Jamaica Kincaid 1949–-
(Born Elaine Potter Richardson) Antiguan-born American novelist, essayist, short story writer, memoirist, editor, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Kincaid's career through 2000. See also At the Bottom of the River Criticism.
Acclaimed for her lyrical prose and powerful voice, Kincaid is also known for the postmodern, stridently anticolonial stance discernable in her work. Most of her fiction is autobiographical, reflecting her belief that masters of whatever ilk are despicable, while slaves are always noble. Driven by anger and hostility toward the world of her native Antigua and its adopted British culture, Kincaid has explored the psychic side of island life through short stories in At the Bottom of the River (1983), while the public and personal aspects have received attention in the essay A Small Place (1988) and the novel Annie John (1985). Kincaid has also won critical praise for her novels Lucy (1990) and The Autobiography of My Mother (1995).
Born Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John's, Antigua, Kincaid attended government schools from the age of three, after having learned from her mother how to read and spell simple words. Within six months, she was attending school for a full day. She won a scholarship to attend the Princess Margaret School but left before taking her final examinations. Though she was the eldest of four children and a gifted, if somewhat rebellious, student, only her brothers were encouraged to aspire to a university education. Kincaid left Antigua at age seventeen and went to the United States to work as an au pair in Westchester County, New York. She had planned to pursue a nursing education, but once in the United States studied photography at the New School for Social Research in New York City and also attended Franconia College in New Hampshire. In 1973 she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid so that she could write anonymously. Her work came to the attention of George W. Trow, who wrote the “Talk of the Town” column in the New Yorker. Kincaid worked as a staff writer at the magazine from 1976 to 1995, contributing to and eventually writing the “Talk of the Town” column herself. Encouraged by William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, Kincaid began writing fiction as well. In 1979 she married composer Allen Shawn, the editor's son; they had two children, Annie in 1985 and Harold in 1989. Kincaid resides with her family in North Bennington, Vermont, and has recently appeared as a visiting professor at Harvard University. Kincaid's first book, At the Bottom of the River, won the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Her novel Annie John was followed by a group of prose sketches, Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip (1986). Angered by the legacy of colonialism that she found when she returned to Antigua for the first time in twenty years, Kincaid wrote the book-length polemic A Small Place. Subsequent to the publication of Lucy, Kincaid was awarded honorary degrees in 1991 from both Williams College and Long Island College, and in 1992 she received the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund annual writer's award. The Autobiography of My Mother was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1997. The memoir My Brother (1997) also received a National Book Award nomination that year.
Most of Kincaid's works are characterized by an exploration of mother-daughter relationships, which serve as a metaphor for the relationship between colonial powers and the countries they rule—between the powerful and the powerless and the mature and the struggling to mature—all informed by betrayal. At the Bottom of the River contains a series of sketches, considered prose poems by some readers; most of these were originally published in the New Yorker. The brief story “Girl” consists solely of a list of admonitions from mother to daughter, increasingly dichotomous and ultimately manipulative. The final two sketches, “My Mother” and the title story, laid the foundation for Kincaid's acclaimed coming-of-age novel Annie John, which explores the personal networks of family and friends experienced by the heroine on the island of Antigua. In the course of the novel, young Annie goes from feeling that she is the main object of her mother's love and attention to feeling rejected and therefore betrayed by her. As she matures, she experiences a painful separation from her mother, beginning with the mother's refusal to allow Annie to continue wearing dresses made of the same cloth as her own and culminating in her denial of access to a treasured trunk that contains icons of Annie's infancy. At the end of the book, like Kincaid herself, Annie leaves Antigua, torn from all she knows and mourning the loss of the familiar, with her contradictory feelings for her mother still unresolved.
The essay A Small Place chronicles Kincaid's horror at the conditions in Antigua shortly after the nation gained its independence in 1981. She especially deplores the condition of the library, which had been a place of refuge for her as a child. She finds it closed (apparently permanently), damaged by an earthquake, and left to decay. Kincaid eloquently argues that the new leaders have retreated into corruption; they have opted for an easy and selfish way out by blaming the effects of lingering colonialism for the social ills afflicting the island rather than accepting the responsibility to create a legitimate Antiguan identity separate from the British legacy. Written in the second person, Kincaid leaves no doubt about the glaring contrast between what tourists observe and what real life means for impoverished Antiguans. Lucy, like Kincaid's first two works of fiction, is autobiographical. Nineteen-year-old Lucy leaves her home in Antigua to become an au pair, or nanny, in the United States. The novel chronicles her experiences during her first year in a new culture. Everything, from winter weather to sex, is new to her, and she explores it all with abandon. Loss and betrayal figure prominently in this work. Lucy becomes friends with her employer, Mariah, and tells of her increasing sense of displacement and abandonment at home as her mother bore three sons and transferred her attention from her daughter to them. Particularly unforgivable were her mother's limited expectations of her daughter in comparison to her sons, especially regarding education. Another betrayal occurs when Mariah's husband, Lewis, leaves Mariah and their four daughters for another woman, who is Mariah's best friend. Lucy's feelings about her mother remain unresolved, though the novel closes with her beginning to write in a blank book given to her by Mariah, her new friend and surrogate mother.
The narrator of The Autobiography of My Mother is Xuela Claudette Richardson, a seventy-year-old resident of the island of Dominica. Her mother was an orphan and died giving birth to Xuela. Her father hands Xuela over to his laundress to raise and visits her every two weeks, when he picks up his clean clothing. Throughout the novel he is an object of contempt. Xuela resolves to live for no one but herself, to love no one but herself, and consequently approaches the end of her life alienated but not forlorn. The memoir My Brother relates Kincaid's experiences with her brother, Devon Drew, as he died of AIDS at age thirty-three. Her involvement in his illness draws her back to Antigua, where she is still unable to resolve the conflict with her mother and must confront her own and society's complicated feelings regarding homosexuality. Kincaid's subsequent works, My Favorite Plant (1998) and My Garden Book (1999), differ substantially from her others. Having developed a passion for growing things, Kincaid has traveled the world as a plant enthusiast and writes, sometimes humorously, sometimes reflectively, about her experiences.
Kincaid's work is regarded as unique among the various schools of Caribbean writing—neither fully feminist nor Afrocentric—and she is one of the most respected of all women authors from the area. Critics uniformly praise her lyrical, sometimes incantatory prose. She masterfully employs the rhetorical device of the list, making of it a liturgy in works like “Girl.” Critics note that her emphasis on dreams, an important part of Antiguan life, lends weight to the magical realism sometimes employed in her fiction, particularly in At the Bottom of the River. Her images also merit praise, many commentators observe. The hallmark of her writing is the mother-daughter bond, an emphasis that has provoked extensive psychoanalytic and feminist discussion of her work. However, Kincaid's focus on the stresses, strains, occasional joys, and many struggles of this relationship throughout nearly all of her work is more often thought to mirror the same qualities inherent in colonial empires and their aftermath, particularly the legacy of British hegemony in Antigua. Kincaid's anger, though, especially in A Small Place, coupled with the bleakness and despair suffusing many of her characters and their lives, has caused some reviewers to dislike her embittered and emotionally detached heroines. Yet Kincaid's women are both memorable and indicative of the author's avowed desire to exceed convention and experiment with form, gender, and her characters' feelings. This experimentation has led some critics to note that Kincaid's works move beyond themes of racism and feminism to the larger world of universal human emotion; in this sense, her writing has been compared with that of Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka.
At the Bottom of the River (short stories) 1983
Annie John (novel) 1985
Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip [illustrated by Eric Fischl] (prose sketches) 1986
A Small Place (essay) 1988
Lucy (novel) 1990
The Autobiography of My Mother (novel) 1995
The Best American Essays, 1995 [editor, with Robert Atwan] (essays) 1995
My Brother (memoir) 1997
My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love [editor] (essays) 1998
My Garden Book (nonfiction) 1999
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SOURCE: “The Exile's Bitter Return,” in Washington Post Book World, July 3, 1988, p. 14.
[In the following review of A Small Place, Nicholson commends Kincaid's impassioned denunciation of Antigua's colonial legacy, but finds fault with what he sees as her failure to move beyond description.]
At a time when the travel narrative seems to be enjoying a renaissance in American publishing it is difficult to find a place in that genre for this bitter little book [A Small Place]. Though it is a narrative of the author's return from the United States to her native land, the island of Antigua, this is no simple account of a journey home. Readers who come expecting visits to once familiar places, episodes detailing encounters with picturesque islanders and the insights into self that inevitably accrue to the returned exile writing about his return, will be disappointed. Instead, Jamaica Kincaid delivers a sour, inconclusive meditation on the evils of colonialism and its still visible crippling effects.
No one, black or white, escapes her sting as she writes about this “small place, a small island … nine miles wide by twelve miles long.” The British are “human rubbish from Europe.” By contrast, the Africans brought to Antigua against their will are “enslaved but noble and exalted human beings.” But the political stance implied in those statements is quickly...
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SOURCE: “Reflections, and The Bottom of the River: The Transformation of Caribbean Experience in the Fiction of Jamaica Kincaid,” in Wasafiri, No. 9, Winter, 1988–89, pp. 15–17.
[In the following essay, James discusses Kincaid's place in contemporary Caribbean literature and issues of self-awareness, alienation, and female identity in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.]
‘Jamaica who?’ To speak of Jamaica Kincaid, from Antigua, as an important Caribbean writer, often causes surprise. Her writing has had its passionate admirers for some years, and has appeared under a popular paperback imprint in Britain, but it has received surprisingly little academic notice outside the United States. At the 1988 Conference of West Indian Writing in Jamaica she was a main speaker, but only one paper was presented on her work, against several on other major Caribbean contemporary writers. Why has she been neglected?
It is partly because her work does not fit in to any of the fashionable schools of Caribbean writing, and her work itself is hard to characterise. Her two volumes of fiction could hardly appear more different. At the Bottom of the River (1983) is a collection of ten short stories and sketches from the New Yorker and the Paris Review. They are difficult, densely poetic, often surrealistic,—a collage of images and impressions that...
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SOURCE: “A Journey of Self-Discovery,” in Washington Post Book World, October 7, 1990, p. 7.
[In the following review of Lucy,Moore commends Kincaid's powerful prose, but finds shortcomings in the book's detached protagonist.]
Jamaica Kincaid's second novel, Lucy, is cool and fierce. It begins one January night with the arrival of 19-year-old Lucy Josephine Potter, a clear-eyed, intelligent girl from the West Indies, in a big, dirty American city. She has come to work for Mariah and Lewis, minding their four young daughters. Lucy is unworldly. She has never seen snow or been in an elevator. She is accustomed to saying grace before meals and she naively tells Mariah and Lewis her dreams, dreams in which Lewis chases a naked Lucy around the house.
With a selfish importunity that happily does not give her pause, Lucy goes about losing her island innocence with the vitality of someone who believes her entitlements equal her risks. She finds a young man, Paul, to satisfy her heartless, guiltless desire. She tells Mariah about him as they sit at night at the kitchen table: “Except for eating, all the time we spent together was devoted to sex. I told her what everything felt like, how surprised I was to be thrilled by the violence of it (for sometimes it was that, violent), what an adventure this part of my life had become, and how much I looked forward to it, because I had...
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SOURCE: “Jamaica Kincaid and the Resistance to Canons,” in Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido, Africa World Press, 1990, pp. 345–54.
[In the following essay, Covi examines intersecting aspects of African-American literature, postmodernity, and autobiography in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John. Covi interprets Kincaid's themes of racial identity, alienation, and history in terms of French literary theory, but maintains that Kincaid's writing defies easy literary classification.]
Derrida in Positions1 speaks of the necessity of ridding oneself of a metaphysical concept of history that is linear and systematic. His claim is for a new logic of repetition and trace, for a monumental, contradictory, multi-levelled history in which the différance that produces many differences is not effaced. Jamaica Kincaid's At the Bottom of the River2 and Annie John3 represent examples of writing that break through the objective, metaphysical linearity of the tradition. At the same time, her voice manages to speak up for her specificity without—in so doing—reproducing in the negative the modes of classical white patriarchal tradition. Kincaid's voice is that of a woman and an Afro-Caribbean/American and a post-modern at the same time. This combination is...
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SOURCE: “Island Daughter,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 5, February, 1991, pp. 5–6.
[In the following review of Lucy,Adisa discusses Kincaid's portrayal of Caribbean life and continuities between Annie John and Lucy, concluding that the latter's protagonist is less likeable.]
Sardonic is the word that kept ringing through my head as I read Jamaica Kincaid's latest novel [Lucy]. Kincaid and I are sisters in that we are both children of the tropics, she a daughter of Antigua, I a daughter of Jamaica. So I should be able to say that I know Kincaid, but I don't, although I am intimate with a lot of the things she writes about. I certainly don't know Lucy Warner, the heroine of this novel, nor anyone like her who completely severs connections to her roots, her ancestry. Yet I understand her ruthless determination to shape herself in sharp contrast to the West Indian community she is trying to flee.
In an interview with Selwyn Cudjoe that appeared in Callaloo in 1989, Kincaid, asked if her first novel, Annie John, was autobiographical, responded: “The feelings in it are autobiographical, yes. I didn't want to say that it was autobiographical because I felt that would be somehow admitting something about myself, but it is, and so that's that.”1
If Annie John is partially autobiographical, then so is...
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SOURCE: “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” in The Nation, February 18, 1991, pp. 207–09.
[In the following review of Lucy,Als discusses Kincaid's bitter depiction of Caribbean colonialism and racism in Lucy and A Small Place, noting their effect on shattering the popular myth of tropical paradise.]
With the publication of her short-story collection At the Bottom of the River in 1984, Jamaica Kincaid became our premier monologuist about the Caribbean. Focusing on her native Antigua, she wrested from it a variety of tales whose locus was dispossession: the emigrant who abandons the familiar in favor of self-invention in the new.
The means Kincaid has employed to examine this theme—fiction and the essay—have prompted two critical reactions. For works like River and the first-person coming-of-age novel Annie John (1985), she has been lauded as a “poet of the particular” whose eye for the minutiae of daily life in Antigua was remarked on as being sensitive, vital, “true.”
As an essayist, she has fared badly. A Small Place (1988), her report on returning to Antigua after an absence of twenty years, was, on the whole, either ignored or reviled. Stripped of her fictional voice, Kincaid's “I” was deemed intolerable, too insistent in its felt language of invective hurled against “you”—the white tourist—on...
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SOURCE: A review of Lucy, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter, 1992, p. 185.
[In the following review, Hawthorne discusses issues of racial identity and cultural displacement in Lucy,concluding that such themes are treated with more complexity in this book than in Kincaid's previous works.]
With Lucy Jamaica Kincaid continues a story of West Indian female development. Whereas the earlier bildungsroman-style works At the Bottom of the River (1983; see WLT 58:2, p. 316) and Annie John (1985; see WLT 59:4, p. 644) dealt with the adolescent years of a girl in the Caribbean, the new book presents a single learning year—the nineteenth—in the life of a character called Lucy, in the new setting of the United States. Lucy is an immigrant engaged to work as an au pair for a wealthy white couple and their four young daughters. Her year is complexly lived with its attendant difficult times, but it provides Lucy with learning experiences that enable her to manage the cultural change and her passage. By the end of this year she can appreciate the commitment of sisterhood (with her employer, for instance), has negotiated a social world of friends and lovers, and has embarked on an independent life provided for by a job as a photographer's helper. She has, moreover, survived the separation from her West Indian mother and upbringing, tasting an...
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SOURCE: “Lucy and the Mark of the Colonizer,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 237–59.
[In the following essay, Ferguson examines problematic issues of cultural, sexual, and racial identity in Lucy,focusing on the protagonist's struggle to free herself from the established order and prejudices of Eurocentric colonialism.]
As I go on writing, I feel less and less interested in the approval of the First World, and I never had the approval of the world I came from, so now I don't know where I am. I've exiled myself yet again.
—Donna Perry, “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.”
“But I couldn't speak, so I couldn't tell her that my mother was my mother and that society and history and culture and other women in general were something else altogether.”
[The third scenario] is the scene where this new thing [cultural positionality] is worked out, and the difficulty we are having is the difficulty of that discourse emerging.
—Stuart Hall, “Third Scenario: Theory and Politics of Location.”
In her first post-Antiguan novel, Lucy (1990), whose title character travels from Antigua to the United States, Jamaica Kincaid...
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SOURCE: “The Rhythm of Reality in the Works of Jamaica Kincaid,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 466–72.
[In the following essay, Simmons discusses the recurring themes of loss and betrayal in Kincaid's fiction, specifically addressing the author's use of repetitive language and litanies in her prose to underscore contradictions and to effect closure.]
At heart Jamaica Kincaid's work is not about the charm of a Caribbean childhood, though her first and best-known novel, Annie John (1983), may leave this impression. Nor is it about colonialism, though her angry, book-length essay, A Small Place (1988), accuses the reader of continuing the exploitation begun by Columbus. Nor, finally, is Kincaid's work about black and white in America, though her second novel, Lucy (1990), runs a rich white urban family through the shredder of a young black au pair's rage.
At heart Kincaid's work is about loss, an all but unbearable fall from a paradise partially remembered, partially dreamed, a state of wholeness in which things are unchangeably themselves and division is unknown. This paradise has been displaced by a constantly shifting reality, which is revealed to the reader through the rhythms and repetitions of Kincaid's prose. In the long, seemingly artless, list-like sentences, the reader is mesmerized into Kincaid's world, a world in which...
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SOURCE: “Anger in a Small Place: Jamaica Kincaid's Cultural Critique of Antigua,” in College Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, February, 1995, pp. 91–103.
[In the following essay, Byerman examines the significance of anger, resentment, and resistance in Kincaid's fiction as a response to colonial oppression and cultural loss in Antiguan society, particularly as experienced by women and symbolized by the mother-daughter relationship.]
Jamaica Kincaid's first three works—At the Bottom of the River (1983), Annie John (1985), and A Small Place (1988)—which are focused on life on Antigua, Kincaid's native island, reflect a deep hostility toward that world. Though the books employ differing discourses—fiction and polemic—and focus on varying aspects of life there, they share an anger about that island that the author makes little effort to conceal. That anger is about colonialism and its effects, especially in A Small Place. But more fundamentally, these works challenge the assumptions of Antiguan culture itself. A Small Place examines the public realm, and Annie John the more personal one of family and friends, while At the Bottom of the River focuses on the private world of the psyche and dreams.
Another way to express the differences in the representations of Antiguan society is to figure them in gendered terms. A Small Place...
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SOURCE: “An interview with Jamaica Kincaid,” in Publishers Weekly, January 1, 1996, pp. 54–6.
[In the following interview, Kreilkamp provides an overview of Kincaid's life and literary career upon the publication of The Autobiography of My Mother, and Kincaid comments on her relationship with the New Yorker,publishing, and gardening.]
A teenage girl in the mid-1960s abandons her home on Antigua, a tiny island in the West Indies, bound for New York and not to return home for 19 years. She becomes an au pair for a family in Scarsdale, N.Y., then for a different family in New York City. She breaks off all contact with her mother, takes photography courses at the New School, dyes her hair blonde and changes her name. A few years later, in her early 20s, she convinces Ingenue, a girls' magazine, to allow her to interview Gloria Steinem. The article is a success, and soon she's writing pop music criticism for the Village Voice and “Talk of the Town” pieces for the New Yorker. She writes her first work of fiction—“Girl”—a hectoring monologue in the voice of her mother, which is published in 1978 as one incandescent page in the New Yorker. By the time her first collection is published in 1983, she's being hailed as one of the most important new fiction writers of the decade.
Jamaica Kincaid's life story sounds a bit like a cross...
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SOURCE: “Sculpted from Fire,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 14, 1996, p. 3.
[In the following review, Eder offers a favorable evaluation of The Autobiography of My Mother.]
Her mother was a foundling left near the door of a convent on the island of Dominica. And when Xuela, narrator of this beautiful, harsh story, was born, the mother died. So Xuela was a doubled orphan, her woman's lineage extinguished for two generations back.
Furthermore, to be a West Indian woman of color, a mix of Scottish, Carib Indian and African, was to have a history scrawled in such violently contradictory pen strokes—by white freebooters, indigenous forebears and slaves brought over as cargo—as to obliterate itself. To have an obliterated history is to have an unappeasable grievance against the present and the future.
Xuela calls her story, told at the end of her life, the autobiography of her mother. But her mother, of course, had none, or none that Xuela could know. So this is an augmented contradiction, and she hoists it as a banner of solitude and defiance. “My mother died when I was born,” she repeats perhaps a dozen times in a book that is sculpted finely out of fire, as much incantation as narrative, yet employing every one of a narrative's agile sinews.
“For my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back...
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SOURCE: “A Daughter Forced to Be Her Own Mother,” in Christian Science Monitor, January 17, 1996, p. 14.
[In the review below, Rubin gives a positive assessment of The Autobiography of My Mother.]
The very title of Jamaica Kincaid's third novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, poses a paradox, and not just the time-honored one of labeling a work of fiction a true story. The narrator of this particular “autobiography” is a woman whose mother died giving birth to her. The life story that she tells is not her dead mother's, but her own.
Yet, because the narrator and heroine of this story has no children of her own, it seems impossible that she could be the “mother” of the title, even though it is clearly her autobiography.
Whose story is it? We are left to conclude, perhaps, that this woman, in telling her own life story, is somehow speaking on behalf of her lost mother, whose story cannot really be known or told.
The opening sentence sounds the novel's keynote: “My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity: at my back was always a bleak, black wind.” The narrator is born on the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica. We do not even learn her name until a third of the way through the book: A name, she insists, is “not the gateway” to who one really is....
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SOURCE: “The Broken Plate of Heaven,” in The Nation, February 5, 1996, pp. 23–5.
[In the following review, Segal offers a favorable evaluation of The Autobiography of My Mother.]
The heroine of Jamaica Kincaid's new novel [The Autobiography of My Mother] is Xuela Claudette Richardson. “Xuela” is for her Carib mother, “Claudette” for “some nuns from France” who brought the mother up, “Richardson” is for the Scottish half of her father's blood and the whole, she says, is a humiliation that could intoxicate you with self-hatred.
What those nuns from France brought her mother up to be was a “long suffering, unquestioning, modest, wishing-to-die-soon person,” for she died giving Xuela birth. The father put the baby, along with his dirty washing, into the care of Ma Eunice, who was not unkind, recalls Xuela. “She treated me just the way she treated her own children. … In a place like this, brutality is the only real inheritance.”
Xuela, we presently discover, in rethinking her life from the vantage of her lonely 70s. There is in the novel's second half some tired, talky prose full of floating wisdoms, but at its center of despairing anger transforms thought into figures and metaphors that tumble so thick and fast the reader reels with pleasure.
Xuela's first accidental childhood act is to break the plate she has been...
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SOURCE: A review of The Autobiography of My Mother, in Antioch Review, Vol. 54, No. 3, Summer, 1996, p. 368.
[In the following brief review of The Autobiography of My Mother, Keller praises Kincaid's prose, but finds the novel's rage one-dimensional.]
In her earlier novels, Annie John and Lucy, Kincaid traced the lives of expatriate Caribbean women, centering on their difficult relationships with their mothers. Mourning the mother's death and repeated loss becomes the life-long project of Xuela, narrator of this third novel [The Autobiography of My Mother], whose widowed father leaves her with a laundry woman, Eunice. After Xuela accidentally breaks a cherished plate, she learns that “Brutality is the only real inheritance and cruelty is sometimes the only thing freely given.” Sent home, she finds her father a bullying policeman. Her stepmother tries to kill her with a poisoned necklace. At 14, Xuela is sent to live with Monsieur LaBatte and his infertile wife, who encourages her to have his baby. Xuela defiantly gets an abortion and vows never to have children. Her sexuality becomes her only and mostly solitary pleasure in a grim life. On and on goes the litany of Xuela's losses: the deaths of her father and her brother, the maiming of her sister, and her own marriage to a European man she views as obsessed with decay.
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SOURCE: “Romantic Struggles: The Bildungsroman and Mother-Daughter Bonding in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John,” in MELUS, Vol. 21, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 123–42.
[In the following essay, Canton examines the complex process of female maturation and identity formation in Annie John. According to Canton, the novel embodies an integration of traditionally male-centered narrative modes, such as the Bildungsroman, and the protagonist's development may be understood in terms of psychological theories of mother-daughter bonding and archetypal elements of Joseph Campbell's “monomyth” concept.]
Shortly after its publication in 1983, Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John received high praise from critics who welcomed the verve and strength of this new, black female voice. Even though reviewers differed in regard to the novel's political, cultural, and ideological themes, a clear majority of them agreed on the central importance of Kincaid's conflictual presentation of the mother-daughter relationship. And for good reason. Kincaid's involved descriptions of familial alliances generate provocative psychological interpretations. For example, in the novel's earliest full page review, Susan Kenny announces how Annie John provides “valuable insight about the complex relationship between mothers and daughters” (6). Roni Natov simply states that “Annie John is a fully...
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SOURCE: “Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy: Cultural ‘Translation’ as a Case of Creative Exploration of the Past,” in MELUS, Vol. 21, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 141–57.
[In the following essay, Oczkowicz examines the process by which the protagonist of Lucy attempts to forge an independent self-identity that reconciles her past experiences in post-colonial Antigua and present realities in America.]
In her potent essay “On Seeing England for the First Time,” Jamaica Kincaid writes: “The space between the idea of something and its reality is always wide and deep and dark” (37). Her reflection delineates the “space” of complex post-colonial experience which has captured and shaped the lives of many peoples colonized since Christopher Columbus's first conquests. Born on Antigua, a former British colony, Kincaid, as both a writer and an individual, struggles with her legacy of post-colonialism. A Small Place (1988) is her insightful critical analysis of political, historical, and cultural aspects of the post-colonial reality on Antigua. Her collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River (1978), and the first novel, Annie John (1983), deal with her Antiguan childhood and adolescence. All of them represent an attempt to define the most vital aspects of post-colonial experience: psychological, cultural, and social marginality; political exclusion; racial and...
(The entire section is 6420 words.)
SOURCE: “The Broken Clock: Time, Identity, and Autobiography in Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy,” in CLA Journal, Vol. XL, No. 1, September, 1996, pp. 90–103.
[In the following essay, Chick discusses the inescapable burden of the past in Lucy, and the way in which the novel's female protagonist finally confronts her childhood through the act of autobiography. According to Chick, Lucy's conception of linear time is a psychological evasion that, in the end, gives way to the concept of cyclical time, reflected in the narrative itself.]
In the final chapter of Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid, the protagonist's new apartment faces a clock on a tower that Lucy “stared at … for a long time before [she] realized that it was broken.”1 This image points to an important theme in the 1990 short story cycle: Lucy's sense of time and how it affects her identity. She claims that
there is a line … there it is, your past, a collection of people you used to be and things you used to do. Your past is the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in.
She subscribes to a linear sense of time, believing that she can simply negate her past by focusing solely on the future. The image of the broken clock suggests that her sense of time is impaired, and the fact that she does not...
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SOURCE: “Caribbean Frost,” in New Statesman, October 11, 1996, p. 45.
[In the following review, Stuart concludes that The Autobiography of My Mother is “one of the most beautifully written books I have read, and one of the most alienating.”]
“My mother died at the moment I was born and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind.” So begins Kincaid's dark and disturbing novel [The Autobiography of My Mother]. It tells of Xuela Claudia Richardson, who after the death of her mother is farmed out to the local laundress, along with her father's dirty clothes, and is finally taken back into his home years later under the murderous eye of his new wife.
Xuela's road is one of “sadness and shame and pity for myself”. At 15 she embarks on an affair with one of her father's friends, gets pregnant and has an abortion. This becomes something of a rebirth. “I had never had a mother. I had just recently refused to become one and I knew that this refusal would be complete. … I would bear [children] in abundance … but I would destroy them with the carelessness of a god.”
Set in Dominica—a Caribbean setting like that of Kincaid's novels Lucy and Annie John, and her long essay A Small Place—The Autobiography of My Mother is not a picture of the...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Autobiography of My Mother, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, p. 202.
[In the following review, Brice-Finch offers a favorable summary of The Autobiography of My Mother.]
What is the plight of a girl child who has no connection to her mother? If she is abandoned on a doorstep to be raised by nuns, perhaps she is then fated to die in childbirth. The grandchild is destined to be a solitary soul, disconnected as well. Such is the fate of a Carib maternal line in Jamaica Kincaid's 1996 novel. The Autobiography of My Mother is a lush evocation of personhood devoid of love, the emotion that binds one to another. Xuela Claudette Richardson wanders through her seventy years detached from humans but rooted in her environment.
The small island of Dominica is painted in fine strokes: the sea in its changing moods, the bright flora and fauna, the picturesque towns. The people are all ordinary in their vanities and vices. What distinguishes them is the precision with which the narrator in her memoir reveals their character. Despite an intense longing, Xuela never sees even a picture of her mother yet has a recurrent dream in which her mother in a long white gown descends on a ladder toward her. However, “no more of her was ever revealed. Only her heels and the hem of her gown.”
The other women in the book are also...
(The entire section is 523 words.)
SOURCE: “Dying in Antigua,” in The Nation, November 3, 1997, pp. 43–4.
[In the following review of My Brother, Wachman praises Kincaid's narrative voice and understated clarity, but finds shortcomings in Kincaid's understanding of homosexuality.]
To read Jamaica Kincaid's memoir, My Brother, is to re-experience her unforgettable narrative voice, revisiting Antigua over the three years that Devon is dying of AIDS, and re-characterizing the island, her mother and the child/adolescent self chronicled in her earlier books. The lucid, assertive, deceptively simple voice takes its time in fleshing out the figures of the memoir, both in their present and in the past, circling around Devon and the multiple meanings of his life, illness and death. The narrative loops between the United States and Antigua, contrasting Kincaid's “now privileged North American way” with the lives of her brothers and mother. It recalls both the double setting of Lucy and the triple denunciation in A Small Place of tourist complacency, imperialist oppression and government corruption.
But Kincaid's voice is less angry here, and more reflective. Indeed, she explicitly distances herself from A Small Place, “a … book in which I did nothing but cast blame and make denunciations.” There is still rage, however, against conditions in Antigua, where she finds “her youngest...
(The entire section is 1487 words.)
SOURCE: “Gender and Exile: Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 44, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 169–83.
[In the following review, Mahlis examines aspects of cultural alienation, the mother-daughter relationship, and female sexuality in Lucy, focusing on the female protagonist's efforts to “decolonize” herself. According to Mahlis, Kincaid's portrayal of Lucy evokes “the space of the female exile, a space that is shaped by the complex interaction between the female body and masculinist cultural imperatives.”]
But what I see is the millions of people, of whom I am just one. made orphans: no motherland, no fatherland, no gods, no mounds of earth for holy ground, no excess of love which might lead to the things that an excess of love sometimes brings, and worst and most painful of all, no tongue.
—Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place
The above quote, taken from the Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid's polemical work on the history and effects of the British colonial rule of her native island, thematizes what I see to be the central concerns of many Caribbean authors whose protagonists are exiles. In describing the violence of colonial conquest, Kincaid emphasizes a fundamental loss of security and belonging, using the word “orphan” to describe the colonial condition of existential...
(The entire section is 7698 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Autobiography of My Mother, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 73, No. 3, Fall, 1999, pp. 137–39.
[In the following review, Plant offers a positive assessment of The Autobiography of My Mother.]
“[T]he name of any one person is at once her history recapitulated and abbreviated,” declares Xuela Claudette Richardson. Her name, she concludes, was not her “real name.” What she was called was rather the path to “a humiliation so permanent that it would replace your own skin.” Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother is an account of Xuela's search for who she really was and her conscious, studied avoidance of the humiliation her history portended. Her search began and dead-ended with her parents. Her mother, Xuela Claudette Desvarieux, was abandoned in infancy, to be claimed by a convent nun, Claudette Desvarieux. And the moment of Xuela Claudette Richardson's birth was her own mother's death. Her mother was a Carib woman, of “a vanishing people” who “had been defeated and then exterminated, thrown away like the weeds in a garden.” Her father, Alfred Richardson, though among the quick, was an impenetrable mask. In reconciling the legacies of his African mother and Scottish father, he assumed a callous posture with which to negotiate the world. “Everything mattered, and then again, nothing mattered,” to this parent whose daughter describes him as...
(The entire section is 776 words.)
SOURCE: “Growing Pleasures,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 6, March, 2000, p. 5.
[In the following review, Kumin gives a favorable evaluation of My Garden Book, although she expresses distaste for the book's graphic format.]
Jamaica Kincaid's passion for growing things, hovering over them with encouraging words, cursing the withered failures [in My Garden Book], is one I understand. Though my organic garden is limited to vegetables, except for a few edible, therefore utilitarian, flowers such as nasturtiums and citrus marigolds, I share her compulsion to raise plants out of the earth. The dailiness of this attention, the worry over late frosts in May and premature ones in September, the need to provide sun-lovers with full sun, sometimes at the expense of lurking trees, the constant watering in times of reduced rainfall, the vigilant search for tomato hornworms, squash borers, slugs, mice, voles and rabbits all make up the essence of gardener.
Add to these the passion to grow something new, something foreign, even something doubtful of success in one's zone five or six garden and there you are, accompanying Kincaid on her excursion to China with a band of other fervent plant hunters. Rhododendrons grow here, with fuzzy undersides as soft as felt; there are daffodils; fields full of euphorbia, a cactus-like spurge; irises unknown in the West. Day after day...
(The entire section is 1296 words.)
Bloom, Harold [editor]. Jamaica Kincaid. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998, 186 p.
A collection of critical essays about Kincaid and her work.
Bonetti, Kay. “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” Missouri Review XV, No. 2 (1992): 125-42.
Kincaid discusses the characters and female relationships in her fiction; her cultural background, literary beginnings, and influences; and the impact of her early life and relationship with her mother on her writing.
Ferguson, Moira. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
Contains critical essays on At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, A Small Place, and Lucy.
Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
A book-length study of Kincaid and her writings.
Quindlen, Anna. “The Past Is Another Country.” New York Times Book Review (19 October 1997): 7.
A review of My Brother.
Schine, Cathleen. “A World as Cruel as Job's.” New York Times Book Review (4 February 1996): 5.
A review of The Autobiography of My Mother.
Simmons, Diane. “Jamaica Kincaid and...
(The entire section is 402 words.)