Jamaica Kincaid

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David Nicholson (review date 3 July 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1134

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 qualified by Kincaid's next sentence; one that seems designed to puncture the notions both blacks and whites hold so dear: “All masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this.” In the end, despite her powerful rhetoric, it is unclear where Kincaid stands.

To be sure, this evenhandedness serves the reader well at times, offering a different slant on the relative positions of the native and the tourist. Of tourists on the plane looking forward to escaping in Antigua the rain and cold of Europe and North America, Kincaid notes that they never think of “what it might have been like for someone who had to live, day in, day out in a place that suffers constantly from drought.”

And, she goes on: “That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. … But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. … they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

This sort of clear-eyed, commonsensical vision occurs in other contexts as well. Looking back to the days when Antigua was still a British colony, Kincaid remembers the 26-year-old headmistress of a girl's school, a woman who told her students to “stop behaving as if they were monkeys just out of trees.” Kincaid says no one thought she was racist. And we almost believe her when she writes, with impeccable logic, “We thought these people were so ill-mannered and were so surprised by this, for they were far away from their home, and we believed that the farther away you were from your home the better you should behave. (This is because if your bad behavior gets you in trouble [near home] you have your family not too far off to help defend you.)”

Throughout most of A Small Place, however, the humanity of these sorts of observations is subsumed by the passion of Kincaid's obsessions. Colonialism was evil and the...

(This entire section contains 1134 words.)

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British should never have left home (“the reason they are so miserable now is that they have no place else to go and nobody else to feel better than”). The legacy of colonialism is the laziness and incompetence of the Antiguans and the venality of their leaders.

The list of outrages committed by Antiguan politicians is endless: prostitution; drug trafficking; monopolization of the country's businesses and collusion with its Syrian merchant class; their failure to provide adequate medical care for ordinary Antiguans, while reserving for themselves the right to fly to New York for treatment. Antiguan young people, Kincaid writes, “seem almost literate.” At a carnival “Teenage Pageant” they make asses of themselves. What surprised me most about them was … how stupid they seemed …” She finds Antiguans in general obsessed with slavery, yet ignorant of its true history. She marvels at the celebrations surrounding the Antigua Hotel Training School, “a school that teaches Antiguans how to be good servants, how to be a good nobody, which is what a servant is.”

But Kincaid reserves her strongest ire for the British, the people who made Antigua what it is today: “Have you ever wondered to yourself why it is that all [we] seem to have learned from you is how to imprison and murder each other, how to govern badly, and how to take the wealth of your country and place it in Swiss bank accounts? Have you ever wondered why it is that all we seem to have learned from you is how to corrupt our societies and how to be tyrants? You will have to accept that this is mostly your fault,” she writes.

The reason for her feelings is made clear. British colonialism orphaned Kincaid, leaving her with “no motherland, no fatherland, no gods, no mounds of earth for holy ground … and worst and most painful of all, no tongue.”

It's difficult, here, to avoid comparing Kincaid's narrative with that of the Martinican statesman and poet Aimé Césaire, whose long, impassioned poem Cahier d'un Retours au Pays Natal (“Return to My Native Land”) explores many of the same issues of colonial guilt, loss of cultural identity and the anomalous position of the exiled intellectual on his eventual return. But, where A Small Place is merely a description of a condition, Cahiers d'un Retours au Pays Natal is also about a search for values. The narrator, instead of bemoaning the fact that he has “no tongue,” determines to reshape the colonizer's language towards his own ends. Césaire's long poem ends with an affirmation based on an acceptance of self, an affirmation that led to the founding of the significant Caribbean and African literary and cultural movement known as Negritude.

There is nothing so positive in Kincaid's story of her return home, no acknowledgement of the strength of family, no hint of the resilience of a culture that survived the middle passage from Africa and the years of colonialism, no sense that something, anything, in Antigua is done right. In the end, though we are moved by what Kincaid reveals, her complaining voice does not ensure that we will remember the reality behind the next travel poster we see, extolling the beauties of some small island of the West Indies.


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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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Louis James (essay date Winter 1988-89)

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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 disrupt conventional narrative. In contrast, the eight sections of Annie John (1985) explore with brilliant lucidity Annie's life from the age of ten to seventeen. Yet the first book ends ‘I claim these things then—mine—and now feel myself grow solid and complete, my name filling my mouth’ (p. 82); the final section of the later book concludes with the same discovery ‘My name is Annie John’ (p. 130).

Both works in fact chart the development of a recognisably similar central consciousness, and explore many of the same experiences rooted in her own childhood in St. Johns, Antigua, where she was born in 1949: her carpenter father, her intense and complex relationship with her mother, a sensibility fed and shaped by the island experience. Rather than conflicting, the two works complement and mutually illuminate each other.

The books also fall into an important group of Caribbean novels, semi-autobiographical works that use the experience of growing up to explore not only their own but a wider Caribbean identity. This line begins with George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin (1953), though intimated as early as 1934 with C. L. R. James's Minty Alley, and includes Geoffrey Drayton's Christopher (1959), Michael Anthony's The Year in San Fernando (1965), and Walcott's verse Another Life (1973). The remarkable development in the last decade has been with the way this form has been appropriated by women writers—such writers as Merle Hodge, Zee Edgell, Erna Brodber and Jamaica Kincaid.

The shift has not been in sexual identity alone. As this movement has signalled a long-overdue recognition of the woman as writer, it has also allowed expression to a new dimension of consciousness in Caribbean writing. The way was in part prepared by the earlier male writers, who confronted the social and racial issues to allow a deepening exploration of identity, but the later novels have a shift in emphasis, and draw recognisably on intuitive feminine resources: by rescuing the woman from the symbolic roles of mother and sufferer, a silent area within Caribbean experience has been allowed to speak.

At the Bottom of the River begins with a simple list of a mother's directions to her daughter, a litany of requirements for making a “respectable” young lady—‘this is how you set a table for tea, this is how you set a table for dinner …’ But at the end of the demand to ‘always squeeze the bread to make sure it is fresh’ is questioned by the daughter with the practical query, ‘but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?’ This points to the difference between learning rules and having to practice them, and the mother's answer in turn points up the distinction between behaviour and the character it is meant to shape. ‘You mean to say that after all you aren't really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won't let near the bread?’

The significance of the deceptively simple opening story becomes clearer as we read through the complex, puzzling sketches that follow. Each explores the difference between surface meanings and the unspoken questions they conceal—the space between reflections and ‘the bottom of the river’ of the title. The second story ‘In the Night’ narrates the dream of having a father who is a handsome ‘nightsoil man’. It is dreamt, but in sleep, dream and waking seem equally true: how do we distinguish what is ‘real’? As often in Jamaica Kincaid's work such questions are resolved by a return to the insights of childhood—in this case, indeed, pre-birth, where she had received a sense of identity not from romanticising her father, but from the mother who bore her. In her fantasy she will ‘marry’ a woman who will tell her every night ‘something that begins, “before you were born” … and every night, every night, I will be completely happy.’ (p. 12)

If the second story explores the child's reality in terms of sexuality, ‘At Last’ recreates the experience of time. A home becomes full of memories, of meanings. But how are those meanings created? What is the relationship between the sequence of events and the wider ‘reality’ that gives them significance? How far is this reality built up by human beings, how much by place and circumstance? And when the human consciousness that experiences ‘home’ dies, will its ‘reality’ continue? She asks, thinking of a childhood pet, ‘(But at last, at last, to whom will this view belong? Will the hen, stripped of its flesh, its feathers scattered perhaps to the four corners of the earth, its bones molten and sterilised, one day speak? And what will it say? … )’ (p. 18).

Whatever its nature, ‘Reality’ can carry an intolerable burden as the child begins to become self-conscious. ‘Wingless’ explores the terror of existence without identity—‘But again I swim in a shaft of light, upside down, and I can see myself clearly, through and through, from every angle.’ (p. 24) But repeatedly, the terror of the knowledge of a fallen world is healed by the rediscovery of innocence and acceptance. Thus ‘Blackness’ begins with the horror of the visible darkness, but by the end darkness has become silence, the unspeaking voice of all things in which surrender brings peace. ‘Living in the silent voice, I am no longer “I’” (p. 52).

The sequence culminates in the two key stories, ‘My Mother’ and ‘At the Bottom of the River’ which explore specifically the experience of growing up in Antigua, which will form the basis for Annie John. Each focus on the female and male dimensions respectively. The first begins with the ‘internalisation’, to use Freud's term, of the mother into the daughter's personality, a process that paradoxically involves rejection. The story starts, ‘Immediately on wishing my mother dead and seeing the pain it caused her …’ (p. 53). Later she experiences her mother as alien, a reptile; and finally parts from the mother, leaving the island. Yet each step transfigures alienation into identification, and the cycle into maturity ends with the image of the rediscovered house of her first experiences. Child and adult are brought together in a prose poem of wonder. ‘A humming bird has nested on my stomach, a sign of my fertileness. My mother and I live in a bower made from flowers whose petals are imperishable.’ [p. 61]

The title story, ‘At the Bottom of the River’ begins ‘this, then is the terrain.’ (p. 62) The terrain is the island experience that ‘grounds’ the stories of the collection. Yet the river, moving yet still, a bright surface with transformed depths, indicates the strategies through which the island is to be explored. The focus moves to the creator,—like Kincaid's father, a carpenter, who literally makes his own house. But his material world, his sense of his finite identity, limit him, and he stands poised between the emptiness of unknowing and the potential of creative action. ‘He imagines that in one hand he holds emptiness and yearning and on the other desire fulfilled.’ (p. 67) He moves from action to the meaning of action but can realise only alienation. ‘He thinks of tenderness and love and faith and hope and, yes, goodness … the beauty in the common thing,’ (p. 67). Yet ‘stretching out before him is a silence so dreadful, a vastness, its length and breadth and depth immeasurable. Nothing.’ (p. 68)

Here is the central paradox of Kincaid's vision, the experience of death within life and life within death. And what if the final reality is death not life? She asks ‘And so what a bitter thing to say to me: that life is the intrusion, that to embrace a thing as beauty is the intrusion, … (p. 69) ‘Is Life, then, a violent burst of light, like flint struck sharply in the dark?’ (p. 73) This is indeed part of Kincaid's vision. But to move so profoundly into the depths of despair implies a wisdom that paradoxically brings release, through acceptance of the darkness. The repeated word ‘inevitable’ becomes a password into a fallen world transformed by endurance and insight, a return to the child's simple apprehension of infinity.

This vision has affinities with another Caribbean visionary novel, Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock (1961) where the novel climaxes in a vision of transformed reality within a waterfall. Kincaid has moved from the illusions of the surface to the ‘bottom of the river’. Here the colours are primary and essential; all opposites—light/dark, past/present, height/depth—are reconciled. Again there is rediscovery of the childhood house and the mother, but in a new transformed dimension. The insight does not take her out of the lived world, it establishes the identity which alone can enable her to fulfil it. ‘I can claim these things then—mine—and now feel myself grow solid and complete, my name filling my mouth.’ (p. 82)

The sentence is picked up as the opening to the final section of her second book—the statement, ‘My name is Annie John’. ‘Annie John’ is both simpler and more complex than the earlier short stories—simpler in the lucid ‘realistic’ method; more difficult in that it is easy to miss the underlying issues the novel is exploring. Many of the metaphysical questions in River reappear. The interface between the world of death and life opens the book, as the ten-year-old child becomes fascinated with funerals and the difference between a child lying asleep, and a dead child in a funeral. The relationship between pre-existence and conscious life is shown in the trunk, once protecting her mother's precious possessions during the dangers of running away from home, now containing the objects that surrounded her own childhood, some prepared before she was born. Questions of reality and the imagination are raised by the story she writes at school about an actual terror when she thought her mother was lost in the sea, and its seamless transition to an invented ending.

Underpinning the book is the relationship between child and mother. As in ‘The River’ story, the mother is seen as a crocodile, the daughter wishes to kill her. Alienation literally alters Annie's sense of reality. When first the mother insists they wear clothes of different cloth, ‘To say I felt that the earth swept away from under me would not be going too far.’ (p. 26) At twelve she sees her parents making love; the act itself is outside her comprehension, but the mother's hand, before part of the child's world, caressing, bathing, protecting, become alien as it circles, possessed by passion for the father: ‘it was white and bony, as if it had long been dead and had been left out in the elements. It seemed not to be her hand, yet it could only be her hand, so well did I know it.’ (p. 30)

Annie's gradual separation from her mother co-exists with moments of self-awareness. In two such instances she looks in a mirror. They are both recognition and alienation. In the first, an intimately physical self-examination, she sees with horror the changes of the body moving into puberty—the springing, unruly hair; the nose growing from that of a child into that of a woman—‘it had suddenly spread across my face …’ (p. 27) Later, at fifteen, she experiences the shock of seeing her face reflected in a shop window. Her image now co-exists with the assorted goods behind the glass—clothes, household goods, pens and pencils, medicines. Where the first identity crisis was private, this is social. Distinguished from the multiple reality beyond herself, she becomes aware of her blackness; her proportions are distorted, her physicality is a burden. She associates her image with a picture of The Young Lucifer sitting in a charred and black landscape, his hair writhing like snakes. ‘… suddenly I felt so sorry for myself that I was about to sit down on the sidewalk and weep, already tasting the salty bitterness of my tears.’ (p. 95) Like Lucifer, she has found her independence and lost her Heaven.

The movement from the ‘outer’ to the ‘inner’ dimension explored in River is experienced in the mysterious breakdown described in the chapter called ‘The Long Rain’. Each phase in this section is at once a vivid account of her illness, and a complex exploration of what lay behind it. The ‘Brownie’ episode, for instance, is introduced by an evocatively described meal prepared by the mother. The food is natural goodness—cheese, eggs, butter. Even the drinking chocolate was ‘made with milk from which the cream had not been removed’ and cocoa beans prepared by her grandmother which had arrived packed with ‘other spices, coffee and almonds.’ Annie realises this, but can no longer experience it: ‘I only knew that I had liked eating it at some point in my life.’ (p. 114) This division leads her naturally—for the food was associated with her meals coming home from Brownie meetings—to explore the roots of her alienation.

Implicit in the monumental insensitivity of introducing black West Indian children to playing at being ‘Brownies’ is the whole colonial heritage. This is presented with unstressed humour when after describing a particularly inane ritual—‘we crouched down with our hands on our shoulders, two finger pointing up and we said in unison, “Tu-whoo, tu-whit, tu-whoo”, in imitation of the wise old owl who was the patron of our troop’—Annie says, dead-pan, ‘and it was wished for us that as we grew old we would grow wise also.’ (pp. 115–6) But the implications go to the root of Annie's developing consciousness. She had become absorbed into this imposed world, striving to gain as many medals as possible, desperate for recognition from Miss Herbert, the group leader. (Miss Herbert is also related to the economic structure of the island as cashier in George W. Bennet Bryson and Sons, from whom Annie's father buys his lumber supplies.) The psychic implications of the ‘Brownie’ conditioning emerges as she sees herself going to and from the meetings as two people, herself and ‘a small toy Brownie. It saw me, alright, but made small.’ (p. 114)

In her illness, she is treated by two medical systems, themselves reflecting indigenous and European traditions. Ma Jolie offers protection from evil wishes of her father's earlier lovers through natural magic—marking the body, incense, a black bag of foul-smelling herbs. Dr. Stephens offers Western vitamins and purgatives, and the two rows of medicines compete side by side on the bedroom shelf. The narrative makes no explicit comment, yet the luminous prose describing Ma Jolie's ministrations makes its own point—the incense pervades the room, and tiny red candles floating in a basin of yellow oil ‘threw a beautiful pink glow all over my room.’ (p. 117) It is the one moment of healing tranquility in the chapter.

The climax of the sequence comes when, between sleep and waking, she watches the photographs on the table by her bed expand and contract, then perspire, taking on a terrifying life of their own. As she takes them and washes them, we are aware that she is confronting her own past, represented in the photographs. (pp. 119–120) What is distressing and alien she rubs out—all the faces in a wedding group save Annie herself. She had attempted ‘without much success, to remove the dirt from the front of my father's trousers’: a portrait of her parents she had erased from the waist down. In a portrait of her confirmation she had left the shoes ‘with a decorative cut-out on the sides’ that had been the source of a conflict with her mother who thought them unsuitable—a successful assertion of her will. In Kincaid's luminous prose, the half-dream reality is magically recreated, as is the tenderness underpinning the emotional violence. ‘When I finished, I dried the photographs thoroughly, dusted them with talcum powder, then laid them down in a corner covered by a blanket, so they would be warm while they slept.’

The ‘breakdown’ is also a release. As in Lamming's birthday that opens In the Castle of my Skin, transition is accompanied by rain, rain which stops as mysteriously and suddenly as her illness. Self-emancipation comes at the time of her leaving the island, an experience simultaneously joyous and tragic. ‘… My heart swelled with a great gladness as the words, “I shall never see this again” spilled out inside me. But then, just as quickly, my heart shrivelled up and the words “I shall never see this again,” stabbed at me.’ (p. 145) The image of a bottle emptying had been used in the parallel passage in the earlier story ‘My Mother’ where, again, the girl was being taken by her mother to the jetty and departure, but there the image was one of imprisonment. ‘I saw the boat was encased in a large green bottle, as if it were about to decorate a mantlepiece …’ (p. 59) At the end of Annie John the image is open-ended in more senses than one. ‘I could hear the small waves lap-lapping around the ship. They made an unexpected sound, as if a vessel filled with liquid had been placed on its side and was now slowly emptying out.’ (p. 148) It is a perfect image of loss and fulfilment. And out of the emptying vessel came At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.


Jamaica Kincaid was present when this paper was read at the Conference on Caribbean Writing, the University of the West Indies held in May 1988. Partly in response, she changed her reading from Annie John to one from her then unpublished volume, A Small Place (1988). The work adds another dimension to the ever-deepening self-exploration. For she now returns to Antigua with full adult awareness of the colonial process.

The first impression is of enormous anger. Beginning with the experience of the tourist—both what the tourist experiences and the counter-reaction of the Antiguan people—the essay creates a scarifying impression of the direct and indirect effect of the tourist trade on the Caribbean. The taxis are splendid, the taxi-driver's house a hovel, for money is available for buying cars to help the tourist trade, but not for housing, and the two car-dealerships are owned by government members. As a tourist you are a figure of contempt, of ridicule, of hate—‘An ugly thing, that is what you become when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing … and it will never occur to you to realise that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you …’ (p. 17)

Just why, becomes clear in her exploration of the history, imported education and personal recollections. The examination is subtle, seeing the evils of colonialism through the specific consciousness of the Antiguan people. ‘Our perception … was not a political perception. The English were ill-mannered, not racists; the school head mistress was especially ill-mannered, not racist …’ (p. 34) Moreover, the reflection is self-critical, too, examining the roots of anti-colonial anger. Was it just the British, ‘doesn't everyone behave badly given the opportunity?’ Are tourists by nature ‘bad’? Were Caribbean masters all tyrants, ‘human rubbish from Europe’; and were all slaves ‘noble and exalted’?

It is the ultimate evil of colonialism and racism that yes, each individual is trapped in a specific role, however absurd this role may be. Even being a ‘tourist’ is a ‘role’—‘For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere’, although the point is that ‘most natives of the world cannot go anywhere. They are too poor.’ If the roles imposed by society can be thrown off, one can become human, both the false evil and the false goodness. ‘Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.’


Page references in this essay are to the British paperback editions: At the Bottom of the River, Picador, Pan Books, 1984; and Annie John, Picador, Pan Books, 1985; A Small Place, Virago Books, London, 1988. The only extended biographical and critical study of Jamaica Kincaid is by Bryant Mangum in Daryl Cumber Dance, ed., Fifty Caribbean Writers Greenwood Press; New York, Westport, London; 1986, pp. 285–263.

Principal Works

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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

Susanna Moore (review date 7 October 1990)

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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 not known that such pleasure could exist and, what was more, be available to me.”

Lucy's story is just that—the discovery of all that is available to her. Not only sex, but friendship, treachery, solitude and self-expression, even the weather of the north. Lucy and Mariah become comrades. The family spends the summer in a house by a lake. Lucy carries the youngest child on her back through the woods. When Lucy discovers Lewis kissing Mariah's best friend, she knows in her dispassionately intuitive way that he will leave Mariah. Lucy, herself, at the end of the year, abandons Mariah's household to live in an apartment with her new Irish friend, Peggy. She buys a camera and takes black-and-white photographs of people on the street, inspired by the photographs she has seen in a museum. She works as assistant to a photographer who takes “pictures of food and other things with no life any longer in them,” instead of the subject that really interests him, “people who had suffered horribly and through no fault of their own.”

Perhaps like the damaged souls who entice the photographer, Lucy, too, is one of those who suffer through no fault of their own. For although she is uncomplaining and resourceful, Lucy suffers. She is full of bitterness and a cold unsentimental wisdom. When Mariah tries to soothe her, and patronizes her by offering her a book (“I read the first sentence. ‘Woman? Very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female—this word is sufficient to define her.’ I had to stop.”), Lucy is irritated. “My life could not really be explained by this thick book, that made my hands hurt as I tried to keep it open. My life was at once something more simple and more complicated than that: for 10 of my 20 years, half of my life, I had been mourning the end of a love affair, perhaps the only true love in my whole life I would ever know.”

Her true love is her mother. As in any story of true love, we long for the lovers to be reunited. Kincaid seems to believe that this is not possible when the lovers happen to be mother and child and perhaps she is right. Lucy does not open her mother's letters, even after her mother is forced to send a friend to tell Lucy of the sudden death of her father. When her mother is left impoverished and asks Lucy to come home, Lucy does not go, although she sends her mother the money she has been saving to rent an apartment, along with a letter, as cold as her heart, she boasts, in which she accuses her mother of betrayal and self-martyrdom, of having lost interest in her after the births of her three brothers. In an imaginative gesture of cruelty and repudiation, Lucy then describes her personal life. When her mother writes a humble, forgiving letter in reply, Lucy burns the letter.

The book, written in the first person, is Lucy's story of the year of her journey—away from her mother, away from home, away from the island and into the world. Lucy is determined, steady, not easily impressed, forthright and fair-minded. She is not possessed of humor or a sense of irony. She is aggrieved. She becomes passionate only when she allows herself to succumb to the dream that is the past. If her story fails at times to evince sympathy, or better yet, recognition, it is only because her aggrievement is so sour, so without the possibility of satisfaction. Surely one's complaint of the accustomed disappointments, and even horrors, of family life should contain some detachment, some mordant pleasure. Lucy takes the present rather impersonally, as if she were not in it, but the past burns for her with a solipsistic brightness. Lucy's present has been spoiled, left meaningless, by the bright flame of her past.

To lament that sympathy for a character is not readily felt is not to regret an occasion of amiability, but of plausibility. The toughness and elegance of Kincaid's writing is all that one could want. It is both poetic and matter-of-fact in its precision and spareness. At times, the formality of her structure is reminiscent of Scripture. Her willingness to risk our easy connivance by employing a dry and unsentimental tone is daring and full of integrity, but the stubborn, implacable Lucy needs to be grasped by the shoulders and shaken, if only once or twice.

Giovanna Covi (essay date 1990)

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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 therefore not only disruptive of the institutional order, but also revolutionary in its continuous self-criticism and its rejection of all labels. Perhaps we could say that it is a voice coming after the struggles of the women's movement first for recognition and then for separation; the voice of the third “new generation of women” as Kristeva defines it:4 an effort to keep a polyphonic movement in process in the attempt to be always already questioning and dismantling a fixed metaphysical order, together with a determination to enter history. Her narrative, in fact, is a continuous attempt to turn away from any definitive statement and to utter radical statements.

But together with Julia Kristeva in Unes fémmes,5 I would ask whose interest is it to have every woman speak like any other woman; what's the gain? Traditionally our language has been ‘silence’ because of the yet unshaken authority of the discourse of a sexist order. Under conditions of slavery, black women's creativity was often expressed through the art of quilting: does this history of repression imply that we should necessarily confine our voices within the boundaries traced for us by a patriarchal and racist law? Is the imitation of the language of our oppressor and a total rejection of our historical heritage the only alternative? If the ‘universal’ of minority literature has been its marginality—as JanMohamed maintains6—if the Invisible Man had to celebrate his invisibility and define himself through it—now that Black literature is slowly being admitted into the canon, its criticism must resist the hegemonic pressures which seek to neutralize it by repressing its political nature, by levelling its discourse through a rational, apolitical, humanistic criticism. There, where the broken rhythm of jazz is a cry of protest against the symmetry of the racist division of society, or the autobiographical ‘intrusions’ and ‘loss of control’ of the narrator in a woman's novel serves as a voice of the private cracking into the authoritative objectivity of the public order, we now risk to find only a conformity to the catechism of one of the many new churches of literature.

The contemporary philosophical debate is increasingly developing around the theme of the crisis of reason.7 Since Einstein's relativity theory, through Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, and psychoanalysis, but not without the Marxist and Feminist contribution, the metaphysical tradition of the centrality of the Subject is being questioned in stronger and stronger terms. A generic label used to describe this cultural atmosphere is the controversial and too fashionable ‘postmodernism.’ In literature, it refers to a negative thinking which has resulted in a questioning of the authority of the author (e.g., Barthes, Borges, Eco, Nabokov) and of the fiction/reality relationship (e.g., Pynchon, Coover, Calvino). Despite the disagreement on the denomination (suggested alternatives to ‘postmodern literature’ range from the apolitical ‘metafiction’, James Rothner's ‘parafiction,’ Raymond Federman's ‘surfiction,’ to the most recent and more politically oriented coinage suggested by Susan Strehle of ‘actualism,’ among others), in the U.S. critics are defining this avant-garde as almost exclusively white and male. If the postmodern claim to represent an attack against the Western tradition is acceptable as a fact, then how does one account for the absence of the voices of the minorities? Therefore we must question the tendency to take for granted the radicality of the postmodern ideology. Being cognizant that postmodernism itself has already been co-opted into a canon that excludes and excommunicates, it wouldn't be surprising to discover that there are in fact postmodern minority writers. I will argue that the connotation of political radicalism associated with postmodernism is acceptable in so far as it opens up to include the specificity of those voices which have been historically discriminated against. I contend that Jamaica Kincaid, a black woman writer, is radically postmodern precisely because she is also postmodern, but not only so. Her voice, in fact, dismantles the symmetry of the metaphysical tradition in that it escapes all attempts to become domesticated under any label.

The main theme of her writings is the inquiry into the feminine role and racial difference.8 Kincaid criticizes the very existence of sexual and racial difference, rather than the modes of their existence: there's no place left for reform; the change that is invoked is not one of guards, but of structure.

In At the Bottom of the River, at the end of “Girl” we are left with nothing else but a series of imperatives—from “wash the white clothes” to “always eat your food” (BR, p. 3)—interrupted by one accusatory question—“is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?”—, followed by a list of prohibitions—from “don't sing benna” to “don't eat fruits” (BR, p. 3)—and by a list of directions—“this is how to sew on a button” to “this is how to behave in the presence of men” (BR, p. 4)—, then a few more prohibitions—“don't squat down”, “don't throw stones”—and more directions culminating in, “this is how to make ends meet” (BR, p. 5). This is a prelude to the final condemnation of the girl as “a slut,” not surprising in a story that is almost a ‘chronicle of a slut foretold.’ The list is spun out at the beat of drums, which provides the only comment to the message that, in a world in which “ends” are meant to “meet,” girls are “bent on becoming sluts.” The practice of making ends meet is the primary target of this ferocious critique which manages to expose the very origin of sexual role division—the rationality of an ideology of symmetry. The ‘uncivilized’ Lack-of-Reason—the sound of the African drums that beat within the lines—serves as a political commentary, as a cry of protest against the predetermined destiny of the girl.

Particularly fascinating is the story “Blackness” in which the disruption of binary oppositions is devastating: everything is ambiguous, multiple, fragmented. Blackness is the night that “falls in silence” as well as the racial color that “flows through [her] veins” (BR, p. 46), but above all it is what cannot be defined—a signifier that escapes its signified by a continuous shifting, “for I see that I cannot see” (BR, p. 46). It is identity together with annihilation of the self, “I am swallowed up in the blackness so that I am one with it …” (BR, p. 47). And the self is “powerful” at the moment when the “I” is “not at one with [it]self,” and can say, “I felt myself separate.” (BR, p. 47). This story ends in a crescendo that is a celebration of the narrative “I,” but what kind of “I” is it who ends its song with the words, “I am no longer ‘I’” (BR, p. 52)? “Blackness” disrupts the concept of identity as One—of phallic identity. Like the ambivalence of the mother's body that is One and Other at the same time (herself and the child she bears), this “I” can say: “the blackness cannot be separated from me but often I can stand outside it … blackness is visible and yet it is invisible” (BR, p. 46). It is neither the silence of the repressed Slave, nor the voice of the Master because, like “the silent voice,” “conflict is not part of its nature” (BR, p. 52). And her child can stand in front of the mirror looking at her skin without color (BR, p. 49), while the “I” is “at last at peace,” “at last erased” (BR, p. 52), living in the oxymoron of the silent voice.

Open, fragmentary, multiple and paradoxical is also the “frightening” “I” that, “like an ancient piece of history,” “will leave room for theories” (BR, p. 24) in the story “Wingless.” It is at the same time “unaware,” “defenseless and pitiful” (BR, p. 23), “primitive and wingless,” and yet it has the strength to declare:

I shall grow up to be a tall, graceful, and altogether beautiful woman, and I shall impose on large numbers of people my will and also, for my own amusement, great pain. But now. I shall try to see clearly. I shall try to tell differences.

(BR, p. 22)

In the future—like the panoptic eye of the omniscient narrator of the logocentric tradition that can see from the God-like vantage point of above the world—she will “tell differences” and impose “great pain.” The same “I” in the same story is, like her hands, “brown on this side, pink on this side” (BR, p. 27).

The questioning of the unity of the self reaches its climax towards the end of the collection:

I stood as if I were a prism, many-sided and transparent, refracting and reflecting light as it reached me, light that never could be destroyed. And how beautiful I became.

(BR, p. 80)

This is possible because it is set in the maternal context that blurs—as the lips of the female sex—the distinction between open and closed: “I saw a world in which the sun and the moon shone at the same time” (BR, p. 77). The maternal perspective overcomes the nihilism deriving from the dread that faces the contemporary man after—in Lacan's words—“the phallus has been unveiled and exposed to shame”:

For stretching out before him is a silence so dreadful, a vastness, its length and breath and depth immeasurable. Nothing.

(BR, p. 68)

The tremendous strength of Kincaid's stories lies in their capacity to resist all canons: They move at the beat of drums and the rhythm of jazz, so that we may be tempted to co-opt them under the label of Black Aesthetics as formulated by Amiri Baraka.9 Yet, sometimes the feeling is more like that of a nursery rhyme—we listen to what Elisabeth Rasy10 has theorized as ‘feminine language’: the nurse's language of sounds and silence which stands before and beyond the rational signifying words of the father. The language of the mother and child is expressed by Jamaica Kincaid in the story “My Mother” in these terms:

My mother and I wordlessly made an arrangement—I sent out my beautiful sighs; she received them.

(BR, p. 56)

All these stories are structured around the figure of the mother: the writer is constantly connecting artistic creativity to maternity in the effort to create a new representation of the feminine which includes the logic of maternal love. The commitment to this new ethics moves in the direction supported, among others, by Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray: bringing the maternal into the discourse of the father represents the new voice outside the dichotomy of sexual difference.

And again there is one more label tempting the critic: under the influence of Gates's formulation of ‘signifying’11 as the main feature of Black Aesthetics, one could conclude that At the Bottom of the River is a successful example of this Afro-American rhetorical strategy. Parody, repetition, inversion mark every single movement of Kincaid's narrative.

To add one more and last side to the “prism” of the new self, one could note the insistent refusal to stick to a definitive statement, by going back to the beginning again and again. “What I Have Been Doing Lately” ends where it begins and re-begins in the middle of its non-linear movement (BR, p. 43). Like in Coover's Spanking the Maid the ultimate order/meaning is never reached:

On the sides of the deep hole I could see things written, but perhaps it was in a foreign language because I couldn't read them.

(BR, p. 42)

And so the “I” reverses itself and turns to the maternal horizon: “I said, ‘The earth has thin lips,’ and I laughed” (BR, p. 42).

Kincaid's narrator “doesn't know anymore,” she has “no words right now for how [she] feel[s]” (BR, p. 30), “no name for the thing [she] had become” (BR, p. 80). Yet, she manages to voice her NO in thunder to the existing order of things: “I said, I don't like this. I don't want to do this anymore” (BR, p. 45). Yet, she manages to find the strength and take the responsibility to relate to this from which she couldn't otherwise escape—she realizes—but through annihilation (BR, p. 81). Since nihilism, though cherished, is rejected, a strong and yet un-authoritative voice concludes the whole collection:

how bound up I know I am to all that is human endeavor, to all that is past and to all that shall be, to all that shall be lost and leave no trace. I claim these things then—mine—and now feel myself grow solid and complete, my name filling up my mouth.

(BR, p. 82)

It doesn't surprise, therefore, that the reviews show a great deal of uneasiness with At the Bottom of the River. Edith Milton finds “Miss Kincaid's penchant for apocalyptic imagery disturbing” and believes that “her imagery may be too personal and too peculiar to translate into any sort of sensible communication”12, for Anne Tyler the stories are “almost insultingly obscure”;13 Suzanne Freeman defines the writing as “quirky enough to challenge our very definition of what a short story should be” and notes that the risk is that very few readers may be willing to “decipher the secrets”.14 Unquestionably, the judgement belongs to the audience, but why should we pose this as so dumb? Anne Tyler accuses Kincaid of not “leaning forward and taking our hands and telling us a story”—should critics blame it on the authors if readers need to be taken by their hands? Some readers might prefer to engage in a discourse with the text, rather than joining a “Church-Book” where the “Priest-Author” reveals the Truth.

The reviews of Annie John are altogether more positive, but one wonders whether the different evaluation is not simply due to a different reading, rather than to a difference between the two books. While the critics of the first book seemed to be preoccupied with the question of whether the collection worked as short stories, the reviewers of Annie John entirely overlook the question of the determination of the literary genre to the point that John Bemrose calls it a “collection,”15 Bruce Van Wyngarden16 takes it for granted that it is a novel, and for Patricia O'Connor17 it is an autobiographical narrative. All three praise the way it depicts life in Antigua and the coming-of-age of the protagonist.

O'Connor reports the author stating, “the way I became a writer was that my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me.” She informs us that Jamaica Kincaid is from Antigua, which she left at seventeen, like Annie John, and her father, too, was a carpenter. In addition, both her mother and her daughter are called Annie. We have no reason to question the definition of Annie John's material as ‘autobiographical’—but what kind of ‘autobiographical’ writing is it? Indeed, it is hard to decide between ‘collection’ and ‘novel’, since the book, divided into eight “Chapters,” is in fact divided into eight sections each with its own title and internal unity of plot, although their first-person narrative and protagonist is always the same and the setting remains the island of Antigua throughout.

Chapter Three provides us with a clue to interpret what Jamaica Kincaid means by autobiographical writing, an “essay” in this case written for class by the twelve year-old Annie: a metaphor of the entire “novel,” it shows how “lies” must enter autobiography when this is meant for a public audience (AJ, p. 45). Exactly like Annie John, it focuses on Annie and her mother and opens with the description of the paradisiacal Imaginary pre-Oedipal period when the child believes herself to be part of the mother. This union is represented in the image of swimming in the sea: the mother was a “superior” swimmer while Annie “was sure [she] was drowning” when the water reached her knees, but she could swim around with her “arms clasped tightly around her [mother's] neck” (AJ, p. 42). The mother would “sing a song in a French patois” that Annie didn't understand or she wouldn't say “anything at all,” but the daughter could enjoy “all the sounds” of the world by placing her ear against her mother's neck as if it were a sea shell. The second part of the narrative describes the symbolic separation, with the mother on a rock “tracing patterns” and the water between them. The words of the mother cannot pacify Annie's despair: she has a recurrent dream of the mother on the rock “tracing patterns” with the father. “And it must have been amusing, for they would always make each other laugh” (AJ, p. 44). The story is then a metaphor of the Oedipal crisis with the father splitting up the dyadic unity between child and mother and the coming into existence of the speaking subject as a consequence of the desire for the lost mother. It is, in other words, the entrance into the Symbolic which Annie cannot yet accept. Therefore, she imposes a fictional closure to her autobiographical essay: she has her mother shed tears and hold her, rather than simply speak, in order to soothe her anxiety. This “lie” is a return to the repressed union of the “old days,” a hiding of the “bad” side of reality. Autobiography, in Jamaica Kincaid's writing, manages to give us a feminist voice that stresses personal experience over the authoritarian universal, without, in so doing, resulting in a demand for realism over modernism, or a poetic discourse, and posing the author as the transcendental signifier of the text, as its meaning and origin.

The pre-Oedipal unity in which the selves of mother and daughter are undifferentiated is the paradise of the first two Chapters of Annie John, before the “young-lady business” (AJ, p. 26):

As she told me the stories, I sometimes sat at her side, or I would crouch on my knees behind her back and lean over her shoulder. As I did this, I would occasionally sniff at her neck, or behind her ears, or at her hair. She smelled sometimes of lemons, sometimes of sage, sometimes of roses, sometimes of bay leaf. At times I would no longer hear what it was she was saying; I just liked to look at her mouth as it opened and closed over words, or as she laughed.

(AJ, p. 22)

The narrative keeps interrogating the relationship with the mother, also after “all this was finished” (AJ, p. 32) and after the realization that, despite the same name, the two of them are two separate selves—“She was my mother, Annie; I was her daughter, Annie” (AJ, p. 105), even after the mother has become “just a dot in the matchbox-size launch swallowed up in the big blue sea” (AJ, p. 148). “It doesn't matter what you do or where you go, I'll always be your mother and this will always be your home” (AJ, p. 147), says the mother in the end. The caring and nurturing mother is always there when we need her, even if we can't explain her presence, like the grandmother, Ma Chess who comes and goes “on a day when the steamer was not due in port” (AJ, p. 127), mysteriously.

The duality and non-linear temporality of the maternal cannot be comprehended by the causal discourse of history. Luce Irigaray, in Ethique de la différence sexuelle, notes that sexual difference rests on the inter-dependence between space and time: in the beginning was the creation of space, outside the subject-God who is time itself that materializes in the places of his own creation. Time is then interior to the subject; space is outside it. The feminine-maternal, being the place of creation, the container for the baby and the man, becomes deprived of her own place-identity-self. The consequent question is then, “How to figure the place of the place?” Traditionally, the woman has been given a place: the house within whose walls she has been confined. In Annie John, Ma Chess refuses this house of the patriarchal discourse and in so doing refuses to be placed within the symbolic order of sexual opposition:

A house? Why live in a house? All you need is a nice hole in the ground, so you can come and go as you please.

(AJ, p. 126)

As Kristeva theorizes in her essay, the time of feminine subjectivity is either cyclical or monumental—the repetition of biological cycles and the myth of the archaic Mother—rather than linear—historical. For a re-definition of sexual difference outside the traditional dichotomy, it is necessary to reconcile these separate conceptions of time and to redefine the time-space relationship. Annie John plays with realistic objective temporality: the adverbial phrase, “On the Sunday before the Monday” (AJ, p. 29) is the most visible example of the mocking of spatialized temporality operating within a narrative that never refers to a time outside that of its own story. There are no dates in this autobiographical ‘novel’, but only the age of the protagonist: rather than a universal interpretation of history, we have “a conversation piece”:

The rain went on in this way for over three months. By the end of it, the sea had risen and what used to be dry land was covered with water and crabs lived there. In spite of what everyone said, the sea never did go back to the way it had been, and what a great conversation piece it made to try and remember what used to be there where the sea now stretched up to.

(AJ, p. 109)

Also the theme of colonialism is treated by deconstructing the Master-Slave dialectics upon which it rests: After mocking the English who didn't wash often enough—“Have you ever noticed how they smell as if they had been bottled up in a fish?” (AJ, p. 36); after having the English girl wear the dunce cap in class; after stressing that “our ancestors”—the “slaves”—“had done nothing wrong except sit somewhere, defenseless,” she refuses to appropriate the Western conception of nation in order to express her anti-colonialism and notes:

Of course, sometimes, what with our teachers and our books, it was hard for us to tell on which side we really now belonged—with the masters or the slaves—for it was all history, it was all in the past, and everybody behaved differently now

(AJ, p. 76),

not without adding with revolutionary strength that,

if the tables had been turned we would have acted differently; I was sure that if our ancestors had gone from Africa to Europe and come upon the people living there, they would have taken a proper interest in the Europeans on first seeing them, and said, ‘How nice,’ and then gone home to tell their friends about it.

(AJ, p. 76)

This discussion is placed in the context of the wonderful fifth Chapter, where under the picture of “Columbus in Chains” Annie prints in Old English lettering, “The Great Old Man Can No Longer Just Get Up and Go.” She will have to copy Books I and II of Paradise Lost for punishment. However, this does not prevent the book from ending with Annie leaving Antigua for England “forever.”

Just like the imagery of death which pervades the “paradise” of the first chapters and dissolves as the problems rise in the central part of the book, everything is looked at in its multiple aspects. Grounded on personal experience, Jamaica Kincaid's writing nonetheless defies a realistic interpretation of her voice; it challenges any possibility of deciphering a single meaning by emphasizing multiplicity in what Roland Barthes would call,

an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law.18

But for Jamaica Kincaid it certainly does not mean to refuse love as we can know it.19

When I write I don't have any politics. I am political in the sense that I exist. When I write, I am concerned with the human condition as I know it.


  1. J. Derrida, Positions (Paris: Minuit, 1972).

  2. Jamaica Kincaid, At the Bottom of the River (New York: Aventura, 1985). Hereafter cited in the text as BR.

  3. J. Kincaid, Annie John (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985). Hereafter cited in the text as AJ.

  4. Julia Kristeva, “Les Temps des femmes” (1979), trans. by Alice Jardine and Harry Blake as “Women's Time” in Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology ed. by N.O. Keohane, M. Z. Rosaldo and B. C. Gelpi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 31–54.

  5. Julia Kristeva, “Unes femmes,” in Les Cahiers du Grif, 7 (1975).

  6. A. JanMohamed, “Humanism and Minority Literature,” boundary 2, XII:3 (Spring, 1984) pp. 281–300. See also Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Must be Found: Beyond Humanism,” pp. 19–70 in same issue.

  7. Besides American deconstructionism influenced primarily by Jacques Derrida, I have in mind the philosophy of Hans Georg Gadamer, the Frankfurt School, Althusser, Wittgenstein, Vattimo and Lyotard among others, but above all the impact of feminist theory and its imposition of the private and the body on the theoretical discourse—the most significant theoretical achievement being the last book of Luce Irigaray, Ethique de la différence sexuelle (Paris: Minuit, 1985).

  8. As a Caribbean black woman writer, she is likely to fall under the category ‘Third World Woman’: for a critique of this other monolith of the Western tradition I refer to the wonderful article by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse,” in boundary 2, XII:3 (1984).

  9. See, for example, his essays “The Changing Same” (1967) and “John Coltrane: Where Does Art Come From?” (1978). For a further theoretical discussion of this pattern of Afro-American poetics, cfr, also James A. Snead, “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture,” Black Literature and Literary Theory (London and New York: Pantheon Books, 1985).

  10. See Elisabetta Rasy, La lingua della nutrice (Torino: La Tartaruga, 1980). This formulation rests heavily on Kristeva's articulation of the semiotic.

  11. Henry Louis Gates, “The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey,” Black Literature and Literary Theory, pp. 285–321.

  12. Edith Milton, “Making a Virtue of Diversity” New York Times Book Review, 89 (Jan 15, 1984), p. 22.

  13. Anne Tyler, “Mothers and Mysteries” New Republic, 189 (Dec 31, 1983), pp. 32–3.

  14. Suzanne Freeman, “Three Short Story Collections With a Difference,” Ms, 12 (Jan. 1984), pp. 15–16.

  15. John Bemrose, “Growing Pains of Girlhood,” Macleans, 98 (May 20, 1985), p. 61.

  16. Bruce Van Wyngarden, “First Novel,” Saturday Review, 11 (May/June 1985), p. 68.

  17. Patricia O'Connor, “My Mother Wrote My Life,” New York Times Book Review, 90 (Apr. 7, 1985), p. 6.

  18. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image, Music, Text, ed. by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), p. 147.

  19. I wish to thank Ms. Jamaica Kincaid for her permission to publish this statement, which she made in a telephone conversation with me on April 3, 1986.

Further Reading

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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 Canon: In Dialogue with Paradise Lost and Jane Eyre.MELUS 23, No. 2 (Summer 1998): 63-85.

Examines Kincaid's colonial education and her assimilation of English literature, notably John Milton's Paradise Lost and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, as they reflect the dynamics of power, oppression, and cultural tradition incorporated in Kincaid's own writings.

Skow, John. Review of My Brother, by Jamaica Kincaid. Time (10 November 1997): 108.

Unfavorable assessment of My Brother.

———. Review of The Autobiography of My Mother, by Jamaica Kincaid. Time (5 February 1996): 71.

Positive assessment of The Autobiography of My Mother.

Snell, Marilyn. “Jamaica Kincaid Hates Happy Endings.” Mother Jones 22, No. 5 (September-October 1997): 28-31.

Kincaid comments on My Brother,gardening, and the legacy of colonialism and cultural identity, and answers charges concerning the negativity of her writing.

Vorda, Allan. “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” Mississippi Review 20, Nos. 1-2 (1991): 7-26.

Kincaid discusses her life, her cultural and feminist identity as a writer, her feelings about Antigua as portrayed in her writings, and thematic and interpretative aspects of her fiction.

Additional coverage of Kincaid's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 13; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Black Writers, Vols. 2, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 63; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 125; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 47, 59; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 157, 227; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural, Novelists; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 3; and Short Stories for Students, Vols. 5, 7.

Opal Palmer Adisa (review date February 1991)

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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 Lucy, which reads like its sequel. Lucy's journey to North America parallels Kincaid's life in many ways. Rereading Annie John, I was struck by how much this new work picks up smoothly from the closing of the former. At the end of Annie John, Annie is leaving home for England to pursue her studies. Lucy opens with Lucy's arrival in North America as an au pair girl. Although the places of departure and arrival are different, and the characters have different names, they both possess the same heritage and emit the same tropical odor. Lucy is a more mature Annie John.

Kincaid's work fits within the emerging body of literature by women writers of the English-speaking Caribbean. They share common techniques and themes—the use of a storyteller motif, the themes of mother-daughter relationship and the impact of colonialism, which shapes the young heroines but also forces them to leave to form themselves, to become “someone” of their own making.

Merle Hodge's Crick Crack Monkey (1970), set in colonial Trinidad, was one of the first of these rites-of-passage novels. Cynthia, the young protagonist, is torn between two mother figures: her Tantie, who represents rural acceptance, and her Aunt Beatrice, who represents middle-class, urban respectability and symbolizes all the neurosis of a colonial subject obsessed with imitating the master. Like Kincaid's Annie, Cynthia at the close of this story is preparing to leave Trinidad for England to pursue her studies. We don't know her fate.

Another writer, Jamaican Michelle Cliff, creates another adolescent heroine, Clare Savage, in Abeng (1984), set in pre-independence Jamaica. Clare is torn between her black mother and her white father, and all the contradictions inherent in such a union during that era; in addition, she has to forge a place for herself in a society that is riven along color and class lines. While the end of Abeng does not show Clare leaving her island home for a metropolis, her exodus is clearly imminent. There is no place for her if she stays. When we meet her again it is in Cliff's next novel, No Telephone to Heaven (1987). Now she is poised in North America, passing, hoping no one will require her to produce her black Jamaican mother at the high school she attends. Like Lucy, central to her dilemma is her relationship—or lack of—with her mother.

Although Lucy Josephine Warner might well be a more mature Annie John, she still carries with her the same baggage: the desperate need to separate herself from her homeland, symbolized by her mother. Tightly woven into this work are passages that make direct reference to Annie John, or complete a story, present another view of a scene, begun in that novel: And Lucy is no more able to dissociate herself from her family, emotionally, than was Annie John. Throughout the novel Lucy is being pulled in two directions: by her ardent desire to be inextricably bound to her mother, and by the realization that she can no longer be an extension or her mother. Her feelings about her homeland and her mother are equally passionate, equally disdainful. “I wondered,” she writes, “if ever in my whole life a day would go by when these people I left behind, my own family, would not appear before me in one way or another.” The fact is, Lucy's family does not remain behind; they follow her at every turn, insert themselves and sometimes even displace the very people she is physically with at a given moment. Each incident Lucy faces recalls a tale from back home, every person she meets brings to memory a relative. The past is not buried or drowned in the deep sea Lucy traversed to reach this cold, grey city. The past is very much with her, no matter how fast she sprints to outdistance it.

Kincaid is a skilled writer. She makes keen observations about people and situations, dismissing them all in the same deft, swift voice, so that all one feels is the sting after the hand has made contact with the face. The book is not linear; it digresses. Nor does it focus only on Lucy. Mariah and Lewis, Lucy's employers, are symbols of perfection and wealth, and through their characters Kincaid is able to unmask the American myth of perfection and insert caustic remarks about power, wealth and white male privilege. She is particularly unrelenting about the special privilege that men like Lewis have in this society, how they use their power to have everyone, their wives included, defer to them, and how they manipulate every situation to their advantage, sacrificing not a word or idea of their own.

While Lucy mocks and dismisses the elite who run this society, it tends to overlook racism; it even makes the life of an au pair girl seem quite charming. Perhaps there are some ideal situations, but the stories I have heard from women of the West Indies, some of whom came to this country in the late fifties and early sixties as au pair girls, many more as domestics, paint another, far from ideal picture: facelessness, isolation, exploitation, indentured servitude. In the interview in Callaloo, Kincaid intimates that her own journey was not so perfect: she herself, aged just sixteen, left Antigua in 1965 to become an au pair girl in America, where “I wasn't quite a servant, but almost.”

How fortunate Lucy is, then, to have been spared servitude. Instead, she is befriended, confided in, even introduced to eligible white men of the social stature of her employers. Racism largely seems not to exist in Lucy's world—but it does. While eating in the dining-car of the train on which she is accompanying Mariah to her childhood home, Lucy remarks:

The other people sitting down to eat dinner all looked like Mariah's relatives; the people waiting on them all looked like mine. The people who looked like my relatives were all older men and very dignified, as if they were just emerging from a church after the Sunday service. On closer observation, they were not at all like my relatives; they only looked like them. My relatives always gave backchat.

(p. 32)

I can't help but wonder why she feels so urgent a need to dissociate herself from blacks, since she and African-Americans share a common history and ancestry. This passage is snide. Lucy rejects the forging of links; she insists she has nothing in common with the black men who serve her, even though she too is beholden to the Mariahs of the world. She opts instead for individualism, being the anomaly, a person immune to the ordinary needs of community and family.

Kincaid continues in Lucy what she began in Annie John—that is, to retell the stories, stories her mother and relatives told her, which is largely how she comes to know and see herself. Storytelling is very much a motif of Caribbean society, and I too am a product of that tradition. Much of what I know about my early life comes from the stories my mother told me about myself, and the stories she told others about me. Like Annie John and Lucy Warner, who I am is a direct result of those stories. The oral tradition reigns. Over a period of time the stories become integral to who we are; they connect us to the history we did not live or do not recall. The teller of the stories is as important as the stories themselves. Since the teller is a woman, and is often our mother, we become our mother—as Lucy finally concedes, not with alarm or even surprise but acceptance: “I had spent so much time saying I did not want to be like my mother that I missed the whole story: I was not like my mother—I was my mother.”

This is the thread that keeps this book from unraveling, from becoming a lament, a daughter's cry for autonomy and separation. Kincaid's own skill as a storyteller takes over: the stories are no more Lucy's mother's but Lucy's own, and every time she claims one of the stories that her mother told her, she discovers a little bit more about herself, she stumbles on wisdom: Her history becomes a shawl that she pulls closer to cover her shoulders from the cold.

The complications of this central relationship between the protagonist and her mother extend far beyond the “normal” conflict that a daughter and mother experience. I try to think how my own story was different, and why, like Kincaid, I grew up in a small island community that praised imitation and sameness. It was understood that I would improve my standards, yet pattern myself off my mother. I was expected to be good in both the colonial context—a good subject—and in terms of what are considered “proper” traditional values for girls who aspire to middle-class status. I was my mother's daughter, and was as confident of her love as is Annie of her mother's at the beginning of Annie John.

What then is the source of Lucy's anger and abhorrence of her mother? Where did the rupture begin? I tried to trace it in Annie John, and I believe I found the place—the point where her mother demands that she become an individual separate from her.

My mother and I had many dresses made out of the same cloth, though hers had a different, more grownup style … One day, my mother and I had gone to get some material for new dresses to celebrate her birthday (the usual gift from my father) when I came upon a piece of cloth … I immediately said how much I loved this piece of cloth and how nice I thought it would look on us both, but my mother replied, “Oh no. You are getting too old for that. It's time you had your own clothes. You just cannot go around the rest of your life looking like a little me.”

(Annie John, pp. 25–26)

Growing up, I remember my older sister and I having dresses made out of the same fabric as my mother's, and I recall distinctly the feeling of oneness that came from dressing like them. I also recall the anger I felt toward my sister when, as a teenager, she no longer wanted to dress like me or have me tag along with her and her friends. I don't think I ever hated her, at least not for more than a day; yet I believe this episode is the trigger of Annie's and Lucy's turmoil. In the same passage, Annie continues:

To say that I felt the earth swept away from under me would not be going too far. It wasn't just what she said, it was the way she said it. No accompanying little laugh. No bending over and kissing my little wet forehead … I got my dress with the men playing pianos, and my mother got a dress with red and yellow overgrown hibiscus, but I was never able to wear my own dress or see my mother in hers without feeling bitterness and hatred, directed not so much toward my mother as toward, I suppose, life in general.

(p. 26)

Lucy is a more cynical work than Annie John. Lucy is not a person I admire. I applaud her audacity, I am amazed by her indifference, I am floored by her astuteness and knowledge of people, I smile at her brashness and dismissal of traditional values, but I don't feel that I know her, and what I know of her I don't like. Lucy Josephine Warner is too much above and beyond all attachments. She seems incapable of being hurt; yet she harbors such hatred for her mother. And I am still not sure I understand or even know the source of her pain, real as it is. Almost to the end she remains self-righteously assured, she doesn't falter, she doesn't yield, she doesn't grow. But perhaps at the very end we glimpse a young woman who is asking for a chance:

I could write down only this: “I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it.” And then as I looked at this sentence a great wave of shame came over me and I wept and wept so much that the tears fell on the page and caused all the words to become one great blur.

(pp. 163–164)


  1. Selwyn R. Cudjoe, “Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview,” Callaloo, Vol.2, No.2 (Spring 1989).

Hilton Als (review date 18 February 1991)

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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 holiday in Antigua: “An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist … pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that.”

The success of the tour that readers and critics made through Kincaid's work was based on whether or not the local color rendered in it was sufficiently exotic. What they wanted was a taste of her native food—the preparation of which she had described in her fiction—but not the story of how that food was procured. They wanted to gaze at her landscape but do so without seeing what she saw in A Small Place: drought, disease, poverty and black native bodies condemned to the stench of no future at all. In short, what Kincaid's critical readership wanted was not so much a writer as a primitive who wrote, and whose charm lay in the “innocence” of her vision.

Admittedly, such a reading would be difficult to avoid if you took Kincaid's early work at face value. As seen through the idyll of youth—as in River and Annie John—Antigua is a beautiful place, with its “sea, the shimmering pink-colored sand, the swimmers with hats.” But lurking, always, on the periphery of her glistening prose were the shadows of British colonialism, the black Antigua's history of slavery and the division of black from white. From Annie John: “Ruth [a classmate] had come all the way from England. … Perhaps she wanted to be in England, where no one could remind her constantly of the terrible things her ancestors had done. … She had such a lot to be ashamed of, and by being with us everyday she was always being reminded.”

In A Small Place and her latest novel, Lucy, Kincaid reminds the reader, again and again, of the “terrible things” power can instigate, such as the desire, for a time, to abandon “poor sap countries like Antigua,” develop a history apart, the better to ‘chart the eternal return of the native bearing tales of the outside world.’

Lucy is the first-person narrative of a young woman who has come from Antigua to an undisclosed North American city. By some arrangement, she has become the au pair (“The Girl” to some) of four small girls, the children of Lewis, a lawyer, and his wife, Mariah. In her room—the maid's room—and, later, in the family's country home, Lucy abandons her studies as a nurse to embark on her true vocation: “I understood I was inventing myself, and that I was doing this more in the way of a painter than in the way of a scientist. I could not count on precision or calculation; I could only count on intuition.” And it is as a burgeoning artist that we see Lucy live her first year abroad, inside a sensibility that does not attach itself to people—not her companion Peggy, an Irish girl with whom she eventually rooms; not her lovers Hugh or Paul; not Lewis. None of them speak in a language Lucy understands or cares to hear: She is intent on developing her own voice. James Baldwin once wrote: “For a very long time the troubles of white people failed to impress me as being ‘real’ trouble.” One suspects that part of the negative criticism leveled at Kincaid for Lucy has to do with her protagonist's failure to accede to white people—i.e., power—as a determining factor in her life. No one holds sway over Lucy's internal or external self. Her remarkable power derives from Kincaid's cool dissection of class and race, in which she makes the reader responsible for the folly and waste that Lucy observes. As one rarely seen if at all heard, Lucy transforms her invisibility as a servant, as a woman and as a black, into her power, the power of the artist who will have the last word. “[Mariah] had too much of everything, and so she longed to have less: less, she was sure, would bring her happiness. To me it was a laugh and a relief to observe the unhappiness too much can bring: I had been so used to observing the results of too little.”

When my mother immigrated to New York from Barbados in the 1940s, her first jobs were doing “day work.” No matter what the weather, she had to stand on a particular street corner in a section of Brooklyn where cars cruised and eventually stopped, searching the faces and bodies of young girls deemed suitable for work. In their homes, my mother heard many things: the acquisition of this, liquidation of that. Sometimes these people spoke of my mother in her presence in the third person: My mother used to say, “Doesn't matter what they say. You know your name.” Lucy ends when she—at last—takes up her “fountain pen full of beautiful blue ink,” writes her full name across the top of a page, and then this: “I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it.”

What Kincaid loves are the people of Antigua. It is, indeed, a love her writer's voice could have “died” of eventually had she not distanced herself from it, discovering, in exile, the discipline necessary to cultivate it. Had she not been a “dispossessed” Antiguan, the distance and love inherent in her brilliant A Small Place would not have been possible. Like Naipaul before her, Kincaid makes her past even more frightening through the dissection of the present. Unlike Naipaul, she shows no bitterness in the face of it, no shame and no regret: “I look at these people (Antiguans) and I cannot tell whether I was brought up by, and so come from, children, eternal innocents, or artists who have not yet found eminence in a world too stupid to understand, or lunatics who have made their own lunatic asylum, or an exquisite combination of all three.” This is the prose equivalent of Derek Walcott's poetic evocation of identity lost and found in “North and South.”

A Small Place focuses on Antiguans—the descendants of slaves—living in a community dropped in upon by the tourist—frequently descendants of slave owners—each unclear and uncertain of how to use language as a tool to describe and interpret their identities, their separate histories.

The tourist does not exist in the “real” of daily life in Antigua; a native can do little but. The native cannot see himself, so involved is he in the repetition of habit. The native is plagued by racism, illiteracy, poor health care. The tourist will continually exercise his option to pay to see nothing at all. “That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. … [The natives] cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. … They envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

Writing in Condé Nast's Traveler, Erroll McDonald said of A Small Place: “Obsessed as she is … with decrying the history of the greed and, cruelty of British colonialism … she never allows for sheer goodwill among consenting adults.”

What McDonald unwittingly plays into here is the critic's standard relationship to the literature of the so-called exotic. Since the time of Claude McKay, whose fame as a writer of poems in Jamaican dialect reached its apex in the 1930s, critics have most often expressed a preference for West Indian literature only when “goodwill” was written in the margins. No anger, just rum and rhythm. Happy wit' plenty o' nuttin'. If Kincaid does not support the critical fantasy of the “island girl” who writes, critics are robbed of their paradigm. In her New York Times Book Review treatment of Lucy, Thulani Davis wrote: “I found it difficult to recognize the lively, curious and engaged child Annie in the angry but disengaged Lucy.”

The collective American fantasy revolving around the Caribbean and the native is popular again just now, evidenced in the success of the current Broadway “hit” Once on This Island, and in culture czar David Byrne's appropriation of Afro-Caribbean rhythms into his music, which he has remarked has made it sound “happier.” In Lucy and in A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid destroys this fantasy, in language that is completely hers, naming the world in a voice as disagreeable and stunning as it need be: “I did not like the name Lucy—I would have much preferred to be called Lucifer outright—but whenever I saw my name I always reached out to give it a strong embrace.”

Evelyn J. Hawthorne (review date Winter 1992)

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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 independence she has craved for many years. However, the persistence of unreconciled ambivalence toward her mother, guilt about her recently deceased father, and fears concerning her uncharted future becloud this newly gained freedom. The end of the work thus suggests a problematic future, though the fact that Lucy identifies herself as a writer—the act of inscribing her name, Lucy Josephine Potter, across the top of a journal notebook signifies this—indicates a self-authenticating, defining, and authorizing gesture of significance.

Compared to the earlier works, Lucy engages a thicker web of conflicts. Coming-of-age dilemmas in the preceding works involved the more limited parameters of home and small-island environment. Thus, conflicts were essentially the result of the circumstances of family (with the mother considered the most central aspect of “oppression”), of the social world of peers and adults, of the adolescent's anxieties of physical maturation and sexuality. The later work complicates these conflicts, introducing cultural and geographic change and displacement as new factors in the life experiences of the young girl. Lucy finds that she must negotiate an identity in a culture that is for all practical purposes an unknown to her, and one with operant discourses of race, class, and gender that she must quickly decipher. She focuses her alien's hostility to this culture upon Mariah, her employer. She is often enraged by the confidence of this all-American woman (whom she eventually comes to love, however), as for example in her need to wish to proclaim in great self-confidence, “I have Indian blood.” Lucy considers such racial acknowledgment as transgressive; it serves to deny history. She feels that “victor and vanquished” are historically separate events of being. Contemplating her own Indian heritage—she is part Carib—Lucy tells herself that to claim Carib status would be to totemize it.

As an immigrant, Lucy bears comparison with other immigrants. Similarly, she feels threatened in the U.S. (she is, she well knows, part of an economic underclass); similarly, she is heartened by the prospects of freedom and choice there. When she first arrives, Lucy is the disappointed immigrant; the U.S. is “ordinary” and “dirty.” Unusually perceptive and sensitive, however, she forgoes superficial knowledge of the culture and instead engages in a dialogic confrontation with it. Not victimlike, she expresses rather than suppresses her differences and individuality.

Lucy also makes a strong statement about the difficult terms of living under colonialism. A good example of this comes in the first chapter, when Lucy is being pressed to show admiration for daffodils. As she vehemently protests, these flowers are for her a symbol of cultural imperialism. They bring back memories of her school days in the West Indies, when she had been expected to memorize a poem about daffodils—flowers, she reminds her employer, that are not native to the islands. That foreign material (in all respects) should have been dominant in the education she received, and native material made superfluous to education, evidenced for Lucy the cultural oppression that she had endured. Negative reinforcements were the patriotic songs, such as “Rule Britannia,” that tried to indoctrinate the West Indian into the discourse of European superiority and native inferiority. This past, too, Lucy seeks to escape.

The work ends with Lucy's statements, “One day I was a child and then I was not” and “Your past is the person you no longer are.” The fact that Lucy gives the appearance of believing this is indication, of course, that she is barely twenty years old.

Moira Ferguson (essay date 1993)

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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 continues a fictional/semi-autobiographical saga that was initiated in earlier texts, Annie John and A Small Place. In a limited way, these texts “acquire mass, density, and referential power among themselves and thereafter in the culture at large”; they constitute a “strategic formation,” constructing themselves as counterdiscourse to the dominant culture (Orientalism 20). As an African-Caribbean writer, that is, Kincaid speaks to and from the position of the other. Not only does she specify confrontations along class/race/gender axes, she also unmasks “the results of those distortions internalized within our consciousness of ourselves and one another” (Lorde 147).

In Lucy, Kincaid pursues these confrontations via diverse strategies. Casting aside adolescence, Lucy tells her own story while doubling as a representative of black Antiguans; a willing recorder of the island's oral narrative, she rescripts familiar thematics as well as exploring new ones. For example, Lucy takes place in Manhattan during the 1960s just prior to Antigua's attainment of partial independence from Britain in 1967, contributing another layer to a collective bildungsroman that reverts back in time to the end of Annie John when seventeen-year old Annie sails for Britain. The protagonists of the two novels, while differently named, are similar in their Caribbean sensibilities and their commitment to unmasking hypocrisy. Gender is a paramount issue in both novels, with the image of the mother-child dyad extending in Lucy to a colonizing motherland as well as a biological maternality. Across these two novels, then, sexual politics are seen as integral to the colonial and postcolonial imperative.

The narrator of Lucy is a twenty-year-old black Antiguan female who craves control of her life. She takes a job as an au pair in New York as part of her move toward independence. From the day she arrives in New York from the Caribbean and retires to bed to avoid further overload, she is determined to be an agent rather than a passive receiver. Unlike the protagonists of other texts, she is surrounded almost exclusively by white people, not only in her immediate household but also within her circle of friends.

As an expatriate residing in the United States and occupying diverse subject positions, Lucy has to cope with strategies aimed at colonizing her as a British “subject.” She has to negotiate her way through differing representations of power, first with the husband, Lewis, a middle-aged lawyer, and second with his wife, Mariah, a rich but emotionally dominated and somewhat naive Anglo-Saxon woman from a distinguished Michigan family who initially thinks the world lies at her feet. Worth noting, too, is the fact that Kincaid in a telling reversal of the erasure of African names uses no patronymic for Lewis and Mariah: in this way “the family” of the novel is discursively and deliberately homogenized.

As an indictment of the colonizing project, Lucy is comparable to A Small Place. In the latter, the narrator argues that people in a postcolonial situation tend to act as an oppressed population. They have little sense of the past, present, and future and treat everything on an ad hoc basis. This ahistorical attitude corrupts people by dissolving or eliminating class divisions and the capacity to analyze those differences. Alive to nuance, changing moods, and events, Lucy adopts a more explicitly counter-hegemonic stance after biding her time in a postcolonial setting. She grounds whatever she sees in an alternative vision that resists the domination of the colonial setting.

Thus, despite one reviewer's complaints that Jamaica Kincaid “dissociates herself from blacks” in her fiction, Lucy's cultural awareness is abundantly evident (Adisa 6). She employs a strategy of cultural reversal, revealing how the political legatees of residual colonial culture live their lives and think about their cultural positionality. In Lucy, Kincaid thematizes hegemonic treatment of those regarded as native “others.” Lucy is simultaneously fetishized and condescended to in a revamped form of old hierarchical relations existing between the colonizer and the colonized as her employers and their friends try to homogenize difference and subsume it within their jurisdiction. They do so by pretending that the power dynamic between the “haves” and the “have nots” does not dominate everyday life.

The maid in Lewis and Mariah's house is more candid, though no more empowered than is Lucy by her recognition of race/class differences in this domestic realm. Attuned to an intra-class pecking order, she tries to make Lucy feel stupid and worthless, charging her with speaking as if she were calcified:

She said that I spoke like a nun, I walked like one also, and that everything about me was so pious that it made her feel at once sick to her stomach and sick with pity just to look at me. And so, perhaps giving way to the latter feeling, she said that we should dance, even though she was quite sure I didn't know how.


In response to this criticism, Lucy displays pride in her origins: while an album sung by three insincere but “beautiful” white singers is played, Lucy energetically sings a calypso “about a girl who ran away to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and had a good time, with no regrets” (12). In the face of racist stereotypes, she claims herself and her history.1 She may occupy the maid's room—“a box in which cargo traveling a long way should be shipped” as she describes it—but tellingly adds: “I was not cargo” (7). From the beginning, consciously or not, Lucy sets out to undermine metropolitan authority and asserts her right to contest it.

Yet Lucy's relation to “origins” is more ambiguous than her singing indicates. In the portrayal of Mariah, one can see reflected Lucy's continuing altercation—albeit more muted than in Annie John—with her biological mother. The sequence in which Mariah is represented begins with her reaction to the weather, continues with an incident in which daffodils are projected as a trope of colonialism, and concludes with Lucy's indignity at her mother's scolding about the dangers of the New York underground. Mariah's excitement at the weather and the sight of daffodils perplexes Lucy: “How do you get to be that way?” she wonders (Lucy 20). She cannot fathom how a windy day can make one person more agitated than someone facing, say, a daily drought. What causes such priorities? Is it simply that some lives are lived at a trivialized, even perilously self-indulgent level? Could it be guilt or compensation? Later when the paper-thin surface of Mariah's life cracks, Lucy implicitly receives her answers.

Kincaid tellingly scatters yellow images throughout the two incidents concerning the notorious daffodils. Yellow, in these passages, represents domination and the facade of beauty that masks decay in a mirage of power. Mariah is one of the “six yellow-haired heads of various sizes [that] were bunched as if they were a bouquet of flowers tied together by an unseen string” (12). Members of the family, from the point of view of colonized people, are indistinguishable; they live in a kitchen in different shades of (jaundiced?) yellow where Mariah “with her pale-yellow skin and yellow hair, stood still in this almost celestial light, and she looked glossed, no blemish or mark of any kind on her cheek or anywhere else” (27). Mariah's scatheless, euroidealized face contrasts sharply in two later incidents with two scarred faces and a potentially scarred one: of Lucy's mother, her friend, and Lucy herself. The friend bears a scar on her right cheek from a human bite after a quarrel with another woman over a man (24) while the face of Lucy's mother has been gashed by a monkey (54). Lucy herself states that she will “end up with a mark somewhere” (25). African-Caribbean women, Lucy postulates, cannot remain artificially faultless.

The second appearance of the daffodils involves Mariah's insistence that Lucy look at daffodils after Lucy carefully explains why she loathes the flowers. Mariah brushes off Lucy's angry monologue about being forced to recite William Wordsworth's poem “The Daffodils” when she was growing up—stark evidence of residual British culture. Mariah's response is culpably naive:

I told it to her with such an amount of anger … Mariah reached out to me and, rubbing her hand against my cheek, said, “What a history you have.” I thought there was a little bit of envy [note Lucy spots no condescension] in her voice, and I said, “You are welcome to it if you like.”


As a predictably ethnocentric employer, Mariah forces Lucy's gaze on the daffodils through trickery, just as Lucy was forced to recite the poem: “[She] took me to a garden, a place she described as among her favorites in the world. She covered my eyes with a handkerchief, and then, holding me by the hand, she walked me to a spot in a clearing” (28). Lucy then is forced to gaze on the very daffodils themselves. To this form of cultural intimidation, Lucy responds violently: “I wanted to kill them. I wished that I had an enormous scythe; I would just walk down the path, dragging it alongside me, and I would cut these flowers down at the place where they emerged from the ground” (29). Mariah cannot comprehend Lucy's response: “Her eyes sank back in her head as if they were protecting themselves, as if they were taking a rest after some unexpected hard work. It wasn't her fault. It wasn't my fault. But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness” (30).

The fact that William Wordsworth wrote several “Lucy” poems raises the question of Kincaid's possible ironies. Although we learn later—a point I shall return to—that Lucy is named after Lucifer himself, Wordsworth's Lucy and Kincaid's Lucy are also mirror-like: one mimics the other. “In Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known,” Wordsworth's Lucy is continually gazed at by her lover who fears that Lucy “should be dead,” his emotion not dissimilar to Lucy's longing for her own mother's death later in the novel. In the second Lucy poem, “She Dealt through the Untrodden Ways,” the speaker's grief at someone unnamed who lived alone once again resonates with countless unnamed colonized daughters of empire who die unsung. Dying unsung is something Kincaid's Lucy is determined will not happen to her. In “Three Years She Grew,” a personified Nature decides to construct Lucy, only to be thwarted by her death. Similarly, Kincaid's Lucy cannot successfully be molded by the colonial system commonly configured as “natural” human progress. Lucy's alliance to nature, implicit in the popular conception of indigenous people, is rescripted in the fourth Lucy poem, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Steal,” where Lucy eternally circles “with rocks, and stones, and trees.”

But the fifth and last Lucy poem is the clinching one. In “I Traveled Among Unknown Men,” a patriot narrates how he cherishes the image of Lucy in a cottage turning her wheel and contemplating green fields as she expires. The very idea of Kincaid's Lucy coming from a drought-ridden, arid Antigua and constructing a garment from the cotton threads of empire while gazing on lush well-watered English pastures is ludicrous, a mockery of empire in general and Wordsworth specifically as a preeminent cultural icon.

Mariah's earlier envying of Lucy's history—the remarkable envy of the oppressor toward the oppressed—receives a face in a later incident when Mariah claims her kinship with Lucy, presumably in an effort to receive absolution. She craves to identify with oppression so much that she boasts about her “Indian blood” (40). Lucy does not disguise her contempt: “Why claim a thing like that? I myself had Indian blood in me. My grandmother is a Carib Indian. That makes me one-quarter Carib Indian” (40). She mulls over the implications of Mariah's assertion: “Underneath, everything I could swear she says it as if she were announcing her possession of a trophy” (40). Mariah desires forgiveness for colonial complicity, but Lucy cannot function so glibly, nor can she countenance Mariah's efforts to rewrite history. In her attempts to rub out the past and resite Lucy, Mariah contributes to the conventional totalizing narrative of old colonial and new postcolonial relations. With pointed words that cut through the malaise she feels Mariah is (unconsciously) spreading, Lucy inquires sarcastically: “How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?” (41). Lucy has trouble coming to terms with people who trivialize life-and-death matters; in her eyes, they live superficial lives. Her assessment of Mariah temporarily enables her to nurture a pyrrhic victory: “It was hollow, my triumph, I could feel that. But I held on to it just the same” (41). Her elation is empty because she cannot separate her growing affection for Mariah—who is often imaged as Lucy's biological mother—from her growing distaste for Mariah's understated, reactionary views.

Lucy's contradictory feelings echo something Jamaica Kincaid said in an interview: “I feel that, in particular, my own history is so much about dominion; in fact we were called ‘the dominion,’ and all the colonies were ‘the dominions’” (Perry 501). In the novel, Lucy's initial disgust at the imperial expropriation of colonized culture by that of the colonizer is gradually displaced on to the daffodils which come to represent the “past” and “present” of her life. After the initially painful incident with the daffodils, Mariah (as if to underscore her colonial credentials and power under the guise of benevolence) informs Lucy of her plans. En route to Michigan she wants Lucy to share one of her favorite experiences: “spending the night on a train and waking up to breakfast on the train as it moved through freshly plowed fields” (28). The significance of the daffodils and the plowed fields that gesture toward plantation slavery is not lost on Mariah. However, when that sight finally comes into view, Lucy veils her powerful reactions—she experiences a moment of insight as if to say that the boss must not know what the insurrectionary is thinking:

Early that morning, Mariah left her own compartment to come and tell me that we were passing through some of those freshly plowed fields she loved so much. She drew up my blind, and when I saw mile after mile of turned up earth, I said, a cruel tone to my voice, “Well, thank God I didn't have to do that.” I don't know if she understood what I meant, for in that one statement I meant many different things.


The vision of ploughed fields illuminates another trope of colonialism just as it represents Mariah's denial of Lucy's African Caribbean heritage and the power of Lucy's historical memory. Once again, Mariah's blithe ethnocentric attitudes enable her to find joy in something that marks atrocity for Lucy's ancestors. In her (culpable) naiveté, Mariah recalls the tourist in A Small Place, but in this instance Lucy silently registers the dimensions of Mariah's ignorance. In the dining car, the diners resemble Mariah's relatives, while the people waiting on the family strike Lucy as resembling herself. On closer inspection, Lucy decides the employees are less familiar and more supine than she at first thought: “My relatives always gave backchat” (32). Mariah's telling obliviousness to this racist scenario sharply contrasts with Lucy's perplexed outrage:

Mariah did not seem to notice what she had in common with the other diners, or what I had in common with the waiters. She acted in her usual way, which was that the world was round and we all agreed on that, when I knew that the world was flat and if I went to the edge I would fall off.


The text exposes the anti-colonial fury that had earlier so bewildered Mariah. Once at Lake Michigan, Mariah excitedly draws Lewis and the children into her holiday projects:

She said, “Taa-daah! Trout!” and made a big sweep with her hands, holding the fish up in the light, so that rainbowlike colors shone on their scales. She sang out, “I will make you fishers of men,” and danced around me. After she stopped, she said, “Aren't they beautiful? Gus and I went out in my old boat—my very, very old boat—and we caught them. My fish. This is supper. Let's go feed the minions.”


The word “minions” reminds Lucy of her condition as an Antiguan in an Anglo household: “A word like that would haunt someone like me; the place where I came from was a dominion of someplace else” (37). A further unpacking of the word “minions” also recalls San Domingo where the most successful anti-slavery revolution took place in 1791. Inspired by the trout scene with its fusion of fish and minions, Lucy tells Mariah a quaint childhood tale about eagerly asking her mother how the fishes were cooked during the miracle of the loaves and fishes. This complex imbrication of imperial culture and Mariah's pointed boast of her Christian leadership role—“I will make you fishers of men”—elicits from Lucy a response similar to the one she tendered to the family maid. She cancels out Mariah's subtle claiming of a missionary role with a story about too little food for the people—a notorious fact of colonial life. Lucy knows that Mariah remains clueless about the implications of growing up in a British “dominion,” a code word and not-so-subtle euphemism for hegemony over land-peasant ancestors (Cudjoe 399). Although Lucy makes a point of underscoring cultural differences in this scene, Mariah still cannot comprehend that Lucy's experience of the world induces an oppositional understanding of “culture.”

Intertwining sexuality, postcolonial recognitions, and gender relations, fish and fishermen resonate throughout Kincaid's texts. In this scene with Mariah, fishing bears multiple symbols; not only it is emblematic of Antiguan culture, but it implies a New Testament tropology involving the apostolic succession and Jesus’ famous miracle. In making the comparison to her mother's preparation of fish, Lucy reverses again the metonymic chain: by scrutinizing the colonizing gain (chain) on the same subjects, she highlights the clandestine method deployed by colonizers to remake societies in their own image. Lucy exposes the suppressed rhetoric of the imperial system.

Mariah's underside is further exposed during an episode figuring another colonial reversal. Vanishing marshlands preoccupy the ecology-minded Mariah, symbolically as well as literally. Things are no longer what they used to be in her family or in her Michigan environment. Lucy laughs to herself at the self-delusory activity that prevents Mariah and women of her class from facing the global evils they helped to create and maintain. Mariah and her affluent friends can burn with anger at the destruction of the ecological system while Mariah employs someone whose people suffer drought and chronic deprivation all year round. Lucy only hints at the ricocheting ironies. Mariah's preoccupation with marshlands, with mud and viscosity, stresses her distance from moral purity.

The rape of the people as well as the land is an old colonial signifier. Now in one of its postcolonial transformations, these rapes hurt the colonizers themselves. Moreover, colonial agents do not recognize their own inconsistencies because they mystify the profit they take from the rape of the land, an evasion constitutive of a colonial mentality. Lewis and his class-allied peers buy stock and invest in corporations that cut down rain forests, turning natural acres into developed areas. For all Mariah knows, they could be buying timber and mining stock. Kincaid deftly inserts a question articulated by the child Louisa to suggest this complex of issues while the mise en scène simultaneously reinscribes Lucy's old negative relationship with her mother:

[Mariah] moaned against this vanishing idyll [when marshland flourished] so loudly that Louisa, who was just at the age where if you are a girl you turn against your mother, “Well, what used to be here before this house we are living in was built?” It was a question I had wanted to ask, but I couldn't bear to see the hurt such a question would bring to Mariah's face.


Louisa's question reveals Mariah's complicity with metropolitan power just as Kincaid's multiple protagonists charge their “mother” with complicity in the law of the father. The child Louisa queries Mariah for her institutional complicity just as Lucy—as well as Annie John—blame their mothers personally for colonial corruption. Ironically, a dual maternality marks colonial-patriarchal hegemony.

With no comprehension of context, Mariah yearns for days gone by. She seems oblivious to their impact on Lucy and her formerly enslaved ancestors. In the hands of the colonizer, environmental reform is just another form of control. Acquiring a more discriminating knowledge of the present has helped Lucy recover and understand her past. That knowledge has subverted her positive fantasies about Mariah and Lewis. From this point on, no one can drown out certain radical possibilities that she begins to envisage. Inevitably and unwittingly, Lewis, Mariah, and their peers constitute themselves for Lucy in their own misrecognitions.

By the fourth chapter of the novel, “Cold Heart,” the intertwining issues of gender, colonialism, and ethnocentricity become more dramatically apparent. In contrast to her employers' disintegrating marriage, Lucy initiates a process of self-healing as she pierces through white liberal sham. Early on, as Lucy watches the entire family happily going out to dinner, she views them as through an open window: “I was looking at ruins, and I knew it right then. The actual fall of this Rome I hoped not to be around to see” (88). Through such insights Lucy comes to terms with her own naiveté in desiring—from the distance of Antigua—a situation whose exploitative and deceptive nature becomes apparent up close. In recent interviews, Jamaica Kincaid talks of the fatuity of the imperial history books that she devours. The mention of Rome recalls the proscription of paganism (involved in how people like Dinah regard Lucy), the riots of Thessalonica (incidents in which islanders, formerly slaves, are expected to “misbehave”), and the invasion of “territory” in the name of civilization. One irony of the metaphor recalling early Roman invaders lies in the fact that the “vandals” (often a code name for native peoples) Alaric and Gaiseric sacked Rome in 410 A.D. and 455 A.D. respectively. The metaphorical density in “the fall of this Rome,” its hybridity, encapsulates not only familial disintegration but its colonizing aspect and Lucy's role as the outsider-servant who refuses at many levels to mimic or participate in the system. “The Roman empire [Kincaid suggests] fell because its social structure … was founded … on slavery” (Perowne xvii).

These complex allusions are compounded when Mariah encourages Lucy to study Paul Gauguin, the post-impressionist painter who was also a successful half-commission man on the Stock Exchange and who left his country to live in Papeete. Lucy's white employer praises the expatriate Frenchman's depiction of Tahiti which Mariah ethnocentrically assumes is virtually synonymous and interchangeable with Antigua. But Lucy's dry comment about gender and class difference implies the well-known tales of Gauguin's sexual activity that resulted in his death.2

Of course his life could be found in the pages of a book; I had just begun to notice that the lives of men always are. He was shown to be a man rebelling against an established order he had found corrupt; and even though he was doomed to defeat—he died an early death—he had the perfume of the hero about him. I was not a man; I was a young woman from the fringes of the world, and when I left my home I had wrapped around my shoulders the mantle of a servant.


With the best intentions, Mariah introduces Lucy to a painter whose canvases are peopled (Mariah thinks) by women like Lucy. In Lucy's view, however, Paul Gauguin is a cultural interventionist in Tahiti who became famous for painting representations that reflect an ethnocentric gaze. Mariah's inability to understand Lucy's ire reaffirms the psychological damage and economic exploitation that Mariah's ignorance perpetuates. Having identified herself as someone living on the fringes of the household, Lucy goes on to admire the marginalization of artists she meets at a party. Yet when the party's host, another Paul, fetishizes her hair and treats her as an exotic object—he views Lucy from a vantage point that incorporates Gauguin's gaze—everyone at the party rapidly understands that she now occupies a role marked out by him: “It was understood that when everyone left, I would not leave with them” (100).3 To what extent she is a willing partner and goes along with being singled out by the host is left up in the air. Lucy—the implication goes—now repositions herself and watches the guests file out from the party. In a sense, she reverses their gaze and lets the drama play itself out.

Further, she brings together the sexual-intertextual dimension of Gauguin's behavior toward Tahitian women by inserting an old sexually-based tale from her past at this point, told to her by a childhood Antiguan acquaintance named Myrna. It concerns the death of a fisherman and Myrna's reaction to a series of incidents involving him:

She told me that she had not been crying for Mr. Thomas at all—she had been crying for herself. She said that she used to meet Mr. Thomas … under a breadfruit tree that was near her latrine … at the back of her house, and she would stand in the dark, fully clothed but without her panties, and he would put his middle finger up inside her. … She and Mr. Thomas never spoke about it … After he had removed his finger from inside her … she said that she had not decided exactly what she was going to do with the money yet, but whatever it would be, she did not yet have enough.


The vulnerable child succumbs to and even appears to secretly enjoy Mr. Thomas's physical abuse. He makes her feel special and she needs the money exchanged for her complicity. Lucy responds to this disturbing tale in an unexpected fashion: in her recollection, she is overcome with jealousy because the fisherman, Mr. Thomas, had singled out a “picky-haired girl” and not herself for “such an extraordinary thing.”4 The last thing Lucy wants is to be ordinary.5

The tale underscores Lucy's former frustrations and her mixed judgment; she longs to break out of roles, even if this escape must take place at the expense of her own body. Through the association of Mr. Thomas's hands with Paul's hands at the party as he rummages in a fish tank for a starfish-shaped rhinestone earring, Lucy connects sex, secrecy, oral narrative, and male-female relations. Paul represents a fake miniature version of Mr. Thomas, groping in a tank for a symbol of bourgeois living that emulates items of authentic tropical beauty. Perhaps with a touch of self-mockery he fishes for a glittering fake starfish.

Paul thus symbolically hints at Lucy's confused status by depicting her as an attractive but artificial starfish, an ornament that no longer belongs in the sea. The starfish is out of its element in a plastic world, no longer (in a sense) itself. Lucy's conflicted ontological status signals her growing resentment at being trapped. The moment of recognition that these images instigate heralds a moral cleansing on Lucy's part: “I began to feel like a dog on a leash, a long leash but a leash all the same” (110); “I was living in a home, though, and it was not my own” (112).

An intervention from Antigua, however, marks a drastic change in Lucy's life. Lucy's mother sends a letter about the death of her father, its arrival coinciding with Lucy's newly-found knowledge of Myrna's secret life. Although the letter is marked urgent, Lucy does not open it and responds to the inner strife it generates over motherhood and sexuality by buying a camera. As a culturally functional metaphor, the camera serves as a tool of self-appropriation for Lucy who is tired of expectations about the demands placed on her. As much as she can, Lucy makes it her business to reject any expropriation of her personhood that she does not herself choose. In that sense, the camera's gaze is empowering because it enables distances and defines a distinct place and space for the gazer.

The camera proffers the illusion that material reality can be controlled when Lucy blocks and reverses her mother's gaze across the Caribbean and the Pacific. She uses the camera through which she gazes unrestrictedly herself to redeploy her mother's watchfulness. Scopic discoveries substitute for the unpleasant visual images rendered by her memories of the past. With a camera, memories can be rearranged, boundaries elided; photos can be used to manipulate and conceal the real. Perhaps more to the point, photos can level the playing field between Lucy and those who would objectify her with their gazes: with a camera, the equalizer of distance is always present.

To augment her self-assertion, Lucy embarks on a chance sexual relationship with the Panamanian man who sells her the camera; yet he appears to her as a somewhat familiar person, perhaps a relative of her host family from the isle of Martinique. When Philip sells Lucy the camera, he qualifies as a co-conspirator of sorts, a mysterious other who somewhat resembles Lucy. Her quest for self-completion results in their brief affair which signifies both a “self-doubling” and a form of resistance to the maternal gaze.

Ultimately, Lucy reacts to her father's death with a railing letter to her mother: “I said that she had acted like a saint, but that since I was living in this real world I had really wanted just a mother” (127). Lucy opts to claim her sexuality as she pleases and to fly in the face of colonialism's desire to control “the natives,” a desire that Lucy's mother mimics. In rejecting the maternal injunctions that one sees in such previous novels as At the Bottom and Annie John, the protagonist of Lucy consciously articulates a form of postcolonial resistance.6 She has come to hate her biological mother, she says, although this pronouncement is continually undercut by professions of love. What she has come to hate is the colonizing project that seeks to contain her. She will not be part of the imperial narrative, a fact that is signaled by her recognition of the trauma of separation from both the biological and colonial mothers that her acts will entail. Her father's death frees her from speaking the patriarchal language of oppression and accepting its terms. She substitutes for it an emergent postcolonial code of her own devising that both reinscribes and resists the “law of the father.”

The renegotiation of the conflict between the patriarch and the postcolonial daughter reaches a climax after another potent intervention. The same Paul whose white hand dived (like Mr. Thomas's) for a fake starfish now proudly shows Lucy around the countryside and specifically points out an old plantation as a landmark to be admired. Paul identifies with the spirit of adventure in any man who crosses “the great seas, not only to find riches, he said, but to feel free, and this search for freedom was part of the whole human situation” (Lucy 129). He scarcely notices the dead animals littering the highway around them, killed by fast cars. Lucy vehemently reacts to Paul's blithe fantasy of colonial adventurism, refusing any longer to speak the patriarchal language of oppression: “I tried to put a light note in my voice as I said, ‘On their way to freedom, some people find riches, some people find death,’ but I did not succeed” (129).

After Lucy tells Mariah about her trip with Paul, Mariah connects Lucy's anger to her feelings about her mother. As Lucy is coming to (re-)create herself, so Mariah probes newly-found psychological depths, as if in a healthy mimicking gesture. Lucy confesses how angry she felt when she learned of her mother's plans for her male siblings' future education and professional careers. She confides that a “sword pierce[d] her heart”: “To myself I [Lucy] then began to call her [Annie John's mother] Mrs. Judas, and I began to plan a separation from her that even then I suspected would never be complete” (130–131).

Lucy acts as if she wants to throw off two massive weights at once: the gendered, personal burden of knowing how her family favored her brothers which is inextricably fused with the burden of living as a female in a colonized country. She finds both forms of authority treacherous; both mothers have become, in her eyes, a pair of “Mrs. Judases.” The collection of birth and postnatal memories that Lucy recounts to Mariah underscores the fusion of the two mothers. In the first instance, colonized Antigua meshes with her old home life in a scenario that flaunts the colors of the Union Jack, keen signs of colonial exploitation:

the color of six o'clock in the evening sky on the day I went to call the midwife to assist my mother in the birth of my first brother; the white of the chemise that my mother embroidered for the birth of my second brother; the redness of the red ants that attacked my third brother as he lay in bed next to my mother a day after he was born; the navy blue of the sailor suit my first brother wore when my father took him to a cricket match; the absence of red lipstick on my mother's mouth after they were all born.


These memories, inflected with violence and hues of domination, bring Lucy up short in her attempt to tell how desire for her mother conflicts with maternal demands: “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” (131–132). At this point, with the best ethnocentric will in the world, Mariah gives Lucy a copy of Simone de Beauvoir's philosophical treatise on sexual politics, The Second Sex, understood by Lucy as another representation of cultural imperialism that signs Mariah unmistakably as part of the colonizing project. Lucy knows full well how Mariah has “completely misinterpreted my situation” (132). Having unburdened her problems with motherhood and colonial intervention on to Mariah, Mariah then exchanges for this knowledge a famous bourgeois feminist text embedded in eurocentric beliefs and principles.

Lucy may fall silent here before the contradictions inherent in her plight as biological and cultural post-colonial subject, but elsewhere, she implicitly notes connections between her dual sense of personal and political estrangement. She observes the everyday objects around her and provides instances of political and cultural subjugation almost in the same breath as the imagery moves from daffodils and minions to plowed fields and cameras. This self-critical use of language, this hybrid form—the self-knowledge implied in growing up “fragmented”—yields a decolonizing of the mind. She claims the right to what Edward Said calls “the audacious metaphoric charting of spiritual territory usurped by colonial masters” (“Figures” 6).

For example, Lucy sentimentally relates a story about how she used to think life would have been preferable if the French and not the British had been colonizers. She reasons that the French stamps she received from a pen pal bore a seemingly more progressive message: “The stamps on her letter were always canceled with the French words for liberty, equality, and fraternity; on mine there was no such words, only the image of a stony-face, sour-mouth woman” (136). In her evolving maturity, however, Lucy shies away from that preference, but still with some reservations: “I understand that, in spite of those words, my pen pal and I were in the same boat; but still I think those words have a better ring to them than the image of a stony-face, sour-mouth woman” (136). This seemingly “innocent” commentary on stamps strikes an explicitly political chord, revealing Lucy's love of justice as well as her ironic sense (suggesting that she has not completely internalized anti-colonialist opposition) that the “face” of colonialism is utterly separated from its discourse.

In the final section of the novel, Lucy asserts that she is “making a new beginning again” (133). In recollecting and summarizing her past, she pointedly rehearses her origins and the interventions of Christopher Columbus, thus forging an intertextual relation between her own foundations and the exploits of the imperial explorer. In her own ironic words, [he committed a] “foul deed, a task like that would have killed a thoughtful person, but he went on to live a very long life” (135). Subsequently, Lucy tells the story of refusing to stand up and sing “Rule Britannia” at school, attributing her disobedience to the unattractiveness of Britons and the fact that “I was not a Briton and that until not too long ago I would have been a slave” (135). In school at the time, her action was not deemed especially scandalous (because it was expected, presumably); “instead, my choir mistress only wondered if all their efforts to civilize me over the years would come to nothing in the end” (135).

She then rehearses her life up to the present: “I had begun to see the past like this: there is a line, you can draw … yourself, or sometimes it gets drawn for you” (137). She wants to be a woman shedding illusion instead of feeling “like a dog on a leash, a long leash but a leash all the same” (110). She sees through Paul (“I could have told him that I had sized him up” [156]) and her friend Peggy in terms of colonial mimicry:

Her hair smelled of lemons—not real lemons, not lemons as I knew them to smell, not the sort of lemons that grew in my yard at home, but artificial lemons, made up in a laboratory. Peggy did not know what a real lemon smelled like. How am I going to get out of this?


But the resolutions to these problematic insights are not yet fully available to Lucy: “I quickly placed a big rock on top of it” [her feelings of being trapped] (155). She does, however, pride herself on seeing the sheer ordinariness beneath Lewis's veneer of superiority: his character is summed up in his perverse final present to the environmentally conscious Mariah of a coat made of animal fur. She sees that the family members scarcely know her, although they consider it their (First World) right to “know” and, therefore, control her. With no way of undoing the infinite play of dissimulation and self-deception, they scarcely see beyond the accidents of Lucy's differently curled hair and a deeper shade of complexion.

Nonetheless, Lucy will not forgive her mother for an accumulation of perceived wrongs, especially the psychological neglect of Lucy herself, so she sends her a phony forwarding address. In contrast, she is willing to rationalize Mariah's fury when Lucy says she will leave: “Her voice was full of anger, but I ignored it. It's always hard for the person who is left behind” (141). She is even willing to forgive Mariah the mark of the colonizer; apparently, the trauma of separation has not forced total alienation upon Lucy:

Mariah spoke to me harshly all the time now, and she began to make up rules which she insisted that I follow. … It was a last resort for her—insisting that I be the servant and she the master. … The master business did not become her at all, and it made me sad to see her that way.


Interpreting Mariah's behavior positively, Lucy practices restraint—the kind she cannot extend toward her mother. She evinces compassion. The implied link between Lucy's compassion for a colonial mother in Mariah and the absence of compassion toward her biological mother evades Lucy's grasp at this point. But she verges on an understanding of that link when she reapplies knowledge gleaned from her mother at home; the complexity of Lucy's feelings are also evident in her desire to use that knowledge in explaining to Mariah that her “‘situation is an everyday thing. Men behave in this way all the time. …’ But I knew … she would have said, ‘What a cliché.’ But all the same, where I came from, every woman knew this cliché, and a man like Lewis would not have been a surprise” (141). Lucy recognizes that her knowledge of Antiguan mores has empowered her to avoid Mariah's dangerous innocence. In a nifty parthian shot, moreover, she terms Mariah a stony-faced woman, echoing earlier descriptions of Queen Elizabeth II as, “a stony-faced, sour-mouth woman” (136). She slowly begins to discern finer distinctions among Mariah, Lewis, and her own mother, or rather, using a self-preserving tactic, she begins to judge them in terms of their attitudes toward colonialism. Lucy has turned the tables against the family that sought to control her. As far as she is economically able to do so, she begins to control her own environment, right down to sexual encounters. She fractures any attachment between sexuality and the damaging force of empire.

Toward the end, Lucy names who she is. She recites her given name and the names she attempts to adopt: Lucy, Lucifer, Josephine Potter—names associated with plantocratic lineage, slave traders, (the English Potter family), and a Western symbol of evil. She imagines the possibilities of other names—Emily, Charlotte, Jane, and Enid.7 These names clearly evoke white female heroines such as Jane Eyre who lives in a house with an imprisoned white Caribbean woman, (as well as the creator of them both, Charlotte Brontë, and her sister Emily), and Enid Blyton, notorious in Britain for her racist characterizations in children's books.

In the name “Lucifer” and the allusion to the “lost paradise” of Lucy's innocence, Lucy embraces the oppositional name wholeheartedly. Lucifer is configured, after all, as the perfect Western villain. Lucy finds part of her postcolonial identity in this name:

It was the moment I knew who I was. … Lucy, a name for Lucifer. That my mother would have found me devil-like did not surprise me, for I often thought of her as god-like, and are not the child of gods devils? I did not grow to like the name Lucy—I would have much preferred to be called Lucifer outright—but whenever I saw my name I always reached out to give it a strong embrace.


In these namings, Lucy has begun to dispense with surrogates, positively announcing to herself a personal capacity to abandon not just Mariah and Peggy, but Jane and Enid too. Her names empower her to break her dependency on others, her compliances, her catering to them, and even her continuing resistance to old emotional ties (Belenky et al. 83–86).

The notebook that Mariah gives Lucy as a farewell present enables her to reverse the colonial project since the notebook visually signs patriotism in its red, white, and blue composition.8 These nationalist associations refer back to the fall of Rome mentioned earlier, but this time Lucy is the vandal who conquers the original invaders. She will use the mark of the colonizer on behalf of the postcolonial agitators. The blank pages of her life that now stretch before her, like the potential but unused frames of a camera spool, stand a better chance of being imprinted authentically. The conscious articulation of a desire—“I wish I could love someone so much that would I die from it” (164)—complicates her past, present, and future. Yet her resistance to the grand narratives of marriage, religion, and cultural conformity persists. She begins to confront herself.

By the end of the novel, having come to recognize the tunnel vision of the homogeneous imperative, Lucy is on the way to self-articulation. Now she sees that it is not only the colonizer who imposes the disfiguring mark of the dominant culture. These recognitions recall Lucy's trickster story of the monkey who retaliated when Lucy's mother, irritated by the monkey's stares, threw stones at it. Just as Lewis's monkey metonymizes Lucy, so the monkey who permanently scars Lucy's mother is an insurgent who refuses to be controlled (154–155). At the level of mini-anecdote, Kincaid's texts are paradigmatic of a quest for independence and freedom, both personal and political. But the pursuit of this quest results in the attainment of a precarious state of being, and Lucy recognizes her own uneasiness regarding it: “I am alone in the world. It was not a small accomplishment. I thought I would die doing it. I was not happy, but that seemed too much to ask for” (161). Still, having arrived at this complex moment, she can now love Mariah on her own terms, no longer so confused about Mariah as a substitute mother or her own ability to love without encumbrance. The earlier persuasive words of her biological mother have “ceased to mean” (Bakhtin 425). She is becoming comfortable with all the parts of herself:

I had seen Mariah. She had asked me to come and have dinner with her. We were friends again: we said how much we missed each other's company. She looked even more thin than usual. She was alone, and she felt lonely. … When we said goodbye, I did not know if I would ever see her again.


The camera which has served as the medium of the gaze ultimately serves to trace Lucy's maturation.9 In a graphic domestic scene she sees:

a picture of my dresser top with my dirty panties and lipstick, an unused sanitary napkin, and an open pocketbook scattered about; a picture of a necklace made of strange seeds, which I had bought from a woman on the street; a picture of a vase I had bought at the museum, a reproduction of one found at the site of a lost civilization.


In preparation for the act of writing—the act of self-inscription—she states: “I did all sorts of little things; I washed my underwear, scrubbed the stove, washed the bathroom floor, trimmed my nails, arranged my dresser, made sure I had enough sanitary napkins” (163). Crucially, the second mention of the sanitary napkins, emblems of maturation, are no longer confined by the camera's eye, no longer one of the signs of a chaotic or fragmented existence. Lucy will prepare her affairs as she pleases; she is no longer the object of the gaze, but the orchestrator of her own life. Her menstrual blood links her not only to life and maturation, but to Mariah's present, the blood-red Italian notebook, a mark of creativity, self-inscription, and survival.10

Jamaica Kincaid's fiction invariably achieves closure in terms of water that cleanses, fertilizes dry ground, and opens up new radical possibilities.11 Symbolically, water is also a place of indeterminacy where anything can happen: it signifies Lucy's return to amniotic fluid and new beginnings. As the beautiful Caribbean represents her as a black Antiguan and a colonial subject, so now does the ink in her pen; she is the community recorder who connects her life in Antigua with what lies ahead; linking the personal and political dimensions of her life, she displays the effect of colonialism and postcolonialism on an African-Caribbean woman. As the final sentence of the novel suggests, her weeping is a form of erasure: “as I looked at this sentence [about loving someone so much she would die] a great wave of shame came over me and I wept so much that the tears fell on the page and caused all the words to become one great big blur” (164).

On the one hand, talking about water, arriving at it, finding comfort in it returns Lucy to a time of harmony and safety. On the other, Lucy is forced to abide with a watery indeterminacy, “one great big blur” that militates against hard and fast answers. The image of the blur suggests that everything is out of focus; it returns us to a camera metaphor, but one connoting a confusion coupled with determinacy. In Lucy's more mature vision, the oscillation of meanings signifies that nothing is privileged, resolved, or closed off. Through the metaphor of water, Lucy contextualizes the metaphor she used previously when she observed Mariah acting in her normal manner, “which was that the world was round and we all agreed on that”: now Lucy knows symbolically that the world is flat and she can fall off if she ventures to the edge. She knows the fraudulence of the overall “consensus” that Mariah is so sure of, and its relation to a blonde, European world, the one that Peggy tries to simulate with her artificial lemon shampoo. In questioning “roundness” and stepping closer to the edge, Lucy realizes she can see both forwards and backwards. Having refused enclosures built by others, she begins to forge a site (sight) of her own.12 She refuses assimilation and embraces cultural difference and an “alien status,” only partly of her own making, in the margins (hooks 23).

In this enactment of cultural revenge, of the dissolution of authority, Lucy claims her right to feel and to drown out cognition for the time being. Revealing the duplicity of the colonizing economy by mapping herself on to earlier texts, she creates a new post-colonial cartography. She is ready to write. Finally, at a symbolic level, Lucy is also Antigua of 1967, a territory freeing itself from the colonizer. In the late nineteen sixties, Antigua was struggling toward partial independence and the United States was becoming a contestational zone of anti-war protesters, just as Lucy struggles successfully toward a form of independence. By the end of the narrative, Lucy has begun to decolonize herself; in that sense, Jamaica Kincaid, a postcolonial subject in her own right, has made an ex-post facto intervention in the description of a colonized subject about to be legally and personally freed. The death-like, gray-black and cold January of the opening transitional period has been transformed through Lucy's awakening and agency into the blood-red, milk-white, Caribbean-blue colors of her writing.


  1. For a political discussion of calypso in context, see Ramchand, 132–137, and Davis, 44–45.

  2. For insight into the life of Gauguin, see Charmet and Andersen. It is possible that Kincaid knows and silently alludes to the story of Gauguin's skirmish with sailors in Concarneau who laughed at Gauguin's Javanese mistress and the monkey he held by a string (Charmet 75).

  3. Since Jamaica Kincaid has read Wide Sargasso Sea, (see Perry 508), we could be hearing in Paul an echo of quests by protagonists like Rochester who seeks Antoinette's “hand” in marriage so he can acquire her fortune.

  4. At another level, Lucy's distance from and control of her own sexuality—her exposed desire—suggests an attempt on Kincaid's part to come to terms with sexuality and eroticism, either fictional, autobiographical, or both. For a more detailed explanation of this see Kristeva, 219–235.

  5. Lucy wants to be treated as the picky-haired girl was—a slut in the mother's terms in At the Bottom of the River. Thus the warnings in At the Bottom, the absence of “slut-like” behavior in Annie John (although further warnings occur), bear on the implied slut-like behavior of Myrna who desires it and likes the attention. Hence Annie John's mother stands reindicted while Lucy is sited on the “pro-slut,” that is, anti-authority, continuum.

  6. Once again, Kincaid insists on the continuity and mutual allusiveness of her texts, as if they were to be treated as loosely fitting but connected sections of a personal and political saga.

  7. The references here are to Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, and Enid Blyton.

  8. Blue like white invokes transparency and suggests such cosmic borders as sea and sky.

  9. For insights about the use of a camera, see Barrow et al., 46–47.

  10. For a creative discussion of menstrual blood, see Cixous, 245–264 and Féral, 52–65.

  11. For a discussion of the implications of water, drought, and death, see Bachelard, 65–69. For aridity as a metaphor, see Ramchand, 129.

  12. For a deeper look at the refusal of enclosure and the forging of independent site/sight see Chandra T. and Satya P. Mohanty, 19–21, and Satya Mohanty, “Drawing the Color Line,” 311–343.

Works Cited

Adisa, Opal Palmer. “Island Daughter.” Women's Review of Books 85 (1991): 5–6.

Andersen, Wayne. Gauguin's Paradise Lost. New York: Viking P, 1971.

Bachelard, Gaston. Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter. Trans. Edith R. Farrell. Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1942.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Barrow, Thomas F., Shelley Armitage, and William E. Tydeman. Reading into Photography: Selected Essays, 1959–1980. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1982.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. 1952. Trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Belenky, Mary Field, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattuck Tarule. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

Blyton, Enid. Here Comes Noddy. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., and Richards P, 1951.

Burgin, Victor. “Photographic Practice and Art Theory.” Thinking Photography. Ed. Victor Burgin. New York: Macmillan, 1982. 39–83.

Charmet, Raymond. Paul Gauguin. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966.

Cixous, Hèléne. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” New French Feminisms: An Anthology. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Schocken Books, 1981. 245–264.

Cudjoe, Selwyn R. “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” Callaloo 39.2 (1989): 396–411.

Davis, Kortright. Emancipation Still Comin': Explorations in Caribbean Emancipatory Theology. New York: Orbis Books, 1990.

Féral, Josette. “Towards a Theory of Displacement.” Sub-Stance (1981): 52–65.

Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1989.

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Framework 36: 15–23.

Jordan, Winthrop. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1968.

Kristeva, Julia. “My Memory's Hyperbole.” The Female Autograph: Theory and Practice of Autobiography from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century. Ed. Domna C. Stanton. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. 219–235.

Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

———. Lucy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Lorde, Audre. “Eye to Eye.” Sister Outsider. New York: Crossing P, 1984. 145–175.

Mohanty, Chandra T. and Satya P. Mohanty. Rev. of “Contradictions of Colonialism.” Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. Ed. KumKum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989. 19–21. In The Women's Review of Books 7.6 (1990).

Mohanty, Satya. “Drawing the Color Line: Kipling and the Culture of Colonial Rule.” The Bounds of Race: Perspectives on Hegemony and Resistance. Ed. Dominick LaCapra. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1991. 311–343.

Perowne, Stewart. The End of the Roman World. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1967.

Perry Donna. “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” Reading Black,Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. 492–509.

Ramchand, Kenneth. The West Indian Novel and Its Background. London: Heinemann, 1970.

Ramraj, Victor. “The All-Embracing Christlike Vision: Tone and Attitude in The Mimic Man.” Commonwealth. Ed. Anna Rutherford. Papers delivered at the Conference of Commonwealth Literature, Aarhus University, April 26th–30th, 1971, Akademisk Boghandel, Universitetsparken, Aarhus, Danmark. 125–134.

Said, Edward. “Figures, Configurations, Transfigurations.” Race and Class: A Journal of Black and Third World Liberation 32 (July-September 1990): 1–16

———. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Wilentz, Gay. “English Is a Foreign Anguish: Caribbean Writers and the Disruption of the Colonial Canon.” Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-Century “British” Literary Canons. Ed. Karen R. Lawrence. Urbana and Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. 261–278.

Diane Simmons (essay date Summer 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6336

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 one reality constantly slides into another under cover of the ordinary rhythms of life.

The sense of betrayal, which permeates Kincaid's work, is explored first in the treachery of a once-adored mother. In Kincaid's first book, the collection of surrealistic short stories At the Bottom of the River (1983), a girl yearns for an impossible return to the perfect world that existed before the “betrayal” of birth and for union with a mother figure who will “every night, over and over, … tell me something that begins, ‘Before you were born.’”1 The yearning for a lost maternal paradise, however, is inextricably linked to betrayal, and elsewhere in At the Bottom of the River the mother is shown methodically transforming herself into a serpent, growing “plates of metal-colored scales on her back” and flattening her head “so that her eyes, which were by now ablaze, sat on top of her head and spun like two revolving balls” (BR, 55).

In Annie John, a more conventionally narrative coming-of-age book, the treachery of a once-adoring mother is spelled out. As the child begins to reach puberty, the mother suddenly turns on her. The mother who has previously seen her daughter as beautiful and perfect, now sees the child as a mass of imperfection and immorality. At the same time that she imposes rules and regimens designed to turn the girl into a “young lady,” the mother also communicates that this project is doomed, that no amount of training can overcome what she now perceives to be the girl's true nature, that of a “slut.”

While betrayal by a beloved mother is a theme that echoes throughout Kincaid's work, this first treachery is mirrored by the colonial world of British-dominated Antigua. The young protagonist of Annie John enjoys the prestige of being a top student, but approval and praise are withdrawn when Annie, in her growing awareness that she is the descendant of people whose enslavement was the result of European “discovery,” treats a picture of Christopher Columbus with mild disrespect. As a child of the colonial system, Annie is faced with a dilemma similar to that which she has begun to face when dealing with her mother. Both powers—maternal and imperial—demand childlike devotion and unquestioning trust; both turn on the girl in retaliatory fury at the slightest hint of mature awareness. To be acknowledged, loved, and rewarded, then, she must betray her own maturing self. The result is a confusion about where the self really lies: “Sometimes, what with our teachers and our books, it was hard for us to tell on which side we really now belonged—with the master or with the slaves.”2

Like the betraying mother, the colonial system, in pretending to nurture the child, actually steals her from herself. For the black child in the British-dominated Caribbean, “the self is faced with extinction by the very processes of acculturation which all who nurture the child commend.”3 Only imitation and blind acquiescence are acceptable, not the questioning gaze of an emerging intelligence.

The theme of betrayal, and an increasing anger at having been somehow trapped into turning against oneself, explodes in A Small Place, in which the author revisits her home, the island of Antigua, after an absence of twenty years. The island is now self-governing, but white tourists have replaced the departed British as the dominant group. As the tourists turn the islanders into holiday attractions, the islanders, as Kincaid depicts them, retaliate in kind, reducing the tourist into a dehumanized object.

If the white tourists in Antigua are excoriated, the black inhabitants are not spared Kincaid's wrath as they, in some areas, act out the roles of incompetence and dishonesty written for them by the English and, in other areas, emulate imperial rapacity. The postindependence schools are so bad that Kincaid, with her preindependence education, is shocked. And the government of Antigua is so patently dishonest that “the answer on every Antiguan's lips to the question, ‘What is going on here now?’ is ‘The government is corrupt. Them are thief, them are big thief.’ Imagine, then, the bitterness and the shame in me as I tell you this.”4 Once again the betrayer is, in part, the self.

In Lucy the theme of loss and betrayal is continued, though the title character is no longer in the Caribbean but has come to work as an au pair in a big American city resembling New York. The sense of loss may be even more powerful here than in the other works, as the rich beloved contradiction of the childhood world is not only figuratively but also literally lost. Lucy—named, her mother has told her, for Lucifer—has been expelled from both the Caribbean and her mother's life. Warm, vivid Antigua has been replaced by the pale chill of a North American winter. Lucy's mother, source of all intelligence, power, beauty, and magic, has been replaced by Lucy's wealthy employer, the affectionate but sheltered and naïve Mariah, who proffers books on feminism to help Lucy over her deep sense of loss and despair. In one way, Kincaid's young protagonist has, by leaving home, triumphed over her mother's wish to keep her forever infantilized or criminalized. She is still, however, threatened by the mother's power. She keeps her mother's letters but does not open them: “I knew that if I read only one, I would die from longing for her.”5

If Lucy has not entirely freed herself of her mother, neither is she free of the destructive legacy of a colonial education. When Mariah, brimming with delight in the pale Northeastern spring, introduces Lucy to her favorite place, a grove of daffodils, Lucy is filled with rage. She has never seen a daffodil before but has been forced to memorize a long poem about daffodils as part of her British education, an education which, as a matter of course, expected students to ignore their own lush flora and to study and celebrate a plant they would probably never see. Though Mariah's intentions are innocent, even loving, Lucy wants only to take a scythe and “kill” the flowers. Part of her fury is at how “simple” they look, as if “made to erase a complicated and unnecessary idea” (L, 29), the complicated idea of dominance. The colonial education, which has forced the girl first to love daffodils, then to hate them, creates a chasm between her and the well-meaning Mariah.

I felt sorry that I had cast her beloved daffodils in a scene she had never considered, a scene of conquered and conquests; a scene of brutes masquerading as angels and angels portrayed as brutes. … It wasn't her fault. It wasn't my fault. But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness. The same thing could cause us to shed tears, but those tears would not taste the same.

(L, 30)

Here too neither the source of suffering nor its redress is simple.

Although the themes of loss, betrayal, and self-betrayal permeate these works, this is probably not what draws most readers to Kincaid's writing. Rather, they are struck first by the language, which reviewers frequently describe in terms of poetry, demonstrating a “joy in the sheer sounds of words.”6 Kincaid's language can be examined in a number of ways. It has been claimed as particularly “feminine,” the “language of sounds and silence” of the nursery “which stands before and beyond the rational signifying words of the father.” Kincaid's style has also been described as “a successful example of [the] Afro-American rhetorical strategy, [as] parody, repetition, inversion mark every single movement of Kincaid's narrative.”7 “Girl,” the first piece in the collection At the Bottom of the River (and Kincaid's first story to appear in the New Yorker, which later published virtually all of her fiction), is described as “a rhythm so strong it seemed to be hypnosis, aimed at magically chanting out bits of the subconscious.”8

As with most magical and religious incantations, however, the spell is cast for a reason. The rhythms and repetitions charm and lull the reader, disguising what is actually happening in the prose, which is that one thing is constantly being transformed into another. The rhythm and repetition of Kincaid's prose mark a clash of contradictions. At the same time they work to manipulate a reader into unconsciously accepting the paradoxes that are being offered. In “Girl” the mother's chant of information and advice enfolds and ensnares the daughter, rendering the girl nearly helpless before the mother's transforming will. In Annie John Kincaid's use of rhythm, repetition, and list-making signal contradiction and manipulation, but increasingly these devices also mark a response to impending loss. The mother's beloved homemaking energy, including her celebration of her child, is catalogued at the very moment that energy is being turned against the child, destroying her sense of home. In A Small Place it is the assumed white reader who is immobilized by the rhythms of the prose, as Kincaid's protagonist graduates from being the victim of such transformative power to a practitioner in her own right.

Kincaid's “Girl” may be read as a kind of primer in the manipulative art of rhythm and repetition. The story begins with the mother's voice giving such simple, benevolent, and appropriately maternal advice as “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 to dry” (3). Like the girl to whom the mother speaks, the reader is lulled and drawn in by the chant of motherly admonitions, which go on to advise about how to dress for the hot sun, how to cook pumpkin fritters, how to buy cloth for a blouse, and how to prepare fish. Seduced in only a few lines, readers, like the listening girl, are caught unaware by an admonition which sounds like the previous, benevolent advice but has in fact suddenly veered in a new direction, uniting the contradictions of nurture and condemnation: “… always eat your food in such a way that it won't turn someone else's stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming” (3). As the brief, one-sentence story progresses, we come to see that the mother's speech, inviting with nurturing advice on the one hand and repelling with condemnatory characterization on the other, not only manipulates the girl into receptivity to the mother's condemning view, but also teaches the art of manipulation. The mother incorporates into her indictment of the girl's impending sluttishness the task of teaching her how to hide that condition: “… this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming” (4). As the contradictions draw closer together—as nurture and manipulation become increasingly intertwined—the language seems to become even more rhythmic.

… 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; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how you 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. …


In the last third of “Girl” the mother's voice continues the litany of domestic instruction, but added now is comment on a frighteningly contradictory world, one in which nothing is ever what it seems to be. The continued tone of motherly advice at first works to lighten the sinister nature of the information imparted and then, paradoxically, seems to make these disclosures even more frightening; eventually we see that, in a world in which a recipe for stew slides into a recipe for the death of a child, nothing is safe.

… don't pick people's flowers—you might catch something; don't throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don't like, and that way something bad won't fall on you.


In the collection's second story, “In the Night,” a comfortable domestic world is again casually transformed into the site of a life-and-death struggle, then casually changed back. The repetitive language first comforts in its invocation of familiar and simple activities, then horrifies as it veers into the suggestion that there is little difference between making a dress and killing a child: “… someone is making a basket, someone is making a girl a dress or a boy a shirt, someone is making her husband a soup with cassava so that he can take it to the cane field tomorrow, someone is making his wife a beautiful mahogany chest, someone is sprinkling a colorless powder outside a closed door so that someone else's child will be stillborn. …” (11).

The story “In the Night” ends with a fantasy in which the girl imagines that she will one day marry a woman whom we take to be her mother, “a redskin woman with black bramblebush hair and brown eyes, who wears skirts that are so big I can easily bury my head in them” and who, each night will tell a story that begins, ‘Before you were born’” (11, 12). The two will live in a “mud hut near the sea,” and the fantasy proceeds as a list of domestic furnishings and tools, one of the numerous such lists found in Kincaid's work.

With this story we encounter something new. Now it is the girl, not the mother, who slides one reality into another under cover of life's ordinary rhythms. Contained in the following list are both a vision of mother and daughter living together eternally in simple domestic bliss and a literal portrait of the inevitable collapse of this union.

In the mud hut will be two chairs and one table, a lamp that burns kerosene, a medicine chest, a pot, one bed, two pillows, two sheets, one looking glass, two cups, two saucers, two dinner plates, two forks, two drinking-water glasses, one china pot, two fishing strings, two straw hats to ward the hot sun off our heads, two trunks for things we have very little use for, one basket, one book of plain paper, one box filled with twelve crayons of different colors, one loaf of bread wrapped in a piece of brown paper, one coal pot, one picture of two women standing on a jetty, one picture of the same two women embracing, one picture of the same two women waving goodbye, one box of matches.


Here the “pictures” are ambiguous, certainly intentionally so. The two women could have come to the jetty to wave good-bye to a third person, or they could be waving good-bye to each other. And we do not know who they are; they could be mother and daughter or someone else. Readers of Annie John, however, will see here a preview of that book's final chapter, “A Walk to the Jetty,” in which Annie and her mother embrace, wave good-bye, and then part, as Annie leaves Antigua seemingly forever. Thus the fantasy of eternal mother-daughter union is transformed into separation, even as it is being constructed. From this vantage point, even the picture of the embrace cannot be seen as the unambiguous demonstration of affection it seems to be. For if this is a preview of the final scene of Annie John, the embrace is, rather than a demonstration of affectionate union, one last struggle for power as the mother holds the girl so tightly that she cannot breathe and the girl, “suddenly on [her] guard,” asks herself “‘What does she want now?’” (AJ, 147).

In the title story of At the Bottom of the River, which concludes the volume, we see Kincaid changing the nature and purpose of the incantatory list. As the mother uses it both to invite and denounce, the daughter uses it as a way of both holding on and breaking free. Again and again we will see this effect in Kincaid's work, as her protagonists, as if to gain some control over life's eternal changeability, list the contents of a world that must soon be departed. As the mother in Kincaid uses her repetitious chants to control others, the daughter uses them to control herself, appearing to steady herself by chanting out the properties of a beloved world even as she prepares to leave it. We remember that Kincaid and her characters—mothers and daughters—are women caught between worlds, and perhaps it is only in this way that the duality can be managed.

This connection between the listing of beloved objects and departure becomes clear at the end of this final story, as the protagonist emerges from the “pit” of an existential crisis in which she confronts her own inevitable death. The acceptance of the inevitability of this ultimate departure is signaled by a listing of domestic items that seem to symbolize all the beauty, simplicity, and perishability of human life. It is as if in reciting the list of homely items, the story's protagonist joins with them as a part of all life, rather than feeling herself alone and apart in her fate.

Emerging from this pit, I step into a room and I see that the lamp is lit. In the light of the lamp, I see some books, I see a chair, I see a table, I see a pen; I see a bowl of ripe fruit, a bottle of milk, a flute made of wood, the clothes that I will wear. And as I see these things in the light of the lamp, all perishable and transient, how bound up I know I am to all that is human endeavor, to all that is past and to all that shall be, to all that shall be lost and leave no trace.


In At the Bottom of the River an increase in rhythmic, repetitious language seems to mark a crescendo of contradictions, in Annie John the presence of extensive listings of domestic items may be used to chart an intensified sense of loss, or imminent loss. In the book's second chapter, “The Circling Hand,” in which Annie's mother first harshly announces a change in their formerly close relationship, listings of domestic items abound. Most of the lists catalogue the mother's activities, her shopping, her cooking (“pumpkin soup with droppers, banana fritters with salt fish stewed in antroba and tomatoes, fungie with salt fish stewed in antroba and tomatoes” [17]), or her laundry methods. Most striking is the page-long list of Annie's baby and childhood paraphernalia which fill the mother's trunk, from her first garment, a white chemise sewed by the mother, to her first jewelry, her report cards, and certificates of merit from Sunday School. Annie will, of course, be banished from all such sites of maternal activity within a few pages, apparently as a result of her impending maturity. No longer will she be allowed to be her mother's little shadow, and sorting through the beloved trunk is one of the first shared pleasures to go, as the mother harshly declares that they no longer have time for such things.

In the last chapter of Annie John, “A Walk to the Jetty,” Annie prepares to leave Antigua, and once again list-making flourishes as Annie, on the morning of her departure, catalogues the morning sounds in her house, the contents of her room, the breakfast menu, and finally the significant events of her childhood as they are suggested by the various sites she must pass on her walk to the jetty. These things and places are not only dear and familiar; they are Annie's very life, and there is a kind of death in leaving them. Now the domestic lists take on an increasingly rhythmic form, as Annie seeks to set the moment of departure to the ongoing beat of daily life.

The house we live in my father built with his own hands. The bed I am lying in my father built with his own hands. If I get up and sit on a chair, it is a chair my father built with his own hands. When my mother uses a large wooden spoon to stir the porridge we sometimes eat as part of our breakfast, it will be a spoon that my father has carved with his own hands. The nightie I am wearing, with scalloped neck and hem and sleeves, my mother made with her own hands. When I look at things in a certain way, I suppose I should say that the two of them made me with their own hands. … Lying in my bed for the last time, I thought, This is what I add up to.


Kincaid's protagonist insists that she is glad to leave it all, that she never again wants to hear the sheep being driven to pasture past her house or her mother dressing and gargling. As she lies in the half-dark looking at her room and all the things that “had meant a lot” to her, she declares, “My heart could have burst open with joy at the thought of never having to see any of it again” (132). But this claim is contradicted by the energy expended on the lists and their great detail. Even her vow that her departure will be permanent is cast in terms of another, rhythmic, listing of the details of home: “I had made up my mind that, come what may, the road for me now went only in one direction: away from my home, away from my mother, away from my father, away from the everlasting blue sky, away from the everlasting hot sun, away from the people who said to me, ‘This happened during the time your mother was carrying you’” (134).

In A Small Place rhythm and repetition are once again used to manipulate an unsuspecting listener, this time Kincaid's assumed white reader, the “you” to whom the piece is addressed. Like the daughter in “Girl,” the reader of A Small Place is not immediately put on guard against an assault, but rather is drawn in by what seems to be a cheerful offer to discuss a pleasant subject. Here the subject is tourism in the Caribbean, and the essay's opening lines seem to set out a typical travel-writing invitation to dream of pleasurable experiences in exotic places: “If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see” (3). Like the mother's voice in “Girl,” Kincaid's voice in A Small Place keeps up the reassuring litany of advice and information, even as it turns toward condemnation. True, there is, from the very beginning, a somewhat unusual and slightly unsettling focus on the vacationer—“You may be the sort of tourist who would …” (3)—but still it is possible to read on in relative comfort, to assume that this is the safe and satisfying piece of travel writing one is eager to enjoy.

Soon, however, as the phrase “You are a tourist” is repeated again and again, we come to see that it is not merely a descriptive term. Rather, “you are a tourist” becomes an indictment, repeated as a sort of refrain after every fresh example of insensitive and dehumanizing behavior. At first the phrase may seem to offer an excuse, to explain, for example, why the traveler is free to enjoy the hot, dry climate without ever wondering how constant drought may affect the island's inhabitants. But just as we have become nervous enough to form this comforting theory, it is exploded by the demonstration that the phrase “You are a tourist,” rather than excusing the reader, is pulling him into a racially charged atmosphere that he is intent upon avoiding. The phrase is in fact a code for “You are white.” Kincaid writes:

You disembark from your plane. You go through customs. Since you are a tourist, a North American or European—to be frank, white, and not an Antiguan black returning to Antigua from Europe or North America with cardboard boxes of much needed cheap clothes and food for relatives, you move through customs swiftly, you move through customs with ease. Your bags are not searched.


Soon it is clear that Kincaid is not writing about the tourist destination so much as about the tourist, repeating “You are a tourist” and then “You are on holiday” as a drumbeat of indictment. The tourist is shown in many attitudes, but always he demonstrates a narcissistic determination to see Antigua and Antiguans in terms of his own desires and needs, never as a place and people with a separate existence. Even a dangerous road and bad drivers will be worked into the theme of holiday thrills in which the author's island home is transformed into one big amusement park: “Your driver is reckless; he is a dangerous man who drives in the middle of the road when he thinks no other cars are coming in the opposite direction, passes other cars on blind curves than run uphill, drives at sixty miles an hour on narrow, curving roads. … This may frighten (you are on your holiday; you are a tourist); this might excite you (you are on holiday; you are a tourist)” (6).

In a few pages, then, Kincaid has reversed the usual situation. The reader who has, probably unconsciously, expected to dehumanize the natives with his narcissistic gaze has been himself dehumanized, reduced to the stereotype, “You are a tourist.” Kincaid does not stop here. Again, she pulls the reader in by seeming to return to the expected travelogue. Upon seeing the sea, the tourist—always “you”—is transported: “Oh, what beauty! Oh, what beauty! You have never seen anything like this. You are so excited. You breathe shallow. You breathe deep.” But swiftly, with the repetition of the phrase “You see yourself,” even this seemingly innocuous moment is transformed into a portrait of the tourist, whose determination to consume everything in sight renders him bloated and ugly. First, pleasantly enough, “You see a beautiful boy skimming the water, godlike, on a Windsurfer.” Then, dangerously,

… you see an incredibly unattractive, fat, pastrylike-fleshed woman enjoying a walk on the beautiful sand, with a man, an incredibly unattractive, fat pastrylike-fleshed man; you see the pleasure they are taking in their surroundings. Still standing, looking out the window, you see yourself lying on the beach, enjoying the amazing sun. … You see yourself taking a walk on that beach, you see yourself meeting new people (only they are new in a very limited way, for they are people just like you). You see yourself eating some delicious, locally grown food. You see yourself, you see yourself.


If you, the tourist, see yourself reduced to a dehumanized stereotype, Kincaid seems to say, perhaps you can see how you are connected to the people you had intended to dehumanize, to reduce to mere picturesque vacation scenery. At the end of this section, by repeating the phrase “every native,” Kincaid joins white tourist and black Antiguan in common humanity.

That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives.


In Kincaid's story “Ovando,” a fantasy about a European conqueror of that name, the most striking rhythmic repetitions begin late in the story, as if the author, having set out Ovando's destructive deeds, only now cries out against them. Here, as elsewhere, an intensified sense of rhythm seems to mark an intensification of emotion. At the story's crescendo Ovando is no longer a man but has become the “night,” a deep, dark receptacle for all that is deadly and dreaded: “Ovando lived in the thickest part of the night, the deepest part of the night, the part of the night where all suffering dwells, including death; the part of the night in which the weight of the world is made visible and eternal terror is confirmed.”9

In the last lines of the story, as in the last section of A Small Place, Kincaid unites victim and victimizer in a shared fate. Here the repetition of “nothing” sounds a funeral chant for both those who dominate and those who are dominated. As is frequently the case, rhythm and repetition signal both loss and the struggle to survive it: “A charge against Ovando, then, is that he loved himself so that all other selves and all other things became nothing to him. I became nothing to Ovando. My relatives became nothing to Ovando. Everything that could trace its lineage through me became nothing to Ovando. And so it came to be that Ovando loved nothing, lived in nothing and died in just that way” (83).

In the novel Lucy we can recognize Kincaid's voice and language, but the use of rhythm and repetition is much less pronounced. In the cool, gray world of an American city, the intensity that inspires the rhythmic passages in earlier works has been muted, and the voice is calmer and more analytical. This is a world without magic; magical transformations have been replaced by a rich family's disguises and pretenses, posturings which Lucy sees through effortlessly. It is not until late in the book, once Lucy begins to speak about the loss she felt when her mother's attention turned to a succession of baby brothers, that we get the first, long list, a litany of love and loss.

As I was telling Mariah all these things, all sorts of little details of my life on the island where I grew up came back to me: the color of six o'clock in the evening sky on the day I went to call the midwife to assist my mother in the birth of my first brother; the white of the chemise that my mother embroidered for the birth of my second brother; the redness of the red ants that attacked my third brother as he lay in bed next to my mother a day after he was born; the navy blue of the sailor suit my first brother wore when my father took him to a cricket match; the absence of red lipstick on my mother's mouth after they were all born; the day the men from the prison in their black-and-white jail clothes came to cut down a plum tree that grew in our yard, because one of my brothers had almost choked to death swallowing whole a plum he picked up from the ground.


The white chemise here is reminiscent of another garment, the white cotton gown that begins the list of beloved childhood items in Annie John's trunk. This echo allows us to see the world of change and loss contained in the passage above. The infant who replaces Annie in the cherished white dress will himself be displaced, will be thrown out into a world in which all things seem to be in physical and moral flux. The juxtaposition of white chemise and biting red ants, of toddling children and jail crews, of ripe plums and the sudden threat of death whisks us back to the dangerous magical world of Kincaid's earlier work, a world in which the most innocent act may carry with it an unintentional pollution, as in “Girl”: “… don't eat fruit on the street—flies will follow you” (4). While this may not be the world Lucy lives in now, it is still the world that lives in her.

Lucy contains one other passage of rhythmic repetition, which, like the lists at the end of Annie John, marks the protagonist's preparations to leave one world for another.

I used to be nineteen; I used to live in the household of Lewis and Mariah, and I used to be the girl who took care of the children. … I used to see Mariah with happiness an essential part of her daily existence, and then, when the perfect world she had known for so long vanished without warning, I saw sadness replace it; I used to lie naked in moonlight with a boy named Hugh; I used to not know who Lewis was, until one day he revealed himself to be just another man, an ordinary man, when I saw him in love with his wife's best friend; I used to be that person, and I used to be in those situations. That was how I spent the year just past.


Lucy has not yet told us she is leaving her employer to live on her own, but the list signals impending change. Here again we see a detailed accounting of all that is soon to be left forever, as if this is a way of continuing to have those things which are one's life, even as one prepares for departure.

Although Kincaid's style may mesmerize, may have such power as to seem an end in itself, the careful reader begins to see that the author's language may be the most powerful symbol of all for the themes of loss and betrayal in a world divided against itself. A Kincaid sentence, as West Indian poet Derek Walcott has written, “constantly heads toward its own contradiction.”10 Finally, it may be that it is in Kincaid's sentences, if not in her stories, that a kind of resolution to the crisis of loss and betrayal is achieved. Here at least the contradictions are held in solution.

The fact that Kincaid's work is so frequently its own contradiction may explain the difficulty critics have had in categorizing her. Intensely personal, psychologically dense, Kincaid “does not fit in to any of the fashionable schools of Caribbean writing” that are preoccupied with racial and social identity.”11 Nor can she be easily categorized as a black or feminist writer: Kincaid does not feel the need to “delineate” her world “sociologically,” writes black-studies scholar and critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. “She never feels the necessity of claiming the existence of a black world or a female sensibility. She assumes them both.” The ability to make this assumption marks a “distinct departure” for Gates, and he compares Kincaid to another writer, Toni Morrison, who also assumes her world. With writers like these, he says, “we can get beyond the large theme of racism and get to deeper themes of how black people love and cry and live and die. Which, after all, is what art is all about” (quoted in Garis, 70).


  1. Jamaica Kincaid, At the Bottom of the River, New York, Plume, 1983, p. 12. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation BR where needed for clarity.

  2. Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John, New York, Plume, 1983, p. 26. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation AJ where needed for clarity.

  3. Craig Tapping, “Children and History in the Caribbean Novel: George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin and Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John,Kunapipi (Denmark), 21 (1989), p. 53.

  4. Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988, p. 41. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation SP where needed for clarity.

  5. Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990, p. 91. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation L where needed for clarity.

  6. Anne Tyler, “Mothers and Mysteries,” New Republic, 31 December 1983, p. 33.

  7. Giovanna Covi, “Jamaica Kincaid and the Resistance to Canons,” in Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido, eds., Trenton, N.J., Africa World Press, 1990, p. 438–39.

  8. Jacqueline Austin, “Up from Eden,” Village Voice Literary Supplement, 34 (April 1985), p. 7.

  9. Jamaica Kincaid, “Ovando,” Conjunctions, 14 (1989), p. 82.

  10. Leslie Garis, “Through West Indian Eyes,” New York Times Magazine, 7 October 1990, p. 80.

  11. Louis James, “Reflections, and the Bottom of the River: The Transformation of Caribbean Experience in the Fiction of Jamaica Kincaid,” Wasafiri, Winter 1988/89, p. 15.

Keith E. Byerman (essay date February 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6928

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 attacks what is for the island the male world of politics, business, and public life. At the Bottom of the River and Annie John use the mother and other women as symbols of culture that the protagonist must escape in order to grow up. Kincaid represents in the two works of fiction the problematic role of the mother in shaping the daughter's place in the culture and society. As Ann Morris and Margaret Dunn have noted, “For the Caribbean woman, the notion of a motherland is especially complex, encompassing in its connotations her island home and its unique culture as well as the body of tropes, talismans, and female bonding that is a woman's heritage through her own and other mothers. The land and one's mother, then, are co-joined” (219). The mother prepares the daughter to live in a male-centered world, which in this case is also racially conditioned by a history of colonialism. In Kincaid's writing, a key question is how to think of the mother when traditional socialization is hateful to the daughter. All three works, directly or indirectly, examine the female voice as a means to personal, cultural, and social power in a colonial and postcolonial context. They express a view that the Caribbean woman, when she offers a critique, must do so from within the cultural assumptions and language of the colonizers, filtered through the mother. Thus, the aesthetics of anger takes shape as a dialectic of cultural affirmation and denial: Kincaid attacks society and the culture while acknowledging the power of the mother(land) over her novelistic voice.

This latter point is not readily apparent in A Small Place. The extended attack on colonialism, corruption, and tourism as a kind of neocolonialism is straightforward in its polemics. From the beginning, Kincaid establishes her authority by speaking in the second person to the “tourist,” which allows her to characterize the audience and its voice in the text. She can offend without challenge:

An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their dosed doors they laugh at your strangeness (you do not look the way they look); the physical sight of you does not please them; you have bad manners (it is their custom to eat with their hands; you trying to eat their way, you look silly; you try eating the way you always eat, you look silly); they do not like the way you speak (you have an accent); they collapse helpless from laughter, mimicking the way they imagine you must look as you carry out some everyday bodily function.


Such a characterization not only calls into question the self-image of the tourist, but also “signifies” on the language used by colonizers and others of the First World in defining the colonized. Here, Kincaid is engaged in what Ashcroft, Grifriths, and Tiffin call “post-colonial abrogation” of the language of the colonizer: “Abrogation is a refusal of the categories of the imperial culture, its aesthetic, its illusory standard of normative or ‘correct’ usage, and its assumption of a traditional and fixed meaning ‘inscribed’ in the words” (38). Just as the Eurocentric perspective reduces the colonized to objects of ridicule and abuse, so here the visitor from that outside world is made the object of derision by the natives. At the same time, such mocking has to be masked (“behind their closed doors”), unlike the insults of the Europeans and Americans, which are limited only by the social preferences of the individual. Antiguans must appear deferential, even if they are in reality filled with anger. Kincaid inverts the power of naming inherent in colonial discourse by saying in public what other Antiguans can say only in private. In other words, she violates the female role of passivity and voicelessness inscribed in the culture.

Kincaid pushes signifying to its logical end in her representation of the British who came to the island as officials of colonial power:

We thought these people were so ill-mannered and we were so surprised by this, for they were far away from their home, and we believed that the farther away you were from your home the better you should behave. (This is because if your bad behavior gets you in trouble you have your family not too far off to help defend you.) We thought that they were un-Christian-like; we thought they were small-minded; we thought they were like animals, a bit below human standards as we understood those standards to be. We felt superior to all these people …


In an ironic inversion, it is the islanders, even during the colonial period, who are truly English, the civilized ones qualified to define others as less than human.

The larger irony is in Kincaid's language. In order to articulate her hostility to colonialism, she must revert to the objectifying language of the English masters. She must linguistically do to them what they have done to the Antiguans. She speaks in A Small Place of the difficulty of using English:

For isn't it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime [colonialism] is the language of the criminal who committed the crime? And what can that really mean? For the language of the criminal can contain only the goodness of the criminal's deed. The language of the criminal can explain and express the deed only from the criminal's point of view. It cannot explain the horror of the deed, the injustice of the deed, the agony, the humiliation inflicted on me.


If the language of the master is so limited, then the oppressed must either choose silence (there is no Antiguan language) or the language of criminality. Kincaid chooses the latter by adopting a discourse of superiority and objectification. She merely reverses the direction of discursive power. Thus, she concedes herself caught in the prisonhouse of the colonizer's language.

Independence produced no real changes in the dominant order. The silencing of the people has continued, even though the leaders are now from among them. Wealth and power are in the hands of a very few, all of whom, in Kincaid's view, are corrupt and indifferent to the welfare of the people. The people's resignation of voice is evidenced by the fact that the very politicians who keep the people poor in order to make themselves and their friends rich are regularly reelected to office. Kincaid explains this passivity in terms of the cultural master narrative:

Antigua is a small place, a small island. It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty—a European disease. Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way. The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans … are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves.


This narrative allows them to escape responsibility for themselves, their society, and their culture. All that is wrong is the product of colonialism: government corruption is a natural product of British domination. Neither the ministers of state who practice corruption nor the people who elect them can be held responsible. Thus, Kincaid's critique leads her to the heart of the culture itself. It is fundamentally dialectical in that it requires for its own validation the very colonialism that it despises. Without it, there is the painful reality of human freedom and responsibility:

Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master's yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.


Antiguans, then, maintain a myth of their own noble enslavement in order to escape their entry into a common humanity. They have in this sense used what power they have to construct themselves as powerless and thus have evaded their true lack of eloquence and power.

For Kincaid, the chief image of decline and corruption is the island library. It is also a way into the deep ambiguity of her attitude toward the culture. She recalls the library from her own childhood as a sacred space, a cool retreat from the colonized world and an opening to the greater world away from the island:

But if you saw the old library, situated as it was, in a big, old wooden building painted a shade of yellow that is beautiful to people like me, with its wide veranda, its big, always open windows, its rows and rows of shelves filled with books, its beautiful wooden tables and chairs for sitting and reading, if you could hear the sound of its quietness (for the quiet in this library was a sound in itself), the smell of the sea (which was a stone's throw away), the heat of the sun (no building could protect us from that), the beauty of us sitting there like communicants at an altar, taking in, again and again, the fairy tale of how we met you, your right to do the things you did, how beautiful you were, are, and always will be; if you could see all of that in just one glimpse, you would see why my heart would break at the dung heap that now passes for a library in Antigua.


What has happened to the library is, in her view, a major crime. When the building was damaged by an earthquake, the books were moved to a dusty loft, and a sign posted that “Repairs are Pending.” Fifteen years later, that sign remains and the building is still not usable.

Part of the difficulty for Kincaid is the inability to identify a true motherland, an Antiguan culture that is separable from that of the colonizers and the “tourists.” Slavery and colonialism did not displace or suppress an indigenous society; they created Antigua. The author also does not suggest that the blacks of the island generated a new culture that could be the basis for rejuvenation or an authentic Antiguan society. With this absence at the heart of her polemic, she, in effect, must replicate the position of the colonizers: the islanders have no civilization except a second-hand one. The corruption of the government robs the people of the good things of the white world, the English language and the canonized texts of that culture, along with the power associated with those things. The labeling of cultural hegemony as a “fairy tale” in the passage cited above does not change the reality of Antigua as an essentially Western culture. The library provides the language and the texts by which Kincaid can learn how to attack the white world. In a different context, Josaphat Kubayanda has described this as the “deterritorializing” of metropolitan discourse: “Its function is clearly one of reversal at the level of speech; however, it also raises and nurtures a combative consciousness through linguistic subversiveness” (119). In her effort to castigate the colonizers and their black successors, Kincaid has laid claim to guardianship of the library, the sacred space of metropolitan culture.

The library also plays a symbolically significant role in Annie John. The title character loves the library and the books it contains. She loves it so much that she steals the books that she reads. She justifies this by arguing that “after reading a book, whether I liked it or not, I couldn't bear to part with it” (55). This desire to literally possess the Word reflects Annie John's complex relationship to her society. She seeks knowledge of the larger world and acts according to its precepts. Thus, she is the smartest student in school and, as much as possible, identifies with her mother's desire to make her a good Antiguan woman. At the same time, she is an outlaw, often taking pride in her thefts and other crimes. But these crimes, as shall be seen, are themselves negations of the gender rules of her culture and so link her in a profound way to that culture. In this sense, the stealing of library books represents both her questioning and affirmation of the British culture contained within them.

Similarly, the central episode in the chapter entitled “Columbus in Chains” has Annie John defacing a picture of Christopher Columbus in her textbook. The particular phrase she uses—“The Great Man Can No Longer Just Get Up and Go”—is one that she heard her mother use derisively against her own father. Thus, Annie John's words challenge the Eurocentric perspective insisted upon by the school system by reinscribing it as caricature. Importantly, however, she does so by using not her own words, but those of her mother, the person most concerned with the success of the daughter's education. She turns a personal assertion of self into a political gesture that is simultaneously a childish prank. She implicates the mother in a way that the mother must repudiate. At the same time, Annie John writes the words in Old English lettering, “a script I had recently mastered” (78). The act of subversion, then, is caught in complex ways in the net of domination. Just as in A Small Place, the expression of resistance comes only through “mastery” of the language of others.

The mother is the crucial figure in this daughter's story of coming of age. She represents the culture in the sense that she seeks to inculcate its values and practices in Annie John.1 She also unconditionally accepts those things she passes on. She does not, for example, question the liaisons that her husband has had with other women. She only seeks the help of obeah practitioners in protecting herself and her daughter from the curses and spells that might be cast by these women. With little difficulty, she accommodates to the duality of Antiguan culture. When Annie John becomes very ill, the mother consults both an obeah woman and the British-trained doctor, and gives the girl the medicines prescribed by both. Being within the culture means precisely refusing to see any conflict in these two perspectives.

At the level of female identity, Laura Niesen de Abruna has pointed out the significance of colonialism in Kincaid's fiction:

The same system of British education that erased and colonised indigenous history also attempted to erase female sexuality and to control the female body. Attempted colonisation of the female body is one of the points of contention between Annie and her mother because Annie constantly rebels against those aspects of her society that have been imposed by the British. Some of these norms have been absorbed by Annie's neighbours, her school and, especially and unfortunately, by her beautiful, loving, and well-intentioned mother.


This point is made most explicit in “Girl,” the first piece in At the Bottom of the River, with variations played in Annie John.

Spoken almost entirely by the mother, with only occasional interjections by the daughter, “Girl” offers a catalogue of instructions for becoming the good Antiguan woman. Much of it is devoted to practical matters, such as how to select and prepare certain foods, how to choose fabrics for clothes, how to perform various domestic chores, and how to behave in public. The rhythm of repetition in the instruction has the quality of a litany:

[T]his is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; 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; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast. …


The ritualization of speech suggests a conscious initiation into the expected behaviors of a woman in this culture. It also indicates the nature of the culture. It is a society in which public forms are very important and in which subtle differences among those forms are also significant. Moreover, these are lessons largely in Western behaviors rather than those of a traditional culture. To be a good Antiguan woman means then to know how to maneuver appropriately within a Eurocentric culture.

Accompanying these instructions, however, are others. One set of them has much to do with Afro-Antiguan culture:

[D]on't throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make a pepper pot; this is how to make good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don't like, and that way something bad won't fall on you.


Accompanying training in preparing local food is training in folk beliefs. The reference to these suggest their mundane quality: the power of nature to do harm is taken for granted. The blackbird might be a jablesse, a shape-changing female spirit whom one does not want to offend. The fish can invoke a curse. Thus, there is a world behind the world of public appearance and performance, one which has its own authority and its own rituals.

The reference to ridding oneself of an unwanted unborn child leads into the third and most problematic area of instruction: the repeated naming of the daughter as a potential “slut.” The warnings and the assumptions behind them indicate the importance of the suppression of female sexuality, at least in any form not authorized by the society. The mother asserts the view that the daughter is determined to become promiscuous. In fact, she seems to believe that the daughter is intrinsically such a person: “this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are bent on becoming … 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” (4). The daughter's sluttishness is taken for granted; the advice is aimed at preventing others from realizing it. The mother's function, then, in part is to condition a new generation of young women to experience themselves as guilty because of their gender and not because of any particular actions they do or do not take. The authoritarian nature of this lesson is emphasized by the ineffectiveness of the daughter's resistance to her mother's accusations. Thus, the daughter's education is in subservience to the culture's negative definition of womanhood. Her only power comes in manipulation of appearances and in avoiding evil forces. She cannot be self-defining or assertive. Her only approved acts of resistance have been against her own sensual nature.

In Annie John, the mother-daughter relationship is initially seen as positive, though clearly a socializing one. Annie and her mother go everywhere together, they wear identical clothes, and the daughter knows her own life through the artifacts of infancy the mother has preserved and the stories she tells. The mother, in effect, prepares the daughter to function within the society by being a version of herself. Such behavior is not narcissistic: Annie John points out that she and all of her friends instinctively act as their mothers do. What the mother does then is not personal but deeply cultural. The training of the daughter in true Antiguan womanhood carries on the established pattern.

More importantly for the central conflict of the text, it is the mother who generates the process of individuation for the daughter (cf. Murdoch and Timothy). The mother suddenly (from the daughter's point of view) insists that they not wear clothes made from the same material and that Annie John may well want to perform certain domestic tasks in her own way. While the mother in fact encourages individuality only within cultural norms (it is accepted that Annie John would perform domestic tasks, for example), the daughter responds by seeing her mother as Other, as erstwhile friend who somehow has betrayed her. The violence of her feeling, including the desire to see her mother dead, reflects the depth of the relationship. “But I couldn't wish my mother dead. If my mother died, what would become of me? I couldn't imagine my life without her. Worse than that, if my mother died, I would have to die too …” (88). Female identity within Antiguan culture can only be defined in terms of the mother, and, since the mother passes down the culture, she is the source of national identity as well.

Annie John's anger at the mother's treachery leads her to construct an identity in terms that are outlawed by the culture and the mother. She gives up her friendship with Gwen, a girl who represents all that is acceptable to the society, to pursue a relationship with the Red Girl, who is dirty, ragged, uneducated, and tomboyish. She does this in part because she finds such difference from her own life fascinating. She is intrigued by the smell and feel and behavior of such a rebellious child. But she does not desire to become the Red Girl. Her interest is stimulated largely by the lies she must generate to deceive her mother. The Red Girl, in other words, exists for Annie John in negation of the mother and not as an alternative identity. This context is evident when the girl (to whom Annie John never gives a name) moves away and is never mentioned again.

Two crucial moments define the mother's importance in shaping female identity, the role of culture in that identity, and the limitations of resistance and independence. In the first of these, Annie John brings home marbles she has won at school. Since playing marbles is a forbidden “male” activity, the mother's suspicions about it are simultaneously personal and cultural. Both mother and daughter see this as a crucial site of conflict over Annie John's identity. Annie John flagrantly lies about both possessing marbles and playing a “boy's” game. The climax of this test of wills comes when the mother, after days of futile searching for the contraband, resorts to sentimental narrative. She tells a story of herself as a child helping her father as a dutiful daughter should. She carries home on her head a load of figs too heavy for her small body, but she never complains and manages to get the burden home. As she sets down the bundle, a large black snake crawls out of the figs and into the forest. The story has its intended effect:

When my mother came to the end of this story, I thought my heart would break. Here was my mother, a girl then, certainly no older than I, traveling up that road from the ground to her house with a snake on her head. I had seen pictures of her at that age. What a beautiful gift she was! So tall and thin. … She was so shy that she never smiled enough for you to see her teeth, and if she ever burst out laughing she would instantly cover her mouth with her hands. She always obeyed her mother, and her sister worshipped her. She, in turn, worshipped her brother John. … Oh, to think of a dangerous, horrible black snake on top of that beautiful head; to think of those beautifully arched, pink-soled feet (the feet of which mine were an exact replica, as hers were an exact replica of her mother's) stumbling on the stony, uneven road, the weight of snake and green figs too much for that small back.


This is the model of the true Antiguan girl: obedient, self-effacing, hard-working, and loyal—the very opposite of Annie John, the marble-playing liar. By joining cultural image and narrative manipulation, the mother hopes to regain her authority: “The words ‘The marbles are in the comer over there’ were on the very tip of my tongue, when I heard my mother, her voice warm and soft and treacherous, say to me, “Well, Little Miss, where are your marbles?” Summoning my own warm, soft, and newly acquired treacherous voice, I said, “I don't have any marbles. I have never played marbles, you know” (70). The daughter is nearly seduced, but the mother, too confident of her power, overplays her hand. Annie John thereby learns a different lesson from the one intended. She uses the voice of the good Antiguan girl, “soft and warm,” to deceive, just as her mother has. The narrative of innocence subverts itself and exposes the underlying cultural treachery. But that reality is necessarily exposed in the language of that culture. Annie John can only resist by replicating the voice of her mother.

The second episode exposes the sexual tension inherent in the mother-daughter relationship. Annie John one day meets on the street a boy with whom she had been close friends when they were small children. Again, there is a moving story contrasted with a different reality. She remembers the time she and Mineu had created their own version of a local scandal. They would act out the trial and then Mineu would pretend to hang himself. The last time they did this, there was an accident and he nearly died. Annie John remembers her own inability to do anything to save him. When they meet in the present, he is with his male friends, and his behavior toward her is “cruel.” His maleness, as determined by his group, requires that he not take her or any relationship that they have had seriously. She leaves feeling that she is being mocked.

Her mother offers another reading of the scene, which she has observed from nearby. She accuses Annie John of making a “spectacle” of herself with the boys:

She went on to say that, after all the years she had spent drumming into me the proper way to conduct myself when speaking to young men, it had pained her to see me behave in the manner of a slut (only she used the French-patois word for it) in the street and that just to see me had caused her to feel shame. The word “slut” (in patois) was repeated over and over, until I suddenly felt as if I were drowning in a well but instead of the well being filled with water it was filled with the word “slut,” and it was pouring in through my eyes, my ears, my nostrils, my mouth.


The powerlessness Annie John experienced at the time of Mineu's accident is repeated in her new encounter with him. Significantly, in that first incident, everyone, including her mother, feels somewhat ashamed at her inability to speak or act. This time, their male power and scorn for her young womanhood also reduces her to silence. On this occasion, however, the mother's shame associated with it results from perceived womanly self-assertion. The mother and the boys, in effect, conspire to deny any form of female self-expression not within culturally-determined boundaries. The violence of the mother's verbal attack suggests the importance of understanding those limits for an acceptable woman within the society.

The three encounters—Mineu's hanging, the meeting with the boys, and the confrontation with the mother—show the permissible range of female voice and action in a male-dominated society. One should take initiative only to protect and care for men, not to establish personal relationships with them. To do the latter leads to either derision or accusations of promiscuity. It is a fundamental violation of cultural norms for women to presume to exercise power or voice. This point is reinforced when Annie John responds to “drowning” in “slut” by reversing the insult through negative identity: “‘Well, like father like son, like mother like daughter’” (102). Again, the daughter can only resist her objectification by joining herself to the mother. The mother repudiates the accusation by repudiating the relationship: “‘Until this moment, in my whole life I knew without a doubt that, without any exception, I loved you best,’ and then she turned her back and started again to prepare the green figs for cooking” (103). The “green figs” bring the text back to the image of the mother as the dutiful daughter, self-denying, virtuous, and voiceless. A daughter who refuses to silently fit that model cannot be loved because she cannot be a true daughter.

Finally, when Annie John reaches the age of seventeen, she decides to leave Antigua altogether in order to have her own life. A visit to Gwen symbolizes the reasons. Gwen has become the successfully integrated Antiguan woman, but for her former friend this is not a virtue: “She had now degenerated into complete silliness, hardly able to complete a sentence without putting in a few giggles. Along with the giggles, she had developed some other schoolgirl traits that she did not have when she was actually a schoolgirl …” (137). Similarly, Annie John is now much taller than either of her parents, suggesting that she is now the adult and they the children. Antigua, in other words, disables maturity and authentic identity and must be escaped for those processes to successfully occur.

But again the text is rife with ambiguity. Escape is not original. The mother herself left her home on Dominica when she could no longer tolerate life with her own father. Her voyage, in the midst of a hurricane, is one of the heroic narratives of the family. Annie John's departure, by comparison, is routine, and furthermore, is encouraged by the mother as a way of seeing the larger world and gaining more education. What is clear from this repetition is that escape does not free one from cultural imperatives; in fact it makes it possible to more deeply implicate the self in culture. Moreover, the destination, nursing school in England, is itself a validation of the Eurocentric values she claims to reject. There is, in other words, no escape from the prisonhouse of culture.

The narratives in At the Bottom of the River offer surreal responses from the daughter to the power and authority of the mother and the essentially patriarchal culture she supports. It can be argued that these stories must take place in the realm of dreams and visions precisely because there is no place for them in society. The culture effectively silences the daughter's voice and so she must speak in a dream language. Consistently, the narratives do precisely this. They involve shape-shifting, radical changes in time and space, and drastic movements in emotion, especially from love to hate. The mother is both the source of nurture and strength and the principal threat to the daughter's very being. Repeatedly, the daughter fully identifies with the mother but then experiences profound alienation. A kind of ideal state is presented in “In the Night” as the marriage of mother and daughter and the creation of a permanent state of childhood:

Every day this red-skin woman and I will eat bread and milk for breakfast, hide in bushes and throw hardened cow dung at people we don't like, climb coconut trees, pick coconuts, eat and drink the food and water from the coconuts we have picked, throw stones in the sea, put on John Bull masks and frighten defenseless little children on their way home from school, go fishing and catch only our favorite fishes to roast and have for dinner, steal green figs to eat for dinner with the roast fish. Every day we would do this.


Life is not the careful social performance required in “Girl”; instead, it is an endless pattern of consumption and cruelty freed from all responsibility. The mother in this vision validates childhood rather than leads one out of it. Furthermore, the marriage to the mother eliminates any form of masculine authority.

In contrast to such a paradise is the suspicion inherent in real relationships:

Immediately on wishing my mother dead and seeing the pain it caused her, I was sorry and cried so many tears that all the earth around me was drenched. Standing before my mother, I begged her forgiveness, and I begged so earnestly that she took pity on me, kissing my face and placing my head on her bosom to rest. Placing her arms around me, she drew my head closer and closer to her bosom, until finally I suffocated. … Between my mother and me now were the tears I had cried, and I gathered up some stones and banked them in so that they formed a small pond. The water in the pond was thick and black and poisonous so that only unnamable invertebrates could live in it. My mother and I now watched each other carefully, always making sure to shower the other with words and deeds of love and affection.

(“My Mother” 53–54.)

Affection and forgiveness are associated with death, and love is a means of suppressing hostility. The power of the mother threatens the child, but it is also inescapable. The result is constant irresolvable tension and distortion. The mother, in the same story, changes herself and her daughter into lizards, but no matter what size they grow to, the mother is always larger. Thus, the daughter must take her identity from the one who gave her birth, but she will always remain inferior. This arouses resentment, always ineffectual: contentment only comes from submission of the daughter. At the end of “My Mother,” the narrator, who is an adult herself now, says that she is seated in her mother's “enormous” lap, and that “it is in this way my mother and I have lived for a long time now” (61).

If the mother metonymically is the culture, then the story suggests that there is no place outside of it and no identity other than that granted by it. Resentment and resistance do not grant one independent status; they can only be articulated in terms of cultural norms. One can be against the mother or enclosed within her; one cannot be beyond her. This is true even though her embrace is “suffocating” and love for her is only watchfulness. In fact, it can be argued that the anger grows out of awareness of the totalizing nature of culture.

The resolution of the situation is offered in the title story of the collection. The narrative begins in much the same way as others: there is love and beauty, but they are always tempered by pain and death. In fact, a long middle section is a meditation on death, in which everything that lives is seen as creating an illusion of permanence. The narrator portrays herself as desiring a belief in eternal truth and beauty, but “I now know regret” (70).

What she does is to visualize a world “at the bottom of the river” where there is no change or death. It is a world of essences in which nature and its colors and forms are perfect, in which the people live unchanging lives of contentment. She seeks to enter this world, but in doing so loses her identity: “I had no name for the thing I had become, so new it was to me, except that I did not exist in pain or pleasure, east or west or north or south, or up or down, or past or present or future, or real or not real” (80). The world of transcendence is beautiful, but it is also not a human or natural world. It is, in that sense, its own kind of death.

So the narrator chooses to enter humanity, even if its life is only temporary:

In the light of the lamp, I see some books, I see a chair, I see a table, I see a pen; I see a bowl of ripe fruit, a bottle of milk, a flute made of wood, the clothes that I will wear. And as I see these things in the light of the lamp, all perishable and transient, how bound up I know I am to all that is human endeavor, to all that is past and to all that shall be, to all that shall be lost and leave no trace. I claim these things then—mine—and now I feel myself grow solid and complete, my name filling up my mouth.


She finds herself in a space where natural things have been converted to human purposes, purposes not only of physical nurture but also of artistic expression. This becomes the creative rather than destructive reaction to totalizing culture. It is not through resistance to the mother/culture, nor is it in generating some realm of perfection outside of human reality in which one can dream revenge for the perceived wrongs done to childhood desires or perhaps transcend time and desire altogether. It is rather in recognition and appreciation of the temporal to the point of artistically recreating it. The artist discovers her true name and place in such creative encounters with the world. One in effect creates culture in order to counter it.

This last statement returns us to the necessity of the resisting voice. The mother/culture must be challenged because it denies voice and true creativity. In the first book Kincaid sets out the need for resistance that she expresses in other ways in her later works, Both the realm of the social-political and that of the mother seek to turn each person into a version of the previous generation and thus to keep Antigua outside of history and human responsibility. This means an endless replication of voicelessness and nonidentity. One cannot destroy such effects, because there is no language outside the culture. Instead one must speak the effects on the self and the society in its own language. But to do so, to speak the anger, as in A Small Place, Annie John, and At the Bottom of the River, is to claim a human voice in defiance of the repressive forces of culture.


  1. On the role of the mother, cf. Perry, Natov, Murdoch, and Timothy.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

de Abruna, Laura Neisen. “Family Connections: Mother and Mother Country in the Fiction of Jean Rhys and Jamaica Kincaid.” Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia. Ed. Susheila Nasta. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992.

Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985.

———. At the Bottom of the River. 1983. New York: Penguin, 1992.

———. A Small Place. 1988. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Kubayanda, Josaphat B. “Minority Discourse and the African Collective: Some Examples from Latin American and Caribbean Literature.” Cultural Critique 6 (Spring 1987): 113–30.

Morris, Ann R., and Margaret M. Dunn. “‘The Bloodstream of Our Inheritance’: Female Identity and the Caribbean Mothers'-Land.” Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia. Ed. Susheila Nasta. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992. 219–37.

Murdoch, H. Adlai. “Severing the (M)other Connection: The Representation of Cultural Entity in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John.Callaloo 13 (1990): 325–40.

Natov, Roni. “Mothers and Daughters: Jamaica Kincaid's Pre-Oedipal Narrative.” Children's Literature 18 (1990): 1–16.

Perry, Donna. “Initiation in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John.Caribbean Women Writers. Ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990. 245–53.

Timothy, Helen Pyne. “Adolescent Rebellion and Gender Relations in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.Caribbean Women Writers. Ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990. 233–44.

Jamaica Kincaid with Ivan Kreilkamp (interview date 1 January 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2105

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 between Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, except in this version, the woman from the West Indies triumphs, working her way through governess jobs to become a renowned author. Her biography also sounds more than a bit like one of her own novels, because, as Kincaid puts it, with characteristic irony, “everything in my writing is autobiographical—down to the punctuation.”

The Autobiography of My Mother, Kincaid's third novel (and fifth book) with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, adds a dazzling new chapter to the ongoing fictional autobiography she is composing. Narrated by the 70-year-old Xuela Claudette Richardson (Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson), Autobiography of My Mother extends the themes of her earlier work: mothers and daughters; sexuality and power; and the way the legacy of colonialism—“a common history of suffering and humiliation”—leaves indelible traces on the imaginations and emotional lives of those born in places like Antigua and Dominica. It is in no danger of being described as a “charming book,” as was Kincaid's first novel, 1985's Annie John (“you're in trouble when you're called charming,” Kincaid likes to say). It is unrelenting and emotionally devastating, though still written in the elegant, luminous prose that her readers have come to rely on.

Annie John, a coming-of-age tale about a young girl growing up in Antigua, ends with the 17-year-old protagonist leaving the island for good, on her way to study to be a nurse in England; 1990's Lucy—whose protagonist is named for the Lucifer of Milton's Paradise Lost, a poem Kincaid was forced to memorize large chunks of as a child—tells the story of a slightly older young woman working as a nanny in the States. Clearly, Kincaid was tracing a trajectory closely following the course of her own life. But Autobiography of My Mother departs from that pattern, going back to imagine what her mother's life on the island of Dominica would have been had she never given birth to children: the novel is a reimagination—an impossible one, since it presupposes the negation of her existence—of her own personal history.

There's something quite perverse about this novel, as if Kincaid, tired of seeing her work characterized simply as thinly veiled autobiography, had decided to create an entirely new literary form—that of the invented autobiography of one's parent. One of the most harrowing takes on motherhood since Toni Morrison's Beloved, the novel treats family history as a dark mystery to be plumbed. “I would bear children, but I would never be a mother to them,” Xeula pronounces. “They would hang from me like fruit from a vine, but I would destroy them with a carelessness like a god's.” “My impulse is to make everyone uncomfortable,” Kincaid comments simply.

A beautiful woman who stands nearly six feet tall, Kincaid must have made quite a splash in those early days in New York City as a proto-punk West Indian nanny with dyed blonde hair. Although she's no doubt mellowed since becoming a mother of two, an instructor at Harvard, an obsessive gardener and an eminent author, she still projects an attitude. She greets PW in her office in the African American studies department at Harvard, where's she's currently teaching for one semester a year. Her desk is piled with books: Jane Eyre (“my favorite novel”); Jane Austen's Mansfield Park; the narrative of Mary Prince, a 19th-century Antiguan slave. She explains that she's teaching one fiction-writing class and an English class on “literature and possession,” “an account through literature of how we claim things, how we come to possess things.”

Speaking in the proper British accent only the best colonial education can impart, Kincaid says of her apprenticeship into fiction writing: “I remember before I wrote ‘Girl,’ every New Year's Eve for several years, when you're supposed to make a wish at midnight, I used to wish that that would be the year I'd start to write fiction. And then one year it really was the year. That year somebody gave me a book by Elizabeth Bishop with that poem ‘In the Waiting Room.’ And I read that, and I just knew how to write. It was a tremendous gift for me. I felt as if someone opened the door and showed me my own tools, the things that I needed. I just knew how to write after that.”

She is amazed and grateful for that gift. “It doesn't come easily, but I don't expect it to. I never understand when people complain that it's so hard to write. I think it should be hard. Because what are you doing when you write? You're doing something so complicated, so unpredictable, it deserves to be hard. I wouldn't trust it if it came easily.”

Kincaid's route to authorship was, obviously, an unusual one, and she feels fortunate in the mentors, editors, agents and literary friends she found along the way. She first began writing for the New Yorker after spending some time as a sort of informal assistant to her friend George Trow, who took Kincaid with him while researching pieces for the magazine's “Talk of the Town” section. One time she took some notes for Trow on a West Indian carnival. Trow showed them to the magazine's legendary editor, William Shawn, who spotted her talent and decided to print her notes as the piece itself. (Kincaid is now married to Shawn's son Allen, a composer.) Once she started writing fiction, she signed on with FSG for her first book, the short-story collection At the Bottom of the River.

“FSG offered me the least money, so I took them! I had always wanted to be published by Farrar, Straus. I can't imagine, I would never dream of having another publisher.” After editor Pat Strachan left to join the New Yorker, Kincaid became one of Jonathan Galassi's authors. For the past eight years, her agent has been Andrew Wiley, whom she describes as an invaluable figure in her career: “In a certain kind of writer's life, he is crucial. When Mr. Shawn left the New Yorker, many of his former writers needed the protection of an agent. Mr. Shawn had been a cornerstone of publishing and he was our protector—he protected us from horrible people. And when he was gone, we were really in the clutches of horrible people, and so a lot of us needed Andrew Wiley.” Members of the media who have dubbed Wiley “the Jackal” might well be surprised by the ingenuousness of that statement.

Autobiography of My Mother forcefully engages with the inequities of a world divided into “the big and the small, the powerful and the powerless, the strong and the weak”; when Kincaid discusses the publishing world, she returns to these themes. Kincaid conveys deep and abiding distrust of those who treat literature as just another business, and in her telling figures like William Shawn and Andrew Wiley stand between authors and the rich and powerful who control the industry: “Mr. Shawn used to protect us, used to try to get us enough money at the magazine, and to make sure we did the best kind of writing we could. It was sort of a tragedy for American literature when he was removed from the New Yorker, and it killed him, I think. He was treated very brutally. I think American literature is really changed for it. A lot of us got hurt when the New Yorker fell apart. Now it's the property of a rich man—and I'm not a rich man, nor do I want to be.”

She says she feels no particular bitterness over the new course of the New Yorker, only regret that “that nice place to write was upset. It's not something I can do anything about. I just have to move on and hope I can find somewhere else to write.”

Kincaid's one nonfiction book to date is 1988's A Small Place, a scourging meditation on tourism and colonialism inspired by a visit to Antigua. Its piercing refrain, “you are a tourist,” was described by one reviewer as “backing the reader into a corner,” a judgment which amuses and mystifies Kincaid. She apologizes for not making her readers “feel all bundled up in a warm blanket,” but says she herself only likes to read writing which dares to make a reader uncomfortable. The New Yorker declined A Small Place for publication, saying it was too angry—and indeed, it may have come as a shock to those readers who read Annie John and Lucy as no more than girls' coming-of-age stories, ignoring their references to questions of power and its abuses.

Kincaid is left-of-liberal, and as if to prove it, she declares that she deeply wishes Newt Gingrich had died in the place of the radical lawyer William Kunstler, whose death she is still mourning. Even when she's denouncing the world's many evildoers, her voice is gentle and engaging. The effect is not so much a softening of her anger, but an intensification of it by contrast. She makes anger and outrage completely compatible with good humor.

Kincaid's passion for writing is at least matched by the fervor she brings to a second obsession. Living in Vermont with her husband and their children, Annie and Harold, she has plenty of space for gardening, an occupation which she describes as “an absolute luxury.” “You've eaten, you're clothed, you have a house, you look out and you rearrange the landscape. It's an aesthetic decision. It's all exaggerated, it's luxurious, it's a kind of excess.” Kincaid has written regularly about gardening for the New Yorker for several years, and FSG plans to publish a collection of these writings in 1997.

Pondering the relationship between gardening and writing, Kincaid muses, “When I'm in the garden, I'm actually also writing, I'm always going over the sentences—so by the time I actually write, I've written what I'm putting down on paper many times in my head. I don't revise my writing at all. But I do the equivalent of revising in the garden, continuously. I never stop digging up beds, rearranging everything.”

She adds that she has no routine of any sort for her writing. The word processor is always there, as she puts it, but she only goes to it when she's ready. “It would really kill me if I had a routine. I cannot stand routine, and I cannot stand fixed ways of doing things. If I cannot do it my own way, differently each time, then I can't do it at all.”

At moments like this, it's easy to imagine the young Kincaid as a brilliant but disobedient student in Antigua—like her own Annie John, whose report card reads: “Annie is an unusually bright girl. She is well behaved in class, at least in the presence of her masters and mistresses, but behind their backs and outside the classroom quite the opposite is true.” Kincaid has never forgotten what it felt like to be small, young and without power, and she uses that feeling of powerlessness as the material for her novels. Even as she's become a respected author, mother and professor, she continues to write behind the authorities' backs—where she feels most at home.

Richard Eder (review date 14 January 1996)

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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 was always a bleak, black wind,” she declares at the start. No mother or grandmother, no one to teach her the mythic resources of her sex and stock in a male, racial and colonial world.

There is a hole in her; she addresses it and names it her mother's story, though it is hers. She addresses the sex from which she was orphaned and renounces it. She will cut out—symbolically—her womb and its dependencies of love, acceptance and maternity. She will pleasure herself, alone and with men, she will even marry, but she will submit to no one and nothing. She will have no children.

In a lesser work this would be feminist brag. The genius of Jamaica Kincaid, who in Autobiography may have written the best of her several splendid books, is to make Xuela disconcertingly humble. “I long to meet the thing greater than I am, the thing to which I can submit,” she writes at the end. She laments the mother she never had and the motherhood she renounces:

“Observing any human being from infancy … to see experience collect in the eyes, around the corners of the mouth, the weighing down of the brow, the heaviness in heart and soul, the thick gathering around the waist, the breasts, the slowing down of footsteps not from old age but only with the caution of life—all this is something so wonderful to observe, so wonderful to behold; the pleasure for the observer, the beholder, is an invisible current between the two, observed and observer, beheld and beholder, and I believe that no life is complete, no life is really whole, without this invisible current. …”

She speaks not of choice but of desolate necessity. To be a woman in the colonial, racist, male-ruled world she lives in is to submit to the hegemonies that made orphans of herself and her mother. But she has no illusions about her solipsist course. It is a flamboyant denunciation of history and society but there is no triumph in it.

“It will only do, it is not the best kind; it has the taste of something left out on a shelf too long that has turned rancid, and when eaten makes the stomach turn. It will do, it will do but only because there is nothing to take its place; it is not to be recommended.”

Such doubleness gives this brainy novel a soul. It is the sadness under the wrathy lilt, and under both of these it is the flowering loveliness of language, sensibility and character. Xuela tells of her childhood with magical sentience, of her young womanhood with searing sensuality and of her old age with a stoicism leavened by the gathering dreaminess of death not far off. Each is lit by lightning flashes of irony and anger.

Mainly the lightning is directed at her father, the figure who dominates her imagination and serves as the palpable target of her wrath and contempt. Stricken at his wife's death, he arrived at the house of the village laundress with two bundles. “One was his child,” Xuela tells us, “the other was his soiled clothes. He would have handled one more gently, he would have expected better treatment for one than the other, but which one, I do not know.”

Thus her tone throughout for this handsome, vain, invariably well-dressed man. He visits her in his gleaming white uniform. “A jailer's uniform,” she calls it. He is a local police chief, a prosperous landowner, a pillar of the community and the Methodist Church; he has made for himself an image of calm judiciousness and justice “when really he's a thief, a jailer, a liar and a coward,” Xuela tells us. His hidden vices of discreet corruption and financial greed inflame her. Nothing he can do—not even taking her home when he marries again, nor his insistence that she get an education—persuades her that he is anything but evil.

And yet she lets the reader wonder. He obsesses her and her true anger is over his temporary abandonment and lifelong reserve. An enticingly complex and by no means admirable figure filters through Xuela's permanent hostility—but we are aware of other filters. Certainly, she does not like him, she says at one point. Yet: “Perhaps I loved him but I could never bring myself to admit it.”

She cannot rage at the mother she has lost, her father serves, instead, perhaps mercifully. Writing of his chilly isolation in his possessions, she says, revealingly: “I was not like my mother who was dead. I was like him. He was alive.”

Her chill is in her resolution to live only for herself, to let nothing touch her. But it is ice-cubes made from champagne—she fizzes. There is a startlingly beautiful description of lying awake as a child, hearing the noises of her father coming home and the bats and insects in the garden, and subsiding into a consolatory self-fondling, and finally sleep. There is her account of walking to school along the sea road one immaculate morning, the waves glinting “as if at any moment a small city made out of that special light of the sun on the water would arise, and from it might flow a joy I had not yet imagined.”

As an adolescent she lets herself be seduced by a friend of her father's; later she will seduce the English doctor she works for. Kincaid writes with dazzling erotic power but the sex is inseparable from Xuela's intransigent detachment. She receives enormous pleasure but she is in command. Seeing an ungainly lover naked, she observes that what makes a man desirable is not his body, “but what his body might make you feel when it touches you.”

The desolate self-sufficiency of Xuela's life is sometimes shocking. It is never oppressive. Kincaid has given her a gleaming argument. Here, taken to an extreme, is a woman's retort to sexual, racial and historical oppression on a West Indian island, and perhaps elsewhere. It is not that the argument necessarily convinces. Kincaid does not say that Xuela is right. She says that you will not forget her. And she is right.

Merle Rubin (review date 17 January 1996)

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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.

Names reflect family histories, and Xuela Claudette Richardson, as she is called, cannot remember her beautiful, ghostly mother except in dreams, where she sees only a bare foot and the hem of a long dress. Her father, whom she remembers very well, is someone she would rather forget. “When my mother died, leaving me a small child vulnerable to all the world, my father took me and placed me in the care of the same woman he paid to wash his clothes. It is possible that he emphasized to her the difference between the two bundles. …”

The young Xuela has no love for her foster mother, who treats her decently, but has no love for her. Her father continues to be an intermittent dark presence in her life. A man of mixed African and European heritage—handsome, ambitious, corrupt, and pitiless—he is a police officer. “He was poor,” reflects his daughter, recalling her earliest memories of him, “but it was not because he was good; he had not done enough bad things yet to get rich.”

When her father, a rising man, remarries, his new wife, half-French, half-African, schemes to destroy her stepdaughter. “My spirit rose to meet this challenge. No love: I could live in a place like this. … Love would have defeated me.”

Forging her own identity and freedom in a loveless world, Xuela loves only herself. She finds pleasure in sensuality and learns to make use of her considerable sex appeal, but she has no use for love and no desire to bear children.

She becomes an expert at terminating unwanted pregnancies. She marries a man she does not love, and briefly falls in love with a man she cannot marry.

The island where she lives represents a way of life to which she cannot assent. Those who prosper have done so only at the expense of others, while the exploited poor, who have her sympathy, have been reduced to a level where they cannot help themselves, try though they may.

Kincaid, who was born in Antigua and emigrated to New York as a teenager, has blended elements of fiction and autobiography in her previous novels, Annie John and Lucy.

In her poised and crystalline prose, precise and serene as a knife drawn through water, she now gives us this starkly memorable “self-portrait” of a calm, thoughtful, utterly alienated woman who has learned to lead a life devoid of love, but not devoid of dignity.

Lore Segal (review date 5 February 1996)

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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 told never to touch. The loss forces from the foster mother's eyes a profusion of tears “as in a myth or a fairy tale.” What is broken is the representation, on that plate, of a landscape of “secret abundance, happiness, and tranquility. … Underneath it was written in gold letters the one word HEAVEN.” “‘I am sorry,’” says Xuela, “would not pass my lips.”

She is a tough, sorrowful little character, perverse, heroic, unafraid, for what is there left to fear? “My mother had already died.” One of Kincaid's brilliant inventions is Xuela's recurrent dream of her mother's heels—the back, mind you, of the lowliest parts of her mother's person, “coming down toward me,” “coming down to meet me forever.” This is the fruitful sort of illogic that haunts because it baffles the imagination.

Xuela is born, orphaned and disinherited: there is no aspect of the life of her native island of Dominica that has not been despoiled. “What has been stolen is not only the island's natural commerce but its language. In her father's presence, the father's new wife, speaks to the child in English, “the language of the conqueror”; but when they are alone she speaks French patois in order, intuits the child, “to make an illegitimate of me, to associate me with the made-up language of people regarded as not real—the shadow people, the forever humiliated, the forever low.”

Colonialism steals a people's natural religion. When the conquered “come to believe in the gods of the people who had conquered them,” they lose connection with the “inner life of their own inventions,” with their poetry, which is to say their reality. They no longer believe what they know. On their way to school, for instance, the children see a lady in the river; she is surrounded by an abundance of fresh fruit. The children witness her seduction of one of their companions to his drowning death. The children will learn to deny it.

Only Xuela insists on knowing she has seen what she has seen, and on hearing what she has heard in the night: “the screeches of bats or someone who had taken the shape of a bat … the pitiful cry of the small ones who were about to be devoured, followed by the temporary satisfaction of the ones doing the devouring.”

But there is yet a greater loss. When the oppressed adopt their oppressor's view of themselves—a view designed to defeat them—it incapacitates their affections. That is their defeat. The saddest and deadliest harvest of oppression is not the mutual hatred that is natural between those at the top and those at the bottom but the incestuous, unnatural hate within the family of the conquered.

In Xuela's experience there is no kindness between parent and child. “Who was my father?” she asks. A redhead in whom “the Scotsman and the African people met.” His skin was “the color of corruption: copper, gold, ore.” “To grow powerful became him. … He grew sleek, finely honed.” Her father was a policeman and magistrate and his presence “was a sign of misfortune.” “He wore on his face the number of people he had impoverished.” Xuela does not love her father.

Her father's wife gives the child moldy food “as if she had saved it specially for me in order to make me sick.” She also gives the child an ornament. “I placed the necklace around the dog's neck. … Within twenty-four hours he went mad and died.” Determined not to pass on her disinheritance to her children, Xuela becomes her own lifelong abortionist.

Nor is love possible between man and woman. In the silences between Xuela's father and his wife there is sometimes “nothing at all; sometimes they were filled with pure evil.”

Why, asks Xuela, is there no loyalty between woman and woman? Xuela refuses the affection of the woman she works for. “Even as she pressed me close to her, I could not feel her.” Xuela is right to refuse; the mistress is a barren wife who will put Xuela like a surrogate Hagar into her husband's bosom and bed, and Xuela will abort the baby.

Even the friendship between those kids on their way to school has been “discouraged. … It was part of my upbringing, like a form of good manners: You cannot trust these people, my father would say to me,” and the parents of the other children would say the same to them. “We did not love one another,” recalls Xuela, “not then, not ever.” Xuela explains this: The first thing the children see on the schoolroom wall is a map. “‘THE BRITISH EMPIRE’ … were the first words I learned to read.” The teacher “was of the African people … and she found in this a source of humiliation and self-loathing … which she would pass on to us. She did not love us: we did not love her.”

Xuela loves making love but wills herself to love none of her lovers except black and married Roland, with whom she experiences sex purely, unadulterated by white niceties or brutalities. She does not love the man she marries, but he adores her. He is a friend of her father, a doctor, a white man. “He grew to live for the sound of my footsteps, so often I would walk without making a sound; he loved the sound of my voice, so for days I would not utter a word,” Her life is dedicated to a responsive defiance. If “to people like us, despising … ourselves was almost a law of nature,” her law will be the complete enjoyment of “the despair I felt at being myself.” It is no accident that Xuela's lovers find her engaged in acts of self-pleasure. It is herself whom she will love.

There was a time in our own North American race relations when black Americans first proclaimed black beautiful, grew Afros and redefined the word “bad” for their own use: If white America thought something was bad, it must, by definition, be a black “good.” It is in this spirit that Xuela says, “My nose, half flat, half not, as if painstakingly made that way, I found so beautiful that I saw in it a standard which the noses of the people I did not like failed to meet.” White skin looks to her “as if it were on its way to being skin but had not yet reached the state that real skin is.” And, “Whatever I was told to hate I loved. … I loved the smell of my unwashed mouth, the smell that came from between my legs. … Whatever about me caused offense, whatever was native to me, whatever I could not help and was not a moral failing—those things about me I loved with the fervor of the devoted.”

But brave, fierce, defiant Xuela has her own complexity to deal with, Xuela knows self-love “is not the best kind; it has the taste of something left out on a shelf too long that has turned rancid, and when eaten makes the stomach turn. It will do, it will do, but only because there is nothing else to take its place; it is not to be recommended.”

Poor Xuela! Poor all of us. It's that old broken plate—its golden promise still messes with our heads. In her childhood, she says, “the word ‘love’ was spoken with such frequency that it became a clue … that this thing did not exist.” What shall we make of the frequency with which Xuela speaks of its nonexistence, how appalled she is at love turned to things of no “use”? Her lover has a passion for his piles of coins, her father is devoted to his power to acquire more coins. Is it in response to the stubborn golden dream of what love is supposed to be?

Empathy, too, is a temptation she needs to keep fighting off. “I should have loved her then,” she says of her crippled, bitter, hateful half-sister. “I was not unmoved … she was a sad sight to me; but I was not an angel, nothing in me broke.”

A shadow of fellow feeling falls across her hatred for the white conqueror. She who sees that the “satisfaction of the ones doing the devouring” was temporary, that “the emptiness of conquest is not lost on the conqueror,” understands that the loss is across the board. No one “dares to doubt, really doubt, human goodness. … The last breath is a sigh, ‘Oh God.’ Always.” Oh that golden, broken old plan. But make no mistake: Kincaid's novel offers neither hope nor reconciliation. If conquered and conqueror are to lie down together in some corner of the peaceable kingdom, it is to face together the “blankness that all human beings are confronted with day after day.”

When our communal blankness and mutual hatred produce the next North American riots, may whoever is then our President save us the price of another commission to study race relations. Let him or her read a copy of The Autobiography of My Mother.

Johanna Keller (review date Summer 1996)

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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.

Kincaid's ravishing lyricism, with its exotic nature depictions, hallucinatory passages, and aspects of magic realism, delights the senses and contrasts with Xuela's nihilism, bitter disillusionment, and unblinking gaze at the oppressive legacy of colonialism. Yet in this somewhat flattened world, evil remains monolithic and meaningless; the only answer is rage. “Inside me there was nothing: inside me there was a vault made of a substance so heavy I could find nothing to compare it to; and inside the vault was an ache of such intensity that each night as I lay alone in my house all my exhalations were long, low wails, like a lanced boil, with a small line of pus trickling out, not like a dam that had burst.”

Louis F. Canton (essay date Fall 1996)

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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 developed psychological study” (1). Much of this fascination comes from the intensity, range, and paradoxical quality of Kincaid's mother-daughter bond. In particular, the psychoanalytical essays attempt to understand how Annie John, the lead character, could at the same moment both love and hate her mother with equal intensity.1 And yet, such a singular approach fails to address other pertinent issues. Even though mother-child concerns do seem to call for developmental readings, the novel's concern with self-identity also brings it into a second arena: the Bildungsroman.

Of course, this “coming of age” literary convention differs significantly among nationalities and periods, but some broad characteristics do seem to cross cultural lines. A sensitive child-hero begins his life in a provincial area where he quickly perceives constraints on his “natural” development. He grows frustrated with his family, school, and friends. Finally, at a fairly early age, he leaves the repression of home for the “real” education that occurs in a sophisticated, worldly, and often urban setting.2Annie John more or less follows this “romantic” scheme. I invoke the metaphor of romanticism here because the hero takes his youthful innocent unity, his “naturalness,” on a quest of maturation that leads him to question and yearn for the inevitable “lost innocence” of family and intimate society.

Notice, however, the above masculine pronouns. Such a male-gendered summary is not my invention, but the traditional interpretation of the Bildungsroman: white, male, and European. That accepted view has been justifiably worried over by many feminists.3 Poetic examples such as Wordsworth's Prelude and Whitman's “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” encourage the notion that stories of “consciousness” are often male events. Dana Heller, whom I will discuss in more detail later, points to this heritage and claims that it has largely stymied female subjectivity; many well-known novelistic applications of this male quest motif to a female character end not in her maturation, but in either her death or her marriage. Heller states:

Thus, it can be argued that novels such as Jane Eyre and Middlemarch ultimately relieve their female protagonists of their quests while doing little to open new possibilities—new futures—for the community at large, or for the community of women.


The Bildungsroman, then, has a perceived history of only turning the boy into the man, not the girl into the woman.4

The fact that Kincaid's viewpoint character is a girl forces the Bildungsroman structure to confront its masculine critical history. I read such a female-quest confrontation by way of the novel's romantic themes and symbols. Indeed, the Bildungsroman tradition can be interpreted as actually relying on often overlooked romantic elements which integrate and unify Annie John's complex mixture of bonding and questing.5

My call for a gender-integrated romantic-quest critique begins at the threshold of the novel, through the very terms of a woman storyteller recollecting a psychological journey within a masculine culture. As Adlai Murdock states, “There should be no question as to the general validity of describing the West Indies as a male dominated culture” (328). However, like most heroes, the lead character accomplishes this quest by relying on a composite of gender-blended information sources: she often experiences the male dominated outside world through the interpretations of females, primarily her mother, grandmother, and other women friends. Rather than explore this mixture of voices as a version of the Bildungsroman, critics have tended to address only the female personality development of Annie John.6 In so doing, they have only briefly referred to the romantic elements inherent in the quest, which tie a masculine narrative structure to those more gender specific emotional and developmental concerns.

When the romanticism in Kincaid's contemporary Bildungsroman is not identified, the traditional masculine quest structure appears to thwart female psychological growth; in fact, however, the quest and the bonding plot suggest an affiliation, not an antagonism. The fusion of romantic quest and psychological union underscores Kincaid's complexity.7 However, before mapping exactly how that arises, I want to suggest some reasons why this blended reading strategy has yet to find a place in recent criticism.

Certainly, my advocacy for a critical mixture does nothing to diminish the usefulness of the more constricted psychological approaches. The majority of critics who have taken such singular paths and focused solely on developmental readings of Annie John provide useful post-Freudian, pre-oedipal examinations.8 Their emphasis on the bonding dynamics of a mother and daughter rightly devalues tropes of repression and illness; instead, bonding psychology (often discussed under the category of “object relations psychology”) frequently begins with a metaphor of holistic health which can positively influence individuals throughout their lives.9

Testimony to that opinion comes from several sources. For example, Roni Natov details how Annie John's pre-oedipal longings might call upon such current analysts as Nancy Chodorow, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. These writers rely heavily on holistic theories in order to acknowledge, explore, and restore the semiotic “body” of the primordial mother. As Irigaray notes, this examination of the maternal, pre-cultural body of the mother also encourages a critique of the conventional understanding of the material world; Irigaray, for instance, reminds us that the physical exists without clearly defined limits. She claims that “… these (maternal) streams are without fixed banks, this body without fixed boundaries” (215). The premise here is that the body exists as more than a semantic event; it must be defined in a language of nuance and tone, what Kristeva calls the preverbal modalities: rhythm, intonation, gesture, and melody (96).

Natov's essay illustrates the general academic preference in Annie John criticism to read Kincaid's parent-child plot through non-masculine, non-oedipal based psychological terms. All of the critics I examine attempt to explain Annie John's quest for identity in relation to this dynamic, post-Freudian emphasis on bonding metaphors. Clearly, these strategies have advantages over the older, male-centered, Freudian vocabulary. Rather than using the conventional tropes of penis envy, Oedipus complex, or seduction theory, Annie John critics often fix directly upon the physical and emotional relationship between a mother and her child; they specify how bonding leads to health and how Annie “grows up” through an alliance with her mother. This fuller understanding of the body, according to these theorists, allows Annie to see the world through her bond, securing a confident emotional base defined in terms of dignity and self-worth.

However, it is also true that Annie grows so emotionally tied to her mother that, at times, separate cultural identities appear unnecessary. For instance, Annie seems not to know where her body begins and her mother's ends, as is symbolized by mother and daughter wearing dresses cut from the same cloth (26). Iris Rafi notes that their “individual identity is blurred so that the demarcations of individual personality and personhood are unrecognizable” (45). Annie at one point refers to her mother as a “shadow” that may never leave her: “For I could not be sure when it was really my mother, and when it was really her shadow standing between me and the rest of the world” (107). Kincaid's recognition of this almost Jungian shadow self encourages more than maternal bonding: it suggests a romantic psychology. I will offer more evidence for that claim shortly. However, the point here is that most critics view this child-mother blending as a healthy event.

The psychoanalyst Jane Flax claims to have witnessed several examples from among her patients: “Women in therapy have frequently said that they have no sense where they end and their mothers begin, even in a literal, physical way” (174). Such theories help explain Annie's profound disturbance and inner conflict in regard to her mother. The development principles that arise from this general psychological orientation contend that Annie must first internalize her mother's nurturing abilities in order to become independent of them. The daughter grows into the mother until she becomes her; submerged within Annie is this semiotic shadow “body” of her mother.

This doubling awareness comes under the organizational powers of the bond itself; that is, the bond's nourishing and supportive qualities generate both the symbiotic and differential identities. For instance, Donna Perry writes that “nurturance does not smother the adolescent girl but serves as a source of strength” (251). Bonding psychology, therefore, configures nurturance as so empowering that it aids in both union with the mother and separation from her. In so doing, the theory does not position paradox as the generating force behind a child's desire to bond and divorce herself from a mother. Most object relations psychologists feel that a strong bonding experience early in a child's life will make separation easier: that the two impulses do not need to be situated within a space of paradoxical tension. Instead, these critics portray the forces as complimentary actions, forces which positively construct each other. Jane Flax proposes a seamless mother-daughter alliance that creates a smooth runway from which the two individuals can later depart from each other: “The symbiotic bond provides grounding, the sense of ontological security, on which the infant can rely as it moves out of the symbiotic orbit into differentiation and exploration of the outside world” (173). Although Flax writes of the symbiotic-differentiation dynamic as occurring within the first year or two, the consequences continue throughout life. Flax underlines the significance of these early experiences later in her essay: “If the symbiotic experience has not been adequate, the process of separation and individuation that follows is also more difficult for the female infant.” When incidents of bonding have been successful, the child carries into her life a “firm base from which to differentiate” (175).

According to Flax, then, since Annie John attains an abundance of attention, love, and mothering from an early age, her movement out of the mother's orbit should happen relatively easily. The novel, however, fails to support that contention. Instead, Kincaid shows Annie's separation leading to pain, frustration, and scenes of hatred. The theoretical knowledge would seem to be at odds with the incidents that highlight emotional rebellion. Such a clash between psychological theory and Annie John's experiences opens possibilities for readings that focus on integration rather than singularity.

Integrating the often conflicting vocabularies of female psychology and quest identity entails an interweaving of paradoxical voices. Through a repositioning of the quest, the pervasive influence of the mother figure can be translated into a discussion of romantic identity development. Although Kincaid's interest in the mother-daughter dyad of dependence seems incompatible with the Bildungsroman hero of independence, their combined presence belies that notion and holds itself open for just such a cooperative approach. A careful look at Kincaid's romantic use of concepts like paradox, sympathy, and organicity suggests that, rather than canceling each other out, theories of maturation and the quest hinge on each other.

This effort to intermix female psychology and the mostly male Bildungsroman matches the integrative unfolding of Annie John herself. The dramatic and unpredictable evolution of Annie's sense of “self” resembles the oftentimes tumultuous uncertainty of any female/male relationship. Moreover, Annie's frequent displays of paradoxical behavior remind the reader that many romantic concepts also rely on such oppositions. And finally, much like a critic identifying the presence of paradox in a character's life, Annie must recognize her femininity by comparing and distinguishing it from the island's examples of masculinity. Considering these similarities between the novel's presentation of oppositional forces and my reinstituting them into a quest paradigm, a reading emphasizing the structural interaction of influences from both genders seems appropriate. Indeed, a romantic perspective which strives for integration might best articulate how these two apparently contrary movements operate in concert.

At a certain level of interpretation, many confrontations and incidents in Annie John appear to be in keeping with typical mother-daughter bonding conceptions. Another look, however, at the scenes which supposedly give credence to only a psychological appreciation also introduces romantic elements; these include references to mythical events and evocations of a natural world displaying unity and harmony. Kincaid's subtle arranging of these and similarly romantic themes advocates for more than bonding interpretations; her presentation argues for a romantic psychological-quest reading.

Annie's descriptions of her childhood support a mythical and romantic understanding of personality development. For example, Annie relates a childhood memory about swimming on her mother's back and compares their activity to “the pictures of sea mammals” (42). In an act symbolic of an amniotic baptismal ceremony, Annie and her mother merge into one being, reliving the birth experience. In a related scene, Annie and her mother bathe together; filling the tub with articles of the natural world, they create “a special bath in which the barks and flowers of many different trees, together with all sorts of oils, were boiled in the same large caldron” (14). Such imagery suggests a unity of world and person, a romantic link between nature and humanity. Moira Ferguson reads the passage in a similar fashion, citing the water's “vitality” and “awakening” powers.10 Even the mother's odors connect Annie to nature: “She smelled sometimes of lemons, sometimes of sage, sometimes of roses, sometimes of bay leaf” (22). Kincaid creates an atmosphere of wholeness and innocence reminiscent of the prelapsarian garden of Eden. In fact, Annie uses the garden metaphor as a description of her childhood maternal connection: “It was in such a paradise that I lived” (25). At another point Annie describes this relationship as a “perfect harmony” (27). Ferguson calls this romantic moment “a return to primal, undifferentiated harmony.” All of these depictions suggest ways in which the earlier mentioned theories of personality are expressed through the romantic symbolism of natural and mythical allusions.11

Perhaps Kincaid's most telling romantic metaphor is this notion of “paradise”; the evocation here of a prelapsarian organic unity implies that the mother-daughter bond arises in a naturally perfect pre-linguistic, pre-oedipal state. In Kincaid's collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River, she describes her life with her mother in these same romantic terms; mother and daughter live timelessly, in “a bower made from flowers whose petals are imperishable” (61). The sensual quality of these alliances even pre-empts the rationality of language. At a crucial bonding moment in the novel, Annie communicates with her mother without using the cultural system of language: “At times I would no longer hear what it was she was saying” (22). The experience of being “one” with her mother surpasses the content of discursive meaning: “I just liked to look at her mouth as it opened and closed over words, or as she laughed” (22).

This scene of silent communication, and others like it, creates an intuitive, almost mystical aura around Annie and her mother. It occurs again in the chapter “The Long Rain” when Annie's illness returns her to a non-linguistic child; she is handled as if she “were just born” (113). Words, as cultural signs, cannot penetrate her natural helplessness: words “traveled through the air toward me, but just as they reached my ears they would fall to the floor, suddenly dead” (109). When language loses its material base, Annie discovers a mysterious unity of being that links mother to child in a romantic moment of seamless bonding. Similarly, Annie and Ma Chess develop a romantic union of intuition and implicit harmony that replicates the mother-daughter dyad (126). These are more than the “primal realities” (Ismond 340) of Annie John; they reflect the romantic, “primal” sympathies of lyrical and mystical attachments similar to what is offered in Wordworth's “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.”

With either story, the psychological or the mythical quest, mother and daughter must eventually accept separation. The nature of the mother-daughter bond is that, at some point, it must transform and divide itself into a recognition of separate identities. However, even here, in the depiction of division and loss, Kincaid gives more evidence for a link between romantic and psychological concepts. One particular contributing incident introduces a broad set of mythic symbols.

With her introduction of the Red Girl, Kincaid continues to provide romantic themes for Annie John's maturation and eventual fall from the previously described translucent wholeness. This gritty, outcast Red Girl conflicts with almost everything that Annie's organic bond with her mother offered:

… her dress was dirty … the red hair … was matted and tangled … her fingernails held at least ten anthills of dirt under them. … She had such an unbelievable, wonderful smell, as if she had never taken a bath in her whole life.


Although this description of her is romantically “natural,” i.e., of the earth, the Red Girl encourages Annie to break away from the earlier primordial sympathy of parent-child. When the Red Girl breaks the “law” and picks the fruit for Annie (56), the equally romantic myth of a fall into experience comes to replace the unity of mother and daughter. The rest of the novel details Annie's move away from desiring a unified paradise a la Wordsworth and into the Blake-like divided world of experience. Indeed, the romantic journey from innocence to experience emerges from within this mythical, psychological interpretation: the Bildungsroman and the mother-daughter plot combine to form a novelistic version of a contemporary female quest.

Such a thematically mixed gender discussion—a woman's story seen through a male narrative structure—should raise critical eyebrows. Some readers continue to believe that the quest pattern cannot be adapted to feminist identity issues, since its genesis appears to have occurred under some form of patriarchal order. Dana Heller echoes that view when she writes that within the quest pattern “women are accessories for the male's heroic adventures” (2). Arguments about female characters acquiring their identities in the terms of a literary quest might be misleading appropriations from a male discourse. This anxiety arises when commentators warn against female quest identification discussions. According to some critics, “identification” itself carries male connotations. Heller, for instance, claims that the quest narrative implies “that identity is an exclusively masculine attribute” (4). Heller, though, does not respond to such implications by pulling away from identity-quest questions and constructing a completely new narrative structure for the female hero. Instead, she declares the quest form to be a relevant and malleable structure, useful for contemporary female writers. Indeed, she presents the quest as an interior journey suitable for both genders: “[This] internalization in some manner anticipates the feminization of the form by creating a kind of heroism not determined by physical strength but by intellectual and visionary endeavors” (5).12

Heller's reformulation of a masculine tradition represents a quintessential example of subversion from “within.” In her book The Feminization of Quest-Narrative, she redefines the quest pattern so that “there would seem to be nothing to prevent women from becoming heroes themselves by virtue of possessing their own minds and their own imaginative faculties” (5–6). In other words, according to Heller, by writing from inside the male structure, writers both accept and subvert the masculine narrative configuration. This paradox of using an oppressive structure in order to undermine it illustrates an analogous type of quandary or opposition generating Annie John's identity-quest development.

With similar mixed gender concerns, Natov implies that a discussion of Annie John should center on psychology, not the masculine tradition of Bildungsroman. She focuses on how the pre-verbal modalities construct the mother-child relationship: “The infant gradually internalizes the mother's early mirroring and nurturing so that the child is able to become more independent of her” (2). The critic who relies upon the traditional structure of the male-identity-quest structure, Natov appears to believe, will not easily extract this “mirroring and nurturing” information from a mother-daughter plot. She maintains that this older male tradition of identity searching puts the hero into the “Symbolic Order” by replacing the child-parent relationship with the adult world of mostly external conflict, work, and reward. No such replacement occurs with her pre-oedipal emphasis.

And yet in spite of that preference, Natov ends her essay by pointing directly to a well-known male archetypal narrative continuum. Citing Carl Jung and Carl Kerenyi, she claims that the mother-daughter dyad exists as mythical knowledge, something that links generations of mothers and daughters “through time, gender, and culture” (14). Although not specifically related to the quest, Natov's linkage here between psychology and stories provides another warrant as to why psychology and quest discussions should occur together.

Given Heller and Natov's openings toward an alliance or bridge between these pivotal constructions, integrated readings seem possible. Adlai Murdoch partially supports this approach when he states that the critic should analyze Annie John through the literary structure of the traditional quest: “In terms of genre, Annie John must be classified as a Bildungsroman, or novel of coming of age, of discovery of self, which recounts the process of growing up and coming to terms with the world” (326). That is, a critic might profit from using the associative pattern of the universal child's quest for identity as a specific entry into the daughter-mother bonding plot. In fact, Murdoch claims that “on the face of it, the narrative of Annie John and the mother/daughter relationship do not demand analysis exclusively through the prism of the feminine oedipus” (326). Having written that, Murdoch proceeds with an eclectic blend of critics which include Chodorow, Lacan, and Freud. Even though he does not return to the implications surrounding his call for a Bildungsroman interpretation, his initial awareness of the benefits in combining quest and psychological structures remains provocative and problematic: provocative in rightfully proposing that the issues surrounding the mother-daughter plot do not require an exclusively feminine response, but problematic in that the “coming of age” literary tradition of the quest cannot easily and uncritically be applied to any story about a young woman's development.

Similar to what Dana Heller described earlier, a quest narration now includes appropriating, disrupting, and revising our expectations in order to reveal agency in the woman hero. With that agency in mind, I want to consider the possibilities of using Annie John's version of the quest as part of a larger sweeping revision, a revision that includes the Bildungsroman and more. Such agency suggests that the even larger pattern offered by Joseph Campbell, his “monomyth,” can also be revised through Kincaid's female development story.

Campbell's recognition of cultural similarities which lead to a monolithic story of maturation must be carefully reassessed in regard to the role of woman. Identifying mythical symbols of unity will not completely resolve those serious earlier questions about the quest and female agency. Many critics, in fact, are currently evaluating what Campbell and others have characterized as the traditional distinctions between the genders.13 In Campbell's rather conventional account, the woman represents the desire or promise to which the male hero assents: “… [woman] represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know” (116). In this light, the woman's role is certainly inferior and inadequate when compared to the man's.

In fairness, however, Campbell's monomyth does recognize the mother-daughter union as integral to the hero's development. Of course, according to Campbell, it only occurs early in the journey and is not the generating force of consciousness that Flax outlined above. Campbell states that “the dependent child and its mother constitute for months after the catastrophe of birth a dual unit, not only physically but also psychologically” (6). For Campbell, then, the bond only exists temporarily; the “dual unit” of mother-child soon falls apart when the child declares a separate identity in preparation for the journey away from the home. The child's estrangement creates a form of antipathy so that “when the mother is obliged to hamper the child, aggressive responses are aroused. Thus the first object of the child's hostility is identical with the first object of its love …” (6). Campbell's acknowledgment of the parent-child dynamic supporting the monomyth offers a thematic, if qualified, link to Annie John: his monomyth defines the parent-child psychological bond as romantic energy necessary for the questing child.

The pervasive quality of the monomyth allows it to be used as a discursive frame for almost all stories about children in search for knowledge about themselves. Campbell intends his myth interpretations to be just such global, inclusive narratives. The “universal” hero's pattern, his departure, initiation, and return, implies profound similarities between nationalities, races, and cultures. Campbell was aware that many of his critics preferred narrow, precisely argued theses which emphasized dissimilarities and discord; he wrote in opposition to this academic preference. Announcing early in The Hero With a Thousand Faces that commonality might be as persuasive and influential as discord, Campbell moves towards folklore:

There are of course differences between the numerous mythologies and religions of mankind, but this is a book about the similarities; and once these are understood the differences will be found to be much less great than is popularly (and politically) supposed. …


A few pages later, Campbell illustrates his love for affinity and resemblances by daring to link the quest stories of the Congo to Lao-Tse, Thomas Aquinas, and even an Eskimo fairy tale (3). The power of the monomyth transports these particular narratives, these separate contingencies of cultural truth, onto the shared idealized plane of spiritual and emotional growth: “the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self” moves beyond any particular location, time, or cultural contingency (8).

Campbell's emphasis on a trans-historical and timeless notion of the world consciousness coincides with Kincaid's narrative about the holistic growth of a child's consciousness. Annie John's love-hate relationship with her mother expresses the monomyth's cosmic chain of positive life forces and negative death forces; similar to many of Blake's etchings, the intimacy of youth represents life as pure potentiality, which is only later broken by the emergence of an adult world of experience.

Annie John's passionate recyclings, her repetitious attractions-repulsions from her mother, exist as elements of what Campbell calls the “Universal Round,” a continuous circularity of an organic consciousness. In the monomyth Campbell connects this consciousness to an awareness beyond time: “… in the imagery of myth, the universe is precipitated out of, and reposes upon, a timelessness back into which it again dissolves” (261). Later, on the same page, Campbell underlines how such a cycle is another way to speak of consciousness as a concept of infinity: “The cosmogonic cycle is normally represented as repeating itself, world without end.” These cosmic metaphors place consciousness of the individual within metaphysical and mythical terms.

Kincaid structures scenes in order to indicate just such an interplay between the cosmos and the individual. Emotional moments exist as particular and separate phenomena; however, at the same time, they represent the full spectrum of feelings, the truth of an organic or holistic consciousness.14 For instance, at one point Kincaid presents an historical coupling between the obeah woman and three generations of females: Annie, her mother, and her mother's mother. These women enter Annie's imagination while physically collecting at her side when she is ill and in bed. In searching for the reason for Annie's illness, her mother calls “Ma Jolie, an obeah woman from Dominica who now lived not far from our house, and who was recommended to my mother by her mother, Ma Chess, who still lived in Dominica” (109–10). This gathering locates diverse sensibilities; each member represents a generation with particular beliefs. In spite of their individual cultural convictions, though, the larger familial commonalities produce a single unified identity at the scene. And, indeed, Annie later admits feeling as if she “were just born” (113).15

Annie's imaginative power juxtaposes each person's separate values into a common collective pool of love and caring; the intimacy of a concerned family grouped together in the bedroom of an ill child transcends the demands of any of the separate characters' specific differences. In a similar scene, Kincaid writes about the obeah woman arriving “on a day when the steamer was not due” (123). Here cultural time disappears and is replaced by the mysterious cosmic tale of magic and voodooism. The scene encompasses the past primal practices and telescopes them into the present moment of primal caring and sympathy.

This theme of inclusivity and acceptance appears as well later in the novel when Annie curls up “like a comma” with her grandmother: “Sometimes at night, when I would feel that I was all locked up in the warm falling soot and could not find my way out, Ma Chess would come into my bed with me and stay until I was myself …” (125). Here, as in the examples given earlier, individual identity provisionally loses itself to a cosmic, timeless version of the universe as an all-encompassing mother: “I would lie on my side, curled up like a little comma, and Ma Chess would lie next to me, curled up like a bigger comma, into which I fit” (126). The child and grandmother are one; after several years and even skipping a generation, Annie continues her acquisition of maternal identity.

Women characters, Kincaid seems to be suggesting, are not imprisoned by the traditional narrow depictions of something like the monomyth; they can re-inscribe and subvert them and, in the process, call into question the quest's assumed authority in fixing the female as subservient to the male. In fact, much contemporary Third World writing is testimony to this resistance against the previous generation's acceptance of a privileged European male literary model, where women frequently struggle only to find in the end that they must accept humility, suffering, and disappointment. Novels by women of color often discover unconventional strength in the private social practices of economically inferior, non-white matriarchal cultures. In particular, as Donna Perry notes, the African novel can portray a woman as “the hero of her own life” (248).

Kincaid accepts the metaphor of the quest as she alters it. She constructs these revisions in several ways, some of them contradictory. She employs the quest motif, but includes the ongoing support of a mother. Annie John's quest begins not with a single consciousness breaking into a harsh outside reality, but, instead, with a merged-identity-hero, someone who gains strength with a mother's involvement. Even before she was born, Annie was symbolically united with her mother:

It pleased me to think that, before she could see my face, my mother spoke to me in the same way she did now. On and on my mother would go. No small part of my life was so unimportant that she hadn't made a note of it, and now she would tell it to me over and over again.


Although the literary history of the quest appears not to sustain or emphasize this fusing of a hero with a parent, I suggest that Kincaid's narrative refashions the quest; it transforms this bonding into an ongoing force of the questing paradigm. The hero for Kincaid gains our attention with her proficiency at attaching and relating, rather than emphasizing the conventionally understood Bildungsroman and monomyth hero's quality of independence and setting out alone.

By contrast, Campbell's hero must risk it all as he journeys alone to battle the tyrants and monsters. This traditional hero hears the call, refuses it, and then overcomes the fear and “cross[es] the threshold” (82). Kincaid's child-hero infuses herself with a collection of maternal dynamics which are not found in Campbell's overall description of the journey. Instead, the monomyth hero begins with division and only later moves into a sense of unity. Campbell cites “separation” as the beginning trope of the quest, “separation-initiation-return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth” (30). Campbell, in opposition to Kincaid, defines the hero as someone who doesn't take with him the unifying quality of the child's family; the monomyth focuses on the initial relinquishment of the home, the known, and moves quickly to the desire to push out into the darkness of the unknown.

Of course, that moment of renunciation, the opportunity to declare oneself in an unknown land, occurs with all heroes at one time or another. Kincaid's hero, though, defers the psychological splitting off from family and opens up the possibility for a different paradigm, one that resists such early singularity. In fact, she subverts Campbell and elements of the Bildungsroman by suggesting that mother-daughter bonding continues throughout the quest as it redefines that tradition. According to Kincaid, then, the quest pattern can be rewritten to include this emotional bonding without sacrificing the hero's eventual separation from it. Thus Kincaid's story, in its broader contours, supports the monomyth's conflictual connection between unity and separation as it redefines the role of the hero. And yet, instead of focusing on Campbell's independent hero venturing out, Kincaid stresses the paradoxical, frightening, and mysterious early connection with the mother.

Even at the end of the novel, Annie cannot understand why she is terrified at accepting and showing love to her mother. She only understands that the commitment between a daughter and a parent seems to transcend all. When her mother says “… I'll always be your mother and this will always be your home” (147), Annie is temporarily shaken as she privately admits feeling distant from her mother. She must wake herself out of this hypnotic “stupor.” Her “stupor” represents a paradoxical collision: the forces of a modern male identity quest colliding with a female bonding experience.

These two interpretations of the quest are not essentially opposed; Campbell's hero eventually returns to the community and generates a unity similar to the pervasive return of the child to the parent. Both writers see their heroes' journeys as at least twofold. Each journey provokes confrontations with political and mythical identities, the first grounded in the historical moment and the second timeless and metaphysical.


  1. The following essays represent this general trend: Patricia Ismond's “Jamaica Kincaid: ‘First They Must Be Children,’” Wendy Dutton's “Merge and Separate: Jamaica Kincaid's Fiction,” Helen Pyne Timothy's “Adolescent Rebellion and Gender Relations in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John,” Donna Perry's “Initiation in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John,” and Roni Natov's “Mothers and Daughters: Jamaica Kincaid's Pre-Oedipal Narrative.”

  2. I adapted many of these ideas from Jerome Hamilton Buckley's Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding; see especially 17–18.

  3. See Heller's chapter “Remaking Psyche” (22–39) for an accessible and short summary of these concerns.

  4. Heller feels this to be the case even in many twentieth century texts:

    In twentieth-century plots as well a striking number of female protagonists reach an implicit completion of the quest's cycle through marriage or through childbirth, both often sanctifying the essential spiritual worth of woman's socio-biological destiny.


  5. My desire to append Annie John to a Bildungsroman tradition continues a critical heritage that is gaining advocacy. For example, Iris Rafi notes that the various forms of Bildungs can accommodate coming of age stories for women: “Critics continue to argue the viability of these forms for fictions of female development” (18).

  6. Obviously, the vast majority of feminist criticism must deal with interpretation in this more or less separatist fashion in order to locate a specific language for only female identity. This approach relies upon a fairly firm belief in the cultural and natural distinction between the sexes. Elaine Showalter, for instance, has claimed that since the 1970s, women have been concerned with “the comparative study of sexual difference” (as found in Warhol 7). Robyn Warhol declares that “feminist aestheticians have tried valiantly to establish grounds for evaluating female styles that would not be bound by masculine critical assumptions …” (8). Lauter and Rupprecht have noted that critics need to investigate how the genders diverge since “new questions renew our belief in sex differences” (220–21). In a similar vein Marianne Hirsh declares her recent book on the mother-daughter plot to be “about Woman and about women, about the constructions of femininity in discourses of motherhood and daughterhood” (8). And Deborah Cameron sees the explanation of sexual difference as “an honorable feminist tradition” (29).

    In contrast to that approach, I reach for the critical latitude that allows for integrative readings which redefine difference in less constricting, less rigid, binary terms. My concern centers around how theories of difference must incorporate a recognition of similarity. Even patriarchal structures, like the Bildungsroman, can be blended into discussions around feminine identity. Other critics are working on similar projects. For example, Stephen Paul Martins writes: “… when I use the term ‘feminine,’ I am referring to a quality that is not exclusively found in women. …” He even expands this notion by claiming that “feminine energy” has a “universal importance” (56). It is in such a spirit that I interpret Annie John.

  7. Few critics have overtly attempted to integrate these movements. Some critics, like Murdoch, have mentioned the quest motif, but only as a separate, autonomous interpretation. I hope my presentation of both forces, the outward Bildungsroman and the inner psychological, will reveal how a perceived male tradition of identity formation can still manage to aid an understanding of the contradictory bonds between a mother and a daughter.

  8. In fact, Marianne Hirsh, in her review essay of Annie John, “Mothers and Daughters,” claims that feminist psychoanalytic interpretations about mothers and daughters have generally drawn more or less directly on neo-Freudian theory, Jungian studies, and the writings of Jacques Lacan. None of these approaches advocates for a mixed reading of supposedly male romantic structures and feminine experience.

  9. By using the term “bonding psychology” I am referring to the popular and quasi-scientific notion that close contact between a mother and a child in early infancy leads to emotionally strong individuals. In 1972 John Kennell and Marshall Klaus wrote an article for The New England Journal of Medicine which alleged that mothers who were given extra hours with their infants tested better in mothering skills and their babies performed better in certain developmental skills.

    However, not all child psychologists agree with these conclusions. Diane Eyer, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, states several misgivings about this theory in her book Mother-Enfant Bonding: A Scientific Fiction. Many of the findings of Kennell and Klaus seem premature and sketchy, according to Eyer. She feels that even though the term “bonding” has received a positive and popular reception, an empirical and objective recognition of its benefits has yet to be achieved. Her sense is that the word itself predisposes an advocacy that makes adequate outside collaborative data difficult to evaluate.

  10. Ferguson recognizes the romantic potential of the water imagery when she contrasts it to the political: “Water with beautiful aromas spells a hydrotherapeutics that negates a stagnant colonialism” (45). Although Ferguson identifies romantic elements in Annie John, she uses them in relation to the evidence of colonialism. In contrast, I see them as linking the quest motif to the psychological plot.

  11. Rafi states that “Annie recreates a perfect world as it was made and extended by her mother” (47). It is a “love affair in paradise” (50).

  12. For this same characterization, see also Ross, “Romantic Quest and Conquest” 28.

  13. Annis Pratt, Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction, Missy Dehn Kubitschek, “Paule Marshall's Women on Quest,” Marlon B. Ross, “Romantic Quest and Conquest: Troping Masculine Power in the Crisis of Poetic Identity,” and Anne Mellor, editor, Romanticism and Feminism are some of the authors and works currently questioning combined readings of male structures and female subjectivity.

  14. William Wimsatt mentions five properties related to this discussion of “holistic” or “organic” consciousness. The first is that the concept of “whole” has priority over the individual parts. This suggests that an initial definition of the organic generates much of the romanticism in the monomyth. Kincaid and Campbell both see individual consciousness as part of this larger “cosmogonic cycle” (as presented in “Organic Form: Some Questions About a Metaphor,” from Organic Form: The Life of an Idea).

  15. These scenes place the cultural/psychological issues of family care into a romantic space of intuition and implicit harmony; they are versions of what I have called “baptismal” experiences. Ferguson, quite rightly, describes them as “primordial” (66).

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. “The Internalization of Quest-Romance.” Romanticism and Consciousness; Essays in Criticism. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Norton, 1970.

Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1974.

Cameron, Deborah. Feminism & Linguistic Theory. London: MacMillan, 1985.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Meridian, 1956.

Dutton, Wendy. “Merge and Separate: Jamaica Kincaid's Fiction.” World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 63 (Summer 1989): 406–10.

Eyer, Diane. Mother-Enfant Bonding: A Scientific Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.

Ferguson, Moira. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1994.

Flax, Jane. “The Conflict Between Nuturance and Autonomy in Mother-Daughter Relationships and Within Feminism.” Feminist Studies 4 (February 1978): 171–89.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1957.

Heller, Dana. The Feminization of Quest-Romance. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1989.

———. “Mothers and Daughters.” Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7 (Autumn 1981): 200–22.

Ismond, Patricia. “Jamaica Kincaid: ‘First They Must Be Children.’” World Literature Written in English 28 (Autumn 1988): 336–41.

Kenney, Susan. “Paradise With Snake.” New York Times Book Review 3 (April 1988): 6.

Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. New York: Farrar, 1983.

———. At the Bottom of the River. New York: Farrar, 1978.

Klaus, M. P., P. Jerauld, N. Kreger, W. McAlpine, M. Steffa, and J. Kennell. “Maternal Attachment: Importance of the First Postpartum Days.” New England Journal of Medicine 286 (March 1972): 460–63.

Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. “Paule Marshall's Women on Quest.” Black American Literature Forum 21 (Spring-Summer 1987): 43–60.

Lauter, Estella and Carol Schreier Rupprecht. Feminist Archetypal Theory. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1985.

Martin, Stephen-Paul. Open Forum and the Feminine Imagination. Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve, 1988.

Mellor, Anne, ed. Romanticism and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Murdoch, H. Adlai. “Severing the (M)other Connection: The Representation of Cultural Identity in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John.Callaloo 13 (Spring 1990): 325–40.

Natov, Roni. “Mothers and Daughters: Jamaica Kincaid's Pre-Oedipal Narrative.” Children's Literature: An International Journal 18 (1990): 1–16.

Perry, Donna. “Initiation in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John.Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference. Ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990.

Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction. Brighton: Harvester, 1982.

Rafi, Iris Fawzia. “You of Age to See About Yourself Now! So Pull Up Your Socks!: Themes of Bildung in Select Novels by West Indian Women Writers.” Diss. Emory U, 1994.

Ross, Marlon B. The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

———. “Romantic Quest and Conquest: Troping Masculine Power in the Crisis of Poetic Identity.” Romanticism and Feminism. Ed. Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Timothy, Helen Pyne. “Adolescent Rebellion and Gender Relations in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.Caribbean Women Writers: Essays From the First International Conference. Ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990.

Warhol, Robyn. Gendered Interventions: Narrative Discourse in the Victorian Novel. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989.

Wimsatt, William K. “Organic Form: Some Questions About a Metaphor.” Organic Form: The Life of an Idea. Ed. G.S. Rousseau. London: Routledge, 1972.

Edyta Oczkowicz (essay date Fall 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6420

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 sexual discrimination; and the domination by the white man and his culture. Lucy (1990) picks up at the point where all her previous works ended and explores the possibilities of transcending the heroine's post-colonial predicament.

Upon immigrating to the United States, a young West Indian woman begins her painful and lonely search for identity. Her struggle for personal freedom and independence entails total, self-imposed separation from her family, particularly her mother, and a commitment to complete detachment. Such rejection of her former identity and alienation from the past and much of her present experience grant Lucy the independence and freedom to assert herself in a position of control and power, which, in turn, allows her to re-invent her self and create a new future. But her re-invention would not be possible out of a void of self-destruction and loneliness. Though abandonment of her former self is the necessary condition for Lucy's liberation, the consequent exploitation and appropriation of her past and present are the vital formative determinants in the process of inventing her new self. They require a form of mental re-colonization of her past and present as a means of repossessing them on her own grounds. The binary divisions of center-margin, self-other, good-evil, white-black—the so-called “Manichean aesthetic” that Fredric Jameson sees as characteristic of post-colonial societies and their literatures—are particularly evident in Lucy's perceptions of her American present.1 By the way these binaries traditionally define Lucy's ethnicity/race, gender, and occupation/class, they also inscribe her into the American society as the marginalized “other” before she even reaches the country.

The new dichotomies, however, of memory and intuition, anger and love, despair and freedom construct the boundaries of Lucy's creative exploitation and colonization of her Antiguan past and American present. Her self derives a creative impetus/inspiration from the tension between the abrogation of her memory and its intuitive appropriation, acceptance of her anger and temporary denial of love, and the paradox of freedom found in escape from her despair.

The novel captures Lucy at the cross-roads of cultures and identities (Antiguan and American), at the transitional moment of cultural and psychological “translation”—the concept explored in Eva Hoffman's recent autobiography, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989).2 Lucy's role as a translator can be compared to that of the interpreter and post-colonial writer, both “caught in the conflict between destruction and creativity” (Ashcroft et al. 80), “situated at the ambi/valent site of interpretation itself” (83).3 Consequently, recognized as both a creative and destructive process, “translation” exists only in the form of tension between the forces of abrogation and appropriation of the old and new simultaneously. And I suggest that in Lucy the heuristic significance of the “translation” metaphor is shifted to the unique processes of appropriation as the actual locus of inventing her self.

I look at Kincaid's novel as a form of retracing Lucy's identity to its post-colonial beginnings and opening for her the possibilities of creating a new self through actual exploitation of her post-colonial experience. Although the heroine is not always fully conscious of what is happening to her, the novel clearly defines the whole process of change that her person undergoes, and each of the chapters deals with the consecutive stages of her “translation.” The first two chapters (“Poor Visitor” and “Mariah”) illustrate Lucy's abrogation of her past, and they re-establish the tension inherent in the colonial dichotomy of colonizer-colonized. These two worlds are still functioning for Lucy in America. They allow the heroine to demystify her disabling position as the colonized and thus initiate her liberation from it.4

The middle two chapters (“The Tongue” and “Cold Heart”) relate how Lucy invents her own past through further denial of her Antiguan past and an attempt to appropriate it into her American present. Consequently, Lucy gains personal independence, thanks to which, in the last chapter (“Lucy”), she recovers her original sense of identity hidden in “Lucy, a girl's name for Lucifer” (153). Her self-realization triggers the acceptance of her post-colonial past as an important part of who she is and who she may want to become. Coming to America, also a former colony, Lucy can negotiate the multiple influences and possibilities that both destroy and create the reality of her personal identity. She has an opportunity to create a personal space in which she can choose how to exist.

In her review of Lucy in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, Jane Mendelsohn calls Kincaid's novel “a book about salvation” (21). Although I find Mendelsohn's insights about salvation, purgatory, and guilt important and valid in the context of the book, I would like to suggest that Lucy, instead of salvation, explores the “space” between the very idea of salvation, shaped by her post-colonial education (for example, reading and memorizing Milton), and its actual reality—the “space” in which one of the predominant experiences is disappointment and the means of surviving it and dealing with it—instead of the experience of relief I would associate with salvation. One of Lucy's first reflections on the January night of her arrival to America illustrates how clear the distinction is for her between the ideas and their reality:

In a daydream I used to have, all these places [that she passes on her way from the airport] were points of happiness to me; all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul. … Now that I saw these places, they looked ordinary, dirty, worn down by so many people entering and leaving them in real life. … It was not my first bout with the disappointment of reality and it would not be my last.

(3–4; emphasis added)

Lucy's ability to distinguish between the idea and its reality is necessary to her personal liberation and consequent self-invention. It enables her to recognize who she was told and made to be, who she actually is, and who she wants or does not want to become. From the beginning of Lucy's experience, the focus is directed towards her most extensive inner change as opposed to the external one (her immigration to America).

In America everything is wrong. The sun shines but the air is cold. The songs about love are insincere and artificial, their melodies shallow and words meaningless. Marital relations between Lewis and Mariah, Lucy's employers, appear phony. Despite the fact that everything new Lucy experiences seems to her “such a good idea that [she] could imagine [she] would grow used to it and like it very much” (4), she feels unhappy, “cold inside and out” (6). Her communication with Lewis and Mariah is incomplete. She perceives and relates to the world through her dreams. Lewis and Mariah replace the actual dream experience of the fantastic and subliminal with Dr. Freud's theories of dream interpretation. Including Lucy, everybody realizes that she is not yet a part of this American reality. They call her the visitor, “just passing through, just saying one long Hallo!” (13). At the moment, she feels not only alone and displaced, but she relives the psychological condition of the first settlers in Australia, “a prison for bad people, people so bad that they couldn't be put in a prison in their own country” (9). Her dream about a nightgown “Made in Australia” expresses her deep sense of being degraded below what is considered bad for both the colonizers and the colonized who were successfully brainwashed. She is a mental outcast and moral convict who refuses to accept what she is told to be. For now, she does not “want to take in anything else” (4), and she knows she cannot go back to where she came from.

The following chapter, “Mariah,” is haunted by Lucy's post-colonial experience and memory. Including the dream closing the preceding chapter, there are three dreams in the book, in which Lucy is being chased respectively by Lewis, daffodils, and thousands of people on horseback carrying cutlasses to cut her up into small pieces; all three images metaphorically express the aggression of the colonizers and their dominating culture. Lewis represents the white patriarchal culture of the colonizers; daffodils come from Wordsworth's poem Lucy was forced to memorize at school and whose beauty she was told to assimilate without ever seeing the flowers themselves; and the horsemen threaten Lucy with violent dissolution, fragmentation of her person into meaningless pieces—the metaphor for the act of colonization as seen by the colonized. Lucy's perceptions of present reality and her reflections are filtered through her post-colonial perspective. Even though she has left Antigua and denied her mother, post-colonial experience and knowledge are a large part of who she is. Denial and self-dispossession of her past will not liberate her unless she appropriates her past in the process of exploring the present. The first step is her realization and acceptance of the great anger she feels toward her past, which she discovers recalling her childhood experience with daffodils. In the process she is also taught about the inescapability of her post-colonial vision. She cannot but cast the daffodils in “a scene of conquered and conquests; a scene of brutes masquerading as angels and angels portrayed as brutes … [and] nothing [can] change the fact that where [Mariah sees] beautiful flowers [Lucy sees] sorrow and bitterness” (30).

The second step toward appropriation of her past requires distancing herself from the past by actively using it in order to avoid being taken in by her present. The awareness of her past allows her to see simultaneously both the idea and the reality of the present she is living. For example, on their way to the Great Lake, when Lucy, Mariah and the children eat dinner in the dining car, Lucy notices how the diners all look “like Mariah's relatives” (32), and the people waiting on them look like hers. Yet on closer observation, she realizes that “they are not at all like her relatives; they only look like them” (emphasis added). Lucy notices that Mariah does not and cannot share her perspective, because she is inscribed by the dominant colonizer's world and accepts the conqueror's status:

She acted in her usual way, which was that the world was round and we all agreed on that, when I knew that the world was flat and if I went to the edge I would fall off.


Although there is no sense of danger in Mariah's world, Lucy's is not only a backward, flat world, but dangerous to her. Her observation again confirms the strong sense of two unbreachable worlds and the inescapable post-colonial dichotomy of colonizer-colonized, which Lucy has to transcend in her struggle for the freedom of self-invention.

Lucy's relationship with Mariah is a complex reflection of the above processes further complicated by her struggle to cut herself off from her mother and everything she could love,

for I didn't want to love one more thing in my life, I didn't want one more thing that could make my heart break into a million little pieces at my feet.


Deep in her heart, Lucy loves her mother. On occasions she acts like her mother (feeding one of the girls) and almost becomes her. Nevertheless, her mother belongs to her past, and Lucy harbors a lot of anger towards her, anger which, until it is explained and understood by her, makes her translate her love for her mother into hatred and then an actual physical and mental separation.

Mariah serves as a surrogate mother for Lucy in this transitional moment of her liberation and self-invention. She makes up for the shortcomings of Lucy's real mother.5 For example, Lucy can express and discuss her sexuality with Mariah without being repressed by the overpowering sense of moral propriety/authority (their conversation over the vase of flowers or Lucy telling Mariah about her sex life with Paul). Mariah also respects Lucy's independence. She does not restrict her freedom to choose friends even if Mariah herself does not like them (Lucy's friendship with Peggy). Consequently, Lucy loves Mariah for being for her what her real mother could not be. At the same time, however, when Mariah tries to teach Lucy to see things through her eyes, Lucy recognizes that

I already had a mother who loved me, and I had come to see her love as a burden and had come to view with horror the sense of self-satisfaction it gave my mother to hear other people comment on her great love for me. I had come to see that my mother's love for me was designed solely to make me into an echo of her; and I didn't know why, but I felt that I would rather be dead than become just an echo of someone.


Lucy's independence from Mariah is further assured by her clear sense of their being inscribed by the colonial dichotomy. It is inescapable on the outside; Lucy's blackness sharply contrasts with her angelic vision of Mariah:

Mariah, with her pale-yellow skin and yellow hair, stood still in this almost celestial light, and she looked blessed, no blemish or mark of any kind on her cheek or anywhere else, as if she had never quarreled with anyone over a man or over anything, would never have to quarrel at all, had never done anything wrong and had never been to jail, had never had to leave anywhere for any reason other than a feeling that had come over her.


Lucy's description of Mariah is emblematic of the way she relates to her. Her initial judgments are superficial and totally controlled by colonial brainwashing; the impulse to speculate (“as if”) initiates independent thinking through the basic method of comparison and contrast between what she is told to see and what she actually sees. The power of her personal experience liberates Lucy from the illusion created by the post-colonial idea of Mariah. She enters her reality by switching the dichotomy of Mariah—strong—smelling good and Lucy—weak—smelling “bad,” when she concludes:

The smell of Mariah was pleasant. Just that—pleasant. And I thought, But that's the trouble with Mariah—she smells pleasant. By then I already knew that I wanted to have a powerful odor and would not care if it gave offense.


Lucy does not look at Mariah as a figure of maternal authority, as she had to see her real mother. She investigates not who Mariah or her authority are, but how she got to be the way she is: made to feel alive by flowers bending in the breeze; made miserable because the weather does not live up to her expectations; beyond any doubt or confidence; “the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also” (41). Lucy's questions are another form of establishing and securing her independence from Mariah, even when her authority is not fully expressed as the white colonizers'. The sense of independence from Mariah is Lucy's small triumph, very important in her struggle for personal independence at the moment, although hollow later, when she recognizes that Mariah is also the victim of one of the many variations of colonial dichotomy, that of man-woman (141–43).

The first two chapters serve as Lucy's orientation in time and her personal space. She distances herself from her past not only by “putting enough miles between them, but also by putting enough events” (31); I interpret “them” as “mental events,” Lucy's moments of clear distinction between the world she comes from and the one in which Mariah lives, her recognition of the “space” between the idea and its reality. Further, through abrogation of her past and its appropriation into her perceptions of the present, Lucy defines them both as “something heavy and hard … [which she comes to think is] the beginning of living, real living” (24–25); as opposed to living someone else's idea of reality or their reality itself. In consequence, Lucy gains certain independence from both her past and present since she lives them both at the same time. Her important and permanent triumph is the realization about the meaning of her American experience: “It was my past, so to speak, my first real past—a past that was my own and over which I had the final word” (23).

The following chapter, “Tongue,” deals with the complexities of change Lucy undergoes. Once she covers the “space” between the idea of unchangeability and its reality—“Everything remains the same and yet nothing is the same” (78)—she feels that her present change might be as inevitable and out of her control as her adolescent experiences of physical maturation (e.g., first pubic and underarm hair, first menstruation). Yet, she puts herself in charge of her change by making, from the start, a vital distinction: “Taste is not the thing to seek out in a tongue; how it makes you feel—that is the thing” (44; emphasis added). Instead of shaping her judgments solely by the general nature of her experiences, she focuses on the feelings they produce in her and thus provides herself with the immediate means to personal liberation. For example, she loves Miriam from the very first moment they meet. Even though Lucy's only explanation is that Miriam “must have reminded [her of herself when she] was that age” (53), her free and unconditional love for the girl reflects and activates her need and capacity for self-love, the first condition of becoming one's own person. She also defines and accepts her love for Mariah: “Mariah reminded me more and more of the parts of my mother that I loved” (59). Consequently, she recognizes that she feels both love and hatred for her own mother. In order to deal with these conflicting feelings, she knows that she has to maintain her total separation from the family at any cost. For example, she does not answer nor even open her mother's letters. However, besides dealing with the complexities of her relationship with the mother, her growing to love Mariah also means that Lucy can look beyond Mariah as a representative of the colonizers. She admits that even though “it could be said that [Mariah's] kindness was the result of her comfortable circumstances, many people in her position [would not be] as kind and considerate as she was” (72–73). Lucy has to transcend the colonial dichotomy in order to appreciate Mariah as an individual.

Lucy is very careful when dealing with love, particularly one that could limit her personal freedom:

I could tell that being in love would complicate my life just now. I was only half a year free of some almost unbreakable bonds, and it was not in my heart to make new ones.


She avoids falling in love with Hugh for the same reason that she refused to give up her virginity to Tanner; she “could not give [them] such a hold over [her]” (83). She struggles to liberate herself from the influence of her own feelings towards others. Such self-denial, commitment to detachment and not missing anyone or anything grant Lucy her total personal independence, flexibility, and freedom to choose how to create herself.

Consequently, Lucy develops her friendship with Peggy despite Mariah's disapproval; she starts smoking cigarettes and explores her sexuality. For the first time since she had left home, she feels happy (51). Her initial attraction to the insincere and artificial (11) is transformed into an acute awareness of the dishonest, hollow, and phony. She easily perceives the general “untruths” in the family life of Lewis and Mariah (47, 77). Again, she is in a position to recognize the “space” between the idea and its reality with exquisite sharpness. It is clear to Lucy that Lewis and Mariah's love is unreal, the ideal they often perform for each other as a show, especially when Lewis and Dinah (Mariah's best friend) betray Mariah, a painful reality Mariah sees too late.

Lucy would not be able to have such insights into Mariah's, Lewis's and Dinah's characters without the wisdom she brought from Antigua. Yet only with her newly gained emotional freedom can she appropriate that wisdom from her past in a way that furthers her ability to distinguish between the idea and its reality in her present, the untruth and truth which she has to sort out before she can create her new and independent self.

“Cold Heart” is a form of final good-bye to Lucy's Antiguan past. She realizes that “just a change in venue” (90) is not sufficient to liberate her. She has to create, not only separate and change herself. Like Kincaid herself, Lucy does not “make up a past that [she does not] have. [She] just [makes her] present different from [her] past” (Bonetti Interview 133). First, she rejects not only being like her mother but her mother herself, since she personifies her past. Out of both present happiness and disillusionment, she proclaims herself “alone in the world and I shall always be this way—all alone in the world” (93). After the death of her father, Lucy's state of total loneliness means self-imposed motherlessness and real fatherlessness; again the idea opposes reality.

When creating her present as different from her own past, Lucy allows herself to feel and act opposite to what her mother had taught her. Upon meeting Paul, her future lover, she says

“How are you?” in a small, proper voice of the girl my mother had hoped I would be: clean, virginal, beyond reproach. But I felt the opposite of that, for when he held my hand and kissed me on the cheek, I felt instantly deliciously strange; I wanted to be naked in a bed with him.


Later on she betrays Paul with Roland, a salesman from the camera shop, and lives the life her mother warned against: becoming a slut. She also chooses Paul over Peggy, despite her mother's teachings: you “should never take a man's side over a woman's” (48). She freely talks to Mariah, who is now like “a good mother” to her (110), about her sexual life with Paul. In the process of all these actions, Lucy liberates herself from the implications and moral judgements inscribed into her relationships when defined by binary oppositions of mother/daughter, man/woman, male love/female friendship.

The appearance of Maude Quick, her mother's ideal goddaughter and Lucy's “personal jailer” in her childhood (111–12), brings Lucy to her ultimate rejection of her mother. The tragic news of her father's death only momentarily undermines her self-confidence. Maude's remark that Lucy reminds her of Miss Annie triggers all the hatred, hostility, and anger towards her mother that was building up in her. She bursts:

“I am not like my mother. She and I are not alike. She should not have married my father. She should not have had children. She should not have thrown away her intelligence. She should not have paid so little attention to mine. She should have ignored someone like you [Maude Quick]. I am not like her at all.”


As the father has left her mother a pauper, Lucy sends her all her money and a letter enumerating all the ways in which she thinks her mother betrayed herself and her daughter as well. To Lucy, her mother's betrayal of her only daughter, someone of her own kind, another woman, is not only unforgivable but irreparable. Lucy's separation from Mrs. Judas, the name she gives her mother, is necessary and inevitable, even though probably never complete.

The chapter ends with a kind of epiphany, Lucy's tragic yet liberating self-realization that her

life was at once something more simple and more complicated than [the dictionary definition of a “woman” given her by Mariah]: for ten of her twenty years, half of [her] life, [she] had been mourning the end of a love affair, perhaps the only true love in [her] whole life [she] would ever know.


It is hard to judge if Lucy means a love affair with her mother or with being a woman, or perhaps being in love with herself and her mother as women. Here again, like Kincaid herself when she talks about her fiction, Lucy aims “to be true to something … [when she is] trying to understand how [she] got to be the person [she is]” (Bonetti Interview 125–26). Both the writer and her heroine perform a kind of creative act when they search for and invent certain truths about themselves.

In her struggle to maintain her personal independence, Lucy identifies herself against some artistic models. With Gauguin, she shares the yearnings of “wanting something completely different from what you are familiar with, knowing it represents a haven” (95). However, she quickly rejects “the perfume of the hero about” Gauguin and recognizes that he is an inadequate model for someone like herself, “a young woman from the fringes of the third world, who left home wrapped in the mantle of a servant.” She also does not identify herself with the artists she meets at Paul's, “very chatty people who talk about themselves and the world and take it for granted that everything they say matters” (98); they are also mostly men. She knows that she is not and does not want to be this kind of an artist; but she “shall always like to be with the people who stand apart.” Her recollection of the Myrna story further shows Lucy's early fascination with the unique (in her childhood meaning the forbidden and secret experiences). Her search to be different, to have something of her own, testifies to her desperate need to create her existence separate from her mother's.

Finally, Lucy's interest in photography liberates her imagination to see the extraordinary in the pictures of “ordinary people in a countryside doing ordinary things” (115). Now on the creative, artistic plane, Lucy is compelled to ask the same old question about the “space” between the idea and its reality: “Why is a picture of something real eventually more exciting than the thing itself?” (121). This time, however, she wonders about the direction, orientation of the “space” in question, a kind of creative order that gives the “space” its meaning.

It is interesting to notice how Lucy's search for personal freedom is first generalized as a “part of the whole human situation” (129), only to be ironically telescoped by her memory's ever-present lens of colonial experience. Lucy seems to believe that all kinds of freedom are arbitrary and individual. For example, she wants to warn Mariah not to count on that “free” feeling she has after her divorce from Lewis, because it can vanish like a magic trick. She is also surprised to hear Paul saying that the great explorers/colonizers conquered the world not only in search of riches but also to feel free. In her mind, the originally noble urge to freedom often leads people away from it; paradoxically, sometimes freedom can only be found in death. The image of dead wild animals on both sides of the highway metaphorically expresses her tragic vision of human striving for freedom. But Lucy's personal example shows that the individual's struggle for freedom is the only means to meaningful and creative existence. Thus, the tentative orientation of Lucy's “space” points towards the universally human contained within the highly personal and individual experience; it rejects the linear in favor of recursive and spiral order/construction of the “space” between the idea and its reality.

The closing chapter of the novel again presents Lucy “making a new beginning” (133), exactly a year after her arrival in America. There are significant external changes: Lucy moves to a new apartment with Peggy and gets a job as a secretary; she becomes socially and economically independent. Yet, much more important changes take place inside of her mind and memory. Although she does not know the person she has become very well, for the first time she entertains the idea that she might be beautiful. She also redefines her relationship with her past, both the Antiguan and last year's American one. According to Lucy, the past is “a collection of people you used to be and things you used to do” (137), and therefore she concludes that “your past is the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in.” Such definition of the past allows her the distance necessary to understand and re-evaluate her colonial history and post-colonial education, so she can appropriate them into her new identity. In the span of less than two pages, Lucy communicates her self-realizations:

I had come to believe that people in my position in the world should know everything about the place they are from.


I had realized that the origin of my presence on the island—my ancestral history—was the result of a foul deed; but that was not what made me … I was not a Briton and that until not too long ago I would have been a slave.


I understand the situation better now; I understand that, in spite of those words [liberty, equality, and fraternity], my pen pal [from the neighboring French island] and I were in the same boat.


She also draws a line separating the past from present in respect to the last year spent in the household of Lewis and Mariah; she refers to this time of her life repeatedly using the phrase “I used to.” Consequently, Lucy is no longer separated but liberated from the direct influence of her past. Using Kincaid's own words, Lucy seems to have succeeded in her struggle for personal freedom, the “struggle to make sense of the external from the things that have made you what you are and the things that you have been told are you” (Vorda Interview 9).

The final chapter resonates with far more poignant meanings than just Lucy's repossession of her past. It reveals her further and deeper involvement in self-invention:

I understood that I was inventing myself, and that I was doing this more in the way of a painter than in the way of a scientist. … I could only count on intuition. … I had memory, I had anger, I had despair.


To identify her new self, she goes back to her original name: Lucy Josephine Potter (her full birthname is finally mentioned on page 149). Lucy's memories and thoughts about her name give insight into the most private regions of her identity. She recalls her unsuccessful attempt at re-naming (150) and revives the one moment from her childhood when she knew who she was: her mother's angry confession, “I named you after Satan himself. Lucy, short for Lucifer” (152). Although she has never grown to like “Lucy, a girl's name for Lucifer” (153), it was the only part of her name she cared to hold on to. Not because she felt guilty, as Mariah suggests; she “did not feel like a murderer; [but because she] felt like Lucifer, doomed to build wrong upon wrong” (139). It is one of the first and more complicated judgments that Lucy places on herself after she finds out, again from Mariah, that not only can others judge us, but we can judge ourselves, too. Although the figure of Lucifer comes from the culture of her colonizers, Lucy, now liberated, can freely choose to identify herself with him. The male traits of Lucifer that seem to communicate with Lucy's present situation most significantly are his total alienation and loneliness after the rebellion against God, the result of his uncontainable search for knowledge. Similarly, in consequence of her rebellion against her mother, separation from her Antiguan past, and subsequent attitude of complete detachment and independence, Lucy finds herself liberated but totally alone at the end of the novel. Her state of loneliness and alienation is the price she has to pay for her search for self-knowledge. Like Lucifer, she is fully committed to the task of knowing: “If I did not know everything yet, I would not be afraid to know everything as it came up” (153).

Consequently, Lucy courageously withstands her disappointments with reality. Using her camera, she still tries to make the picture of reality more beautiful than the reality itself in hope of finding the things she had not seen with her eyes. She takes to drinking coffee all the time and eating cold, mushy lunches, even though she knows they are not good for her. Her present life style is winding down but free. She is alone and not happy but independent; for Lucy, her freedom and independence are “not a small accomplishment. [She] thought [she] would die doing it” (161).

In the end, neither Lucy nor the reader appears fully gratified to see her suffer from loneliness and unhappiness for the sake of her personal freedom, freedom which, so far, has been defined primarily by rejection, separation, and alienation. Resurrecting her birthname also does not seem a substantial foundation for her new self. Significantly, it becomes “one great blur” (164) as she weeps over the first page of the notebook she got from Mariah.

Although the novel covers one complete stage of Lucy's life, the heroine's character is less complete at the end of her story than at its beginning. The closing picture of Lucy writing in her diary suggests that the story of her self-invention has yet to be created and told by Lucy herself. At this point, even her name seems meaningful only in terms of her past. With her one sentence “I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it,” Lucy draws another line separating her past/s from the present and future. She closes one way of her existence and self-invention to begin a new one.

Given the somewhat inconclusive experience of Lucy, one has to wonder if there is something inevitably incomplete in cultural and psychological “translation” defined primarily by the exploration of one's past. It is also highly questionable if Lucy's exploration of her past/s has indeed created anything, a new self or self-history, unless we perceive one's control over the past as a precondition of self-invention, creating a new personal “space” in which Lucy's selfhood does not have to be defined by the roles of either colonized or colonizer.


  1. See Jameson's Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971) and The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Methuen, 1981) as well as the discussion of his work in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin's book The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (New York: Routledge, 1989).

  2. Reflecting on her own immigration from Poland to North America, Hoffman focuses on two aspects of multilayered immigrant experience. One is a deep sense of unrecoverable loss and subsequent confusion. The other is the necessity of “translation,” not only linguistic, but the complex cultural and psychological transformation. The immigrant double vision of the displacement of meaning and cultural dislocation of being caught-in-between require “translation” as a means of negotiating different realities and available identities. Hoffman suggests that without “translation,” an immigrant is doomed to “exist in the stasis of a perpetual present” (242), imprisoned in his/her decontextualized self. According to her, “translation” is an answer to the “acute challenge of having to invent a place and identity for [oneself] without the traditional support” (197) of mother tongue or culture. It is a means of liberation and self-creation. Reading Kincaid's novel, like Hoffman, I use the process of translation and its inherent complexities as a controlling metaphor for Lucy's immigrant experience, her negotiation of the Antiguan past and American present, and the following metamorphosis of her identity.

  3. For a discussion of the control over the means of communication in post-colonial cultures read Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin's study (78–83).

  4. For more information on the colonial dichotomy and its demystification, consult The Empire Writes Back (123–25, 177–80) and the works of Frantz Fanon, Studies in a Dying Colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth, and Black Skin, White Masks.

  5. For a discussion of Caribbean mother-daughter relations see a very good article by Helen Pyne Timothy, “Adolescent Rebellion and Gender Relations in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John” in Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference and two articles analyzing Annie John using Lacanian theory: Roni Natov's “Mothers and Daughters: Jamaica Kincaid's Pre-Oedipal Narrative” and Adlai Murdoch's “Severing the (M)Other Connection: The Representation of Cultural Identity in J. Kincaid's Annie John.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove, 1967.

———. Studies in a Dying Colonialism, 1959. Trans. H. Chevalier. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

———. The Wretched of the Earth. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.

———. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London: Methuen, 1981.

Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. New York: Plume, 1986.

———. A Small Place. New York: Plume, 1989.

———. At the Bottom of the River. 1978. New York: Plume, 1992.

———. Interview. By Allan Vorda. Mississippi Review 20.1–2 (1991): 7–26.

———. Interview. By Kay Bonetti. The Missouri Review 15.2 (1992): 124–42.

———. Lucy. New York: Plume, 1991 (1990).

———. “On Seeing England for the First Time.” Transition: An International Review 51 (1991): 32–40.

Mendelsohn, Jane. “Leaving Home: Jamaica Kincaid's Voyage Round her Mother.” Rev. of Lucy. By Jamaica Kincaid. Village Voice Literary Supplement 89 (Oct. 1990):21.

Murdoch, H. Adlai. “Severing the (M)other Connection: The Representation of Cultural Identity in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John.Callaloo 13.2 (Spring 1990): 325–40.

Natov, Roni. “Mothers and Daughters: Jamaica Kincaid's Pre-Oedipal Narrative.” Children's Literature International 18 (1990): 1–16.

Timothy, Helen Pyne. “Adolescent Rebellion and Gender Relations in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference. Wellesley, MA: Calaloux, 1990. 233–42.

Nancy Chick (essay date September 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4744

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 immediately recognize that it is broken suggests that her identity is at a standstill. Thus, to become self-actualized, Lucy must replace her misguided sense of linear time with the recognition of cyclical time, integrating her past into her present.

During her first year in America, the time of the action in the book, Lucy seeks to move beyond her youth in the West Indies; she wants to separate her old life from the new one. Early on, she admits that she misses her homeland because “I understood it, I knew where I stood there” (6). However, she had hoped to “leave [home] behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again” (7). She cannot understand why Mariah, her employer and friend, looks forward to her pilgrimage to the Great Lakes where she grew up. When they get there, Lucy thinks, “What an awful thing” it is “seeing her [Mariah's] past go swiftly by in front of her” (34). Lucy resents Mariah for embracing her past, such as when Mariah warmly greets an old friend from her childhood:

Mariah should have long separated the person Gus standing in front of her in the present from all the things he meant to her in the past. I wanted to say to him, “Do you not hate the way she says your name, as if she owns you?”


Since Lucy has embarked on a conscious struggle to create a self independent from her past, she fails to appreciate Mariah's acceptance of her own past.

“IT WAS MY FIRST DAY,” Lucy proclaims as she designates her January arrival in America as the birthday of her new self (3). By March, she looks back at the winter as “my first real past—a past that was my own and over which I had the final word” (23). Finally, towards the end of the book, she says, “I used to be nineteen; I used to live in the household of Lewis and Mariah, and I used to be the girl who took care of their four children” (137). In Lucy's mind, her only real past is now the events that make up her first year away from home. She has erased the eighteen years that came beforehand, or so she tries to convince herself.

She associates those first eighteen years in the West Indies with her mother. In fact, she plainly states, “My past was my mother” (90). Lucy's feelings for her mother are ambivalent; so, too, are her feelings about the past. In her discussion of Kincaid's previous book, Annie John, Donna Perry suggests that this ambivalence is at the heart of mother-daughter relationships.2 Lucy does hold some fond memories of her mother, such as when she saw her “surrounded by plants of one kind or another … serene, motionless” (59). She then learned that her mother's hands were “instruments for arranging things beautifully” (59). However, most of Lucy's memories of her mother are far less comforting. For instance, her mother thought Lucy could be a good nurse, but Lucy wonders why she did not encourage her to become a “good doctor or a good magistrate or a good someone who runs things” (92).3 She feels betrayed by her mother's expectations for her daughter; they are low only because Lucy is female. In what might be called her primal scene, Lucy discovers that her mother had hopes for each son to “go to university in England and study to become a doctor or lawyer or someone who would occupy an important and influential position in society” (130). This memory is painful for Lucy: “I felt a sword go through my heart, for there was no accompanying scenario in which she saw me, her only identical offspring, in a remotely similar situation” (130). Lucy reacts to this private agony by forsaking her love for her mother and becoming independent of and ultimately disconnected from their past together. In “The World and Our Mothers,” Vivian Gornick redefines the Freudian analysis of childhood development in terms of female children: “Our necessity, it seems, is not so much to kill our fathers as it is to separate from our mothers, and it is the daughters who must do the separating.”4 Similarly, Nancy Chodorow claims that, because of their prolonged preoedipal attachment and identification, mother-daughter relationships are defined by the daughter's need to do this separating in order to individuate fully.5 This is precisely what Lucy does.

She even cuts off communication by no longer opening her mother's letters, as if she were trying to annul her relationship with the mother of her past. In fact, Lucy temporarily replaces her with Mariah, a surrogate “superior” to her own mother (63). Mariah's love is liberating, not suffocating, for she encourages Lucy's independence. She accepts Lucy's friendship with Peggy, even though she is a “bad influence” on Lucy (63). Her own mother would not have allowed the friendship because, as Lucy believes, she “would never come to see that perhaps my needs were more important than her wishes” (63–64). Mariah allows Lucy to make her own decisions and to be her own person.

Ironically, while she recognizes Mariah as an ideal mother figure, she does not realize that Mariah encourages her to take authority over her life, unlike Lucy's mother.6 Mariah tries to help Lucy see herself as part of the continuum of women seeking self-empowerment. After Lucy reveals her mother's lack of ambitious ideas for her daughter, Mariah gives Lucy a book to help her see herself not just as female but as one of the many “women in society, women in history, women in culture, women everywhere” (131). However, Lucy cannot get past the first sentence of the book: “Women? Very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female—this word is sufficient to define her” (132). Mariah is clearly enthusiastic about the Feminist Movement but Lucy does not comprehend the abstract, middle-class tenets that filter through Mariah's branch of Feminism.7 For instance, before she got married, Mariah did not shave her legs or underarms, Lucy remarks, “as a symbol of something” (80). Also, Mariah has told Lucy not to tell her daughters fairy tales, “especially ones involving princesses who were awakened from long sleeps upon being kissed by a prince” because they would give the girls “the wrong idea about what to expect in the world when they grew up” (45). Lucy thinks this perspective is absurd because “I had in my head a long list of things that contributed to wrong expectations in the world, and somehow fairy tales did not make an appearance on it” (45). Thus Lucy thinks that the paths to empowerment encountered through Mariah have little to do with her life.

To defy her mother's expectations (or lack of expectations), Lucy tries to assert herself in positions of power. By doing so, Lucy hopes to renounce the hold that this past has on her by blotting it out and creating her own future. For instance, while her mother had always told her to be very “clean, virginal, beyond reproach,” Lucy rebels by becoming sexually assertive at an early age, often by initiating sexual encounters (97). When she was a little girl, a boy in the library kissed her. Even though he initiated the encounter, Lucy took charge. She forced her tongue in his mouth, and, after a few weeks of similar encounters, she ended the relationship (50–51). At fourteen, she lost her virginity but refused to let the boy feel “triumphant,” so she told him that the blood was “just my period coming on” (82). Later, she refuses to fall in love with Hugh, her first sexual encounter in America, because she does not want to be obligated to someone else. She says, “I was only half a year free of some almost unbreakable bonds, and it was not in my heart to make new ones” (71). In another attempt to assume the traditionally male role of aggressor, Lucy and Peggy go to park and “pick out the men we imagined we would like to sleep with” (88). During these episodes, they gaze at and objectify the men by deconstructing them:

We would pay careful attention to their bottoms, their legs, their shoulders, and their faces, especially their mouths. … [Peggy] would look closely at their hands … [because] if a man had small hands, it meant he had a small penis to match.


Finally, Lucy experiments with infidelity by having an afternoon liaison with another man while dating Paul (117). She finds it thrilling not to be discovered and gives Paul a “kiss of treachery, for I could still taste the other man in my mouth” (117). However, Lucy begins to lose interest in Paul “the moment he got the idea he possessed me” (155). According to Mary Helen Washington, problematic sexual relationships recur thematically in the literature of African-American women because “being loved is not the urgent business in the quest for identity, although it plays a part in inhibiting identity.”8 Thus, Lucy will be possessed by none: not by a man, not by her mother, and not by her past.

She has also tried to assert herself by considering changing her name. By naming herself, Lucy strives to take a significant step away from her past in which she was defined by others and towards a future of self-authority. In Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, in her discussion of changing her name from Gloria Jean Watkins, Bell Hooks simply states that naming “is about empowerment.”9 As a child, Lucy Josephine Potter discovered that she was named after her rich great-uncle, Mr. Joseph, who died in debt and thus left nothing to his namesake, and that Potter was her family's slave name (149). With these associations, she admits that “Lucy was the only part of my name that I would have cared to hold on to” (149). She says, however, that her name “seemed slight, without substance, not at all the person I thought I would like to be” (149). So she briefly experiments with different names. At first, she considers the names of her favorite women authors: “Emily, Charlotte, Jane,” and her favorite was “Enid, after the authoress Enid Blyton” (149). This interest in authors' names foreshadows her attempt at the end of the book to gain a voice through the written word.

Eventually, she embraces her own name because she learns its origins. Her mother tells her that she named after Lucy after Lucifer for being such a “botheration,” suggesting that she meant the name as an insult (152).10 In fact, it even points to the subordinate status which she sees for women, similar to her hopes for Lucy to become a nurse, which Lucy considers “a person who was forced to be in awe of someone above her (a doctor)” (92). Lucifer, too, was forced to be in awe of someone above him: God. Thus, the references to Lucy's mother as “like a god” (150) or “godlike” (94) are significant, further deepening Lucy's rebellion against her mother. However, Lucy subverts this characterization of Lucifer for one that is powerful, defiant, and awesome, such as the one portrayed in Book I of Paradise Lost. She gathers strength from her ancestral namesake, the light-bearer who challenged the authority of God, for, as Kincaid paraphrases the famous proclamation by Lucy's ancestor-by-name, “It is better to reign and to have self-possession in Hell than to be a servant in Heaven,”11 For Lucy, Hell is her isolated independence, and Heaven is her West Indian past ruled by her mother. Lucy flees Heaven to become her sole authority in Hell.

Once the contract as an au pair is completed, Lucy prepares to leave this part of her past behind by gaining personal and economic independence from the security and comfort of Mariah's house. She seeks autonomy because she has begun to feel “like a dog on a leash, a long leash but a leash all the same” while living with Mariah and her family (110). Lucy tries to empower herself by moving into her own apartment and getting a job at a photographer's studio.12 Ironically, Lucy's mother had encouraged her to “make sure the roof over my head was my own; such a thing was important, especially if you were a woman” (144). Initially, the move is liberating. However, Lucy soon admits that the “feeling of bliss, the feeling of happiness, the feeling of longing fulfilled that I had thought would come to this situation was nowhere to be found inside me” (158). Again, she fails at her persistent attempts to become self-actualized by running from her past.

Finally, at the end of the narrative, Lucy tries to take another step on the path to selfhood by beginning to write, revising the previous pages of her life by becoming her own author. As she earlier states, “I understood that I was inventing myself, and that I was doing this more in the way of a painter than in the way of a scientist” (134). Rather than the paintbrush, however, the instrument Lucy chooses is the pen. Her fountain pen is “full of beautiful blue ink,” representing not only the feminine element of water, but the sea that surrounded her in her childhood (163). The water of the West Indies was “blue, calm, inviting, warm” and vast enough to separate her from that home (148). Indeed, just as a childhood schoolmate had escaped misfortune by crossing the sea where “the Devil couldn't follow her, because the Devil cannot walk over water” (21), Lucy left the West Indies to escape the “list of all the things that I was quite sure would not follow me if only I could cross the vast ocean that lay before me” (90). As she explains upon her arrival in America, Lucy envisions “a flow of water dividing formerly dry and solid ground, creating two banks, one of which was my past … the other my future” (5–6). Thus, this pen becomes the tool with which Lucy hopes to create a new self wholly independent from, yet ironically resonant of, her past.

A gift from Mariah with the encouraging reminders of “women, journals, and, of course, history” (163), the notebook in which Lucy begins to write is covered with “blood red” leather, and inside are pages “white and smooth like milk” (162). This imagery suggests that the notebook will one day contain an articulation of the story of Lucy's individuation: the symbolic menstrual blood indicating that she is capable of giving birth to herself and the milk with which she will eventually nurture this newborn self. The colors of the notebook and the sentiments with which it was given to Lucy clearly establish the book as a potential instrument of her self-realization.

Lucy significantly chooses to write the name with which she was born, Lucy Josephine Potter, on the top of the first page in the notebook, rather than give herself a new name (as Kincaid herself did) to signify the separation between her past self and the new identity she is trying to forge (163).13 Then, of all the words she could use to commence her self-writing, Lucy “could write down only this: ‘I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it’” (163–64). As with the book on women which Mariah had given to her, Lucy cannot get past the first sentence. She has not resolved and thus cannot escape the central issue of her past: her inability to confront her love for her mother. Lucy has not acknowledged the pain of the loss of her mother, her “only true love,” whom she lost because of the lack of ambition for her daughter (132). Thus, these first words represent the unresolved past which she has struggled to erase. She acknowledges in this epiphany that she cannot, after all, create a new identity independent of her childhood. Indeed, the tears that “blur” Lucy's writing emanate from her sudden “shame” for her futile struggle (164). The words on the pages represent what she hoped was her future identity, her independent self. However, the words themselves, her name and the wish for a self-destructive love, represent the experiences and the memories of her whole self, which includes this future identity as well as all that came before it. Ultimately, Lucy's inability to come to terms with these memories is the source of the tears that obscure this seemingly newborn identity: a facade made incoherent by the presence of a past which she cannot deny yet is unwilling to confront.

In the opening scene of Lucy, the character remembers a childhood fantasy of escaping her small West Indian island by imagining herself among “famous” and “important. … spectacle[s]” of urban architecture (3). However, this vision of escape collapses into a representation of stasis: she would dream of “entering and leaving them [the skyscrapers] … entering and leaving over and over again” (3). In her dream, there is no actual movement forward, only one that returns her to where she began; Lucy escapes onto a treadmill. Similarly, her struggle for linear time is merely a dream that leaves her paralyzed. When she finally does become seemingly independent and free of all those bonds of her youth, she is no more content that she was in the midst of that youth. She is trapped by that broken clock. Her past is inescapable, undeniable, despite all of her efforts. In fact, both Lucy and the narrative itself reveal that her belief in a linear sense of time is a trick using mental mirrors and fog to hide the reality of a cyclical sense of time in which the past pervades the present.

By reflecting so often on her childhood during the single year of the story (January 1968 to January 1969), Lucy herself inadvertently unveils a recursive sense of time, negating her conscious attempts to turn her back on her past.14 Each time she remembers an episode from the previous eighteen years, she offers unquestionable evidence that the past infuses the present. Her most frequent and significant memories concern, of course, her mother. She is constantly reminded of her own family while with Mariah, Lewis, and their children. For instance, as she feeds one of the daughters, Lucy adopts the techniques which her own mother used on her to convince her to eat. She would tell Miriam that

if she ate enough of it, eventually she would be able to see things that other people could not see. This is just the sort of thing my mother used to say to me when I would not eat my food, and just as I did not believe my mother, Miriam did not believe me.


Beyond merely being reminded of her past, however, Lucy is haunted by it. She says, “I wondered if ever in my whole life a day would go by when these people I had left behind, my own family, would not appear before me in one way or another” (8). As her mother once proclaimed, “You can run away, but you cannot escape the fact that I am you mother” (90). Ultimately, Lucy develops migraine headaches just as her mother had. She wonders if these headaches are due to the time years ago when she wished her mother dead, which brought on a headache in her mother that Lucy feared would kill her (93–94). Now, Lucy says, “When I suffered from these same headaches that no medicine would send away, I would see her face before me, a face that was godlike, for it seemed to know its origins” (94). Thus, try as she may, Lucy cannot help but remember her childhood.

Finally, Lucy's present collapses into her past when her mother's goddaughter appears in Lucy's living room. Maude Quick comes to Lucy as an envoy from her family, a ghost out of her past to tell her of the death of her father. She tells Lucy, “You remind me of Miss Annie, you really remind me of your mother” (123). Maude brings Lucy's mother back to life after Lucy has tried to annihilate the memory of her.15 Her mother was right. She cannot escape. Like the letters from home which she carried around in her bra, Lucy will always carry her past in her memory (20).

Ultimately, the narrative itself embodies what Lucy finally brings herself to write: a fictional autobiography “written” after the end of the action in her narrative. The character has evolved into the author of her own autobiography. Lucy, the text of this autobiography, undermines her struggle for linear time by articulating the influence of the past. Outside of the narrative, she has recognized that she must come to terms with her childhood. In portraying the character's lack of this recognition, Lucy as author has demonstrated her confrontation and subsequent control over that youth. Thus Lucy is an open-ended story, for at the end of the narrative of Lucy Josephine Potter written by Jamaica Kincaid, the reader must turn back to the first page to read the autobiography “written” by Lucy.

She earlier comments, “I had just begun to notice that the lives of men always are … found in the pages of a book,” yet, she adds, “I was not a man” (95). Yet she has defied this pattern of male-centered literature by writing Lucy, the story of her own life in her own words.16 Lucy's autobiography is her way of articulating what Henry Louis Gates says of the genre, “I write my self, therefore I am”: the ultimate act of public self-identification and self-actualization.17 Hooks has described writing her own autobiography as her only successful attempt to come to terms with her childhood self after trying to “kill … the Gloria Jean of my tormented and anguished childhood.”18 Through her writing, Hooks “wanted not to forget the past but to break its hold.”19 Likewise, Lucy will free herself from the ghosts of her youth not by trying to forget the past, as Lucy the character does, but by eventually confronting the past, as Lucy the author does in the process of writing her autobiography. This autobiography is the written proof that time is cyclical, that she has noticed and repaired her broken clock, and that her past is inseparable from her present.


  1. Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy (New York: Plume-Penguin, 1990) 154. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page reference only.

  2. Donna Perry, “Initiation in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John,Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe (Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990) 252.

  3. Kincaid felt a similar absence of her mother's encouragement. She says, “When I first started [writing], among the things I wanted to do was to say, ‘Aren't you sorry that no greater effort was made over my education? Or over my Life?’” (Kay Bonetti, “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid,” Missouri Review 15 [1922]: 141).

  4. Perry 252.

  5. See Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Los Angeles: U of California P, 1978).

  6. While the difference in attitudes about women's roles may in part be due to the cultural differences in opportunities for women, Lucy never makes this distinction. Her failure to consider these differences is perhaps another aspect of her turning her back on her past.

  7. This criticism of Mariah's attitudes about women resembles the argument espoused by many women of color that the Feminist Movement of the 1960s and 1970s has centered on the concerns of white, middle-class women, ignoring the perspectives of minority women. Toni Morrison speaks about the divergence of the Feminist Movement from the concerns of African-American women, citing what she considers a common misconception in the fundamentals of Feminism: “White women generally define black women's role as the most repressed because they are both black and female” (Rosemary K. Lester, “An Interview with Toni Morrison, Hessian Radio Network, Frankfort, West Germany,” Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, ed. Nellie Y. McKay [Boston: G.K. Hall, 1988] 48).

  8. Mary Helen Washington, “New Lives and New Letters: Black Women Writers at the End of the Seventies,” College English 43 (1981): 9.

  9. Bell Hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (Boston: South End Press, 1989) 166.

  10. Some readers believe that Lucy made up this episode, among others. However, what is relevant is that Lucy perceives them as part of her past. As memories, they are included in her self-definition, and memories do not preclude truth or factuality, for they are filtered through the mind. Thus, whether or not the events described in Lucy's memories actually happened is irrelevant.

  11. Allan Vorda, “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid,” Mississippi Review 20 (1991): 18.

  12. Essentially, Lucy is fulfilling Virginia Woolf's requirement for women to get a room of their own and five hundred pounds per year if they want to write (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own [New York: Harvest/Harcourt, 1929] 32, 58). In “Leaving Home: Jamaica Kincaid's Voyage Round Her Mother,” Jane Mendelsohn compares Kincaid's works to those of Virginia Woolf, but she does not refer to Lucy's new apartment. Mendelsohn “asked about her [Kincaid's] relation to Woolf, and she told me that ‘she hadn't heard of her until she came to the United States’” (Village Voice Literary Supplement 89 [Oct. 1990]: 21).

  13. In the original version of “Lucy,” published in The New Yorker, Lucy's full name is “Lucy Josephine Warner” (The New Yorker 66 [Sept. 24, 1990]: 54). The change to Lucy Josephine Potter is notable since Jamaica Kincaid's given name is Elaine Potter Richardson. Further, as Kincaid has explained, she became more concerned with her own name when she became a writer: “It was only when I started to write and actually started to sign my name to things that I decided I just couldn't do this [sign her given name].” Thus, Elaine Potter Richardson, a name she “had always hated,” changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid. She explains, “I wouldn't go home to visit that part of the world, so I decided to recreate it. ‘Jamaica’ was symbolic of that place. … [‘Kincaid’] just seemed to go with it” (in Selwyn R. Cudjoe, “Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview,” Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe [Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990] 218, 220).

  14. Several critics have indirectly pointed to the sense of time in Kincaid's writing but examine it solely as a narrative technique. For instance, Kay Bonetti recognizes it in Kincaid's earlier book: “Even though Annie John begins and ends chronologically, it's not built on a linear model” (Bonetti 126). Perhaps because the narrative technique is used more frequently in Lucy, Allan Vorda sees it as peculiar to this text. He tells Kincaid in an interview that her “writing style in Lucy is somewhat unusual in that you often start a passage, but before it has fully developed you digress to a previous experience” (Vorda 25).

  15. Maude Quick's name is ironic. While a secondary definition of her last name is “the living” (as in “the quick and the dead”), pointing to her resurrection of Lucy's mother, she brings news of Lucy's father's death.

  16. Maya Angelou recalls a similar childhood discovery that eventually spawned such a defiance in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of her five-volume autobiography. She recalls discovering the subordinate position of women by reading pulp magazines, the Sunday comics, the stories of Horatio Alger, and the plays of William Shakespeare, all of which indicate that “heroes … were always boys” (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) [New York: Bantam, 1969] 63).

  17. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., Bearing Witness: Selections from African-American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1991) 7.

  18. Hooks 155.

  19. Hooks 155.

Andrea Stuart (review date 11 October 1996)

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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 PlaceThe Autobiography of My Mother is not a picture of the region writers such as VS Naipaul or Derek Walcott (the book's dedicate) would recognise. Whereas for Walcott the keynote to his depiction is joyous detail, Kincaid is not interested in the flavour of Caribbean life and characters. She invokes her own pessimistic view of the area's mood: one of defeat, humiliation and mistrust.

Kincaid sees the postcolonial Caribbean as barren and spoilt, peopled by a community denied an identity and suffused with self-hatred. To her it is not only a small place but an ugly one. Even its physical lushness is deceptive, hiding something degraded and despoiled. And Xuela's fate is simply a microcosm of this condition. For much of the novel we do not even know her name. When she does surrender it, it is only to remind us of the impossible hybridity colonialism has produced. Xuela's self-loathing and emptiness then become a metaphor for the entire African diaspora, denied even a language with which to identify itself.

Ironically language is Kincaid's most formidable weapon. There is no dialogue and so Xuela is created solely through her self-descriptions. She is, as she repeatedly tells us, an act of will. And Kincaid conjures her with relentless skill.

This is simultaneously one of the most beautifully written books I have read, and one of the most alienating. For Xuela is in many ways a monstrous creation. As she moves through the novel, her nihilism is like the settling of a sudden ground frost, an icy blast of negation that destroys all hope and joy: It is hardly a consolation that motherless and unloved Xuela is monstrous because her situation is monstrous, and her coldness and grandiose isolation a legacy of history.

Jacqueline Brice-Finch (review date Winter 1997)

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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 enigmatic, shadowy figures. A laundress cares for the motherless child with an indifference similar to that applied to washing clothes. Fearing the memory of the dead wife, her step-mother tries to kill Xuela, her husband's firstborn. At fifteen, Xuela instinctively knows that her lover's wife “wants to make a gift of me to her husband, she hopes I do not mind.” These women often have malicious intent, but Xuela is protected by the circumstance of her birth and upbringing. She acknowledges early in her life, “No love: I could live in a place like this. I knew this atmosphere all too well. Love would have defeated me.” Thus, she embraces her alienation as a means of survival.

The men in this tropical purgatory are soulless. Alfred Richardson, her father, is a mulatto who rejects his African heritage. He dons the persona of an earnest policeman intent on becoming rich by crushing the unfortunate and fawning to the rich. Since the welfare of his family is of little consequence to him, Xuela guards against his feckless parenting. She likewise distances herself from her lovers, viewing them through a prism of sexuality. They serve to assuage the “sweet, hollow feeling, an empty space with a yearning to be filled, to be filled up until the yearning to be filled up was exhausted.” Whether they are rich or poor, doctor or stevedore, she can never love them.

While the rest of the populace display racism and sexism in their quest for marriage, position, success, and progeny, these mores become meaningless pursuits to a woman who prizes her barrenness. Xuela Claudette Richardson is emblematic of the postcolonial Caribbean character stripped of heritage and devoid of the will to conquer.

Gay Wachman (review date 3 November 1997)

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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 brother in hospital, dying of opportunistic infections because there is no AZT. But this is a reality that can be altered by individual, middle-class agency: Kincaid buys Devon three more years of life with AZT from the States. And although she is unable to change his living conditions either in the hospital, which isolates AIDS patients in a small, dirty room, or at home when he returns to live with their mother, she finds cause for hope as soon as she meets Dr. Prince Ramsey, the leader of the fight against AIDS on the island. Kincaid is astonished to find such a doctor in Antigua: “He was kind, he was loving toward people who needed him, people who were less powerful than he; he was respectful. … He is a very loving man and the other reason I have for saying this is I saw that wherever he went, people, ordinary people, would go out of their way to greet him and ask him how he was, but not because they really wanted to know: it was just to hear his voice.” Kincaid knows how people respond to love. It is the gap between this knowledge and her feelings about her mother that makes much of her writing so poignant.

From the beginning of this book it is clear that this relationship remains at least as troubled as that represented in Lucy; Kincaid's life has been punctuated by long periods of not speaking to her mother. But her mother cares untiringly for Devon while he is sick:

My mother loves her children, I want to say, in her way! … It has never occurred to her that her way of loving us might have served her better than it served us. And why should it? Perhaps all love is self-serving. I do not know, I do not know. … All the same, her love, if we are dying, or if we are in jail, is so wonderful, a great fortune, and we are lucky to have it. My brother was dying: he needed her just then.

The pain in the repeated “I do not know” reflects Kincaid's continuous state of conflict about her mother; for a moment she doubts her judgment of her mother's love and also of her own love for others. She acknowledges, too, that her mother's bitter cruelty dates only from the family's descent into poverty when Kincaid was about 13 years old, but she cannot forgive her for burning her books in a rage, taking her out of school to look after her brothers and sending her away alone to earn money for the family. The depth of her distrust is shown by her refusal, along with two of her three brothers, to eat any food her mother cooks. Kincaid knows that “the powerful sense my mother has of herself” is a danger for any thing or person who gets in her path; she is finally convinced that “my mother hates her children.”

When Lucy was published in 1990 I was struck by the number of reviewers who were puzzled or offended by Lucy's unremitting anger, directed at both her mother and her privileged but well-meaning white employer. I have never been able to withstand the relentless analytical clarity of Kincaid's narrative voice. Whatever her narrators tell me about their feelings, however unpleasant or extreme they may be, I accept, as long as I'm reading, as, “true.” (It doesn't matter whether Kincaid's mother really hates her children; what matters is Kincaid's experience.) So, because the narrative persuaded me to focus on her response to her brother rather than on my own experience and knowledge of AIDS, I believed as I read three-quarters of My Brother that Devon was a heterosexual drug user who did not inject drugs. After he is dead, Kincaid learns that he was in fact bisexual, but Antiguan homophobia is such that Devon has encouraged his sister's supposition that “he got the virus through … heterosexual sex.” He boasts that he is sexually irresistible to women and constantly speaks of his desire for them.

Devon is a man who talks a lot when he is well enough to do so; he seems to be compulsively sociable. Kincaid, back in Vermont, imagines him “sitting on my mother's little front porch”:

Whenever anyone passed by he would have to call out to them a greeting regardless of whether they were familiar to him or not. He would not be able to bear the emptiness of silence. … He was not meant to be silent. He was a brilliant boy, he was a brilliant man. Locked up inside him was someone who would have spoken to the world in an important way. I believe this. … But he was not even remotely aware of such a person inside him.

Kincaid also sees him as a man who stole and lied and “did unspeakable things. … he was unable to speak openly about. He could never say that anything in front of him was his own, or that anything in front of him came to him in a way that he did not find humiliating.” But her heterosexual privilege blinds her to what is really unspeakable—to her, at any rate—in his life.

When Devon dies, Kincaid is in the middle of her book tour for The Autobiography of My Mother: she takes it up again after the funeral. At a reading in a Chicago bookstore she sees a woman she recognizes; they had met once in Antigua three years earlier at an AIDS support group organized by Dr. Ramsey. This white “lesbian woman”—the redundancy of “woman” concisely conveys how strange lesbianism is to Kincaid—knows that Devon is dead. She tells Kincaid how, saddened by “the scorn and derision heaped on the homosexual man,” she had opened up her home on Sundays and “made it known that … men who loved other men could come to her house in the afternoon and enjoy each other's company.” The reader is left wondering about this gay Antiguan subculture, wanting to know more about these meetings and what they meant to Devon. The gaps in Kincaid's knowledge of her brother are finally exposed. Reading as a “lesbian woman,” I am momentarily estranged from this unreliable narrator.

But this estrangement may be the crux of the memoir, emphasizing the unknowability of those whom we love as of those whom we have made Other. After the lesbian's revelation, Kincaid feels a new empathy with her brother:

Who he really was—not a single sense of identity but all the complexities of who he was—he could not express fully: his fear of being laughed at, his fear of meeting with the scorn of the people he knew best were overwhelming and he could not live with all of it openly. His homosexuality is one thing, and my becoming a writer is another altogether, but this truth is not lost to me: I could not have become a writer while living among the people I knew best. I could not have become myself while living among the people I knew best. … in his life there had been no flowering.

This identification with Devon escapes being an appropriation because Kincaid's resolute sense of self is vital to the authenticity of the voice—her brother's or her own—that she is right to value so highly. At Devon's funeral, distanced by the unreality of his body after the ministrations of the undertakers, she mourns what she knows to be loss: “his farawayness so complete, so final, he shall never speak again; he shall never speak again in the everyday way that I speak of speech.” My Brother is a memoir of a voice.

Kristen Mahlis (essay date Spring 1998)

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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 rootlessness. The seizure of land, the disruption of sexual and familial relationships, the erasure of culture—all these make up the legacy of colonialism, but none matches the force of the loss of the tongue, the linguistic power to define oneself and one's world. To lose one's tongue is to experience a permanent exile. While Kincaid acknowledges the missing tongue as a trope of cultural alienation, she extends this trope's signifying potential in her 1990 novel, Lucy, which traces the story of a young woman who has emigrated from Antigua to the United States. By focusing on the tongue in her description of Lucy's awareness of her body as a source of resistance and of sexual pleasure and by figuring the tongue as creating both connection and separation, Kincaid carves out what I would term the space of the female exile, a space that is shaped by the complex interaction between the female body and masculinist cultural imperatives. To investigate this space of female exile, I will draw on the ideas of feminist geographer Gillian Rose, who has coined the term “paradoxical space” to designate “the position of being both prisoner and exile, both within and without” (159), and demonstrate how Kincaid's novel constructs this paradoxical space of female exile.

A sense of how exile has been perceived among male authors of the Caribbean is crucial to understanding the dimensions of female exile that Kincaid creates. J. Michael Dash notes that “the dialectical relationship between the disorientation of exile and the plenitude of belonging can be seen as a mediative exercise, a means of imaginatively negotiating the trauma of Caribbean history” (451). The authors of the critical study The Empire Writes Back see “place, displacement, and a pervasive concern with the myths of identity and authenticity [as] a feature common to all post-colonial literatures in English” (Ashcroft et al. 9). Perhaps the best known of these Anglophone writers is the Barbadian writer George Lamming, whose 1960 work The Pleasures of Exile asks the provocative question, “and what, if any, are the peculiar pleasures of exile?” (50).

Much of Lamming's extended essay exposes the cultural dislocation experienced by the colonized, as Lamming draws on the figure of Shakespeare's Caliban to emphasize the struggle that the colonial subject undergoes to overcome the cultural and linguistic alienation of imperial conquest. At the same time, Lamming finds an affirmative power in exile, claiming, “The pleasure and paradox of my own exile is that I belong wherever I am” (50). The Haitian writer Rene Depêstre, musing on the same topic twenty-five years later, echoes Lamming's sense of exile's pleasures:

I need to go beyond the view of exile that our age still shares with antiquity, the Renaissance, the Romantic age. In these three periods the notion of exile really referred to an individual torn from his native land. … In 1985, how does one find a new way of interpreting the historic conditions of exile [?] … As I have been Brazilian in Sao Paulo, Czech in Prague, French in Paris, Italian in Milan, Cuban in Havana, Haitian at every human crossroads of tenderness and freedom, each succeeding self will have created my identity now that the world faces cultural interrelationship.

(qtd. in Dash 456–57)

Commenting on Depêstre's declaration, Dash states, “identity was now to be unstable and composite. Exile would offer, arguably, the best conditions for its evolution” (457).

Without embarking on an exploration of postmodern conceptions of identity, I would simply point out that Lamming and Depêstre exemplify an approach to exile that is masculinist because of its fantasy of disembodied, infinitely renewable manifestations of identity, a fantasy that depends on the space of the “blank page” upon which the (male) subject creates both himself and his art. While Kincaid joins the chorus of Caribbean writers who have written extensively of exile, her novel Lucy serves as a counterpoint to these exhortations of the “pleasures of exile,” as her heroine complicates notions of exile as existential freedom. Kincaid instead offers her own alternative to the “blank page” of Lamming and Depêstre.

The immediate urge to erase can be seen as the simplest and most unproblematic impetus for exile. To leave a place is to erase it from one's daily experiences, and Kincaid's heroine Lucy embarks on her self-imposed exile at age nineteen with this idea in mind: to escape from the stifling restrictions of her island home. Described as “a very small island, twelve miles long and eight miles wide,” Antigua limits Lucy's aspirations, while the vastness of North America takes on the power of a “lifeboat to save [Lucy's] small, drowning soul” (3). Lucy here expresses the feelings of many Caribbean authors, who speak of escaping the parochial atmosphere of their small countries.1 Hoping to escape the strictures of this “small place,” Lucy makes, in “one swift act” (6), the move from Antigua to New York City to take on the role of an au pair for a wealthy family, but this crossing of the ocean does not provide the exhilarating sense of release and freedom Lucy had anticipated in leaving Antigua. Lucy experiences exile not as a means for the kind of universal selfhood of which Lamming and Depêstre speak, but as a bewildering confrontation with the alien, remarking on “how uncomfortable the new can make you feel” (4). From the first pages of the book, Kincaid calls into question masculinist notions of exile as release, as an erasure of or an escape from one's past history and past self.

Lucy first attempts to define her exile by likening herself to someone who is perhaps the most famous of the modern-day European exiles, the painter Paul Gauguin. Gauguin, a French-born artist who never felt at home in his native land and traveled to “the opposite part of the world” to find happiness, provides a compelling model for Lucy's inarticulate longings: says Lucy, “[I]mmediately I identified with the yearnings of this man; I understood finding the place you are born in an unbearable prison and wanting something completely different from what you are familiar with, knowing it represents a haven” (95). But no sooner does Lucy posit an affinity with Gauguin than she recognizes the irony of her choice. Lucy recognizes that Gauguin's rebellion and exile give him “the perfume of a hero,” while her own exile elicits no such heroic script: “I was not a man; I was a young woman from the fringes of the world, and when I left my home I had wrapped around my shoulders the mantle of a servant” (95).

As a model for exile, Gauguin evokes images of the disaffected European searching out the primitive and exotic in the South Sea islands, leaving behind the “trappings of privilege and so-called civilization to encounter the honesty of ‘barbarism’” (Boehmer 126). Lucy's words show her awareness that Gauguin's narrative would have cast her in the role of the “exotic other” through which Gauguin found creative inspiration and artistic self-definition.2 Lucy cannot serve as “other” to herself, and the “liberation” that Gauguin's exile emblematizes eludes Lucy. Coming to the metropolitan center in the posture of a servant, Lucy does not escape so much as recreate the history of servitude imposed on the so-called fringes by the culturally and economically dominant center of Western Europe.

While the vestiges of colonial servitude pose one complication to the narrative of exile exemplified by Gauguin, Lucy also singles out her gender as crucial to the disjunction between her story and Gauguin's. In order to understand the gender specificity of exile, it is crucial to look at Lucy's relationship with her mother, for it is through Lucy's troubled relationship with her mother that her most profound ambivalence about home emerges. Just as Lucy views her island home alternately as a place of beauty and as a place of unbearable suffocation, so does she see her mother both as the one great love of her life and as the figure she must separate herself from if she is to have any sense of self. Indeed, mother love threatens Lucy with annihilation, as she claims in the following passage: “I had come to feel that my mother's love for me was designed solely to make me into an echo of her; and I didn't know why, but I felt that I would rather be dead than become just an echo of someone” (36). Yet while physical separation severs one tie, it remains helpless in severing the profound tie between Lucy and her past. Says Lucy, “I used to think that just a change in venue would banish forever from my life the things I most despised. But that was not to be so. As each day unfolded before me, I could see the sameness in everything; I could see the present take a shape—the shape of the past” (90).

The image of the present taking on the shape of the past, coupled with Lucy's contention that “my past was my mother” (90) reveal perhaps the strongest barrier to her potential for rebirth through exile. Lucy is keenly aware that lying beneath the problem of having “no tongue” (except that which is taught by the colonizers in school) is her inescapable bond with her mother. That her mother is not other but an extension of self is Lucy's repeated claim, as well as her most persistent fear:

My past was my mother; I could hear her voice, and she spoke to me not in English or the French patois that she sometimes spoke, or in any language that needed help from the tongue; she spoke to me in language anyone female could understand. And I was undeniably that—female. Oh, it was a laugh, for I had spent so much time saying I did not want to be like my mother that I missed the whole story: I was not like my mother—I was my mother.


The “whole story”, then, is the story of wholeness, that is, the original bond between mother and child in which self and other merge into an indivisible whole.

To this narrative of wholeness Lucy adds the accompanying story of maternal betrayal, a rupture of the mother-daughter bond that occurred swiftly and definitively in Lucy's childhood with the birth, in quick succession, of three male siblings. An only child until her ninth year, Lucy has her Edenic world shattered by the birth of these brothers, each of whom both father and mother imagine occupying an important and influential position in society. Not only does Lucy's mother not imagine greatness for her daughter, she educates her for the position of nurse, essentially what Lucy's mother has become for Lucy's aging father. Such low expectations for a girl Lucy expected from her father, as his sons were “his own kind” (108), but for her mother to imagine greatness for her sons and servitude for her daughter marks a betrayal at once intensely personal and emblematic of the gender hierarchy to which Lucy's mother ascribes:

[W]henever I saw her eyes fill up with tears at the thought of how proud she would be at some deed her sons had accomplished, I felt a sword go through my heart, for there was no accompanying scenario in which she saw me, her only identical offspring, in a remotely similar situation. To myself I then began to call her Mrs. Judas, and I began to plan a separation from her that even then I suspected would never be complete.


In training Lucy to wear the “mantle of a servant,” Lucy's mother acts as an agent of colonial discipline, expecting Lucy to fulfill the role of good wife and good colonial subject; and this education in servitude strikes Lucy as the ultimate betrayal by the figure she identifies as “perhaps the only true love in my life I would ever know” (133).

Both of these descriptions of Lucy's mother capture the all-encompassing presence and power of the pre-oedipal mother, leading the reader to wonder why Lucy, as an adult, still sees her mother wielding such power. The answer to this question lies in the intersection between Lucy's mother's roles as a mother and as an agent of colonial discipline. Lucy sees her mother's numerous prohibitions and attempts to guide her daughter's behavior as an extension of the power that colonizers exercise over the colonized, and Lucy instinctively resists the silencing power of these authorities, refusing to “become an echo,” whether of her own mother or of the “mother country” Britain. In one of her many stories of her life in Antigua, Lucy recalls how as a child she had refused to sing “Rule Brittania!” as she “was not a Briton and that until not too long ago [she] would have been a slave” (135). In a 1991 interview, Kincaid makes explicit this connection between mother and mother country.

It dawned on me that[,] in figuring out the relationship between the girl and her mother, and observing the power of the mother, and eventually her waning authority, that it was leading me to a fictional view of the larger relationship between where I came from and England. I must have consciously viewed my personal relationship as a sort of prototype of the larger, social relationship that I witnessed.

(Birbalsingh 144)

Here Kincaid evinces what Teresa de Lauretis terms “the epistemological priority which feminism has located in the personal, the subjective, the body, the symptomatic, the quotidian, as the very site of material inscription of the ideological” (de Lauretis 11).

Exile for Lucy, then, is the act of planned separation from her disloyal mother, who would consign her “identical offspring” to essential dependence and powerlessness. Lucy explains her desire to leave her homeland in the same terms she uses to resist the suffocation of mother love; of Antigua, Lucy says: “I never wanted to live in that place again, but[,] if for some reason I was forced to live there again, I would never accept the harsh judgments made against me by people whose only power to do so was that they had known me from the moment I was born” (51). We might hear in Lucy's words the same resistance to control that Lucy expresses when she declares that she would rather be dead than be an echo of someone; Lucy resists the idea that “the limits of what we are and can be have already been mapped by somebody else” (Rose 147). Yet Lucy's experience of existence as a continuum, in which the present takes on the shape of the past and the daughter takes on the shape of the mother, undermines the possibility of rebirth through exile. Physical separation in itself is not enough; what Lucy needs is the tongue—the sharpness of language—to articulate a connection that creates distance, which is Lucy's response to the (m)other who betrays her “identical offspring” by assuming the role of agent for colonial discipline.

In an interview, Kincaid comments on the emotional and narrative force of the mother-daughter bond, contrasting it with western notions of the Caribbean as an exotic paradise:

Some people say that I have grown up in a paradise. No one growing up in any of these islands ever thinks it's a paradise. Everybody who can leave, leaves. So it's not this paradise that's a big influence on me. It's not the physical Antigua. It's the paradise of mother in every way: the sort of benign, marvellous, innocent moment you have with the great powerful person who, you then realize, won't let you go.

(Birbalsingh 147)

Here Kincaid is making a distinction between physical place—her native island of Antigua—and the more-than-physical space that she calls “the paradise of the mother.”

This paradise of the mother can be understood as a version of what Rose calls “paradoxical space,” a space “beyond the attempted masculinist closures of geography” that acknowledges the experience of women's bodies and the legitimacy of women's voices otherwise excluded from masculinist constructions of public space (138). Rose sees this space as arising from what Teresa de Lauretis calls “‘the subject of feminism’”: “a particular sense of identity which tries to avoid the exclusions of the master subject … and imagines spaces which are not structured through masculinist claims to exhaustiveness” (Rose 137–38). Rose continues:

The subject of feminism, then, depends on a paradoxical geography in order to acknowledge both the power of hegemonic discourses and to insist on the possibility of resistance. This geography describes that subjectivity as that of both prisoner and exile; it allows the subject of feminism to occupy both the centre and the margin, the inside and the outside.


This space is paradoxical because it encompasses those oppositions that masculinist discourse has deemed opposed or mutually exclusive: self and other, inside and outside, margin and center; the term “paradoxical” also reflects the complexity of spaces, the “multidimensionality [of a] complicated and never self-evident matrix of historical, social, sexual, racial and class positions which women occupy” (Rose 155).

Kincaid's “paradise of the mother” captures the complexity of the signifier “mother,” the space in which Lucy finds selfhood engendered and threatened, where self and other overlap and complicate any simple paradigm of self-definition. While the term “paradise of mother” seems to signal a utopian alternative to the hegemonic space of masculinist discourse, Kincaid finds within this space the complex dynamics of possession and repression, of rebellion and betrayal—elements magnified in the colonial framework of conquest and subjection. For Lucy, self-definition means claiming her own space of interpretive power that will allow her to accommodate both the “great powerful person,” the godlike mother, and the provisional self that remains inextricably intertwined with mother and motherland. Before she can claim this space as her own, she must redefine and grapple with the godlike (because defining) forces of mother and motherland. Lucy's self-imposed exile marks her struggle to grapple with motherland, and as she neither wants to nor is able to escape from the “paradise of mother,” Lucy instead remaps this troubled paradise through her relationship with her employer and surrogate North American mother, Mariah.

Mariah serves as the ideal subject for Lucy's refiguring of the maternal because Mariah is both alien and familiar. At times, Lucy seems mesmerized by Mariah, evoking this sort of uncritical, admiring response: “Mariah reminded me more and more of the parts of my mother that I loved. Her hands were just like my mother's—large, with long fingers and square fingernails; their hands looked like instruments for arranging things beautifully” (59). Lucy in turn explores the boundaries of maternal authority through her interactions with Mariah, who, while she does not approve of a friendship Lucy develops with Peggy (a defiant girl who chain-smokes and speaks of her parents as “mere pests” [146]), nevertheless acknowledges Lucy's need for a friend. Lucy thinks, “This was a way in which Mariah was superior to my mother, for my mother would never come to see that perhaps my needs were more important than her wishes” (64). Mariah encourages Lucy's intellectual growth by buying her books and a membership to a museum, and while Lucy's mother has devoted her life to prevent her daughter from becoming a “slut,” Mariah takes for granted Lucy's need for sexual expression and provides Lucy with contraceptives.

While acknowledging Mariah's generosity as surrogate mother (“Mariah was like a mother to me, a good mother,” claims Lucy [110]), Lucy asserts her difference from Mariah, a difference that springs from the profound disjunction between their respective histories and their social standing. Lucy maintains a critical distance from Mariah's life of privilege, frequently responding to Mariah's expectations of what her future will be with the phrase, “How does a person get to be that way?” Lucy is aware that Mariah's commitment to making Lucy “one of the family” emerges from a combination of Mariah's “goodness” and generosity and Mariah's need to erase the profound inequalities implicit in the relations of domestic labor. One scene in the novel that particularly emblematizes Mariah's attempts to veil the power dynamics of class and race stratification is the train ride Lucy takes with Mariah and her four children. During this ride, Lucy notes that the people riding on the train looked like Mariah, while those working on the train looked like Lucy. Lucy remarks that “Mariah did not seem to notice what she had in common with the other diners, or what I had in common with the waiters” (32). When the train passes by miles of freshly plowed fields, Mariah expresses love for this sight, while Lucy remarks, “Well, thank God I didn't have to do that” (33).

The distance between Mariah and Lucy grows increasingly apparent as Lucy relates stories of her girlhood in Antigua to Mariah. As a ten-year-old pupil at Queen Victoria's Girls' School, Lucy explains, she had been made to memorize and recite a poem about daffodils:

After I was done, everybody stood up and applauded with an enthusiasm that surprised me, and later they told me how nicely I had pronounced every word, how I had placed just the right amount of special emphasis in places where that was needed, and how proud the poet, now long dead, would have been to hear his words ringing out of my mouth. I was then at the height of my two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true.


In her act of repeating the words of the English poet laureate, William Wordsworth, Lucy exhibits the false consciousness that is the hallmark of the colonized. What might otherwise seem a minor event comes to emblematize Lucy's fundamental cultural dislocation, a dislocation of which her new exile reminds her. At the time she recited the poem, Lucy didn't see herself as two-faced, but she reacted with an immediate, instinctual urge “to erase from my mind, line by line, every word of that poem” (18).

Lucy tells Mariah this story, and Mariah's response (beyond her initial outpouring of sympathy) is to take Lucy to Mariah's favorite garden, blindfold her, and then reveal the splendor of a field of daffodils, thinking that the beauty of the flowers would erase the ugliness of Lucy's association with the daffodils. Lucy responds initially, “they looked beautiful; they looked simple, as if made to erase a complicated and unnecessary idea” (29). Yet this aesthetic response gives way to rage: “I did not know what these flowers were, and so it was a mystery to me why I wanted to kill them. … I wished that I had an enormous scythe; I would just walk down the path, dragging it alongside me, and I would cut these flowers down at the place where they emerged from the ground” (29). Mariah apologizes for the poem, but the apology cannot erase Lucy's anger, as she reiterates, “‘Mariah, do you realize that at ten years of age I had to learn by heart a long poem about some flowers I would not see in real life until I was nineteen?’” (30). The profound disjunction between Mariah's insistence on the apolitical, timeless realm of natural beauty and Lucy's insistence on the historically and politically determined nature of her environment remains a barrier to mutual understanding: “But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness. The same thing could cause us to shed tears, but those tears would not taste the same” (30). The golden glow that permeates Mariah's being and world, from her hair and skin color to her perpetually sunny disposition, becomes, through Lucy's rereading of the seemingly “innocent” image of the daffodil, an emblem of colonial conquest.3

Perhaps Lucy's most pointed critique of Mariah comes through Lucy's awareness that Mariah's liberal agenda of environmental preservation and conservation does not extend to include the foundation of Mariah's own comforts. Says Lucy of Mariah's membership in an organization devoted to saving “vanishing things”: “Like her, all of the members of this organization were well off but they made no connection between their comforts and the decline of the world that lay before them” (72). Lucy's most stinging critique of Mariah comes when Mariah reveals to Lucy, perhaps in hopes of finding a bond of ethnicity, that she (Mariah) has “Indian blood,” making her “good at catching fish and hunting birds and roasting corn” (39). Lucy responds, “To look at her, there was nothing remotely like an Indian about her” (40). Lucy goes on to say that even though her grandmother was a Carib Indian, she doesn't claim herself to be Indian. Again insisting on the particularities of her felt, bodily experience, Lucy says, “To me my grandmother is my grandmother, not an Indian. My grandmother is alive; the Indians she came from are all dead” (40). Lucy rejects Mariah's attempts to go native, saying of Mariah's proud declaration, “How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?” (41).

In this and in other encounters between Mariah and Lucy, this oscillation between closeness/understanding and difference/alienation prevails. Lucy creates an ideological and physical separation through the power of her tongue—the sharp critique of her commentary on Mariah's way of being—and repeatedly insists on asserting difference from her North American mother, whether in the bitterness of their tears, the color of their skin, or their way of seeing daffodils. In seeing Mariah as an emblem of the colonizer, the mother[land] who would keep Lucy in a perpetual, if benign, bondage, Lucy finds a way to confront her own mother's duplicity. When Mariah, attempting to bridge the ideological separation with physical closeness, reaches out to give Lucy “one of her great hugs,” Lucy's response is evasion: “But I stepped out of its path quickly, and she was left holding nothing” (41). This ideological separation, followed by physical separation, provides Lucy a means of establishing the physical and emotional distance from the surrogate/symbolic mother, a distance that allows for a measure of self-definition seemingly impossible in the presence of her “godlike” mother. Having achieved the physical distance from her mother through exile, Lucy experiences the duality of her relationship with her own mother—closeness and distance, love and betrayal—through Mariah.

Lucy thus pursues in her exile a path of self-definition that is contestatory and oppositional: by rereading and critiquing the narratives of self-definition surrounding her, she finds a provisional space for her particular subjectivity. That subjectivity is grounded in Lucy's bodily experiences, especially in her assertions of her gender and her sexuality. She rejects her mother's repeated warnings against becoming a “slut” and engages in a series of casual and whimsical sexual encounters, thus defying her mother's authority and insisting on a sexual experimentation typically reserved for men. “Life as a slut was very enjoyable, thank you very much” (128), Lucy writes to her mother upon hearing of her father's death, and this declaration is closely tied to Lucy's perceptions of her parents' gender roles. Her father had led the life of the sexually active, unencumbered male, fathering perhaps thirty children through his life. Of her parents' marriage, Lucy says, “She had someone who would leave her alone yet not cause her to lose face in front of other women: he had someone who would take care of him in his dotage” (81). As Lucy sees it, her mother's choice to marry a much older man who would “leave her alone” reflects her mother's capitulation to the cultural imperative that women must marry to achieve full adulthood, as well as her mother's denial of her own sexuality.

This exchange—a woman's body for a man's social capital—is precisely what Lucy rejects. She chooses, instead, to remove any hint of exchange or barter from her sexual encounters, entering these sexual relationships according to the dictates of her body as a locus of sensory pleasure. The first of her sexual encounters in exile, with Mariah's brother Hugh (perhaps her “exotic other”?), grows out of Lucy's attraction to Hugh's eyes, hands, voice, hair, and smell. Hugh's passionate kisses evoke this response from Lucy: “If I enjoyed myself beyond anything I had known so far, it must have been because such a long time had passed since I had been touched in that way by anyone; it must have been because I was so far from home. I was not in love” (66–67). In her relationship with Paul, an artist she meets through her friend Peggy, Lucy indulges in the sheer physical pleasure of sex, describing to Mariah “what an adventure this part of my life had become, and how much I looked forward to it, because I had not known that such pleasure could exist[,] and, what was more, be available to me” (113).

The ambiguity of Lucy's explanation for her pleasure—“it must have been because I was so far from home”—emerges from the multiple meanings of home for Lucy, a place of discipline/restriction as well as the site of the primal mother-child bond. The third chapter of the novel, entitled “The Tongue,” explores the subtle connection between Lucy's bond with her mother and her adult sexuality; the chapter begins with Lucy narrating another story of her adolescence in Antigua:

At fourteen I had discovered that a tongue had no real taste. I was sucking the tongue of a boy named Tanner, and I was sucking his tongue because I liked the way his fingers looked on the keys of the piano as he played it, and I had liked the way he looked from the back as he walked across the pasture, and also, when I was close to him, I liked the way behind his ears smelled.


While the gratification Lucy receives is primarily erotic, not alimentary, she continues the implied analogy between sex and food by recalling this story of her first sexual experience while she is feeding yogurt and stewed prunes to Miriam, the youngest of the four children Lucy cares for. In this way, the sensory pleasure of sex elides with the sensory pleasure of eating, tied together by memories of the primal sensory act—a child nursing at the mother's breast. By linking these sensory experiences, Lucy locates her sexuality in the pre-oedipal realm of fullness and bodily union, thus rejecting patriarchally prescribed gender roles, specifically those of the sexually active male and the passive, receptive female. She also associates her sexuality with the role of the “good mother,” as she links her unconditional love for Miriam (“I loved Miriam from the moment I met her”) with her own body and its pleasures.

One might conclude from this response that Lucy finds a kind of liberation through the full expression of her sexuality in exile, rejecting her mother's sexual prohibitions and claiming her father's sexual prerogative, yet Kincaid tempers Lucy's sensory indulgence with this reminder of biological fixity: “I was feeling that I was made up only of good things when suddenly I remembered that I had forgotten to protect myself, something Mariah had told me over and over that I must remember to do” (67). At the remembrance of this forgetting, Lucy, filled with “confusion and dread” (67), recalls yet another story of her past, a tale of the dangers of adult female sexuality:

When I was around twelve years old or so, I was given three yards of cloth as a present. It was an ugly piece of cloth; it had printed on it a design of brown boxes with the word “Pandora” written across each one and a black-haired beast emerging from the open lid. With my mother's permission, I had it made up in a dress not appropriate to wear to church but appropriate to wear to a fete: no sleeves and a sweetheart neck. One day I was putting on that dress, and while my arms were raised high above my head I saw this amazing thing—a brownish, curly patch of hair growing under each arm. I was shocked at this sign of something I thought would never happen to me, a sign that certain parts of my life could no longer be kept secret from my mother, or people in general; anyone could look at me and know things about me.


Here puberty is allied with Pandora, the “black-haired beast” emerging from hiding; Lucy, however, reads the black-haired beast not in the sense of the threatening monster of female sexuality but instead as the threat of exposure; her body will somehow no longer be her own and instead will be available for others to read and, perhaps, to possess. Lucy begins menstruating soon after the “Pandora” discovery, bringing the story back to her present predicament—the consequences of unprotected sex.

While Lucy's mother has primarily served as the voice prohibiting sexuality outside the confines of marriage, she has also instructed her daughter in the herbal remedies to “bring on a reluctant period” (69). Lucy comments thus: “we presented to each other a face of innocence and politeness and even went so far as to curtsy to each other at the end” (70). This episode proves to be another stage in Lucy's education in duplicity, as Lucy knows that her mother's words refer to an herbal remedy to bring on an abortion; yet their verbal exchange conceals the real issue—the consequences of adult sexuality for a young woman. This moment of a potential renewed intimacy with her mother—an acknowledgement of their shared female body and its attendant powers—becomes veiled by the pretense of feminine “innocence,” a feigned innocence that ironically corrupts and weakens the remaining traces of the primal mother-daughter unity.

This brings us back to the question of how Kincaid extends the signifying potential of the tongue through her novel. Lucy's relationship with her mother exemplifies both the presence of the tongue through the orality of maternal and sexual intimacy and the loss of the tongue through the internalization and transmission of alien cultural mores. Lucy responds to this simultaneous presence and absence by using her tongue to provide both connection and distance; she wields the power to determine which effect will come about, creating the paradoxical space that encompasses distance and proximity. Consider this example of the dual nature of the tongue in the scene in which Lucy decides that she will break off her relationship with Hugh, although she has yet to announce this to him: “And that was how I said goodbye to Hugh, my arms and legs wrapped tightly around him, my tongue in his mouth, thinking of all the people I had held in this way” (83). The tongue, connected in Lucy's stories with the body of the mother and the pleasures of eating, becomes a powerful signifier, capturing both the intimacy of sexual union and the rupture of that union.

While Lucy experiences the cultural dislocation Kincaid attributes to the loss of the mother tongue, Lucy is neither paralyzed nor voiceless,4 Just as Lucy uses her tongue to create both intimacy and distance in her sexual relationships, so does she reappropriate the power of the lost tongue and claim the godlike prerogative to name herself. In the final chapter of the novel entitled, appropriately, “Lucy,” Lucy tells us that as a child she had declared to her mother that she wished to rename herself. Lucy first considers the names Charlotte, Emily, and Jane, recalling the Victorian authors who created strong, memorable heroines, but settles on Enid, after another British author, Enid Blyton, thinking the name Enid “seemed most unusual” (150). Lucy's mother reacts with fury at this act of defiance, in part because Lucy (and the reader) later discovers that she has chosen the name of a woman who had tried to kill her mother because this woman was in love with Lucy's father. While Lucy unknowingly chooses this name, her choice signals the possibility that Lucy must symbolically kill her mother to find a measure of self-definition. Yet this conclusion is complicated by the choice of Enid Blyton as a namesake, for, while the name of a female author seems to reinforce Lucy's struggle for self-definition, the name of this particular female author is highly problematic. Moira Ferguson points out that Enid Blyton's stories perpetuate racist notions of “nasty Wogs” preying on pure and innocent British children, thus evoking the linguistic power of the colonizer to define the colonized (Colonialism 130). Just as Lucy's attempts to liken herself to Gauguin are undercut by the irony of the comparison, so Lucy's choice of the name Enid reveals the gap between Enid Blyton's racist discourse and Lucy's oppositional, anti-colonial narrative. What Lucy finds, in essence, is that in trying to escape her mother through the act of renaming, she runs directly into the motherland, in all of its racist fury.

These repeated ironies highlight the difficulty that Lucy faces as a “young woman from the fringes of the world” (95) in capturing the complexities of her experience and reimagining the narrative of the self. Yet, rather than presenting Lucy as trapped in the disjunction between the stories that have shaped her self as colonial subject and the particulars of her existence, Kincaid imagines an alternative space for Lucy, the space of the female exile. Instead of attempting to start over by renaming herself, Lucy questions her mother's godlike power of naming, asking her mother why she named her Lucy. Her mother mutters under her breath, “I named you after Satan himself. Lucy, short for Lucifer. What a botheration from the moment you were conceived” (152). Lucy then transforms what begins as an insult into a source of rejuvenation and delight: “In the minute or so it took for all this to transpire, I went from feeling burdened and old and tired to feeling light, new, clean. I was transformed from failure to triumph. It was the moment I knew who I was” (152). This rereading seems to mark Lucy's moment of autobiographical self-creation: knowing the Lucifer of Milton's Paradise Lost, Lucy enthusiastically embraces this heroic figure, exiled from paradise itself. This exile operates at two levels: as the daughter exiled from the Eden of an all-encompassing mother love, Lucy hopes to transform this exile into a rebellion against the “godlike” presence of her mother; and, as the colonized exiled from the wholeness of cultural integrity, Lucy embraces the persona of a rebel against the colonizer's godlike control. Lucy takes the Romantic poets' interpretation of Milton's Satan as hero and adds her own interpretation, thus creating a story of her own. Through rereading the page already written upon, she transforms the British literary canon in meaning while insisting on maintaining a distance from that canon and the culture from which it emerged.

We find Lucy at the close of the novel living alone, having left her position as an au pair to work as a receptionist for a photographer. At this point, Lucy becomes most acutely aware of herself as one who narrates—“my life stretched out ahead of me like a book of blank pages” (163), she proclaims. As a parting gift, Mariah, Lucy's surrogate mother in exile, gives Lucy a blank notebook, with a leather cover “dyed blood red” and pages “white and smooth like milk” (162); on the first page of this book, Lucy writes her full name (Lucy Josephine Potter) and these words: “I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it” (164). The first words that come to her surprise Lucy, who has throughout the novel insisted that she does not want to be in love, whether with a mother or a lover. Upon writing this seemingly confessional phrase, “a great wave of shame” comes over Lucy, and she weeps so much that her tears “caused all the words to become one great big blur” (164).

We might be reminded here of Lucy's instinctual urge to erase from her mind the Wordsworth poem, just as Lucy's tears, the language of her body and its felt experiences, erase the false tale of female self-sacrifice for love. Indeed, all of the stock narratives of exile—biblical, Miltonic, or romantic—ring false for Lucy. Rejecting these narratives, Lucy instead insists on the particulars of her own existence and refuses generalizations. She phrases this self-creation thus: “I understood that I was inventing myself, and that I was doing this more in the way of a painter than in the way of a scientist. I could not count on precision or calculation; I could only count on intuition. … I did not have money at my disposal. I had memory, I had anger, I had despair” (134). Memory, in the form of her cascade of stories, serves as the bulk of Lucy's material for self-creation, and her anger and despair serve as the impetus to separate from her disloyal mother and disrupted homeland. By likening her self-invention to painting, Lucy emphasizes the importance of aesthetics to creating the space on which the gendered self can be mapped.

This final image of the blotted page serves to expose the male fantasy of the “blank page” upon which the author makes his primal mark.5 Kincaid shows that Lucy's story is written on a page that looks blank but isn't: as Lucy sees it, her life is “at once something more simple and more complicated than that” (132). Lucy's space of self-creation is not empty or blank but marked by the bodily traces of blood and milk, as well as inflected by cultural dislocation and maternal betrayal: she is aware that she has been “written on,” i.e., that she has absorbed the cultural narratives of the colonizer just as her mother has absorbed, embodied, and transmitted those narratives to her daughter. Lucy attempts to write through the mother while rejecting both the material strictures of motherhood and the narrative of servitude taught by mother and colonizer alike; she has, in Moira Ferguson's phrase, “begun the process of self-decolonization” (Jamaica Kincaid 131). It is crucial that this blotted page appear at the end of the novel, which temporally marks both the end of the narrated story and the beginning of Lucy's attempts to write the self. At this point we as readers see at once the realized narrative and the struggles to narrate that accompany it. By making the novel's conclusion a point of narrative origin, Kincaid reinscribes gender in masculinist narratives of exile, making visible the paradoxical space of female exile.


  1. This paper has benefited greatly from the comments of Susan Scheckel and Nina Miller.

    The Guyanese writer Roy A.K. Heath speaks of Guyana as a country that produces emigrants. The Guyanese are driven abroad because “their consciousness is highly developed, and they are unable to engage this consciousness in a country with a very small population that is, in effect, parochial in outlook” (Birbalsingh 69). Another Guyanese writer, Cyril Dabydeen, echoes this sentiment, saying, “It was fully imbued in us that to become successful writers we had to go abroad. … I knew I had to leave Guyana” (Birbalsingh 107).

  2. Indeed, the cover art of the novel features Gauguin's 1902 painting, “Young Girl with Fan,” perhaps an ironic commentary on Lucy's status as Gauguin's “exotic other.”

  3. Lucy describes Mariah, Lewis, and their four golden-haired daughters as “six yellow-haired heads of various sizes … bunched as if they were a bouquet of flowers tied together by an unseen string” (12). This description reinforces not only the contrast between the physical appearance of Lucy and that of her employers, but also highlights the connection between daffodils, colonial conquest, and the neo-colonial privilege of Lewis and Mariah's family. Here Kincaid follows other Caribbean writers, such as V.S. Naipaul, who have used the image of the daffodil to represent the imposition of the colonizer's language and culture on the colonized.

  4. For a provocative account of the connection between the lack of a “mother tongue” and the loss of a mother's love, see Gay Wilentz's reading of the poem “Discourse” by Marlene Nourbese Philip.

  5. See Gubar for a provocative discussion of how female authors from Isaak Dinesen to H. D. have transformed the prescribed “virginity” of the blank page to a space of female subversion and creativity.

Works Cited

Aschcroft, Bill, et al. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Birbalsingh, Frank. Frontiers of Caribbean Literature in English. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.

Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Dash, J. Michael. “Exile in Recent Literature.” A History of Literature in the Caribbean, Vol. 1. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins, 1994. 451–61.

de Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Ferguson, Moira. Colonialism and Gender Relations from Mary Wollstonecraft to Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

———. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1994.

Gubar, Susan. “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity.” Writing and Sexual Difference. Ed. Elizabeth Abel. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. 73–93.

Kincaid, Jamaica. Lucy. New York: Penguin, 1990.

———. A Small Place. London: Virago, 1988.

Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.

Rose, Gillian. Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Wilentz, Gay, “English is a Foreign Anguish: Caribbean Writers and the Disruption of the Colonial Canon.” Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-Century British Literary Canons. Ed. Karen R. Lawrence. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992. 261–78.

Deborah Plant (review date Fall 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776

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 “an animal of neutrality.” A corrupt and despised government official, he was prosperous but friendless and socially alienated, as was his family.

Given into the care of a washerwoman at birth, subjected to the malevolence of a stepmother, handed over to one associate of her father, then another, Xuela never feels loved or rooted anywhere. Her story is one of disconnection and displacement. A richly layered, multivalent narrative, The Autobiography of My Mother is also, at once, the story of the Carib and African people of Dominica and the Europeans who, in inaugurating and forcing their disconnection and displacement, ensured their own. The history recapitulated in “Dominica” is the extirpation of one people and the theft and exploitation of another. “Dominica” registered the political and cultural hegemony imposed at the hands of one European colonial force, then another: the French, the Spanish, the English. Contextualized in the course of this history is the discourse of imperialism. The dynamics of captor and captive, conqueror and vanquished, the forceful and the dominated played themselves out in their government, educational and religious institutions, and in their private and family lives. Dominica was a loveless place “where cruelty is sometimes the only thing freely given.” It is Xuela's birthplace. This is her birthright.

As Xuela was thrust into the world, abruptly disconnected from her mother and her mother's world, so the Caribs were removed from their lands, and their traditions as Africans were severed from then motherland. The concept of Mother in Kincaid's novel becomes a metaphor for history, tradition, culture, identity, nurturance, and love. As the mother's presence assumes the continuation and transmission of these life matters, her absence ensures truncation, disorientation violence, and violation. Xuela, however, chooses to know herself, a self that would easily have been suffocated under the weight of history or annihilated because unprotected. She chooses to know, love, and direct this self. She claims her mother, her inheritance, through dreams and visions, and elects to carry her life “in her own hands.” She resists domination by anyone or anything, including her own body, as she enjoys and celebrates the pleasures of her body and aborts her children at will. She loves a man who is married and marries a man she can never love. In the end is herself, her story, which is her mother's story because the turnings of her life are a consequence of her mother's death and because her orphanage and her mother's abandonment are one. It is “an account of my mother's life as much as it has been an account of mine, and even so, again it is an account of the life of the children I did not have, as it is their account of me.”

The spare and haunting prose with which Kincaid configures the lives and histories of her characters heightens the Gothic feel of the novel. The atmosphere of this magical island-nation broods with the memory of cruelty, enslavement, and annihilation that live on in the people and the decaying colonial structures of Dominica. Kincaid makes palpable the grief of loss and the distress of disruption and relentless destruction. She weaves a “spell of history” that beckons the reader to ponder afresh the mystery of life as it pivots on the questions, “What makes the world turn?” “What makes the world turn against me?”

Maxine Kumin (review date March 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1296

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 these hardy botanists, outfitted with collecting vests (what are collecting vests? they are mentioned but not described), scramble up mountainsides to pounce upon the hitherto undiscovered, take cuttings or gather seeds to coax into new life in the United States.

In China Kincaid is terrified of roving monkeys, phobic about rats and snakes, frank about her difficult menstrual periods. She shares the average Western tourist's dismay over primitive toilets, raw sewage and fetid sleeping quarters. She is also quite funny. The group was having dinner in a restaurant

… and I went to the bathroom; it was not far away at all, it was right next to the kitchen, and on a table that was jammed up against a wall that separated kitchen and bathroom was a cauldron in which tea was brewed … I saw a large family having a wonderful time as they ate their dinner; it was so heartening it made me homesick, and I wanted to join them; but the baby of the family was having a bowel movement on the floor right then …

(p. 192)

Kincaid has seen the gardens at Sissinghurst and Monet's gardens in Giverny. She has attended the famous Chelsea Flower Show, “a whirl of things forced into perfect bloom, more perfect than anything nature would allow.” She is keenly aware of the relationship between prosperity and gardening. Discoursing on the connection between conquest and the shaping of an exquisite landscape, she quotes a descriptive passage from Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, which “could have been written only by a person who comes from a place where the wealth of the world is like a skin, a natural part of the body. …” In a public garden in Ukraine on yet another junket, she spies some particularly pleasing hollyhocks—one presumes that these were the people's hollyhocks, perhaps descended from the oligarchs of the past—that she covets. She steals some seed pods and smuggles them home in a box of sanitary napkins.

Kincaid grew up on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean. “It is a small lump of insignificance, green, green, green, and green again,” she says dismissively. Nor are the people of Antigua native to this place. They were brought as slaves from Africa to work the British plantations after the native Indians were slaughtered. Her education was British; she learned to dislike daffodils from having to memorize Wordsworth on the subject. She very frankly contrasts her spacious house and garden in Vermont with the one-room dwelling of her childhood, and recognizes that in her present lifestyle she has taken on many of the arrogant attributes of the conquerors. Her ambivalence is poignant and haunting. In the prologue to these essays she tells us that her very first garden featured a haphazard arrangement of strangely shaped flower beds, laid out in response to some buried desire. Finally it dawned on her that the garden she was making resembled a map of the islands scattered throughout the Caribbean.

Her interpretation of the garden in Eden owes much to her early roots on the island, where botany was quite simply agriculture. Crops were grown for sustenance. So in Eden Kincaid sees the Tree of Life as the vegetable garden and the Tree of Knowledge as the ornamental garden, “the plants for which I have no immediate use and grow only for an interest that is peculiar to me …” Adam and Eve's downfall resulted from their having “grown tired of the demands of the Gardener and most certainly of His ideas of what the garden might be. …”

Although some of these essays have been previously published, they fit together with no sense of strain, only a few redundancies and one copy-editing gaffe (the town of Quechee, Vermont, is twice referred to as Quiche). The reader is never bored. Kincaid's voice, sure, swift and penetrating, is delightfully candid. She is unabashedly full of opinions that hopscotch from anecdote to anecdote, and she does not stint on emotions. Like a child unable to stop picking at a scabbed knee until it bleeds, her style leans heavily on repetition.

Winter is Kincaid's least favorite season. In her ideal calendar she will “make … May ninety days long. December, January, and February shall be allotted ten hours each.” But winter is her time for devouring catalogues—not necessarily the glitzy, highly illustrated ones, rather the closely descriptive, chatty newsletter variety. Because the winter was so long and dreary, she placed far too many orders, some “from a puffed-up plantsman's outfit in Connecticut, where the people are very rude and high-handed on the phone.” When a shipment of three-and-a-half-foot twigs arrived from a fruit grower in upstate New York, “they seemed such a far cry from the overladen-with-fruit trees I had seen in the catalogue that I almost burst into tears.”

What did I dislike about this book? The format. Only alternate pages are numbered, and the numbers are enclosed in parentheses as if to indicate they are an intrusion into the graceful space of the page spread. I dislike the green borders with a tracery of leaves spilling down the outside columns of every page, decreasing the printable space and providing an extraneous frill to prose that needs no further ornament.

The occasional illustrations, done in a watercolor wash, are more successful. With a palette limited to shades of green, Jill Fox homes in on a wheelbarrow full of potted plants, an asparagus tip, an undesignated mother bird feeding her nestlings, a mouse, a cold frame, a suckling pig on a platter, as well as several landscapes. I prefer the domestic details to the long views, at least in this monochromatic scheme.

One need not be a deeply committed gardener to enjoy this enthusiastic, often irreverent, sometimes hilarious book. It helps to know an astilbe from a datura, though. Kincaid moves determinedly forward without stooping to define a hellebore or meconopsis. While I am content not to be condescended to, others may be made restive by her decision to use only botanical nomenclature.

In an earlier essay, Kincaid characterized memory as “a gardener's real palette: memory as it summons up the past, memory as it shapes the present, memory as it dictates the future.” This same sentence turns up again in My Garden Book, as well it might. One essay leads seamlessly into the other, and perhaps they overlapped chronologically in the writing. Certainly memory stitches them together, but it is passion that suffuses them.


Jamaica Kincaid Long Fiction Analysis