What I Have Been Doing Lately

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What I Have Been Doing Lately

Jamaica Kincaid 1981

Author Biography

Plot Summary




Historical Context

Critical Overview



Further Reading

“What I Have Been Doing Lately” was first published in the Paris Review in 1981. Kincaid included this piece in her first published book, At the Bottom of the River (1983), which earned her the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. According to Leslie Garis in her New York Times Magazine article about Kincaid, At the Bottom of the River made Kincaid “an instant literary success.” David Leavitt, in his review for the Village Voice, praised Kincaid for “her ability to articulate the internal workings of a potent imagination without sacrificing the rich details of the external world on which that imagination thrives.”

Author Biography

Jamaica Kincaid was born on May 25, 1949 to Roderick Potter, a carpenter/cabinet maker, and Annie Richardson, a housewife. She grew up in poverty on the small West Indian Island of Antigua. Kincaid, whose given name is Elaine Potter Richardson, immigrated at the age of seventeen from her British-ruled 10-by- 12-mile island home to New York, where she worked as an au pair for three years. While living in New York, she graduated from high school, studied photography at the New School for Social Research, and spent a little over a year at Franconia College in New Hampshire.

After various receptionist and secretarial positions, Kincaid began her career as a writer with an interview piece on Gloria Steinem for Seventeen magazine. In 1978, she was hired as a staff writer for the New Yorker, where she worked until 1995. Kincaid currently lives in Vermont with her husband Allen Shawn, who is the son of the former editor of the New Yorker, and their two children, Annie and Harold.

Kincaid’s first work At the Bottom of the River, which includes “What I Have Been Doing Lately” and other short prose pieces, was published in 1983 and received the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. At the Bottom of the River, like most of Kincaid’s subsequent work, is autobiographical and draws from her childhood in Antigua. Kincaid concludes that “the way I became a writer was that my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me. I can’t help but think that it made me interested in the idea of myself as an object.” It is not surprising that Kincaid’s mother may have helped to shape her writing. Indeed, Kincaid’s later pieces, Annie John (1985) and Lucy (1990), both explore the complexities of mother/daughter relationships. Although Kincaid says that she writes of mother/daughter relationships “because the fertile soil of [her] creative life is [her] mother,” she treats the very personal and formative experience of colonialism in her work as well, specifically in A Small Place (1989).

Plot Summary

“What I Have Been Doing Lately” is an elliptical, almost surreal narrative that begins with the words, “What I have been doing lately,” and proceeds to depict, in list-like form, a series of actions engaged in by the unidentified and nameless narrator. The narrator, summoned from bed by a ringing doorbell, opens the door to find no one there. After stepping outside and looking north and south, the narrator walks north, seeing the planet Venus in the sky, a monkey in a leafless tree, and finally an impassable body of water. After years pass, the narrator boards a boat, crosses the body of water, and continues along a straight path through a pasture, observing a dog and then a goat that each “looked the other way

when it saw me coming.” When the narrator turns to look at the path behind her, everything has changed: it has become hilly and the landscape is full of flowering trees. Turning to continue on, the narrator finds that a deep dark hole has opened up in the ground. Wondering what is at the bottom, she jumps in. Her fall makes her feel ill, and she begins to long for her loved ones. She decides to “reverse” herself and return to the surface.

The narrator continues to walk through “days and nights, rain and shine” until she sees a figure coming from the horizon that she believes to be her mother. The figure is not the narrator’s mother, but it is a woman who knows the narrator. She asks what the narrator has been doing lately. After contemplating several nonsensical answers, the narrator repeats the events already recounted in the story, in some places adding events or details but often repeating her first account word for word. She concludes by describing herself coming upon a group of beautiful people having a picnic. After approaching the people, she discovers that the people and everything around her seem to be made of mud and she becomes sad, longing for home. Finally she decides, “I don’t want to do this any more,” and is back in her bed, “just before the doorbell rang.”



The narrator is the main character from whose perspective all of the events in the story unfold. While not identified by name, age, class, race, or even by a striking feature, the narrator is generally considered to be female. The only physically descriptive information the reader receives about the narrator is that her “shadow was small.” The narrator’s lack of a specific identity prevents the reader from definitively identifying her and thus allows for multiple interpretations of who the character is and what role she plays in the narrative. One reading of the narrator, offered by Diane Simmons in Jamaica Kincaid, is that she is a person forever caught in a “story of departure and loss” who “will never be the same as she was before she left.” Bryant Mangum, in Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, alleges that the narrator symbolizes humankind’s fall from innocence into knowledge.

The woman

A symbol of motherhood, or the girl’s passage to womanhood, the woman appears to the narrator after she “reverses” herself from her fall. She obviously knows the narrator because upon meeting her she greets her by saying “It’s You.” She is the catalyst that starts the story over again.


Reality vs. Fantasy

One of the most noticeable thematic elements in “What I Have Been Doing Lately” is that of reality versus fantasy. The narration begins with the narrator in bed, which perhaps indicates that the story is a fantastical dream. Indeed, it contains many elements that support such an interpretation, including a landscape that changes as the narrator passes through it and the detail that years passed as the narrator waited on the banks of the body of water. The dreamlike quality of this story has been noticed by many of its reviewers.


Another strong theme in “What I Have Been Doing Lately” is that of loss and longing. At the end of the story, the narrator wishes she were home, with her mother or anyone she loved. More clearly, she states, “I felt so sad.” Earlier in the story, while she is falling into the hole, the narrator states: “Falling made me feel sick and I missed all the people I had loved.” As the story seems to repeat itself, ending by starting over again at the beginning, the narrator’s feelings of loss and sadness will return.


Mothers figure prominently in Kincaid’s fiction, including ”What I Have Been Doing Lately.” There are several direct references to the narrator’s mother within the text of the story. The narrator recounts that when the figure emerged from the horizon, she was sure it was her mother. Later in the story, she expressed the wish to find her mother, or someone else that she had loved, in her home cooking for her. In the text of the story that appears in At the Bottom of the River, the narrator also tells the woman she meets that she has “been listening carefully to [her] mother’s words.” All of these references imply that the theme of motherhood and that of mothering are important notions within this story.


Identity is another strong theme in “What I Have Been Doing Lately.” The narrator’s lack of a specific identity, or for that matter even a name, invites the reader to ask, “Who is this narrator?” The story also revolves around the mysterious identity of the woman who unexpectedly knows the narrator. The woman says, “It’s you,” yet the reader is not directly told who that “you” really is. Another question of identity involves the people on the beach. Their identities, as perceived by the narrator, change and thus who and what they really are remains a mystery to the reader. Although the topic of identity is not discussed within the text, the story indirectly asks the reader to ponder this topic by mysteriously leaving all of the identities within the story unknown.



Perhaps the most striking aspect of “What I Have Been Doing Lately” is its plot structure. Plot structure is the way that an author organizes and tells the events of a story. For instance, a story that unfolds in chronological order is an example of a linear plot structure. Kincaid employs a circular plot, which begins and ends at the same place, with the narrator in bed. The plot essentially covers the same material twice: first when the recounted events ostensibly happen to the narrator and then when she answers the woman who asks her what it is she has been doing lately.

Point of View

As the title indicates, “What I Have Been Doing Lately” is written from the first-person point of view. Kincaid constructs the story from the narrator’s perspective, and thus uses “I” to present all of the story’s events. This keeps the main focus of the story on the narrator. The reader is unable to see the world or know the thoughts of the few other people the narrator encounters. In fact, this I-centered narrative keeps the reader at a distance from the world the narrator explores and the people she encounters. While this point of view limits the reader’s understanding of the thoughts of others, it does allow the reader to see inside the narrator’s mind. For example, when the woman asks the narrator what she has been doing, the narrator considers giving a series of answers to which the reader is also privy.


Tone is understood to be the attitude the writer expresses toward the story through the use of language. The tone in “What I Have Been Doing Lately” is one of almost impersonal disinterest and objectivity. The writer does not display any judgments or attitudes about the series of events she depicts. Instead, her language reflects a detachment from the bizarre events which she tells in simple, reportorial fashion.


The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction states that “a literary symbol can be anything in a story’s setting, plot or characterization that suggests an abstract meaning to the reader in addition to its literal significance.” Some examples of symbols in “What I Have Been Doing Lately” could be the big body of water, the monkey, the leafless trees, the planet Venus, the narrator’s shoeless feet, the deep hole, or the bed to which she returns. In this story, the planet Venus literally represents the planet the narrator sees when she gazes into the sky; however, the reference to Venus may have other implied meanings. For example, the planet she sees could symbolize the Roman goddess Venus (or

Media Adaptations

  • “What I Have Been Doing Lately” has been recorded by the Library of Congress Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature along with the other stories in At the Bottom of the River.

Aphrodite in Greek mythology), the goddess of love and beauty. One recurring criticism of Kincaid is that her imagery and symbolism are so intensely personal that it is difficult for the reader to feel confident about the possible symbolic meanings of objects.


Moira Ferguson, in Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, suggests that “What I Have Been Doing Lately” takes place on the island of Antigua during the 1950s. However, the text of the story does not place these events within any specific time periods or national boundaries. The story carries the reader through varied terrain—which may in fact exist only within a dream.


Placing “What I Have Been Doing Lately” within a specific literary movement or social context is difficult in that Kincaid has resisted being associated with any specific ideology, such as Modernism or Feminism. In an interview with Selwyn Cudjoe, Kincaid plainly states that she “can’t bear to be in a group of any kind, or in the school of anything.” Despite such statements, Kincaid has been studied by academics in terms of both feminist and Modernist tendencies. Cudjoe points out that Kincaid’s work shares an “intensely personal” slant and interiority that is found in feminist writings. Kincaid admits that Modernism, a literary movement known for breaking with established forms and traditions, convinced her to avoid writing works that realistically portray lives and events. Postcolonial literature is another literary movement in which Kincaid’s work can be placed. As the term

Topics for Further Study

  • How can colonization affect the literature of a region? More specifically, how might writers who have been colonial subjects use their art to address issues of colonization?
  • How does Kincaid’s use of symbols contribute to or hinder your understanding of “What I Have Been Doing Lately”?
  • Contrast the version of “What I Have Been Doing Lately” that appeared in The Paris Review with that which appears in At the Bottom of the River. How are they different? Do these differences change your first impressions and/or understanding of the work?
  • Discuss the similarities between the issues raised by Jamaica Kincaid and other contemporary Caribbean and/or African writers.
  • Research Carl Jung’s idea of “individuation” and his understanding of alchemical processes and reread “What I Have Been Doing Lately” to see what parallels can be drawn between the story and Jung’s ideas about personality growth and development.

indicates, postcolonial literature emerged while nations began to assert their independence from colonial authority. The literature of previously colonized nations is known for addressing the effects of colonialism and ideas of identity as it is shaped by the system of colonialism.

Historical Context

“What I Have Been Doing Lately” does not allude to a specific time period, nor does it indicate in which nation it takes place; however, because it references “black and shiny” people in a coastal setting, it is not unlikely that this story, like most of Kincaid’s work, is set in the West Indies. Moira Ferguson, in Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, narrows this estimation much further by stating that At the Bottom of the River, in which “What I Have Been Doing Lately” appears, takes place “in Antigua during the 1950s.” Kincaid lived as a British colonial subject until 1966, and as the majority of her work is autobiographical, it is perhaps appropriate to contextualize her writing within the historical and cultural framework of the colonial and postcolonial world of the West Indies.

According to Islands of the Commonwealth Caribbean: A Regional Study (Sandra W. Meditz and Dennis M. Hanratty, editors) Christopher Columbus sighted Antigua in 1493 during his second voyage; however, the island was not formally colonized until 1632 when it was claimed by the English. Except for a short period in 1966-67, when the French held Antigua, it remained a British possession until its independence in 1981. From the time of Kincaid’s birth until she left Antigua, the island was consistently challenging colonial authority. During the years 1935-1960, there were political campaigns aimed at curtailing the colonial subjugation of the Antiguans. In her article about Kincaid in the New York Times Magazine, Leslie Garis notes that Kincaid became increasingly angry about the subservient role that Antiguans were forced to play with the British. In 1966, the year Kincaid left Antigua for the United States, Vere Cornwall Bird, Sr. went to London to discuss Antigua’s desire for independence. A year later, Antigua became an associated state of Britain, meaning that, although it was internally autonomous, the island was still dependent upon Britain to handle its foreign affairs and defense matters. After a constitutional conference in December of 1980, the island was finally granted complete independence from the British crown and officially became the nation of Antigua.

In 1674, Sir Christopher Codrington established what was to have a lasting effect on Antigua’s society and culture—the island’s first sugar plantation. By 1679, half of the island population was composed of slaves imported from Africa’s west coast. During colonial times, the descendants of these slaves made up the lower strata of Antigua’s racially-determined social structure. On the other end of the spectrum were the plantation owners and political elites, who were all of European descent. According to Paget Henry in Peripheral Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Antigua, the years 1960-68 brought an “emergence of the formal dominance of the Afro-Caribbean cultural system” during which many Antiguans began to assert their own cultural identity, independent of colonial influence. Antigua’s push for independence was greatly reflected in the literature, painting, sculpture, drama, and dance of these times. Notable here is that during these years Kincaid was a young woman who was also in the process of defining her identity. Leslie Garis’s article for the New York Times Magazine notes that during these formative years Kincaid began to “detest everything British.” Years later, her work would likewise reflect a concern for identity and a distaste for colonial rule.

Another way of understanding the cultural context of Kincaid’s work is to look at the other literature by women Caribbean authors writing in the postcolonial era. According to Laurence A. Breiner in West Indian Literature, the decade of the eighties ushered in an increasing number of works that were written by women and that addressed issues regarding women. The many points in common that Kincaid shares with these other writers locate her within this Caribbean cultural phenomenon. Renu Juneja, also in West Indian Literature, notes that “Caribbean women writers offer us female-centered narratives and poems with a preponderance of the first person and autobiographical modes.” In general, the use of autobiography and the first person point of view in all postcolonial literatures has come to be understood as an attempt to reassert the female voice in literature and history. Although Kincaid stated that “literature teaches us about men and women,” in Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body she acknowledges that the themes of identity and differentiation do permeate her work. Postcolonial Caribbean literature is also known for addressing and responding to the “dual colonization” of women. The term “dual colonization” refers to the double oppression of women during the colonial period; not only were they subjugated as colonial subjects, but they were deemed subservient by virtue of their gender as well. Kincaid alludes to colonialism in her works, and in A Small Place, she confronts it head on. In summary, Kincaid’s writing fits within an emerging cultural identification process in which writers concerned their works with issues of both femininity and colonialism.

Critical Overview

Kincaid’s style is perhaps one of the most applauded aspects of At the Bottom of the River. As Laurence Breiner noted in West Indian Literature, Kincaid “displayed prodigious technical virtuosity” in crafting At the Bottom of the River. Suzanne Freeman wrote in Ms. that “what Kincaid has to tell us, she tells. . . in a series of images that are as sweet and mysterious as the secrets that children whisper in your ear.” Wendy Dutton, in World Literature Today, similarly stated Kincaid’s use of language is “the magic of At the Bottom of the River.” She commented that Kincaid’s language is “as rhythmic and riddlesome as poetry.” In the Times Literary Supplement, Ike Onwordi furthered this complement by stating that “Jamaica Kincaid uses language that is poetic without affectation. She has a deft eye for salient detail.” Thulani Davis also noticed Kincaid’s mastery of detail, and in an article for the New York Times Book Review stated that “Ms. Kincaid is a marvelous writer whose descriptions are richly detailed; her sentences turn and surprise even in the bare context she has created.”

For some critics, Kincaid’s writing is somewhat hard to understand. Suzanne Freeman, in her 1984 Ms. article, recognized that “not everyone is willing to decipher the secrets” of Kincaid’s fiction. Edith Milton, in her review for the New York Times Book Review, questioned whether Kincaid’s stories were “too personal and too peculiar to translate into any sort of sensible communication.” Kincaid’s work is consistently autobiographical; this may account for the intensely personal and sometimes oblique nature of her symbolism and imagery. Kincaid has disenchanted some of her critics with her unconventional, complex style and her intense portrayals of conflict within mother/ daughter relationships. Since writing At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid has shifted to a more narrative, less abstract style, but she continues to treat the themes of colonial power, mother/daughter relationships, and the evolution from childhood to adulthood in her works.


Dustie Kellett

Kellett has taught Developmental Writing and tutored at the Fullerton Writing Center at California State University. She is currently working towards a Master of Arts in Comparative Literature, with an emphasis on Caribbean Literature. In the following essay, she attempts to decipher the meaning

of Kincaid’s “What I Have Been Doing Lately” by examining it “through the lens of alchemy.”

After one quick read through of “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” the average intelligent reader may be perplexed at best. What on earth could Kincaid mean by all of this? Such a response would not be rare, indeed some of those who have praised Kincaid’s work have also noted that at times her stories tend to “move forward to a logic which is essentially private” (David Leavitt in the Village Voice). In her article “At the Bottom of the River: Journey of Mourning,” Diane Simmons notes Edith Milton’s perception that Kincaid’s stories are at times “too personal and too peculiar to translate into any sort of sensible communication.” What then can unlock Kincaid’s seemingly private and privileged understanding of “What I Have Been Doing Lately?”

Perhaps one way of deciphering the complexity of “What I Have Been Doing Lately” is through the lens of alchemy, an ancient science that dates back to the second and third centuries before Christ. Alchemists attempted to transform one chemical element into another by means of magic and primitive chemistry. One of their main goals was to

What Do I Read Next?

  • Annie John, also written by Jamaica Kincaid (1983), traces the story of a young girl’s coming of age and her tumultuous relationship with her mother. The novel takes place on the island of Antigua, Kincaid’s birthplace, and was one of the three finalists for the 1985 international Ritz Paris Hemingway Award.
  • Her True-True Name: An Anthology of Women’s Writing from the Caribbean, provides an excellent introduction not only to the lives of thirty-one Caribbean authors, but to their fiction as well. This collection, which includes short stories and excerpts from longer pieces, was compiled and edited by Pamela Mordecai and Betty Wilson.
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga, who is from Zimbabwe, has also written a girl’s coming of age novel. Nervous Conditions, which was published in 1988, tells the story of many women and their lives under colonial rule. Alice Walker stated that Nervous Conditions “is an expression of liberation not to be missed.”
  • The second edition (1995) of West Indian Literature, provides an overview of Caribbean literature and includes a section on contemporary women writers. Bruce King, the text’s editor, has divided the book into two sections: Historical Survey and Significant Authors. The authors included in the second section are Jean Rhys, Edgar Mittelholzer, Wilson Harris, Samuel Selvon, George Lamming, Derek Walcott, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, V.S. Naipaul, Earl Lovelace and Trevor Rhone.
  • Things Fall Apart (1959) by Chinua Achebe portrays life in the Igbo people of Nigeria. Particularly, it tells about the disintegration of their society under colonialism. This novel is often used as a sourcebook in Anthropology classes because of its cultural richness, and is understood by many to be Achebe’s literary reaction to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
  • Islands of the Commonwealth Caribbean: A Regional Study (1989), which was edited by Sandra Meditz and Dennis Hanratty for the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress introduces a general overview of West Indian history, culture, and society. It also provides specific chapters about Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, The Windward islands, Barbados, the Leeward islands, and the Northern islands. Each chapter is broken into the following topics: history, geography, politics, economic issues, health and welfare concerns, foreign relations, national security issues, and education.

change base elements into gold. Using alchemy as a way to understand a piece of literature may appear to complicate matters even further; however, the leap between science and the humanities may not be as far as one might think. According to Anthony Storr in The Essential Jung, the alchemists “linked change in matter with change in man.” Storr further notes that “some of the alchemists undoubtedly thought of their work as a meditative development of the inner personality.” It is for this reason, Storr suggests, that Carl Jung, a twentieth century Swiss psychologist, became interested in alchemy as a symbolic framework for surveying psychological growth and change in his patients. Jung often referred to alchemical processes in his studies of dreams, and believed that what the alchemists called opus, or the alchemical process and work, paralleled the process by which individuals arrived at their own identities. Thus, it is Jung’s symbolic interpretation of alchemical processes that may lend insight into the narrator’s psychological development in “What I Have Been Doing Lately.”

Perhaps the first task in seeing “What I Have Been Doing Lately” from an alchemical perspective, is to establish it as a story about transformation

“The complexities and obscure nature of ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately” reflect the fact that the narrator’s identity is not yet defined and determinable. She, like her story, are in a constant state of change, and hence, to define the meaning of the story, or to define who exactly the narrator is, would be to limit the possibilities of all that either the story, or the narrator could become.”

and process. According to Terree Grabenhorst-Randall in C. G. Jung and the Humanities: Toward a Hermeneutics of Culture, alchemy was “the art of transformation.” The goal of alchemy was to alter the composition of a substance in order to create an entirely new and pure substance. At first glance, it would seem obvious that “What I Have Been Doing Lately” concerns a process, in that it is possible that the narrator has been getting up to answer the doorbell several times before the story actually begins for the reader. The fact that she returns to bed two times after being there at the beginning of the story suggests that she is in fact in the process of repeating certain events and then returning to bed. How then can this story be seen as a transformation? Doesn’t the narrator simply repeat the same story two times? Decidedly not. As Diane Simmons notes in Jamaica Kincaid, the narrator retells the events in the first half of the story the second time with “slight changes in language, and then significant changes in the action.” Listing the monkey who becomes antagonistic and the way in which the narrator engages with the monkey during the second telling of the events, Simmons concludes that the narrator’s “experiences are changing her and the story of self she is able to tell.” Other transformations within the story include the sky, which once “seemed near,” becomes “far away”; the “black and shiny-beautiful” people become unattractive; the straight path becomes hills and the “leafless trees” begin “flowering.” One must wonder if these things are really transforming, or perhaps just the narrator is changing, and thus the way that she perceives things around her is changing as well. Whether it be of the narrator and/or her surroundings, a transformation is definitely occurring.

Like alchemy, which is a very process-oriented creative science, “What I Have Been Doing Lately” undertakes the notion of process as a means of articulating the transformation of the narrator’s evolving identity. The cyclical nature of the narrative, or the mere fact that the story both begins and ends with the narrator in bed, suggests that, as Simmons points out, the narrator is “caught in an apparently endless cycle of departure and return.” Yet as mentioned before, after returning to the bed in the middle of the story, the narrator and her experiences are no longer identical to the character and the version of the story we read in the first half of the narration. Thus suggesting that the character’s identity and how she perceives herself in relationship to the world around her are evolving by means of a return and departure that not only circles (i.e. brings her repeatedly back to the same events), but perhaps spirals upwards. Interestingly, Carl Jung in “Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy,” states that the process of development of a person’s identity “proves on closer inspection to be a cycle or a spiral.” Indeed, upon such a close inspection, we can see that the narrator of “What 1 Have Been Doing Lately” is caught in a cycle that is spiraling her upwards, or “north,” to a new identity. If the narrator were not changing, she would be forever repeating the exact same story. Instead however, she tells an altered story by returning to the same places, but on a changed, and thus new level. Read as a symbolic representation of the narrator’s psychological development, the story becomes like the alchemical vas, or the vessel within which the alchemical process is taking place. Indeed, it is within the confines of this short story that the narrator’s identity is beginning to transform.

The “drizzle” that the narrator encounters upon first walking outside signals the reader that her identity is indeed under construction. In the alchemical stage called Putrifactio a vapor is produced which indicates that the materials have begun to change forms. Simmons notes that in Kincaid’s novel Annie John, “dust-filled air” is used as a signal of change. Interestingly, the narrator encounters either a “drizzle” or a “damp dust” each time she leaves for her journey north. The presence of this moist vaporous substance suggests that the narrator, like the elements within the alchemical vas, is beginning to take on a new identity. The question then becomes, “what new identity is the narrator assuming?”

One perspective might be that she is moving closer to womanhood. Moira Ferguson notes that according to Gaston Bachelard in Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, water is the most feminine and maternal of the alchemical elements. Therefore, the “big body of water” toward which the narrator walks can be seen to symbolize womanhood and/or motherhood. During the story’s first cycle, the narrator takes “years” before she navigates through the water, or tries to enter into womanhood, perhaps suggesting that she is not yet at ease with becoming a woman. Literally, she at first can not conceive how she might pass through womanhood. Notably however, after arriving at the water the second time, she crosses it without hesitation, thus reflecting that she is now more comfortable, or more capable of navigating this stage of her journey into womanhood. Each time, the narrator reflects that the “water looked as if it had been a painting painted by a woman.” Thus, even in her own mind, the narrator associates the water with the creative and formative energies of femininity.

The narrator’s encounter with the monkey also plays a role in developing the idea that she is approaching womanhood. Before proceeding with this line of analysis, I will briefly define three alchemical terms to aid in the understanding of this connection. 1) The Philosopher’s Stone—the goal of alchemy, or the end product of the alchemical process. For Jung, this goal was understood as self-realization. 2) Nigredo—the stage in the alchemical process during which the elements darken. This stage suggests “that something of import is about to take place.” 3) Mercurius—in alchemical writings, Mercurius was understood to be the chemical element Mercury, the God Mercury (Hermes), the planet Mercury and/or the secret “transforming substance.” Jung found many similarities between Mercurius, who was fond of “sly jokes and malicious pranks,” and the image of the Trickster, who has often been portrayed in the arts as a monkey. Jung believed that “wherever and whenever [the Trickster] appears he brings the possibility of transforming the meaningless into the meaningful.” (Definitions taken from The Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis and The Essential Jung). To continue then, in both cycles of the story, the narrator’s encounter with the monkey is either preceded by darkness, or an anticipation of darkness. Before the first encounter with the monkey, she says, “It must be almost morning,” implying that she is walking in the still dark hours of the night. Prior to her second meeting with the monkey she says, “If the sun went out it would be eight minutes before I would know it.” In both cases, the anticipation of darkness or its presence parallels the darkening of the elements during Nigredo, thus signaling the reader that that which follows is significant. From the definitions above, we can figuratively understand the monkey as the “transformative substance” that converts the “meaningless into the meaningful.” The narrator’s encounter with the monkey becomes not just another experience, but an encounter that teaches us about the narrator. According to Jung in “Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy,” the number four signifies “the feminine [and the] motherly.” Interestingly, the monkey throws the fourth stone back at the narrator. If we understand the fourth stone as 1) the Philosopher’s Stone, or self-realization, and 2) something feminine, then the fourth stone figuratively symbolizes the narrator’s self-realization of womanhood. Once again however, we see that the narrator is not yet comfortable with this identification. She notes, “the skin on [her] forehead felt false,” meaning that being marked or identified as a woman, even to herself, feels unnatural.

In Complex/Archetype/Symbol in the Psychology of C. G. Jung, Jolande Jacobi notes that “the number four occupied a position of fundamental importance in the alchemists striving for the Philosopher’s Stone.” Similarly, in “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” the symbolic association of the number four with the feminine world occupies a fundamental importance in understanding the narrator’s self-identification process. Her reaction to her first encounter with the “big body of water,” and her sense that her skin “felt false” indicate that although she is in the process of becoming a woman, she has not yet fully realized this identity. In addition, as Simmons suggests, “she will never be the same as before she left.” Thus, the narrator is not a child as she was before, yet she is not entirely a woman either. Instead, the narrator is seemingly caught in the ambiguous space between childhood and womanhood. The complexities and obscure nature of “What I Have Been Doing Lately” reflect the fact that the narrator’s identity is not yet defined and determinable. She, like her story, are in a constant state of change, and hence, to define the meaning of the story, or to define who exactly the narrator is, would be to limit the possibilities of all that either the story, or the narrator could become. It was perhaps to capture the fluidity of personal transformation that Kincaid wrote “What I Have Been Doing Lately” in such a complexly rich fashion. By simply stating that the narrator was becoming a woman, Kincaid would have deprived us of the experience of transforming that which at first seemed “meaningless into the meaningful.”

Source: Dustie Kellett, “An Overview of ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.

Shaun Strohmer

Strohmer has taught English at the University of Michigan and works as a freelance writer. In the following essay, she examines Kincaid’s “What I Have Been Doing Lately” and contends that it is “a story about the power of storytelling to reveal truth.”

Generalizing about Caribbean authors, Daryl Cumber Dance notes, “Language and identity are inseparable. The quest for identity is [a] prevalent concern in Caribbean literature.” Perhaps because of this connection, many readers tend to examine Jamaica Kincaid’s stories as semi-autobiographical texts. In the scholarly journals in which literary critics publish their work, articles on Kincaid are sometimes interviews rather than interpretations of her work; even in interpretive articles, Kincaid’s biography becomes a reference point.

For example, in Moira Ferguson’s book Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, Ferguson frequently refers to the facts of Kincaid’s life to substantiate her arguments about Kincaid’s stories. When Ferguson argues that “part child, part adolescent, the narrator [of At the Bottom of the River] comes to terms with a world that fuses fantasy, Eurocentric conceptions of the world, and day-to day events,” she adds a footnote to support her point, noting that “biographical details from Jamaica Kincaid’s life suggest that the [stories] take place when the speaker is around nine years old.” In her discussion of Kincaid’s book Annie John, Ferguson notes the parallels between Annie John’s family and Kincaid’s family, suggesting that at various points throughout Annie John, “Kincaid may be talking about her ancestry.”

Criticism that relies frequently on details of the author’s life is sometimes called biographical criticism. In biographical criticism, the author herself becomes a sort of text, which can be read and interpreted against an actual story. Knowing the facts of an author’s life can often be useful when studying a story. For example, knowing about Kincaid’s upbringing in colonial Antigua can help readers understand some of the social issues latent in her work; knowing she is a woman writer from a minority group allows readers to consider how her work differs from and interacts with the dominant culture.

Biographical criticism can sometimes be limiting, however. The danger is that the critic will examine the fiction to see how it creates the author, rather than the other way around. This is particularly true in semi-autobiographical stories like those of Kincaid, in which elements of her life are purposely woven into the text. In addition, biographical criticism of Kincaid has tended to lump her work together, seeing all her stories and books as connected, telling different parts of the same stories. This is not necessarily a bad way to look at her work, but particularly in the case of “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” this approach offers an unnecessarily limited perspective.

“What I Have Been Doing Lately” was published in 1983 as a part of a collection of stories called At the Bottom of the River. Seven of the ten stories in the collection were first published separately in The New Yorker, where Kincaid worked as a journalist; another two were published for the first time in the 1983 collection. “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” unlike all the other stories, was first published in the Paris Review in 1981. Notably, it is the only short story she ever published there, and one of the few that appeared outside of the New Yorker. Because it was initially published as a story separate from the others, outside of the context of her other work, “What I Have Been Doing Lately” seems almost to demand consideration on its own terms.

When examined apart from the rest of Kincaid’s body of work, the story no longer must be about childhood. Although many critics have identified the narrator as a little girl, who perhaps represents Kincaid as a little girl, the narrator could be anyone—man or woman, adult or child. In the original version of the story, Kincaid does not include the phrase “dutiful daughter,” which are the only words in the story that give any details about the narrator (and they tell us only that she is not a man). The narrator could be Kincaid herself, as an adult, or a fictional creation. Because the story lacks an identifiable narrator, its point of view is ambiguous. As readers, we cannot rely on the identity of the narrator to provide us with a framework for understanding this somewhat confusing and obscure tale.

As a result, we are thrust into the same position as the narrator. The narrator opens the door, steps outside, and begins a journey that he or she cannot comprehend, one in which every expectation is subverted: “Instead of the straight path, I saw hills. Instead of the green grass in a pasture, I saw tall flowering trees. I looked up and the sky was without clouds and seemed near as if it were the ceiling in my house.” Similarly, we open the book, start reading, and begin a story that is difficult to comprehend because it doesn’t meet our expectations for a story. We expect a narrator who will act as our guide to the story, but this narrator doesn’t seem to understand the story either. We expect a beginning, a middle, and an end to a story, with a conflict to be resolved and a climax near the end. This story twice repeats itself, and it seems to end where it begins, suggesting that it might repeat itself indefinitely. Moreover, nothing happens; the story seems to be a dream or a series of the narrator’s imaginings which conclude when he or she tires of them and resolve nothing.

Because the story subverts our expectations about stories, it calls attention to itself, requiring the reader to observe and consider even the way in which the story is put together. In a story that contains all the traditional elements of narrative—clearly stated protagonist (hero), antagonist (hero’s enemy or obstacle), setting, and chronology—a reader can easily read right over the basic elements of how the story is told. In contrast, “What I Have Been Doing Lately” tells a story without using the basic tools of storytelling. By doing so, the very organization of the story suggests that there is more than one way to tell a story.

Kincaid’s unexpected writing style in “What I Have Been Doing Lately” shares some characteristics of the style of writers in a literary movement referred to as Modernism. Modernist writers disrupted familiar forms such as linear time and plot, traditional grammar and syntax, and a bounded, coherent subject (or speaking narrator). Some scholars argue that Modernism was a response to the repressive nature of Victorian culture in the early twentieth century. The Modernist movement, which

“In biographical criticism, the author herself becomes a sort of text, which can be read and interpreted against an actual story. Knowing the facts of an author’s life can often be useful when studying a story.”

existed not only in literature but in all areas of culture, was seen by some as a rebellion against cultural codes that limited freedom. Scholar Marianne DeKoven suggests that “the downfall of the old order, linked to the radical remaking of culture, was to be the downfall of class, gender, and racial (ethnic, religious) privilege.” Although many think of Ernest Hemingway or poet Wallace Stevens as prominent examples of Modernist writers, such woman authors as Katherine Anne Porter and Gertrude Stein, as well as several African American authors of the Harlem Renaissance, are better examples of the subversive nature of the Modernist movement.

Kincaid is too contemporary to be considered a part of the American Modernist movement of the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, her situation is similar. Writing as a woman of color from a colonial background, Kincaid tells her stories against the dominant tradition. Until recently, most widely read stories about the West Indies and West Indian people were written from the perspective of the dominant culture. As a post-colonial writer, Kincaid retells those stories from her own perspective, that of the native culture.

The two versions of the story in “What I Have Been Doing Lately” demonstrate that a single story can take more than one direction. Significantly, in between the two versions of the story, the narrator suggests even more storytelling possibilities: three times he or she introduces a possible story by saying “I could have said.” With the repetition of what could be said, the story suggests that the number of stories that could be told are infinite, and that this story is only one of many. By doing so, it again calls attention to itself as a story—as a fiction—and as a particular perspective on events. It calls attention to the fact that every story is made by choosing to tell some things and not to tell others and by showing one perspective and therefore not showing others.

The second version of the story continues to open new possibilities. The narrator sees a group of people from two perspectives. First, the narrator finds them appealing: “I saw a lot of people sitting on the beach and having a picnic. They were the most beautiful people I had ever seen. Everything about them was black and shiny.” But when the narrator gets closer, he or she has a new perspective: “[W]hen I got up close to them I saw that they weren’t at a picnic and they weren’t beautiful and they weren’t chatting and laughing. All around me was black mud and the people all looked as if they had been made up out of the black mud.”

By presenting these two versions of this part of the story, Kincaid makes the issue of perspective more complicated. It is relatively easy to pronounce that a story can be told from many perspectives. We often say “This is just my interpretation” or “That’s just how I see it” as a way of defending our perspectives; if there are an infinite number of possibilities, then no one perspective can be right. In “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” however, one perspective is clearly mistaken. The narrator did not intend to mislead with the first version of the story; it was a truthful and accurate report of how an event looked from a particular viewpoint. The problem is that viewpoint did not allow the narrator to see what was really happening. Paradoxically, in the midst of an ambiguous story in which it is difficult to see what is going on, and which celebrates the possibility of multiple perspectives, Kincaid affirms the existence and importance of truth. Ironically, Kincaid arrives at the affirmation of truth through a series of ever-shifting fictions.

From the perspective of biographical criticism, one valid interpretation of “What I Have Been Doing Lately” is that it is a story about growing up and moving from childhood to adolescence and adulthood in the Caribbean. From an equally valid but different perspective, however, it is also a story about the power of storytelling to reveal truth and about the very process of writing stories.

Source: Shaun Strohmer, “An Overview of ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.

Moira Ferguson

In the following excerpt, Ferguson offers an interpretation of Kincaid’s “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” and claims that the story is “a discrete narrative about a child growing up in a world where psychological, physical, and political dominations seem the order of the day.”

By her own admission, Jamaica Kincaid views her first publication, At the Bottom of the River (1983), as the text of a repressed, indoctrinated subaltern subject: “I can see that At the Bottom of the River was, for instance, a very unangry, decent, civilized book and it represents sort of this successful attempt by English people to make their version of a human being or their version of a person out of me. It amazes me now that I did that then. I would never write like that again, I don’t think. I might go back to it, but I’m not very interested in that sort of expression any more.” [Donna Perry, Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates, 1990.]

I want to argue that Jamaica Kincaid through diverse discussions of mothers sets up a subtle paradigm of colonialism that enables these repressions to be heard; the text, that is, masks and marks the role that colonialism plays in educating colonized people against their interests. For Kincaid herself, the project was a failure for the colonizers. . . .

In “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” the narrator muses scenarios aloud to voice herself into an indeterminate environment, both visionary and material. This meditation on infinite space links to her sense of loneliness, perhaps as compensation for the absent mother, perhaps a sign of the merger of two “mothers.” The nature that surrounds her reminds her of that which never deserts her: “To love the infinite universe is to give a material meaning, an objective meaning, to the infinity of the love for a mother. To love a solitary place, when we are abandoned by everyone, is to compensate for a painful absence; it is a reminder for us of the one who never abandons” [Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination Matter, 1942]. Dreams of the past and future merge with the present. Another evocative monkey tale erupts where the monkey (the narrator) avenges itself against its enemy. In its first manifestation, the monkey does nothing, as if lying in wait, living up to its trickster image. In both cases, the narrator is an agent, but the point where the narrator stops and the monkey starts slips out of reach. That monkey remains elusive as it does throughout Kincaid’s texts, signifying simultaneously the ubiquity of resistance, noncomplicity, and mimicry. . . .

Each section of At the Bottom of the River is a discrete narrative about a child growing up in a world where psychological, physical, and political dominations seem the order of the day. Little escape exists outside the imagination. Collectively assembled yet chronologically unconnected, each section loosely features recurring thematic elements, many of them overlapping: a state of mind at a given time (“Holidays”); an apprehension of something that is massively compressed (“Girl”); plural versions of the same experience (“What Have” ); a sense of ontological abyss (“Blackness” ); desire and imagining (“My Mother” ); vignettes of school and peers that disclose jealousy, fear, and despair (“Wingless”); an attempt to normalize experience while maintaining great distance through a deliberate surface account (“Letter from Home”); a playing-out of oppositions between an inner and outer world, a mother-self dyad (“At Last”); self-reconciliation, self-knowledge, and an entry into light (“At the Bottom of the River”).

Operating within an economy of loss (of the mother, of primal love), the narrator embarks on a reconstitution of her world; she constructs more fluid boundaries. On the one hand, she articulates a world of beauty and preoedipal bonding where image and sweet sensation rule; throughout the ten sections, she probes how “the onset of puberty creates the essential dialectic of adolescence—new possibilities and new dangers.”. . .

Source: Moira Ferguson, “At the Bottom of the River: Mystical (De)coding” in Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, University Press of Virginia, 1994 , pp. 7-40.

Bryant Mangum

Bryant Mangum is a member of the English Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. In the following excerpt, he discusses Kincaid’s “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” and asserts that it offers a variation on “the mythic story of the fall of man.”

The reader interested in the philosophical vision that informs all of Kincaid’s work must come to terms with the allegory in “At the Bottom of the River.” At its most basic level the story affirms the fall of man from innocence into knowledge. Based simply on the fact that the narrator is able to return in her vision to the undivided world, the reader may

“Each section of ‘At the Bottom of the River’ is a discrete narrative about a child growing up in a world where psychological, physical, and political dominations seem the order of the day. Little escape exists outside the imagination.”

infer that the knowledge of the prelapsarian world constantly lures the individual who feels its existence back into union with it. . . .

The reality of the actual world in which people must live, of course, invariably intrudes on the remembered world of harmony as well as the dream world which attempts to recapture it and confronts Kincaid’s narrators with truths that they have known and often tried to ignore: that people die; that they hurt each other; that they must be separated from people they love; that one must live in the world with the knowledge that he will die. In short, the narrators in the early stories are most often like the man on the threshold in the “At the Bottom of the River” allegory, and for this reason many of the stories offer variations on the mythic story of the fall of man. “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” for instance, tells of a little girl who is lying in bed before the doorbell rings and who imagines two versions of a story to be told in response to the imagined question about what she has been doing lately. In both answers the girl tells of intentionally falling into a hole, in effect an acknowledgment, on her part, of the fall of man. In the hole there is writing that she cannot read, an indication that she does not know how to deal with the fall; and so she climbs back out, attempting to deny her knowledge. In one version she thinks of building a bridge or taking a boat across the sea, and she becomes sad. In another she throws a rock at a monkey three times and he throws it back. Both versions of the story underline the point that things are separate from each other: land from land and man from other creatures. . . .

Story after story in At the Bottom of the River shows men and women in varying degrees of alienation from themselves, from each other, and from the wholeness and completeness that characterize the harmonious prelapsarian world. . . .

Thus far, therefore, the allegory in “At the Bottom of the River” has provided two different kinds of vision. The first is that of the man who simply refuses to accept the burden of consciousness, an alternative that is not really an option for Kincaid’s characters. The second is the one that most of them have chosen, or more accurately, inherited: that of living with the knowledge of their mortality and with the understanding that such things as beauty and joy are subject to destruction without warning, a fact which creates frustration and despair. And moreover, memories of wholeness and completeness compound the frustration. In the early stories Kincaid presents the human dilemma inherent in this second alternative in the form of verbal collages which show people existing between the world of harmony and that of lost oneness with nature. . . .

Source: Bryant Mangum, “Jamaica Kincaid,” in Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Daryl Cumber Dance, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 255-63.


Barnaby, Karin and Pellegrino D’Acierno, editors. C. G. Jung and the Humanities: Toward a Hermeneutics of Culture, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 45-66, 185- 216.

Breiner, Laurence. “The Eighties,” in West Indian Literature, Second Edition. Edited by Bruce King, Macmillan Education Ltd., 1995, pp. 76-88.

Charters, Ann, editor. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, Fourth Edition, Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Dance, Daryl Cumber. Introduction to Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, pp. 1-8. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Davis, Thulani. “Girl-Child in a Foreign Land,” The New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1990, p. 11.

De Koven, Marianne. Rich and Strange: Gender, History, Modernism, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Dutton, Wendy. “Merge and Separate: Jamaica Kincaid’s Fiction,” World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 406-10.

Garis, Leslie. “Through West Indian Eyes,” The New York Times Magazine, October 7, 1990, pp. 42-4, 70, 78-80, 91.

Jacobi, Jolande. Translated by Ralph Mantheim from German. Complex/Archetype/Symbol in the Psychology of C. G. Jung, Pantheon Books, 1959, pp. 127-90.

Leavitt, David. “Brief Encounters, “Village Voice, January 17, 1984, p. 41.

Milton, Edith. “Making a Virtue of Diversity,” The New York Times Book Review, January, 15 1984, p. 22.

Onwordi, Ike. “Wising Up,” The Times Literary Supplement, November 29, 1985, p. 1374.

Samuels, Andrew, Bani Shorter and Fred Plaut. A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 1-162.

Simmons, Diane. “At the Bottom of the River: Journey of Mourning,” in Jamaica Kincaid, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 73-100.

Storr, Anthony. The Essential Jung, Princeton University Press, 1983, pp. 13-27, 212-90.

Further Reading

Cudjoe, Selwyn R. “Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview,” Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, Edited by Selwyn R., Cudjoe, Editor, Calaloux Publications, 1990, pp. 215-32.

Discusses Kincaid’s career, her dislike for colonialism, her name change, her parents, Annie John, the universality of her work, and how Kincaid does and does not fit into the feminist and modernist movements.

Freeman, Suzanne. “Three Short collections with a Difference,” Ms., January, 1984, pp. 15-16.

Freeman favorably reviews At the Bottom of the River and discusses Kincaid’s ability to weave complex stories through her use of imagery and language.

Henry, Paget. Peripheral Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Antigua, Transaction Books, Inc., 1985, pp. 169-200.

Discusses Antigua from a political-science perspective. Three chapters concern the economy, the state and the cultural system of Antigua during the postcolonial period.

Juneja, Renu. “Contemporary Women Writers,” in West Indian Literature, Second Edition, edited by Bruce King, Macmillan Education, 1995, pp. 89-101.

Outlines the preponderance of West Indian fiction written by women. Juneja discusses the plot of individual works and analyzes the way in which female authored texts fit into the greater themes of West Indian literature. She also discusses the unique contributions of women writers in the West Indian region.

Kenney, Susan. The New York Times Book Review, April 4, 1985, p. 6.

Review of Annie John.

Listfield, Emily. “Straight form the Heart,” Harper’s Bazaar, October, 1990.

Interview with Kincaid, who discusses her career and personal life. Listfield also reviews Lucy.

Meditz, Sandra W. and Dennis M. Hanratty, editors. Islands of the Commonwealth Caribbean: A Regional Study, Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1989, pp. 1-42, 431-54.

Provides a basic introduction to the Caribbean region with regard to its history, geography, politics, economic issues, health and welfare concerns, foreign relations, national security issues, and education systems.

Weathers, Diane. Essence, March, 1996, pp. 98, 100, and 132.

Discusses Autobiography of My Mother, which was released in 1996.

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