, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Adrian Blevins is a poet and essayist who has taught at Hollins University, Sweet Briar College, and in the Virginia Community College System. In this essay, she explores how the digressions and contractions in Jamaica Kincaid's My Brother ultimately help the author explore her reactions to a family tragedy reveal the way the self is often split between love and hate, obligation and self-preservation, and action and inaction.
Toward the end of My Brother, Jamaica Kincaid says that she "became a writer out of desperation." She elaborates in this way: "when I first heard my brother was dying I was familiar with the act of saving myself: I would write about him. I would write about his dying." Like much of Kincaid's memoir, this statement is ironic because My Brother is not really, and certainly not only, about Kincaid's brother's sickness and death. As many critics have observed, it does not move in a straight line through Devon's illness and eventual death in order to give us an honest and straightforward account of the horrors of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in a developing country or anywhere else. Instead, Kincaid uses her brother Devon's illness with AIDS and his eventual death as the axis for meditations on a whole series of complex themes about the self in relation to itself, others, and the world. This method—which produces a "sustained meditation on the grinding wheel of family," as American writer Anna Quindlen says—has been underappreciated by too many critics. Diane Hartman, in a review of My Brother for The Denver Post, says that Kincaid
has a way of writing—described by one critic as "the circularity of her thought patterns"—that can be infuriating. She repeats facts over and over, not adding a different perspective or subtle shade of meaning, but just the same facts. This may remind someone of Gertrude Stein; I found it condescending.
Yet it is this very "way of writing"—the way Kincaid allows "the circularity of her thought patterns" to dictate structure and theme—that makes My Brother an interesting and memorable book. As Quindlen says, "this is what the mind does when it remembers. This is not real life, but real life recollected." My Brother ultimately explores one person's reactions to a family tragedy in order to reveal the way the self is often split between love and hate, obligation and self-preservation, and action and inaction. Kincaid manages to weave these paradoxes into the story of her brother's illness and death by being true to the nature of memory. That is, My Brother mimics the way memory actually works, moving in time and place in an effort to uncover the astonishing self at work within the most unpleasant of circumstances.
The basic narrative of the memoir does follow a straight and even predictable line: the author finds out her brother has AIDS, goes to visit him in Antigua, and sends AZT from the United States, which she buys with her own money. Although the AZT helps for a while, allowing Devon to convince himself he isn't sick at all and to have unprotected sex with women on the island, eventually Devon does die, and the author returns to Antigua for his funeral. Kincaid narrates the details of these main events masterfully, giving us specific images to authenticate the experience and reveal how her brother's life "was like the bud that sets but, instead of opening into a flower, turns brown and falls off at your feet." She says:
His lips were scarlet red, as if layers and layers of skin had been removed and only one last layer remained, holding in place the dangerous fluid that was his blood. His face was sharp like a carving, like an image embossed on an emblem, a face full of deep suffering, beyond regrets or pleadings for a second chance.
"One of the oddest repetitions in My Brother is the idea that Devon's father (Mr. Drew) is not Kincaid's own father.… This repetition works as a kind of refrain in the book, revealing how important it is for Kincaid to separate herself from the family she was born into."
These details of Devon's illness as well as images of Devon after he has died (when his "eyes had been sewn shut," and he looked "like an advertisement for the dead") work as the book's main plot device, tying the memoir into one coherent piece. Because they are so graphic and horrible, however, they are difficult images to sustain for a long period of time. Thus Kincaid's digressions, or her sometimes-startling leaps in time, place, and theme, work to relieve us of the graphic nature of the situation she's describing: they move us from the dying or dead body, from images of "penises that looked like lady fingers left in the oven too long and with a bite taken out … and.… labias covered with thick blue crusts" to images of the living, of living people struggling to understand and know the self and the world. Toward the end of the book, Kincaid says:
I am remembering the life of my brother, I am remembering my own life, or at least a part of my own life, for my own life is still ongoing, I hope, and each moment of its present shapes its past and each moment of its present will shape its future and even so influence the way I see its future; and the knowledge of all this leaves me with the feeling: And what now, and so, yes, what now. What now!
The sense of wonder expressed in this passage works to counter the images of death and dying in Kincaid's memoir. Kincaid's digressions—made up of memories and observations written in her famously meandering sentences, repetitions, and interruptions—help her produce a tone that is oddly evasive and hesitant, revealing that the crisis (and interest) of a tragedy is not often the tragedy itself, but the make-up of selves that live before and after and within it—the mix of personalities that witness (and may even cause) the self-destruction of some people.
The first sentence in the book sets us up for the story of sickness and dying, but that expectation is frustrated very quickly. "When I saw my little brother again after a very long time, he was lying in a bed in the Holberton Hospital, in the Gweneth O'Reilly ward, and he was said to be dying of AIDS," Kincaid begins. But she digresses in the very next sentence, moving backwards in time to tell us about how "the routine of [the family's] life was upset" by Devon's birth. We learn that Devon, unlike Kincaid and her other brothers, was born at home, and that an army of red ants attacked him while he lay beside his mother in bed on his second day of life. This one incident reveals that Hartman is mistaken to suggest that Kincaid "repeats facts over and over, not adding a different perspective or subtle shade of meaning," since Kincaid does return to the story of the ants later in the book, telling us how her mother burned the tree that gave the ants a path through the window to the bed. Kincaid then ties this story to the memory of her mother burning her books, creating a motif of fire that works, to make the book a coherent whole.
After she narrates the day Devon is born, Kincaid moves backward in time to narrate events and meditate on them: the reader finds out that she and her mother "were in a period of not speaking to each other" when the telephone call from her mother's friend comes, and the reader witnesses Kincaid's meditation on a series of questions about how Devon got AIDS in the first place. These details and questions deepen the tension already established by the book's main narrative premise, suspending specific information about Devon and his sickness while we learn about the speaker and her family, specifically their long struggle to separate themselves from their mother's "spectacular" and "unequaled" love.
These details are interesting because they are oddly universal. They reveal the contradictions at work in the self and in the family, and, since they produce a conversational and informal tone appropriate to a meditation that can ultimately ask more questions than it can answer, they do serve the book's ultimate aim. Kincaid suggests toward the beginning of the book that she realized when she first came to see Devon that she loved him. She says:"it surprised me that I loved him; I could see that what I was feeling, love for him, and it surprised me because I did not know him." Then, still in the book's first section, she says:
when I was no longer in his presence, I did not think I loved him. Whatever made me talk about him, whatever made me think of him, was not love, just something else, but not love; love being the thing I felt for my family, the one I have now, but not for him, or the people I am from, not love, but a powerful feeling all the same, only not love.
The apparent contradiction between these statements reveals that it is possible to love and "not-love" at the same time; it reveals that it is not only possible, but perfectly human, to be a "combustion of feelings." Other similar paradoxes infuse My Brother, deepening its complexity and appeal. Kincaid tells us that her mother "loves her children.… in her way" and, later in the book, she says: "I felt I hated my mother, and even worse, I felt she hated me, too." During the passage in which she remembers the day she was supposed to take care of Devon and failed to change his diaper because she was too busy reading, she even says that "when my mother saw [Devon's] unchanged diaper … she wanted me dead."
Kincaid also tells us that sometimes she is "so vulnerable to [her] family's needs and influence that she.… removes [herself] from them." Still, she visits Antigua many times, buys AZT and a coffin, and becomes so obsessed with the idea of Devon dying that she "felt she was falling into a deep hole." The contradiction expressed between Kincaid's actions and her words shows us how easy it is to act against our own feelings, especially when we're faced with another's suffering. Kincaid reveals the reasons she feels she must remove herself from her family (in an alternative act of self-preservation) when she tells us what happened after her mother came for a visit to Vermont:
… after my mother left, I was sick for three months. I had something near to a nervous breakdown, I suffered from anxiety and had to take medicine to treat it; I got the chicken pox, which is a disease of childhood and a disease I had already when I was a child. Not long after she left, I had to see a psychiatrist.
Kincaid's repetitions also serve an important purpose. One of the oddest repetitions in My Brother is the idea that Devon's father (Mr. Drew) is not Kincaid's own father. She tells us, often parenthetically, that this is the case, sometimes rephrasing, sometimes using the exact same phrase. This repetition works as a kind of refrain in the book, revealing how important it is for Kincaid to separate herself from the family she was born into. Toward the end of the book, she says that she won't forget Devon "because his life is the one I did not have, the life that, for reasons I hope shall never be too clear to me, I avoided or escaped." Kincaid's repetition about Mr. Drew not being her father has prepared us for this statement, which might otherwise seem to lack compassion. This statement also underscores the fact that the central theme of Kincaid's memoir is not Kincaid's brother or his sickness and death, but Kincaid herself—her realizations about herself and her family that Devon's sickness and death have brought forth.
In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate reminds us that "the personal essayist looks back at the choices that were made, the roads not taken, the limiting familial and historic circumstances, and what might be called the catastrophe of personality" in order to arrive at realizations that are, amazingly enough, "appetizing and even amusing to the reader." By "catastrophe," Lopate doesn't mean that the essayist must necessarily meditate on the way a self might fail and falter in the world, though this might be (and has been) a fertile topic for our most notable practitioners. Lopate means rather that personal essayists must investigate their own reactions to the world and to themselves as honestly as possible in order to arrive at a full picture of what it means to be human. Kincaid's digressions, interruptions, and repetitions serve the book's purpose because they combine to produce an apt vehicle for the expression of the "catastrophe of personality" that led Devon Drew to his death and, conversely, his sister to an articulation of the complex feelings at work in people who struggle to understand who they have become.
Adrian Blevins, Critical Essay on My Brother, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
"Don't Mess with Gardener and Author Jamaica Kincaid," in Boston Globe, June 20, 1996.
Garis, Leslie, "Through West Indian Eyes," in New York Times, October 7, 1990, p. 42.
Garner, Dwight, "Jamaica Kincaid," in Salon, November 8, 1995.
Goldfarb, Brad, " My Brother," in Interview, Vol. 27, No. 10, October 1997, p. 94.
Hartman, Diane, Review, in Denver Post, December 7, 1997.
Kerr, Sarah, "The Dying of the Light," in Slate, October 21, 1997.
Lopate, Phillip, Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Doubleday, 1994.
Quindlen, Anna, "The Past is Another Country," in New York Times, October 19, 1997.
Skow, John, Review, in Time, Vol. 150, No. 20, November 10, 1997, p. 108.
Snell, Marilyn, "Jamaica Kincaid Hates Happy Endings," in Mother Jones, September—October 1997.
Bloom, Harold, ed., "Jamaica Kincaid," in Caribbean Women Writers, Chelsea House, 1997, pp. 104-116.
This overview of Kincaid's work was written prior to the publication of My Brother.
Graham, Renee, "A Death in the Family: Jamaica Kincaid's Wrenching, Incantatory Story of her Brother Devon," in Boston Globe, November 2, 1997, p. N1.
Graham describes Kincaid's memoir as one of "unsparing honesty" in this detailed review of her book.
Hainley, Bruce, " My Brother," in Artforum, Vol. 36, No. 3, November 1997, p. S27.
In this book review of My Brother, Hainley compares Kincaid to writers Michel Leiris and Elizabeth Bishop.
Kaufman, Joanne, "Jamaica Kincaid: An Author's Unsparing Judgments Earn Her an Unwanted Reputation for Anger," in People Weekly, Vol. 48, No. 24, December 15, 1997, p. 109.
This interview with Kincaid following the nomination of My Brother for a National Book Award touches on topics ranging from Tina Brown, editor of The New Yorker, to Kincaid's family history, her conversion to Judaism, and her passion for gardening.
Kurth, Peter, " My Brother: A Memoir," in Salon, October 9, 1997.
Kurth's book review focuses on Kincaid's relationship with her mother, comparing My Brother to The Autobiography of My Mother.