As in Jamaica Kincaid’s other fiction, the themes of The Autobiography of My Mother explore what happens to a young woman who grows up in a loveless household, in this case the child of a mother who died at her birth. Intermingled with Xuela’s immediate story is the story of the Caribbean island of Dominica, a land that once lived under the cold stepparent of colonial rule.
Since Xuela never knew her mother, and since her father is a distant figure in her life, her efforts to tell her mother’s story require her to tell her own story, beginning with her father depositing her to be cared for by his laundress, as if she were another bundle of dirty clothes. The laundress has no more warmth for Xuela than she has for her own children. Like others who live in poverty in Dominica, she faces a constant battle for survival, with no time for loving relationships.
As Xuela begins school, some themes emerge that color her life. One is an image of her mother descending a ladder to her; in the vision, Xuela can see only her mother’s heels, although gradually she creates a picture of the whole woman in her imagination and at last imagines an entire history for her. At the same time, Xuela begins to think about her father, a remote man who visits her only occasionally, a policeman whose life seems to suggest the possibilities of power. Already the child is beginning to understand the value in being able to make others do what she wants. Finally, as she attends school, Xuela begins to understand the disparity between what she is taught and what is truly relevant to life in Dominica. Her school is a product of English colonial rule, and its subjects are more suitable for England than for a Caribbean island. Throughout her life, Xuela has a painful consciousness of the legacy of colonialism.
Xuela spends her youth first in the laundress’s home, then in the household of her father and his second wife and her children, and then in the home of a friend of her father. Her ability to control others is coupled with a growing sexual sense as well as a generalized sensuality. As a result, her adolescence and adulthood are marked by a series of sexual encounters and several pregnancies (which she aborts). No one could call these liaisons love affairs, however, for love is impossible for a young woman who feels as abandoned as Xuela does.
In the last sections of the novel, in old age, Xuela imagines her parents’ courtship. Her father was the son of a Scottish sailor and a woman of African parentage; her mother was from the indigenous Carib people. Xuela imagines their clothing (always a subject of interest to her) and how they might have met, at last able to put a face, even though an imaginary one, to her mother’s figure. When finally Xuela marries, it is for power and sex rather than for love. She knows that she will never love children of her own but will remain, perhaps like the island of Dominica, an orphan in the world.
The Autobiography of My Mother offers a first-person, retrospective account of Xuela Richardson’s struggle, over the course of her life, to reconcile with the early loss of her mother. As a Dominican girl in the early twentieth century, Xuela must also learn to cultivate her own positive sense of self in an environment that is hostile to her because of her race and gender. The novel begins with Xuela’s birth and her mother’s consequent death and describes her early life in the home of a paid caretaker, Ma Eunice, her experiences at school, her sexual maturation, the establishment of her independent adult life, and, finally, her marriage to a man she does not love.
Ma Eunice is the first person with whom Xuela comes into conflict. This conflict is the result of Xuela’s intuitive rejection of Ma Eunice as someone who is not equipped to provide the nurturing that she requires. As a laundress struggling to raise her children alone, Ma Eunice occupies a social position that the young Xuela instinctively resists.
(The entire section is 1,310 words.)