Historical Context

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‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ does not allude to a specific time period, nor does it indicate in which nation it takes place; however, because it references ‘‘black and shiny’’ people in a coastal setting, it is not unlikely that this story, like most of Kincaid’s work, is set in the West Indies. Moira Ferguson, in Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, narrows this estimation much further by stating that At the Bottom of the River, in which ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ appears, takes place ‘‘in Antigua during the 1950s.’’ Kincaid lived as a British colonial subject until 1966, and as the majority of her work is autobiographical, it is perhaps appropriate to contextualize her writing within the historical and cultural framework of the colonial and postcolonial world of the West Indies.

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According to Islands of the Commonwealth Caribbean: A Regional Study (Sandra W. Meditz and Dennis M. Hanratty, editors) Christopher Columbus sighted Antigua in 1493 during his second voyage; however, the island was not formally colonized until 1632 when it was claimed by the English. Except for a short period in 1966-67, when the French held Antigua, it remained a British possession until its independence in 1981. From the time of Kincaid’s birth until she left Antigua, the island was consistently challenging colonial authority. During the years 1935-1960, there were political campaigns aimed at curtailing the colonial subjugation of the Antiguans. In her article about Kincaid in the New York Times Magazine, Leslie Garis notes that Kincaid became increasingly angry about the subservient role that Antiguans were forced to play with the British. In 1966, the year Kincaid left Antigua for the United States, Vere Cornwall Bird, Sr. went to London to discuss Antigua’s desire for independence. A year later, Antigua became an associated state of Britain, meaning that, although it was internally autonomous, the island was still dependent upon Britain to handle its foreign affairs and defense matters. After a constitutional conference in December of 1980, the island was finally granted complete independence from the British crown and officially became the nation of Antigua.

In 1674, Sir Christopher Codrington established what was to have a lasting effect on Antigua’s society and culture—the island’s first sugar plantation. By 1679, half of the island population was composed of slaves imported from Africa’s west coast. During colonial times, the descendants of these slaves made up the lower strata of Antigua’s racially-determined social structure. On the other end of the spectrum were the plantation owners and political elites, who were all of European descent. According to Paget Henry in Peripheral Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Antigua, the years 1960- 68 brought an ‘‘emergence of the formal dominance of the Afro-Caribbean cultural system’’ during which many Antiguans began to assert their own cultural identity, independent of colonial influence. Antigua’s push for independence was greatly reflected in the literature, painting, sculpture, drama, and dance of these times. Notable here is that during these years Kincaid was a young woman who was also in the process of defining her identity. Leslie Garis’s article for the New York Times Magazine notes that during these formative years Kincaid began to ‘‘detest everything British.’’ Years later, her work would likewise reflect a concern for identity and a distaste for colonial rule.

Another way of understanding the cultural context of Kincaid’s work is to look at the other literature by women Caribbean authors writing in the postcolonial era. According to Laurence A. Breiner in West Indian Literature, the decade of the eighties ushered in an increasing number of works that were written by women and that addressed issues regarding women. The many points in common that Kincaid shares with these other writers locate her within this Caribbean cultural phenomenon. Renu Juneja, also in West Indian Literature, notes that ‘‘Caribbean women writers offer us female- centered narratives and poems with a preponderance of the first person and autobiographical modes.’’ In general, the use of autobiography and the first person point of view in all postcolonial literatures has come to be understood as an attempt to reassert the female voice in literature and history. Although Kincaid stated that ‘‘literature teaches us about men and women,’’ in Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body she acknowledges that the themes of identity and differentiation do permeate her work. Postcolonial Caribbean literature is also known for addressing and responding to the ‘‘dual colonization’’ of women. The term ‘‘dual colonization’’ refers to the double oppression of women during the colonial period; not only were they subjugated as colonial subjects, but they were deemed subservient by virtue of their gender as well. Kincaid alludes to colonialism in her works, and in A Small Place, she confronts it head on. In summary, Kincaid’s writing fits within an emerging cultural identification process in which writers concerned their works with issues of both femininity and colonialism.

Literary Style

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Structure
Perhaps the most striking aspect of ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ is its plot structure. Plot structure is the way that an author organizes and tells the events of a story. For instance, a story that unfolds in chronological order is an example of a linear plot structure. Kincaid employs a circular plot, which begins and ends at the same place, with the narrator in bed. The plot essentially covers the same material twice: first when the recounted events ostensibly happen to the narrator and then when she answers the woman who asks her what it is she has been doing lately.

Point of View
As the title indicates, ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ is written from the first-person point of view. Kincaid constructs the story from the narrator’s perspective, and thus uses ‘‘I’’ to present all of the story’s events. This keeps the main focus of the story on the narrator. The reader is unable to see the world or know the thoughts of the few other people the narrator encounters. In fact, this I-centered narrative keeps the reader at a distance from the world the narrator explores and the people she encounters. While this point of view limits the reader’s understanding of the thoughts of others, it does allow the reader to see inside the narrator’s mind. For example, when the woman asks the narrator what she has been doing, the narrator considers giving a series of answers to which the reader is also privy.

Tone
Tone is understood to be the attitude the writer expresses toward the story through the use of language. The tone in ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ is one of almost impersonal disinterest and objectivity. The writer does not display any judgments or attitudes about the series of events she depicts. Instead, her language reflects a detachment from the bizarre events which she tells in simple, reportorial fashion.

Symbolism
The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction states that ‘‘a literary symbol can be anything in a story’s setting, plot or characterization that suggests an abstract meaning to the reader in addition to its literal significance.’’ Some examples of symbols in ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ could be the big body of water, the monkey, the leafless trees, the planet Venus, the narrator’s shoeless feet, the deep hole, or the bed to which she returns. In this story, the planet Venus literally represents the planet the narrator sees when she gazes into the sky; however, the reference to Venus may have other implied meanings. For example, the planet she sees could symbolize the Roman goddess Venus (or Aphrodite in Greek mythology), the goddess of love and beauty. One recurring criticism of Kincaid is that her imagery and symbolism are so intensely personal that it is difficult for the reader to feel confident about the possible symbolic meanings of objects.

Setting
Moira Ferguson, in Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, suggests that ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ takes place on the island of Antigua during the 1950s. However, the text of the story does not place these events within any specific time periods or national boundaries. The story carries the reader through varied terrain— which may in fact exist only within a dream.

Genre
Placing ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ within a specific literary movement or social context is difficult in that Kincaid has resisted being associated with any specific ideology, such as Modernism or Feminism. In an interview with Selwyn Cudjoe, Kincaid plainly states that she ‘‘can’t bear to be in a group of any kind, or in the school of anything.’’ Despite such statements, Kincaid has been studied by academics in terms of both feminist and Modernist tendencies. Cudjoe points out that Kincaid’s work shares an ‘‘intensely personal’’ slant and interiority that is found in feminist writings. Kincaid admits that Modernism, a literary movement known for breaking with established forms and traditions, convinced her to avoid writing works that realistically portray lives and events. Postcolonial literature is another literary movement in which Kincaid’s work can be placed. As the term indicates, postcolonial literature emerged while nations began to assert their independence from colonial authority. The literature of previously colonized nations is known for addressing the effects of colonialism and ideas of identity as it is shaped by the system of colonialism.

Literary Techniques

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Perhaps the most striking aspect of "What I Have Been Doing Lately" is its plot structure. Plot structure is the way that an author organizes and tells the events of a story. For example, a story that unfolds in chronological order is an example of a linear plot structure. Kincaid employs a circular plot, which begins and ends at the same place, with the narrator in bed. The plot essentially covers the same material twice: first when the recounted events ostensibly happen to the narrator, and then when she answers the woman who asks her what it is she has been doing lately.

As the title indicates, "What I Have Been Doing Lately" is written from the first person point of view. Kincaid constructs the story from the narrator's perspective, and thus uses "I" to present all of the story's events. This keeps the main focus of the story on the narrator. The reader is unable to see the world or know the thoughts of the few other people the narrator encounters. In fact, the I-centered narrative keeps the reader at a distance from the world the narrator explores and the people she encounters. While this point of view limits the reader's understanding of the thoughts of others, it does allow the reader to see inside the narrator's mind. For example, when the woman asks the narrator what she has been doing, the narrator considers giving a series of answers to which the reader is also privy.

Tone is understood to be the attitude the writer expresses toward the story through the use of language. The tone in "What I Have Been Doing Lately" is one of almost impersonal disinterest and objectivity. The writer does not reveal any judgments or attitudes about the series of events she depicts. Instead, her language reflects a detachment from the bizarre events, which she tells in simple, reportorial fashion.

The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction states that "a literary symbol can be anything in a story's setting, plot or characterization that suggests an abstract meaning to the reader, in addition to its literal significance." Some examples of symbols in "What I Have Been Doing Lately" could be the big body of water, the monkey, the leafless trees, the planet Venus, the narrator's shoeless feet, the deep hole, or the bed to which she returns. In this story, the planet Venus literally represents the planet the narrator sees when she gazes into the sky; however, the reference to Venus may have other implied meanings. For example, the planet she sees could symbolize the Roman goddess Venus (or Aphrodite in Greek mythology), the goddess of love and beauty. One recurring criticism of Kincaid is that her imagery and symbolism are so personal that it is difficult for the reader to feel confident about the possible symbolic meanings of objects.

Placing "What I Have Been Doing Lately" within a specific literary movement or social context is difficult in that Kincaid has resisted being associated with any specific ideology, such as Modernism or Feminism. In an interview with Selwyn Cudjoe, Kincaid plainly states that she "can't bear to be in a group of any kind, or in the school of anything." Despite such statements, Kincaid has been studied by academics in terms of both feminist and Modernist tendencies. Cudjoe points out that Kincaid's work shares an "intensely personal" slant and interiority that is found in feminist writings. Kincaid admits that Modernism, a literary movement known for breaking with established forms and traditions, convinced her to avoid writing works that realistically portray lives and events. Postcolonial literature is another literary movement in which Kincaid's work can be placed. As the term indicates, postcolonial literature emerged as colonies began to assert their independence from colonial authority. The literature of previously colonized nations is known for addressing the effects of colonialism and ideas of identity as that literature was shaped by the colonial system.

Kincaid's style is perhaps one of the most applauded aspects of At the Bottom of the River. As Laurence Breiner noted in West Indian Literature, Kincaid "displayed prodigious technical virtuosity" in crafting her book. Suzanne Freeman wrote in Ms. that "what Kincaid has to tell us, she tells... in a series of images that are as sweet and mysterious as the secrets that children whisper in your ear." Wendy Dutton, in World Literature Today, similarly stated Kincaid's use of language is "the magic of At the Bottom of the River." She commented that Kincaid's language is "as rhythmic and enigmatic as poetry." In the Times Literary Supplement, Ike Onwordi endorsed this compliment by stating that "Jamaica Kincaid uses language that is poetic without affectation. She has a deft eye for salient detail." In an article for the New York Times Book Review, Thulani Davis also noted Kincaid's mastery of detail, and stated that "Ms. Kincaid is a marvelous writer whose descriptions are richly detailed; her sentences turn and surprise even in the bare context she has created."

Social Concerns

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Jamaica Kincaid's short story "What I Have Been Doing Lately" was first published in the Paris Review in 1981. Kincaid included this piece in her first published book, At the Bottom of the River (1983), which earned her the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Although Kincaid does not allude to a specific time period or place in the story, references to "black and shiny" people in a coastal setting make it likely that, as with most of Kincaid's work, "What I Have Been Doing Lately" is set in the West Indies. Moira Ferguson, in Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, narrows this estimation further by stating that it takes place "in Antigua during the 1950s." Kincaid lived as a British colonial subject until 1966, and as the majority of her work is autobiographical, it is important to place her writing within the historical and cultural framework of the colonial and postcolonial world of the West Indies.

Christopher Columbus discovered Antigua in 1493. The island was formally colonized by the English in 1632, and except for a short period in 1966-67, when the French held Antigua, it remained a British possession until its independence in 1981. From the time of Kincaid's birth until she left Antigua, the island consistently challenged colonial authority. During the years 1935-1960, there were political campaigns aimed at curtailing the colonial subjugation of the Antiguans. In her article about Kincaid in the New York Times Magazine, Leslie Garis notes that Kincaid became increasingly angry about the subservient role that Antiguans were forced to play with the British. In 1966, the year Kincaid left Antigua for the United States, Vere Cornwall Bird, Sr., went to London to discuss Antigua's desire for independence. A year later, Antigua became an associated state of Britain, meaning that, although it was internally autonomous, the island was still dependent upon Britain to handle its foreign affairs and defense matters. After a constitutional conference in December of 1980, the island was finally granted complete independence from the British crown and officially became the nation of Antigua.

In 1674, Sir Christopher Codrington established the island's first sugar plantation. By 1679, half of the island population was composed of slaves imported from Africa's west coast. During colonial times, the descendants of these slaves made up the lower strata of Antigua's racially-determined social structure. On the other end of the spectrum were the plantation owners and political elites, who were all of European descent. According to Paget Henry in Peripheral Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Antigua, the years 1960-68 brought an "emergence of the formal dominance of the Afro-Caribbean cultural system" during which many Antiguans began to assert their own cultural identity, independent of colonial influence. Antigua's push for independence was greatly reflected in the literature, painting, sculpture, drama, and dance of these times. During these years, Kincaid was a young woman who was also in the process of defining her identity. Leslie Garis' article for the New York Times Magazine notes that during these formative years Kincaid began to "detest everything British." Years later, her work would likewise reflect a concern for identity and a distaste for colonial rule.

Kincaid's writing is also part of a larger cultural context. According to Laurence A. Breiner in West Indian Literature, the decade of the eighties ushered in an increasing number of works that were written by women, focusing on issues regarding women. Kincaid shares many common themes with these other writers, locating her within this Caribbean cultural phenomenon. Renu Juneja, also in West Indian Literature, notes that "Caribbean women writers offer us female-centered narratives and poems with a preponderance of the first person and autobiographical modes." In general, the use of autobiography and the first person point of view in all postcolonial literature has come to be understood as an attempt to reassert the female voice in literature and history. Although Kincaid stated that "literature teaches us about men and women," in Ferguson's Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body she acknowledges that the themes of identity and differentiation do permeate her work. Postcolonial Caribbean literature is also known for addressing and responding to the "dual colonization" of women, which refers to the double oppression of women during the colonial period. Not only were they subjugated as colonial subjects, but they were deemed subservient by virtue of their gender as well. Kincaid eludes to colonialism in her works, and in A Small Place, she confronts it head on. In summary, Kincaid's writing fits within an emerging cultural identification process in which writers addressed issues of both femininity and colonialism within their works.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

Sources
Barnaby, Karin and Pellegrino D’Acierno, editors. C. G. Jung and the Humanities: Toward a Hermeneutics of Culture, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 45-66, 185- 216.

Breiner, Laurence. ‘‘The Eighties,’’ in West Indian Literature, Second Edition. Edited by Bruce King, Macmillan Education Ltd., 1995, pp. 76-88.

Charters, Ann, editor. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, Fourth Edition, Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Dance, Daryl Cumber. Introduction to Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, pp. 1-8. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Davis, Thulani. ‘‘Girl-Child in a Foreign Land,’’ The New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1990, p. 11. De Koven, Marianne. Rich and Strange: Gender, History, Modernism, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Dutton, Wendy. ‘‘Merge and Separate: Jamaica Kincaid’s Fiction,’’ World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 406-10.

Garis, Leslie. ‘‘Through West Indian Eyes,’’ The New York Times Magazine, October 7, 1990, pp. 42-4, 70, 78-80, 91.

Jacobi, Jolande. Translated by Ralph Mantheim from German. Complex/Archetype/Symbol in the Psychology of C. G. Jung, Pantheon Books, 1959, pp. 127-90.

Leavitt, David. ‘‘Brief Encounters,’’ The Village Voice, January 17, 1984, p. 41.

Milton, Edith. ‘‘Making a Virtue of Diversity,’’ The New York Times Book Review, January, 15 1984, p. 22.

Onwordi, Ike. ‘‘Wising Up,’’ The Times Literary Supplement, November 29, 1985, p. 1374.

Samuels, Andrew, Bani Shorter and Fred Plaut. A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 1-162.

Simmons, Diane. ‘‘At the Bottom of the River: Journey of Mourning,’’ in Jamaica Kincaid, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 73–100.

Storr, Anthony. The Essential Jung, Princeton University Press, 1983, pp. 13-27, 212-90.

Further Reading
Cudjoe, Selwyn R. ‘‘Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview,’’ Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, Edited by Selwyn R., Cudjoe, Editor, Calaloux Publications, 1990, pp. 215-32. Discusses Kincaid’s career, her dislike for colonialism, her name change, her parents, Annie John, the universality of her work, and how Kincaid does and does not fit into the feminist and modernist movements.

Freeman, Suzanne. ‘‘Three Short collections with a Difference,’’ Ms., January, 1984, pp. 15-16. Freeman favorably reviews At the Bottom of the River and discusses Kincaid’s ability to weave complex stories through her use of imagery and language.

Henry, Paget. Peripheral Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Antigua, Transaction Books, Inc., 1985, pp. 169-200. Discusses Antigua from a political-science perspective. Three chapters concern the economy, the state and the cultural system of Antigua during the postcolonial period.

Juneja, Renu. ‘‘Contemporary Women Writers,’’ in West Indian Literature, Second Edition, edited by Bruce King, Macmillan Education, 1995, pp. 89-101. Outlines the preponderance of West Indian fiction written by women. Juneja discusses the plot of individual works and analyzes the way in which female authored texts fit into the greater themes of West Indian literature. She also discusses the unique contributions of women writers in the West Indian region.

Kenney, Susan. The New York Times Book Review, April 4, 1985, p. 6.

Literary Precedents

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At the Bottom of the River, like most of Kincaid's subsequent work, is autobiographical and draws from her childhood in Antigua. Kincaid concludes that "the way I became a writer was that my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me. I can't help but think that it made me interested in the idea of myself as an object." It is not surprising that Kincaid's mother may have helped to shape her writing. Indeed, Kincaid's later pieces, Annie John (1985) and Lucy (1990), both explore the complexities of mother/daughter relationships. Although Kincaid says that she writes of mother/daughter relationships "because the fertile soil of [her] creative life is [her] mother," she treats the very personal and formative experience of colonialism in her work as well, specifically in A Small Place (1989).

Media Adaptations

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‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ has been recorded by the Library of Congress Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature along with the other stories in At the Bottom of the River.

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