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Having the Last Laugh

Mr. Potter

by Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 195 pp., $20.00

In A Small Place (1988), her memoir of the island of Antigua where she was born in 1949, Jamaica Kincaid gives a tour of the targets of her cultural bitterness and colonial resentments. In so doing, she may be telling us where the high, aggressive finish of her prose style stems from. She grew up among the powerless and was determined not to see herself that way. The sugar plantations were long gone and history was looking the other way by the time she came along. Yet her tone suggests that she works under the suspicion that her unyielding voice could be extinguished at any time, simply because, according to the history of where she grew up, she was never meant to have this, a survivor’s voice.

Kincaid also writes in A Small Place that people who share a common history of humiliation and enslavement are taught to mistrust one another, even as children. This condition is not a mystery, she says, because the people they should mistrust are completely beyond their influence. The people beyond their influence are white people, and black people, at least on Antigua, who remain behind, imprisoned by the sea, inflict psychological damage on one another. In Kincaid’s defiantly clear-voiced yet opaque novels, the historical has repercussions on the personal. Often, usually without their knowing it, her characters are shaped already by forces that have been long at work. Sometimes there is no hope for her characters; they have to go on being who they are. Sometimes they can break the cycle, which means repudiation, getting out of that jurisdiction where damage passes from generation to generation.

In Annie John (1985), a young woman’s coming-of-age story set on Antigua, Kincaid is impatient with home, the familial past, the black background. The novel tells us about one sort of character who can break away: the girl who knows early on that she cannot flourish where she is, under those backwater circumstances. It is their life or hers; either a life where girls of child-rearing age do that too soon and exhaustively or a life that she invents, thereby rescuing and vindicating her intelligence. The voice is ruthlessly forthright, as if to say that to break the cycle first requires a freak event, the development of the articulate, alienated consciousness that will humble itself only to the possessor’s will, no one else’s. She, the mature writer, approves of Annie John’s conviction that home is holding her back. Kincaid’s first-person narrator certainly doesn’t take herself to task for her coldness toward her family, which makes for a kind of daring in contemporary black literature.

One of Kincaid’s young women manages to catch up with the very people who thought themselves beyond the influence of someone like her. In Lucy (1990), the Caribbean-born narrator comes to a city much like New York to work as an au pair for a white couple. Her employers irk her when they compare their feelings about their lives to hers. She makes it clear to them that she is only talking about herself when she speaks. She is not ungratified to see people suffer emotionally who have so much, because she is accustomed to the suffering of people who do not have enough. Perhaps Kincaid gave her next novel its title, The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), in order to mock discussion of the autobiographical in her novels. Though set on the island of Dominica, where Kincaid’s mother comes from, there are no relationships between mothers and daughters in this bleak work. “Nurturing” is nowhere to be found. Instead, there is a self-induced abortion and the death of a mother in childbirth.

In My Brother (1997), a memoir of her brother’s death from AIDS, Kincaid, a renowned garden writer, admires her mother’s gift with plants and then reflects on her mother’s maternal temperament:

My mother loves her children, I want to say, in her way! And that is very true, she loves us in her way. It is her way…. It has never occurred to her that her way of loving us might have served her better than it served us. And why should it? Perhaps all love is self-serving. I do not know, I do not know. She loves and understands us when we are weak and helpless and need her. My own powerful memories of her revolve around her bathing and feeding me. When I was a very small child and my nose would become clogged up with mucus, the result of a cold, she would place her mouth over my nose and draw the mucus into her own mouth and then spit it out; when I was a very small child and did not like to eat food, complaining that chewing was tiring, she would chew my food in her own mouth and, after it was properly softened, place it in mine. Her love for her children when they are children is spectacular, unequaled I am sure in the history of a mother’s love. It is when her children are trying to be grown-up people—adults—that her mechanism for loving them falls apart; it is when they are living in a cold apartment in New York, hungry and penniless because they have decided to be a writer, writing to her, seeking sympathy, a word of encouragement, love, that her mechanism for loving falls apart. Her reply to one of her children who found herself in such a predicament was “It serves you right, you are always trying to do things you know you can’t do.” Those were her words exactly. All the same, her love, if we are dying, or if we are in jail, is so wonderful, a great fortune, and we are lucky to have it. My brother was dying; he needed her just then.

She admits that she is jealous when it turns out that her two children adore their grandmother; and is awed by the unflinching, tender care her mother gives her dying brother in that small place where the government, hospitals, and families are too poor to afford AZT. But in the end, on the subject of her mother, Kincaid is the anti-Colette.

She remembers when her mother decided that her daughter was needed at home and took her out of school just before she was to sit for exams that would have led her to a university education. And she also remembers that she had to take care of her little brothers when their father, her stepfather, fell dangerously ill. The brother who died was then two. Kincaid was fifteen and read so much that she neglected him. One day their mother returned to find his diaper unchanged. In her fury, she hunted down every book, placed them on a stone heap, and doused them with kerosene. “This event, my mother burning my books, the only thing I owned in my then-emerging life, fell into that commonplace of a cliché, the repressed memory.”

She’d forgotten the burning of her books, she says, until, years later, the memory came back to her after she heard from a friend that her mother had taken credit in a way for her having become a writer. Her mother had proudly said that she herself had once chased away a boy whom she believed only pretended to love books. He was really hanging around their house because he probably wanted to “become one of the ten fathers of the ten children I would have had.” Her mother, the enemy of the “then-emerging life,” Kincaid suspects of wanting to be seen in retrospect as an ally of her ambition. However, Kincaid prefers to remain self-invented, and not to share credit, saying that after she had, indeed, become a writer she realized that through the act of writing about her early life she had saved herself.

To bring back the books her mother burned, she is willing to write “again and again until they [are] perfect, unscathed by fire of any kind; the source of the books has not died, it only comes alive again and again in different forms and other segments.” She says that she believes that writing preserves life, is itself an afterlife. In writing about her brother she keeps alive a man who left nothing of his own behind. Then, too, to write about her brother is what she offers him, the consolation she offers herself: she can rest him among the remembered. “And so I wrote about the dead for the dead.” Maybe this is the guilt of the one who got away to make another life, her life, which she knows to be better than the one her brother stayed behind in.

Kincaid spells out in My Brother her view of her writing as an act of compensation for those who haven’t her need or ability to make literature of their experience. Frequently in her memoir, Kincaid’s cunning suppression of her guile uncovers the direct link between her life and her fiction. In addition to protesting the fact of death by recounting her brother’s, My Brother is a portrait of the writer returning to the landscapes of her novels and thinking about her subjects, her characters. To ponder her experience and the place she comes from is for her to confront history. Kincaid’s Antigua has become a place at a standstill. Nothing is made there. Everything must be brought in. Through her gaze the sad, cast-aside place becomes a cosmopolitan’s subject.

In her latest novel, Mr. Potter, Kincaid has completed another deal with the past. Someone else gets brought back to the brink of life, reprieved from further decay. In exchange, Kincaid perhaps gets to put a story where there had been none, fill in an absence, locate another piece in the puzzle of the self, and “interrogate” the history of the “ordinarily degraded.” Mr. Potter can be viewed as one of her promised rescues of a burned book like the memoir of her brother dying of AIDS, which points to this novel, stylistically and thematically. We know from My Brother that Kincaid did not grow up with her real father. Often in Mr. Potter, the omniscient narrator moves casually into the first person to repeat that the Mr. Potter whose life she has been describing and whose thoughts she has been speculating about is her father, whom her mother never spoke to after she, seven months pregnant, took his savings hidden in their mattress and ran away from him:

And my mother Annie Victoria Richardson, her hair then, as a young woman of sixteen and then seventeen and then eighteen and then still a young woman at twenty-five when she met Mr. Potter, her hair then was long and black and waved down her back past her shoulders…. How beautiful she was then, I have been told so by her and by other people who knew her then, but not by Mr. Potter, for he never spoke to me of her, he never spoke to me of anything, he never spoke to me at all.

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