How Jamaica Kincaid Helped Me Understand My Mother
Gabrielle Bellot on Power, Authority, and the Women in Her Life
For two decades, my mother told me stories about going to a convent in Grenada. “It was where I learnt manners,” she would say, smiling. Her own mother, a grand woman from Curaçao who had married a Dominican man during the shipwreck chaos of the Second World War and moved with him to that legendarily green island in the middle of the Caribbean, had sent her 13 daughters to the convent of St. Joseph of Cluny, where the nuns taught them the indelible arts of propriety. They were punished if they did not wear their uniforms correctly, arrange their napkins in napkin holders the right way, or finish each grain of rice on their plates; one of my aunties wailed all night in front of an insurmountable plate of food, until she fell asleep at the table.
My aunties joked about the convent when I was growing up, but my mother always seemed to have internalized the divine rules the nuns had instilled in her. In particular, they had taught her—perhaps without outright teaching it—to wield her authority like a weapon, a cutlass that chopped down the rebellion she would see thick in her child as razor grass. She was beautiful, kind, self-sacrificing—and she was stern, rigid, distant, as much Tennyson’s imprisoned Lady of Shalott as her stone fortress. I am your mother, she would say often. I know best. In most arguments, it was her way or no way; to argue against her was a profession of hatred towards her. To concede was love.
A diminutive frame, she projected both the quiet of an introvert and the power of a ruler who takes it on faith, rather than election, that she rules. She both liked and disliked the island of her birth, Dominica, the land the Caribs deemed Waitukubuli, Tall-is-her-body, and which may have influenced how John Layfield, one of King James’ 54 translators of the Bible, imagined Eden as he recorded his travels to Dominica with descriptions that sounded like Paradise. To my mum, it was not paradise. It was sometimes fun, often hard, often backwards, always dense with ambivalent memories. With her lighter olive skin, red or fuschia lipstick, and dark brown hair treated to be wavy-straight, she looked almost like one of the women we called “Spanish” in the island, except on the rare occasions she let her hair get wet in the sea or in a pool.
Then, my father—darker brown, taller, salt-and-pepper curls on his head like short fine sprigs—would hold her, telling her how much he loved her natural curls; wouldn’t she wear her hair like that? She always refused, grimacing, glaring. What nonsense, she said, with or without saying it. She did not bathe in the sea often, whereas my father swam out far in search of corals and fishes without snorkel or goggles, at least until a fall from a ladder and, later, an ulcer destroyed his mobility. My mum stayed ashore, mostly, staring, appraising, both cold and warm, tundra and sunroom, in the way I understood as an introvert myself. She smiled if I was happy—if my happiness coincided with what she believed happiness was.
Her argument about where queer people like me stood was clear: we did not stand anywhere, did not belong. So outlandish were we in our strangeness and danger that she would, after mumbling, whisper words like gay and transgender, if she said them at all. In her world, once I came out as queer, I just didn’t exist; she had almost no language for me. And to have no language for something is akin to it not existing for us, so closely have we woven words to world. I had become an inscrutable, ugly tongue to her.
I have come, to my surprise, to be defined by my mother.
I loved her, and I have hated her, and have understood her, and failed to understand her, as jellyfish fail to understand a beach, or smoke struggles to understand the throat of someone who has never dark-kissed a cigarette.
I sometimes think I understand the gods I no longer believe in. Mothers, though, I still struggle with, and rage at, and cry over.
I hear her, on echo, each time I read Jamaica Kincaid’s masterful short reflection on her own mother, “Girl.” I wrote my own version of it years ago, loud with my mum’s commands to stay in my cramped closet. It has stayed with me, just as the memory of the feel of the closet, the memory of the weight of a parent’s words about how one should be, never goes away.
First published in 1978 in The New Yorker, where Kincaid—then a staff writer there—published many of the prose-poetic works that would later appear in At the Bottom of the River, her first collection, “Girl” captures Kincaid’s “mother’s voice exactly,” as she told Moira Ferguson in 1994. That she was a West-Indian woman—writing, at that, about her relationship with another woman, her mother—seemed remarkable even to Kincaid herself, given the dominance of male voices in Caribbean literature at the time. “West-Indian writing until very recently was all men,” she told Ferguson, and “it is now mostly women . . . Like everywhere, everywhere it’s mostly women who are writing anything interesting.” “Girl” examined womanhood in Antigua and the Anglophone Caribbean more broadly, musing on what it means to be a proper, respectable lady—at any cost. But it crosses geographic borders easily, as much great literature does.
“Jamaica Kincaid” was a pen name. She was born Elaine Potter Richardson in 1949 in Antigua, and, in 1973, when she turned 24, she adopted her now-famous pseudonym. She chose “Jamaica Kincaid” because she wanted both greater anonymity as an author and increased visibility as a Caribbean woman, which “Jamaica” was meant to evoke. (For this reason, some of my students have had the misfortune, on midterms, of assuming Kincaid is from Jamaica.) Despite her desires for anonymity, her fiction has always been strikingly autobiographical; her stories and novels, like Annie John, Lucy, and Autobiography of My Mother, hew closely to her own past, to such a degree that they sometimes seem closer to nonfiction.
Her texts often share elements: the dead reappearing in their suits; spirits who take the form of animals, such that one should not throw rocks at creatures, lest they come back as a person to punish you; cruel, if not evil, mothers, and cruelty in the world in general; a young girl who imagines marrying another girl (though Kincaid has argued, with a naïve surprise upon hearing that readers interpreted this as queer, that the image of a girl marrying another girl, which appears in Annie John and At the Bottom of the River, was not meant as lesbian coding, but rather an exploration of girlhood); and more.I have come, to my surprise, to be defined by my mother.
Autobiographical or not, her fiction has a cold power that stays with you. The quiet brutality of her characters can seem curious when set against Kincaid herself, who smiles cutely, has a wry humor, and speaks in an idiolect reminiscent of the BBC English she listened to when young, as Antigua was still a British colony at the time.
“Girl” is a fine example of Kincaid’s amorphousness of genre; it can be read as a short story, lyric nonfiction, or a prose poem with ease, not unlike some of the other remarkably lyrical pieces in At the Bottom of the River. I’ve always found this fascinating, the way Kincaid’s work seems to exist at the border of fiction and nonfiction, challenging what it means for a text to exist purely as one or the other. Because of this, I’ve taught “Girl” in both fiction and nonfiction writing classes. But beyond this, it’s a striking evocation of girlhood. It shows a rigid understanding of what it means to be a woman—in particular, what it meant to be a black girl in Antigua when Kincaid was growing up.
“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,” the piece begins. “Girl” is all one long sentence, chained together by semicolons. Almost every “sentence” is a command, instruction, or upbraiding. Although there are no quotation marks or named speakers, the genius of Kincaid’s “Girl” is that it still manages to create two distinct characters, one of which—the primary speaker—appears to be Kincaid’s mother, and the latter of which is someone who speaks only twice, identified by italics. The commands seem to take place not in one particular day or even year, but across the course of Kincaid’s youth. That it is all one long sentence, punctuated only briefly those two times by the secondary speaker, creates an image of a breathlessly domineering mother one does not speak back to, an image of a life made up almost solely of these injunctions.
The girl—presumably the person who speaks in italicized responses—seems mousy by comparison, hardly able to get a word in, and unable to convince her mother that she is wrong. When the mother says “don’t play benna in Sunday School; you mustn’t speak to the wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you,” the girl follows up with “but I don’t sing benna on Sundays and never in Sunday school”; the delayed answer about singing benna suggests that the girl has to fight to get a word in, and by the time she does, the mother is already off to new instructions (“this is how to sew on a button”). The soft anaphora at the start of the piece—“wash the clothes, wash the clothes”—suggests the repetitiousness of the mother’s decrees in general.
At points, the mother’s commands morph into sharp rebukes of her daughter’s supposed behavior, who she repeatedly labels a “slut.” “[O]n Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming,” the mother says; later, she demonstrates “how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t immediately recognize the slut I have warned you against becoming.” These chastisements paint a portrait of what the materfamilias seems to believe constitutes a “proper,” puritanical woman, which her daughter is failing at being. Yet the mother is complicated. At one point, she shows her daughter how to abort a child, implying that she, too, was taught this once: “this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child.” She also teaches her daughter “how to bully a man” and “how a man bullies you,” revealing that, for all her propriety, this mother will not let herself, or her child, be controlled by men.
She seems cruel and commanding at first, but by the end, she has become what many mothers are: complicated, animated by a multifaceted love daughters and sons may not understand until we, too, find ourselves speaking to a child in the ways we thought we never would.
My mother’s voice rings inside me, around me, a lot.
Keep your hair short, so it doesn’t curl, doesn’t show its kinks, doesn’t become the bad hair it’s so bent on becoming; don’t sit so close to the smokers; don’t sit with your back so low in a chair; stay away from those boys; turn off that show about all that, nobody is gay; I’ll talk to your father about beating you with his belt, you’re too old for him to take it off his waist and hit you like that, did you see what happened to Renee, the instructor beat her so hard that her skin turned red, it’s not right, but you still also mustn’t talk to your father that way; finish all the food on your plate; live in this home like a beautiful silent cage; this is how you curry chicken; don’t wear things on your lips that make them look shiny, too effeminate, it’s not right, in fact, don’t wear anything on your lips at all; I say this because I love you; don’t be like me when you grow up, because you were the only reason I stuck with my marriage; be like me when you grow up, proper; do not use slang; read your Bible, so you don’t become the abomination you so want to become; I say this because I love you; don’t let your hair get so long, because your kind of hair is bad, anyway; you know I love you, right; I know what the doctors said you were when you were born, a boy, how can you say you are a girl when I know what you are, how can you hate me so much when I tell you I don’t want this in my family, when I say I don’t want you to be a freak and a disgrace and someone who will make my sisters laugh at me and an unnatural anti-God thing, how can you expect me to react; you must hate me to do this to me; eat up; avoid biting into the mangoes with black spots on their sides; you will never find love, you will be homeless on the streets, who would want something like, like what you are, I cannot even say the word; I love you, you know.
Kincaid acknowledged that there were cultural differences between America and Antigua—and, with it, much of the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean. “I don’t think American women have much that we can draw from,” she said to Ferguson when asked about the “resurgence of black women writers in [America].” There is “a much different sensibility,” she claimed, in being black in America and black in a place like Antigua—a sentiment other Caribbean writers, like the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott, have echoed. “I think that American black people . . . have a kind of nationalism about [being black] that we don’t have: black nationalism,” Kincaid continued. “Because they are a minority, they are more concerned with their identity being extinct, whereas we don’t feel that way. Everybody [in Antigua] is black. I mean, we don’t think white people are permanent,” she added with a laugh. “We don’t feel permanent, either, but that feeling of ‘there will always be white people sitting on top of black people’—we don’t have.”
The truth is mixed. Racism and colorism—whereby there is an overwhelming sense that lighter skin (though not Caucasian skin, per se) equals more beautiful skin—unquestionably persist in our islands. V. S. Naipaul spoke of black Trinidadians in racist terms, branding them in 1980 “monkeys” and “contemptible . . . brutes” only “interesting to chaps in universities who want to do compassionate studies.” Where I grew up, “black like an African” was an insult people frequently used to suggest one was both dark-skinned and ignorant; the term bundled together anti-blackness, from black and mixed people, and old colonial stereotypes about Africa. Light skin was pretty skin, and non-tight curls and straight hair were “good” hair.
Still, Kincaid’s central argument is important: that blackness in one country is not necessarily fully equivalent to blackness in another. All too often, naïve Americans—most often on Twitter—seem to assume that the experience of being black in America is universal; this Americentric presumption is false, for what it is like to be black in one place is not always the same as what it is like somewhere else, even as there are many overt ways in which anti-black rhetoric appears across seas and borders. Anti-black racism appears everywhere, but we need nuance in how we speak about experiences of blackness—and, for that matter, other identities—in other times and places.
Even as Kincaid captures a specific image of motherhood and girlhood in “Girl,” one influenced by British-colonial notions of what it means to be a “proper” lady, Kincaid also gives us something that can resonate with many readers, regardless of background. In a short piece that is all one long sentence with no named characters or setting, Kincaid still manages to create real characters with desires. Her language, italicizations, and the form of the piece become part of the characterization in “Girl.” This is what makes her piece so lasting and rich: that out of what initially seems just a list of commands arises a fragment of beautiful, poignant memoir. It is a kind of cold pool I look into, every now and then, both excited and nervous at what I will see each time I read it, wondering if I will see my mother’s face, or my own.