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.
Certainly she means to ring another change on her theme of motherhood and the withdrawal of this primary relationship. In her earlier fiction, one narrator is an only child, another had her mother to herself until the birth of brothers, or a narrator talks back to her mother and is told that until that moment she had been her favorite. Having to share a mother seems a problem, as if parental care in a backwater were a limited resource. Fathers in Kincaid’s novels are likely to have many children by several women. Lucy’s father has perhaps thirty and her mother consults an obeah woman when she suspects that one of the women is trying to hurt her, the woman he finally married, and her child. The women who plot against her don’t scheme against her husband, and Lucy understands what her mother means when she tells her never to take a man’s side against a woman’s.
Perhaps in order to be able to say something about fatherhood, Kincaid ruthlessly dispenses with motherhood in her new novel. And just in case anyone thought The Autobiography of My Mother could refer to the narrator’s mother, Kincaid has Xuela inform us in the first line that her mother, who was herself abandoned as an infant on the steps of a convent, died at the moment she was born. Xuela has lived with “a bleak, black wind” always at her back and nothing at her end, “no one between me and the black room of the world.” Someone once said that the dream of being an orphan is the child’s supreme vanity. When Kincaid launches Xuela as a vessel unto herself, you know that you are in for a virtuoso performance.
The novel is set on Dominica, not Antigua, and the setting challenges Kincaid to invent, to do without Antigua. As such, Dominica is not evoked so much as it exists entirely in the sensory alertness of Kincaid’s language to weather, mood, vegetation, scent, and color. The lyricism is very deft and controlled.
And sometimes when the night was completely still and completely black, I could hear, outside, the long sigh of someone on the way to eternity; and this, of all things, would disturb the troubled peace of all that was real: the dogs asleep under houses, the chickens in the trees, the trees themselves moving about, not in a way that suggested an uprooting, just a moving about, as if they wished they could run away. And if I listened again I could hear the sound of those who crawled on their bellies, the ones who carried poisonous lances, and those who carried a deadly poison in their saliva; I could hear the ones who were hunting, the ones who were hunted, the pitiful cry of the small ones who were about to be devoured, followed by the temporary satisfaction of the ones doing the devouring: all this I heard night after night again and again. And it ended only after my hands had traveled up and down all over my own body in a loving caress, finally coming to the soft, moist spot between my legs, and a gasp of pleasure had escaped my lips which I would allow no one to hear.
Throughout her fiction Kincaid has a gift for compression, for leaving things out, things like dialogue, for instance. But The Autobiography of My Mother is a departure from her previous novels with their descriptions of a recognizable world. Although Xuela’s life as she relates it can be summarized as though Kincaid had laid it out conventionally, her meditations push this story, unlike the others, into another realm altogether—a realm that is fable-or dream-like.
Xuela is an orphan, though her father is alive. After her mother’s death, he places her, a bundle, in the care of the woman who does his laundry. “She treated me just the way she treated her own children—but this is not to say she was kind to her own children. In a place like this, brutality is the only real inheritance and cruelty is sometimes the only thing freely given.” Xuela does not speak until she is four years old. Her father wants her sent to the village school. “I can only imagine that he desired such a thing for me without giving it too much thought, because in the end what could an education do for someone like me?” At school she wears shoes and socks for the first time; she is the only girl in the classroom, but she is not afraid because what every child is most afraid of, the death of its mother, has already happened. Because she is a quick learner, the teacher and the other pupils seek to humiliate her. She is thought to be evil, because of the Carib blood inherited from her mother.
Xuela learns how to leave things behind. When her father remarries he takes her to his new home. Her stepmother wishes to kill her because she herself has no children. Meanwhile, her father, spotless and vain in his policeman’s uniform, makes himself useful to some people and inspires fear in others, a “part of a whole way of life on the island which perpetuated pain.” He begins to grow rich. She witnesses the way he cheats people out of their property. “The more he robbed, the more he went to church.” Her stepmother gives birth to a son and then a daughter, which takes her mind off Xuela, and thus puts Xuela out of danger. Xuela already knows how to live without being loved.
No one observed and beheld me, I observed and beheld myself; the invisible current went out and it came back to me. I came to love myself in defiance, out of despair, because there was nothing else.
What Xuela says about herself is so heightened and grand in feeling that you never think of her remarks as self-pitying. This is another trick of Kincaid’s narrative voice.
The new family means there is no place for Xuela and she is sent to school in the capital city, Roseau, which is more like a way station for those for whom life has gone wrong. It is her father’s ambition that she become a teacher. He doesn’t consult her, but she would not have been aware of having this or any other ambition had he done so. Xuela boards with a couple and soon embarks on an affair with the husband. This turns out to be with the wife’s desperate connivance, because she wants to become the mother of the baby she hopes Xuela will have by him. But this kind of information, a sort of disinterested education in pleasure, is all that Xuela is after. “The body of a man is not what makes him desirable, it is what his body might make you feel when it touches you that is the thrill.” She induces her first abortion. “I was a new person then.” She isn’t a schoolgirl anymore. She goes off to live by herself outside a nearby village and takes a job sifting sand for a new road.
My life was beyond empty. I had never had a mother, I had just recently refused to become one, and I knew then that this refusal would be complete. I would never become a mother, but that would not be the same as never bearing children. I would bear children, but I would never be a mother to them. I would bear them in abundance; they would emerge from my head, from my armpits, from between my legs; I would bear children, they would hang from me like fruit from a vine, but I would destroy them with the carelessness of a god. I would bear children in the morning, I would bathe them at noon in a water that came from myself, and I would eat them at night, swallowing them whole, all at once.
Xuela must have remained in this village, silent, alone, and thinking about herself, for some time, because when she tires of her life of hard labor and returns to her father’s house her half brother, who was just born in the previous chapter, is dying hideously at the age of nineteen and her hostile half sister becomes pregnant. Xuela helps her to get rid of the baby. “I had become such an expert at being ruler of my own life in this one limited regard that I could extend such power to any other woman who asked me for it.” The half sister is crippled for life in an accident en route to meet her lover. There is all this horror and Xuela doesn’t comment on it as being horrible. She makes no mediating remarks so intent is she on revealing the blackness and absence of sympathy in her world.
At the hospital bedside Xuela meets the doctor who would become “the man I worked for but did not hate and who at the same time was a man I slept with but did not love and whom I would eventually marry but still not love.” It is at this point that something of what might be Kincaid’s deeper meaning begins to emerge in a story about as bleak as they come and as mean as any fairy tale. One begins to see that all the death and absence of love might be her way of describing the intoxication of self-hatred of a colonial people.
That people who looked so very much like each other, who shared a common history of suffering and humiliation and enslavement, should be taught to mistrust each other, even as children, is no longer a mystery to me. The people we should naturally have mistrusted were beyond our influence completely.
Philip, the man Xuela accepts as a husband, is English, one of the victors, the people who had caused so much decay and ruin. He is an heir, all the bad deeds have already been committed, but to stop his flow of reminiscence about English rainfall and the thwop of tennis balls, Xuela takes off her clothes and orders him to kneel. Philip is married when they first become lovers. Xuela describes his wife as pleased to be who she is, which means that she is pleased to be English: “Among the first tools you need to transgress against another human being—to be very pleased with who you are.” Philip’s wife hates living where she does, on the island, and becomes addicted to a flower tea that poisons her; but not before it turns her skin black, the color of the people she doesn’t want to be around. Philip’s friends ostracize him because his love for Xuela is genuine. They move up into the hills on their own. Xuela devotes long passages to the conjunction of her desire and his otherness, and also to the attractions of Philip’s opposite, Roland, a fisherman.
He was not a hero, he did not even have a country; he was from an island, a small island that was between a sea and an ocean, and a small island is not a country. And he did not have a history; he was a small event in somebody else’s history, but he was a man.
Xuela’s pleasure with both men is intense, and there is no setting up of the cerebral, ineffectual white man in contrast to the robust, natural black man, though she pities Philip and loves Roland. Xuela dwells at length on sensuous detail, on the look and feel of the men she has known, but her memory is objective and excludes emotional identification with the experiences. She derives no consolation from having known them because they make no difference to her ultimate fate. It is all something she has been through, something that has given her self-knowledge, but it is a mystery what this kind of self-knowledge has given her.
In view of her disdain for the English, it is not quite clear why Xuela marries Philip, unless it is to sample what she calls her father’s treachery in going to church with people from the ruling class. “And who would want such a thing, a master and friend at once. A man would want that.” She herself says her marriage was useful, because it allowed her to make a romance of her life. The soft bed was soothing, a refuge. While Xuela is unimpressed by the status her marriage gives her when she visits her father’s house, she is also careful about the dangers of losing herself to Roland. The only thing she ever wanted to possess was herself.
Xuela doesn’t use terms like “white man” and “black man.” People are African, French, Carib, English, Scots, and combinations thereof. Race, she seems to say, is cultural, in the way you see things. Or you surmise a character’s race from material circumstances, which also determine how human relations are looked at. In the Caribbean, the identification of the powerful and powerless, captor and captive, strong and weak, begins with education. Loathing of what is taught in the West Indian schoolroom, at least about history, is one of Kincaid’s most intense subjects2—and it is a brooding issue in The Autobiography of My Mother. “The British Empire” are the first words Xuela learns to read. “I walked through my inheritance, an island of villages and rivers and mountains and people who began and ended with murder and theft and not very much love.”
Xuela, as a schoolgirl, identifies the malicious intent of making her learn about the British people: “to make me feel humiliated, humbled, small. Once I had identified and accepted this malice directed at me, I became fascinated with this expression of vanity: the perfume of your own name and your own deeds is intoxicating, and it never causes you to feel weary or exhausted; it is its own inspiration, it is its own renewal.” Her narcissism, therefore, becomes a kind of dissent.
For to me history was not a large stage filled with commemoration, bands, cheers, ribbons, medals, the sound of fine glass clinking and raised high in the air; in other words, the sounds of victory. For me history was not only the past: it was the past and it was also the present. I did not mind my defeat, I only minded that it had to last so long.
Xuela tells the story of seeing as a child a boy lured out to sea and to his death by a strange naked woman surrounded by mangoes, and adds that it was real, not an apparition. Defending such mystical incidents is also a kind of defiance, a demonstration on behalf of those who are told that they belong to the wrong church, hold the wrong beliefs, and will never get civilization right because they cannot be persuaded that the slave traders and merchant founders glorified as heroes aren’t criminals. While Kincaid writes about the impossibility of happiness in human relations on this island of wafting almond and lime, of rain on the galvanized roof, footsteps on the stone paths, this resentment is never far from Xuela’s mind.
By the end of the novel, Xuela’s father has become very rich, which is unusual for a native, “a man who through blood is associated with the African people,” although he also has the red hair and gray eyes of his Scots adventurer grandfather. “My father rejected the complications of the vanquished; he chose the ease of the victor.” But Xuela has learned that a life of comfort is also a life of death, like any other. Her father wears on his face the number of people he has impoverished, the number of children he has sired and ignored. He embodies the parasitic relationship of the corrupt to island society. She watches him die, surrounded by his wealth and “the emptiness of conquest.” His suffering almost makes her believe in justice. After so much death and decimation, she wonders what his money was for and why he kept adding to it. But then she, one of the vanquished, the defeated, is no less alone and unloved at the end, haunted by the children she did not have, by the eyes she never allowed to see her, by the person she did not become. She longs for something bigger than she is. “I hear it, a soft rushing sound, waiting to grow bigger, to envelop me.”
Throughout the novel doom and sorrow hang over Xuela’s every word. You don’t know how much of a connection Kincaid really intends for Xuela to make between the spiritual deformity of colonialism and her relations with men, her husband, her father, and her nonexistent relations with women. Part of Xuela’s doom seems to be that she is stuck in her mental time and landscape, at which point you realize that the biggest difference between Xuela and Kincaid’s previous narrators is that Xuela did not get out. The sea is a border, a horizon. Other places, apart from England, are hardly mentioned. Nor are there dates in Kincaid’s fiction, or more than a few historical signposts, and it is hard to guess in which time The Autobiography of My Mother is set. There are no clues, apart from her remembering when her father got a motorcar, which doesn’t automatically mean early twentieth century, because Dominica is most likely intended to be one of those places that lag behind the rest of the world.
West Indian writers always have had to get out, as George Lamming phrases it in The Pleasures of Exile (1960). Though there are well-known West Indian writers in Canada, the greatest change since the Caliban generation of Samuel Selvon and V.S. Naipaul, for instance, that generation dominated by the need to prove its mastery of the English literary tradition, is that getting out, for writers, no longer means sailing for England. A recent anthology, Daughters of Africa, includes many young writers of West Indian origin living in England, but you have the feeling that they went there as children. Caryl Phillips, who was born on St. Kitts but grew up in Leeds, says in The European Tribe (1987) that when he was at Oxford he realized he realized he could only turn himself into a writer if he went to the US. You have the feeling, too, that the most liberating thing for Kincaid’s writing is that she herself ended up in New York. That is where you are free of the English historical point of view and the oppressive suspicion that white Britons think that what every black Briton wants is to be accepted as English. New York is important, too, because Caribbean writing is part of something larger and includes Francophone as well as Anglophone models.
Kincaid lives in the US but isn’t from it, which means she isn’t straining to be one of Zora Neale Hurston’s too numerous daughters turning out the herbal prose of fake wisdom that is currently enjoying such prestige. Her voice is not folkloric, even if some of her knowledge is peasant-derived. If anything, Kincaid’s rhythms and the circularity of her thought patterns in language bring Gertrude Stein to mind. She is an eccentric and altogether impressive descendant.
March 21, 1996
Queen of the Golden Age
Too Nice to Win?