The Autobiography of My Mother (Magill’s Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Jamaica Kincaid begins her tough, ironic, and lyrical novel by having her narrator, Xuela, a seventy-year-old resident of the Caribbean island of Dominica, announce that “My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity.” Such a beginning promises the reader that an examination of big themes—life, identity, meaning—will surely follow, and in this respect, The Autobiography of My Mother does not disappoint.
Beginning with the subtitle, “a novel,” appended to the title on the front cover of the book’s dust jacket, the ironic self-contradiction is transformed by this work into a literary probe for exploring beneath the smooth surface of things. Besides juxtaposing the words “autobiography” and “novel,” the title conceals a deeper irony: The main character is childless and aborting her pregnancy at the age of sixteen. Furthermore, these ironies of the novel’s name are reflective of the ironies of Xuela’s life. For instance, Xuela loves only one man in her life, Roland, who is already married; she marries a doctor named Philip who worships her, but she refuses to love him. If at times such irony can seem to be pretty thin gruel for nourishing a novel, the writing is richly evocative enough that the fruits of a life sustained by irony seem alternately refreshing and bleak.
The heavy layers of irony and the problematic title will not seem too surprising to longtime readers of Jamaica Kincaid. Since her debut collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River that (1983), she has made a literary career out of mining the relationship between a mother and a daughter for every bit of irony and pathos it can offer. If her fiction has been narrow in its focus, it has also penetrated deeply.
Jamaica Kincaid—who was born Elaine Potter Richardson—created a lyrical beauty in At the Bottom of the River that she has never quite matched since. Not only the much reprinted “Girl,” which seems to condense a young life’s frustrations into a mouthful of overbearing, motherly instructions, but virtually every story in the collection has a compactness that seems to do more work than words normally can. The reader does not merely read the words of these stories; the images are also seen, felt, and experienced, but not always easily. The highly poetic prose of that work strips away the comfort of narrative, much as some of the best prose of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce does. Her follow-up novel, Annie John, was still highly lyrical in style, but was written in a much more conventional prose style. Because the two works cover much of the same ground—the development of a creative young girl as she matures, suffers a nervous breakdown, then recovers and leaves her native island (presumably Kincaid’s native island, Antigua)—they are almost inseparable complements of one another. Annie John provides a key to some of the more obscure passages of At the Bottom of the River without reducing the rich complexity of that earlier work, or sacrificing its own beauty.
Though her follow-up works—the memoir of growing up in a colonized land, A Small Place (1988), and the novel which follows a character very similar to Annie John into adulthood, Lucy (1990)—both contain powerful writing, the pains of childhood which ignited the writing of her first two books are replaced by an anger of adulthood. Though Kincaid’s writing was still well crafted, many readers found it less satisfying to follow where this new extension of her subject matter took her.
In contrast to her earlier fictions, which focused on a well defined portion of a life, in The Autobiography of My Mother, Kincaid for the first time takes it as her task to survey the entire shape of a character’s life. The childhood sections of the novel convey the same type of wonderment, longing, and loneliness of Kincaid’s first two books, and if she has ratcheted the emptiness and longing up a notch or two, one result is that the wonderment comes into greater relief. One incident which neatly captures the essence of this narrative contradance occurs early in the novel, as Xuela is describing her daily walk to school with a number of neighborhood companions whom she does not consider to be friends, but merely necessary companions. One morning when they come to a stream they have to cross, they see a naked woman bathing in the stream. One boy swims out to her until he exhausts himself and disappears without a trace; the woman disappears too. “That woman was not a woman,” the narrator tells us; “she was a something that took the shape of a woman.” For the other children who were there that day, this story entered into the realm of myth they did not really believe, “like the virgin birth or other such miracles”; a belief in this apparition “was the belief of the illegitimate, the poor, the low.”...
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The Autobiography of My Mother (Magill Book Reviews)
The narrative in seven episodes recapitulates and foretells, in starkly poetic language, the events in Xuela Richardson Bailey’s life. The fragmentary photograph of a Caribbean woman that introduces each section is completed in the seventh section.
The central fact of the narrator’s life is the death of her mother when Xuela was born, its recital a repeated incantation. Her maternal grandmother was abandoned at birth by an unknown woman. Xuela’s father, of Scottish and African ancestry, gave his daughter—along with his dirty clothes—to be cared for by the woman who did his laundry.
From this unpromising beginning, the narrator creates a life for herself in a world from which she expects nothing. A highly sensual woman, she nevertheless withholds herself emotionally from those who might have loved her, refusing to compromise her fierce personal independence. Aborting the children she conceives, she refuses motherhood. Her power comes from herself: “I could sense from the beginning of my life that I would know things when I needed to know them.”
Kincaid, who was born in Antigua and came to the United States in 1969, works strongly against the tradition of black women writers who portray women bonding with each other against the racist, patriarchal oppressor. The women in this narrative distrust or hate each other. The politics of power fascinates Kincaid. In her reading of Caribbean history, there are the victors and the vanquished—all failed human beings. The strength of the black woman comes not from her Carib-African heritage, nor from those whom she loves. She lives in the existential present, creating herself, refusing to mourn her fate or regret her past.
Sources for Further Study
Essence. XXVI, March, 1996, p. 98.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 14, 1996, p. 3.
Maclean’s. CIX, April 8, 1996, p. 72.
Ms. VI, January, 1996, p. 90.
The Nation. CCLXII, February 5, 1996, p. 23.
New Statesman and Society. CXXV, October 11, 1996, p. 45.
The New York Review of Books. XLIII, March 21, 1996, p. 28.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, February 4, 1996, p. 5.
The Times Literary Supplement. September 20, 1996, p. 22.
The Wall Street Journal. February 2, 1996, p. A8.
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in St. Johns, Antigua, West Indies, on May 25, 1949. She was her parents’ first child and their only daughter. Kincaid’s father, a carpenter, provided a good living for his family by local standards, although the family lived without indoor plumbing or electricity. During her early years, Kincaid became aware of the island’s powerful tropical beauty, an awareness that was somehow linked with her close and loving relationship with her mother. This picture of her early years forms the setting of her novel Annie John (1985).
Kincaid was educated in Antigua’s government-sponsored elementary and secondary schools. During her early school years, she became, like her mother, a voracious reader, particularly of British Victorian fiction, with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) a special favorite. (The British influence on her education resulted from Antigua’s history as a dependency of Great Britain until 1967; it became an independent nation in 1981.) Gradually, she became aware that she had an excellent mind, but neither her teachers nor her family seemed to recognize it or to encourage her in academics.
When Kincaid was nine, the birth of the first of her three brothers severed her close attachment to her mother, and she felt increasingly alienated from her family, her schools, even from Antigua itself. By the time she reached adolescence, she saw the island as a place of repressive provincialism and longed to leave.
When she was sixteen, Kincaid found a job as a servant for a well-to-do family in Scarsdale, New York, and left Antigua. After working for the Scarsdale family for a few months, she found another job, this time as an au pair for the well-to-do Manhattan family of writer Michael Arlen (with whom she would one day work at The New Yorker). She had hoped to attend college at night and work during the day, but she...
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IntroductionJamaica Kincaid began her life as Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson, but she changed her name in 1973 because her family did not approve of her writing career. She began composing articles for Ingenue Magazine and The New Yorker. Her first novel, Lucy, is somewhat based on her experience of being born in Antigua and moving to the United States. She explored these same themes in her earlier book Annie John. Another of her important works is The Autobiography of My Mother, which tackles issues of colonialism. Kincaid has also written short stories and essays, and she teaches creative writing at Harvard University. She has said of herself, “I’m someone who writes to save her life. I mean, I can’t imagine what I would do if I didn’t write.”
- Kincaid studied photography at the New York School for Social Research and also attended Franconia College in New Hampshire for one year.
- In addition to writing, Kincaid is an avid gardener and has written many articles about gardening.
- Kincaid married Allen Shawn, the son of her boss at The New Yorker. They now have two children.
- Kincaid often writes about mother-daughter relationships and other feminist themes. She says, “I don’t really write about men unless they have something to do with a woman.”
- Although Kincaid worked for The New Yorker for many years, the magazine refused to publish her nonfiction book A Small Place because of its angry tone.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Born in 1949, Jamaica Kincaid, then Elaine Potter Richardson, lived with her homemaker mother and carpenter father on Antigua, a small West Indian island measuring nine by twelve miles. The family was impoverished: Their house had no running water or electricity. The young girl’s chores included drawing water from a community faucet and registering with the public works so that the “night soil men” would dispose of the family’s waste. Even so, her childhood was idyllic. She was surrounded by the extraordinary beauty of the island, was accepted by her community, and was loved and protected by her mother. When Kincaid was nine, however, her mother gave birth to the first of three more children—all boys. At that point, the...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson in St. John’s, Antigua, the daughter of Annie Richardson and Roderick Potter, a taxi driver. Her father was not a significant presence in her life. The man she considered her father was David Drew, a cabinetmaker and carpenter whom her mother married shortly after Elaine’s birth. She learned to read at the age of three, and when she turned seven, her mother gave her a copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary as a birthday gift. The births of her three brothers—Joseph in 1958, Dalma in 1959, and Devon in 1961 (whose death from AIDS in 1996 would provide the focus for My Brother)—changed her life, not only because she was no longer an only child but also...
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Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on the tiny Caribbean island of Antigua. The family was poor, but she recalls her early years as idyllic. As does the protagonist of Annie John, Kincaid felt secure as the focus of her mother’s attention. With the births of three younger brothers, however, Kincaid became increasingly alienated from her mother, and with adolescence, her alienation turned to bitter resentment.
In addition to her antipathy toward her mother, there were other reasons for Kincaid to leave her Caribbean home as soon as she was old enough to do so. As she points out in A Small...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Jamaica Kincaid is a writer of powerful, lyrical prose that is intensely introspective, while also examining, through a very personal mirror, the realities of being a woman, a daughter, and a native of an island nation that, though it had some degree of home rule for most of her life, did not become independent from Great Britain until 1981. Born in Saint Johns, the capital of Antigua, as Elaine Potter Richardson, Kincaid was the daughter of a carpenter; it was her mother, described by Kincaid as a literate, cultured woman, who had the greater impact on her writing. In an interview with The New York Times Kincaid said, “The way I became a writer was that my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me,” a statement...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Kincaid’s work is dominated by the pictures of the beautiful island on which she grew up; by her tortured relationship with her family, especially her mother; and by her consciousness of Antigua’s tragic history of colonial rule and its wasted present of corruption and incompetence. In Annie John, Lucy, and The Autobiography of My Mother, Kincaid draws parallels between a government that fails to appreciate and foster its people’s abilities and the families of her autobiographical central characters, who also fail their children. The result inevitably is the child’s anger and rejection of the place that will always represent mother and home.
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