Written in a singsong prose style heavy with repetition, My Brother chronicles without pause or respite the ebb and flow of Devon Drew’s illness and death from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Drew, the youngest of three brothers, is the half brother of the memoir’s author, Jamaica Kincaid. The two share a mother, Mrs. Drew, but they have different fathers. They also live very different lives. Drew, a man in his thirties, lives with his mother in Antigua. Kincaid, who is thirteen years older, lives in Vermont with her own children. She is an international best-selling and critically acclaimed author, while Drew has no job, dreams of being a musician, and occasionally steals from his own brothers. Even his language does not sound like her language.
In her earlier works, A Small Place (1988) and The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), Kincaid found abundant fault with both motherhood and her motherland. In My Brother, she again grapples with both, as she returns to Antigua to fulfill familial obligations. Kincaid struggles with herself, asking if she loves her brother. She struggles with her mother, a woman who loves her children not well but too much. She struggles with an Antiguan culture that isolates its AIDS patients and waits for them to waste away in lonely squalor. She struggles with her dying brother Devon, a man who rejects her values, questions her motives, and pursues his pleasures at his own peril.
Devon’s life is devoted to sex, drugs, and reggae. A Rastafarian, he smokes “the weed” daily and occasionally uses cocaine. His family members believe that he has contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) through heterosexual sex. Devon often boasts to his sister that he “loves the girls.” Enabling this lifestyle, Mrs. Drew wants only to comfort her baby boy, and she displays every ounce of motherly devotion. All of her sons live under her roof. It is only when her children show signs of independence—when her children need her not physically but only morally—that she, as the author argues repeatedly, reveals herself to be a poor mother.
Antiguans have no access to azidothymidine (AZT) or any other powerful drugs capable of allaying the AIDS virus. They take a fatalistic approach to the disease, failing to see the point of prolonging a life that cannot be saved. Only limited resources are expended to help those who seem able to recover. People dying of AIDS are shunned, tended only by their families. Devon’s friends never visit him.
Fighting this endemic denial is Dr. Prince Ramsey; a man Kincaid is surprised to find in Antigua. With his encouragement and help, Kincaid buys her brother added years of life, importing AZT and other drugs from the United States. The drugs cause Devon to make a seemingly miraculous recovery. Antiguan doctors, however, do not know what to do with a recovering AIDS patient; they have never had one before.
Thanks to his sister’s generosity, Devon goes home to his mother—and to his old, self-destructive way of life. Devon has unprotected sex, and he doubts whether he even really had AIDS. He certainly never tells anyone that he is HIV-positive. It is only after Devon’s death that Kincaid learns the truth about her brother: He was bisexual, hiding his sexual orientation from even his closest friends and family. This discovery saddens Kincaid the most—not because her brother was gay, but because he could never be free to be himself. His life was a lie.
Antigua is a small West Indian island, twelve miles long and nine miles wide. Christopher Columbus...
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arrived in Antigua in 1493, and he named the tiny island after the Church of Santa Maria de la Antigua in Sevilla, Spain. Soon after, Antigua was settled by the Spanish, French, and British, and in 1667 it became a British colony under the Treaty of Breda.
Although Antigua was still governed by the British, when Kincaid was growing up there, it became self-governing on February 27, 1967, and was known for the next fourteen years as an Associated State of Britain. In 1981, Antigua became an independent nation within the Commonwealth. Because Antigua was an outpost of British rule for so long, the educational system was British, which accounts for the fact that Kincaid and Devon both love John Milton, and Devon’s favorite sport is cricket. In a New York Times interview, Kincaid said, ‘‘In my generation, the height of being a civilized person was to be English and to love English things and eat like English people. We couldn’t really look like them, but we could approximate being an English person.’’
In A Small Place, Kincaid recalls that May 24th, Queen Victoria’s birthday, was a holiday in Antigua. Instead of being incensed because the birthday of this unappealing person was meaningless to Antiguans, the Antiguans were grateful for a holiday from work. When Kincaid grows up and finds herself sitting across from an Englishman at a dinner party, he laments that he too celebrated the meaningless event. Her response is that at least he understood that Queen Victoria was dead. In that angry book, Kincaid writes that she has no tongue other than that of the criminal and that her language is built to express Englishmen’s points of view. English cannot, she believes, adequately contain or express the horror, injustice, and agony of the criminal’s deeds.
One of Kincaid’s trademarks is writing about the curiously ambivalent feelings the colonized harbor toward the colonizers. This is evident in her fiction as well as in My Brother. She recalls that Devon was obsessed with ‘‘the great hero–thieves of English maritime history: Horatio Nelson, John Hawkins, Francis Drake . . . he thought (as do I) that this history of ours was primarily an account of theft and murder (‘‘Dem tief, dem a dam tief’’), but presented in such a way as to make the account seem inevitable and even fun . . . he liked the people who won, even though he was among the things that had been won.’’
Kincaid writes about the odd ways of Antigua in A Small Place. She describes her birth place as hopelessly disorganized; for instance, a sign saying the library was damaged in the earthquake of 1974 and is pending repairs, hung there for more than a decade without the repairs being made. And yet she doesn’t feel that it’s right to criticize today’s Antigua without noting that the country is the way it is because Antiguans lived under the dysfunctional and infantilizing relationship of colonialism for so long.
Diction The diction of each family member is revealing. Kincaid’s writing is formal, almost distant, and her carefully constructed sentences stand in direct contrast to the casual island diction of her mother and brothers. Devon speaks in an island dialect by which AIDS is always referred to as ‘‘de chupidness.’’ Kincaid can no longer readily understand her brother—she’s always asking him to repeat himself—and he finds her way of speaking comical.
Metaphor Diction is one metaphor for what separates Kincaid from the family in which she was raised. There’s also a sense in which the cruelty of Kincaid’s childhood has now manifested itself as adult sickness, a physical metaphor for the psychological pain she and her brothers experience. Not only has Devon become fatally ill, but after Kincaid’s mother visits her in the United States, she recalls, ‘‘I was sick for three months. I had something near to a nervous breakdown, I suffered from anxiety and had to take medicine to treat it; I got the chicken pox, which is a disease of childhood and a disease I had already had when I was a child.’’
In Kincaid’s memoir, metaphor sometimes leads in unexpected directions. When Kincaid learns that her brother was probably a closet homosexual, she sees his life as a flower that failed to bloom, the bud becoming brown and dropping off at her feet. And here, the failure of metaphor to carry her readers to its logical end haunts her. ‘‘But the feeling that his life with its metaphor of the bud of a flower firmly set, blooming, and then the blossom fading, the flower setting a seed which bore inside another set of buds, leading to flowers, and so on and so on into eternity—this feeling that his life actually should have provided such a metaphor, so ordinary an image, so common and so welcoming had it been just so, could not leave me . . .’’
Although Kincaid uses metaphor throughout this memoir, she’s also distrustful of the potential for using the device to reach overwrought or incorrect conclusions. When Kincaid hears the opening of the zipper on the bag that contains her dead brother Devon, she compares it to a dangerous reptile announcing its presence.
Style Here’s how Anna Quindlen describes Kincaid’s writing style in a 1997 New York Times review of My Brother: ‘‘The stylistic ground she covers in this book is also recognizable from her past work, the endless incantatory sentences a contrast to the simple words and images—a tower built of small bricks.’’ Kincaid’s style is consistent both with a rigorous search for truth and an acknowledgement that the truth can never be known. As Kincaid repeatedly tells the reader things they take for granted— that Kincaid’s husband is the father of her children, that Kincaid’s mother is the mother of her brothers— she makes the point that there are no givens, everything must be examined and either confirmed or refuted.
Repetition is a style consistent with not knowing where one’s thoughts are leading or should lead. At her most ambivalent, Kincaid is also her most repetitive. ‘‘My talk was full of pain, it was full of misery, it was full of anger, there was no peace to it, there was much sorrow, but there was no peace to it.’’ Twice in a single sentence, Kincaid reminds us that she derives no peace from talking about her brother and his illness.
My Brother was adapted into an audio book performed by Jamaica Kincaid. The audio book runs for 360 minutes and was published by Penguin Audiobooks.
Sources ‘‘Don’t Mess with Gardener and Author Jamaica Kincaid,’’ in Boston Globe, June 20, 1996.
Garis, Leslie, ‘‘Through West Indian Eyes,’’ in New York Times, October 7, 1990, p. 42.
Garner, Dwight, ‘‘Jamaica Kincaid,’’ in Salon, November 8, 1995.
Goldfarb, Brad, ‘‘My Brother,’’ in Interview, Vol. 27, No. 10, October 1997, p. 94.
Hartman, Diane, Review, in Denver Post, December 7, 1997.
Kerr, Sarah, ‘‘The Dying of the Light,’’ in Slate, October 21, 1997.
Lopate, Phillip, Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Doubleday, 1994.
Quindlen, Anna, ‘‘The Past is Another Country,’’ in New York Times, October 19, 1997.
Skow, John, Review, in Time, Vol. 150, No. 20, November 10, 1997, p. 108.
Snell, Marilyn, ‘‘Jamaica Kincaid Hates Happy Endings,’’ in Mother Jones, September–October 1997.
Further Reading Bloom, Harold, ed., ‘‘Jamaica Kincaid,’’ in Caribbean Women Writers, Chelsea House, 1997, pp. 104–116. This overview of Kincaid’s work was written prior to the publication of My Brother.
Graham, Renee, ‘‘A Death in the Family: Jamaica Kincaid’s Wrenching, Incantatory Story of her Brother Devon,’’ in Boston Globe, November 2, 1997, p. N1. Graham describes Kincaid’s memoir as one of ‘‘unsparing honesty’’ in this detailed review of her book.
Hainley, Bruce, ‘‘My Brother,’’ in Artforum, Vol. 36, No. 3, November 1997, p. S27. In this book review of My Brother, Hainley compares Kincaid to writers Michel Leiris and Elizabeth Bishop.
Kaufman, Joanne, ‘‘Jamaica Kincaid: An Author’s Unsparing Judgments Earn Her an Unwanted Reputation for Anger,’’ in People Weekly, Vol. 48, No. 24, December 15, 1997, p. 109. This interview with Kincaid following the nomination of My Brother for a National Book Award touches on topics ranging from Tina Brown, editor of The New Yorker, to Kincaid’s family history, her conversion to Judaism, and her passion for gardening.
Kurth, Peter, ‘‘My Brother: A Memoir,’’ in Salon, October 9, 1997. Kurth’s book review focuses on Kincaid’s relationship with her mother, comparing My Brother to The Autobiography of My Mother.
Brophy, Sarah. “Angels in Antigua: The Disaporic of Melancholy in Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 117, no. 2 (March, 2002): 265-277. Explores the connection between melancholia and mourning. Questions whether Kincaid is mourning the loss of her youngest brother, whom she only saw at the beginning and the ending of his life, or her sadness and grief reflect her own lost opportunities mixed with survivor’s guilt.
Kaufman, Joanne. “Jamaica Kincaid: An Author’s Unsparing Judgments Earn Her an Unwanted Reputation for Anger.” People 48, no. 24 (December 15, 1997): 109-112. Powerlessness, this article suggests, is at the heart of Kincaid’s writings. On writing about her thirty-three-year-old brother’s death, she is quoted here saying, “We were both dreamers, both lived in our heads. I thought, ’This could be me.’”
Kincaid, Jamaica. “Jamaica Kincaid Hates Happy Endings.” Interview by Marilyn Snell. Mother Jones 22, no. 5 (September/October, 1997): 28-31. Refers to Kincaid’s “continuing obsessions.” Kincaid says she is more concerned with pursuing truth than with the happiness or sadness of that truth.
McDowell, Deborah E. “Darkness Visible.” Review of My Brother, by Jamaica Kincaid. Women’s Review of Books 15, no. 4 (January, 1998): 1-3. Makes the point that all books about death are also about life—about what the living make of it and how death affects them.
Page, Kezia. “What If He Did Not Have a Sister [Who Lived in the United States]? Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother as Remittance Text.” Small Axe 21 (October, 2006): 37-53. In an argument based on the biblical line “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” the author suggests Kincaid’s writing is really a repayment: She pays with her writing for escaping her homeland and her most likely fate.
Wachman, Gay. “Dying in Antigua.” Review of My Brother, by Jamaica Kincaid. The Nation, November 3, 1997, 43-44. Refers to the death of Devon Drew, Jamaica Kincaid’s half brother, as “a memoir of a voice.”