In her 1984 New York Times Book Review piece about Kincaid's At the Bottom of the River, Edith Milton singles out "Girl'' as " the most elegant and lucid piece of the collection,'' and observes that the mother's exhortations ‘‘define in a few paragraphs the expectations, the limitations, and the contents of an entire life.'' If this is an accurate assessment and I believe it is, what kind of life does it describe? What will the future hold for the girl is she follows her mother's suggestions?
Many of the instructions give purely practical advice for doing daily chores in a developing nation where running water and electricity are not common. Even in a society where people do not have many clothes, obtaining and maintaining them is hard work, and that work typically falls to women. "Girl" begins with laundry: ‘‘Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline.’’ Before the one-sentence story is done, the mother will come back to clothing many times, explaining how to buy fabric for a blouse, sew on a button and make a buttonhole, and hem a dress. And of course, women are also responsible for men's clothing, and the mother demonstrates ‘‘how you iron your father's khaki shirt so that it doesn't have a crease’’ and ‘‘how you iron your father's khaki pants so that they don't have a crease.''
Women are also providers of nourishment, and the mother explains how to grow and prepare different foods. In this family, the girl is expected to catch fish and to ‘‘soak salt fish overnight before you cook it.'' She learns to shop for bread, to grow okra and dasheen, a root vegetable, and to prepare pumpkin fritters, bread pudding, doukona (a cornmeal, banana and coconut pudding), and pepper pot, the staple of poor Caribbean families that involves reheating a large pot of greens with whatever fresh ingredients might be added on a given day. By preparing these humble dishes, a woman can "make ends meet.’’
The mother rounds out her list of womanly duties with guidance on cleaning (‘‘this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard’’), setting a table for any occasion, and making different kinds of ‘‘good medicine.’’ In a culture where there is a lot of work to be done, it is important that everyone do a fair share, and this is a woman's share.
Just as important, though, is that the girl learn how to behave in front of other people, especially men. Several of the instructions have to do with how one appears to others, such as the command to ‘‘always eat your food in such a way that it won't turn someone else's stomach.’’ A woman must learn to hide her true self, her true feelings, and wear the mask that is right for the occasion: "this is how you smile to someone you don't like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don't like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely.’’ Most of all, she must ‘‘try to walk like a lady and not like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming.’’ A woman may have thoughts of "sluttish behavior'' (by which is meant, I suppose, acting as though she wants or enjoys sex), but "this is how to behave in the presence of men who don't know you very well, and this way they won't recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming.’’
Apparently the mother has learned to do all these things, and they are probably not beyond the girl's capacity either. But if she learns her lessons well, what will she have to look forward to, to be excited about? Where is the pleasure in this life? The litany of instructions in "Girl'' is a far cry from the advice given to women in today's popular women's magazines, which suggest that taking long aromatherapy baths to regenerate will make one a...
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