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In the Black Room of the World

The Autobiography of My Mother

by Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 228 pp., $20.00

You could think of Jamaica Kincaid’s first book, At the Bottom of the River (1983), a collection of stories, as an early exhibition of the essential materials that would go into the novels that followed: Caribbean childhood, domestic activity, fascination with sensation, unquiet memories of mother. Taken together the stories read like tone poems or symbolist exercises. What draws a line under them as apprentice work is Kincaid’s crowded, poetic language, while in her later fictions there are few big words. She has no need for them, she can suggest intricate landscapes, actual or psychological, without them. What Kincaid retains from that maiden voyage out is a use of the first-person narrative voice that has the quality, beyond style and personality, of a hypnotic presence.

Kincaid’s voice in all her books has a way of turning the reader into a spectator. Her narrator will tell a story but will not surrender it. The story belongs only to the narrator. It can be witnessed but not shared. Most narrators try to appeal to or seduce or please the reader, but Kincaid’s voice is a kind of challenging display—rather cold, unconcerned with giving offense, unapologetic in its self-absorption as a form of self-possession.

Annie John (1985) tells of a young woman’s coming of age on Antigua, where daily life is regulated by the strokes of the Anglican church bell. Annie’s carpenter father goes off to work and she helps her mother around the house. The chores and marketing, Annie’s learning how to do things, are under the elegant authority of her mother. However, this time of closeness to her mother, of bathing together, of leaning against her and smelling rose or bay leaf in her hair as she talks, of feeling sheltered by and included in her parents’ laughter at meals, ends with adolescence. The appearance of tufts under her arms, the change in the smell of her perspiration, the shock of menstruation, and the elongation of her legs signal the start of “this lady business.” Her mother’s new instructions and reproachful vigilance Annie interprets as aggressive expressions of estrangement. She answers what she regards as rejection by her mother with her own betrayals. Popularity at her girls’ school, the manipulation of teachers and classmates, means deceit at home, petty thievery, obstinacy, and lying, developed as skills.

The changes in Annie’s body and temperament that her mother attempts either to control or to correct mask a secret, a resolve hidden in the outwardly respectful decision to go to England to study to be a nurse. Annie recalls that had anyone asked her to sum up her life until then, the life she did not want to go on with, she would have said in part:

And so now there they are together and here I am apart. I don’t see them now the way I used to, and I don’t love them now the way I used to. The bitter thing about it is that they are just the same and it is I who have changed, so all the things I used to be and all the things I used to feel are as false as the teeth in my father’s head. Why, I wonder, didn’t I see the hypocrite in my mother when, over the years, she said she loved me and could hardly live without me, while at the same time proposing and arranging separation after separation, including this one, which, unbeknownst to her, I have arranged to be permanent? So now I, too, have hypocrisy, and breasts (small ones), and hair growing in the appropriate places, and sharp eyes, and I have made a vow never to be fooled again.

Annie John is technically a work of memory, but you read it as though it were written in the active past. That is one of the interesting things Kincaid can do with the voice of her narrator. Annie is talking about what happened when she was ten, twelve, fifteen, then sixteen. The novel is constructed as a series of eight pointed episodes. You see her grow up. Incidents accumulate and the narrator, mesmerized by her observations, prolongs the moments being described, and thus injects suspense into this tale of a restricted life and the need to rebel.

Big emotions and large thoughts spring from the rediscovery of her formative years, but Annie’s voice is critical, not reflective. There are no ameliorating asides that you associate with someone trying to explain things, no penitent admission from Annie that her youthful feelings of entitlement and injury may have been wildly unjust. She lets things stand as they were, and if she is cruel to her mother it is also her way of being unsparing toward herself. The distance Kincaid maintains between the subject of a young girl’s adolescence and the ferocious lucidity with which she recreates a state of immaturity that is familiar in so many other contemporary works of fiction accounts for the unsettling nature of her work. From the most ordinary feelings she makes a powerful drama. Things like a daughter engaged in a test of will with her mother may occur in the world, Annie seems to say, but they had never happened to her before. She insists on the singularity of her experience.

For the narrator of Lucy (1991), a “small drowning soul,” singularity is an ambiguous condition. Lucy tells what happened to her between the ages of nineteen and twenty. She retrieves the year when she changed her life and was about to change it again. Lucy comes from the Caribbean—the island isn’t named—to work as an au pair and to study nursing at night, but not in England. She is in a US city, most likely New York. Lucy, who has never been in an elevator or an apartment, or eaten food from a refrigerator, sleeps soundly her first night in this new place, though she is surprised by her homesickness for the very people back home whose every gesture used to send her into a rage. But almost immediately a cold eye settles over the five longish episodes of the novel that chart her acute awareness of, if not her wish to reconcile, what she calls her outside and inside selves. The former is, of course, well behaved, obedient, passive; the latter skeptical, cunning, proudly intelligent. Lucy’s self-assertion is reckless, regretful, but irresistible, and it is Kincaid’s representation of it as inevitable that accounts for the psychological richness of the novel.

Lucy claims that she would rather be dead than an echo of her mother, but her repudiation is incomplete. The first letter from home she answers falsely, the next few not at all. She stores them in her bra. Then she leaves them unopened in her room until she has a collection of them, one for every year of her life. She is trying to get away from the voice that said she would never really get away, but in observing the people and possibilities of her new situation, her old life keeps coming up in her mind and comparison helps her to understand where she is and what she does not want. Early on the four children Lucy takes care of dub her “The Visitor” and affectionately tease her as someone who is just passing through. She doesn’t want her old life, which would be like her mother’s, but she also doesn’t want a life like that of the woman she works for. Though she is told to think of herself as part of the family and comes to love the woman she works for, who is her confidante in sexual matters, Lucy is puzzled by their comfort, by their summer months at the beloved country house, and wonders how people got that way.

Lucy is irked when her employer confesses to feelings about something trivial that are similar to hers. Lucy doesn’t like that: she wasn’t talking about anybody else. Perhaps only someone who believes she doesn’t have anything other than her own responses, either as belongings or defenses, can react in such a fashion. When her employer takes her to see daffodils for the first time all it means to Lucy is that she had to wait until she was nineteen to see the flowers that were the subject of “a long poem” she had to learn at ten years of age, a poem she determined to erase line by line from her memory after her recital of it at school was praised. She looks at her employers, their friends, her boyfriends, as people who have so many choices that freedom seems like a “hobby,” and concedes that she is not ungratified to see people suffer who have too much, because she is so accustomed to the suffering of people who haven’t enough. The expected pattern is reversed: “the girl,” disadvantaged and alone, condescends to the people who only know her home as a holiday resort where they had a good time.

The form of her protest against patronizing assumptions about herself is taken from the feminine arsenal: obstruction. She is uncooperative when others want her to fit in or to feel as they planned. Lucy has an experimental indifference, a sane ingratitude, toward the people who offer her friendship, sex, or opportunities, as she drops nursing, then the au pair job. The bohemian arrangements she makes for herself are a protection, as if her survival were based on not letting anyone get to her. She wins, because new people are merely specimens to her, as is the messenger from her island who reports the contents of the letters she has avoided reading: the illness and death of her father. At the climax of the novel are the tears of loss she has been putting off throughout.

Annie John and Lucy have been described as “semi-autobiographical,” and it is easy to view them as installments in the imaginatively rearranged story of Jamaica Kincaid’s life. Kincaid, like her narrators, is from Antigua, where her father worked as a carpenter. She came to New York as an au pair. She did odd things before joining the staff of The New Yorker. Acclaim, marriage, motherhood, teaching at Harvard, and living in Vermont followed. Somewhere in an interview1 Kincaid explains that she thinks of her writing as part of her domestic life, which is odd because the solitariness of her narrators is itself a reminder that writing is a profoundly unmarried activity.

These women in her books never tell you where they are speaking from. They aren’t sitting at a desk and looking back, they give no indication of the life they went on to make. They just present their point of view about personal events in the past. In the same interview Kincaid describes her writing as the discovery of her own mind, and her books give off the survivor’s “And I only am left alone to tell thee.” Consequently, the expectation is very strong that Kincaid’s latest novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, will be in some way about a mother of Kincaid’s mother’s generation. But as you wait for the narrator, Xuela Claudette Richardson, to introduce the birth of Kincaid’s surrogate she continues to terminate unwanted pregnancies in the dark. At the end of the novel, Xuela remarks that she is seventy years old and childless. Perhaps Kincaid set out to frustrate the easy interpretation of her work as an autobiographical chain.

  1. 1

    An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid,” by Donna Perry, in Reading Black, Reading Feminist, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Penguin, 1990).

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