Having the Last Laugh

Mr. Potter

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

Jamaica Kincaid
Jamaica Kincaid; drawing by David Levine

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…

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