On the Darkness at the Heart of Jamaica Kincaid’s Children’s Mystery

Gabrielle Bellot Considers Party

On the edge of a grand lake in Switzerland, Carl Jung had two extraordinary experiences. The first was that a large, rotund man was yelling at him for pushing off in a rowboat while standing up. At the time Jung, who was barely 12 years old, only knew how to ride a waidling, a gondola-like vessel, in which he was accustomed to pushing off while standing, and to the giant who owned the rowboat on Lake Lucerne, where Jung had been invited to spend the holidays with family friends, the young Jung had committed an unpardonable faux pas.

Jung acknowledged his error in treating all boats as the same, but he also found himself filled with a violent, affronted fury “that this fat, ignorant boor should dare to insult ME,” as he would relate, 76 years later, in his 1963 biography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. “This ME,” he continued, “was not only grown up, but important, an authority, a person with office and dignity, an old man, an object of respect and awe.”

Jung then had his second realization: not just that he was being as crass, if not more so, than his incensed interlocutor, but that he had thought of himself as an old man. Here was a 12-year-old boy, seeing himself, for a moment, as an old person. This would be a transformative moment for him—one of many in his youth in which Jung realized something about his identity, his existence as an “I,” his relationship to Descartes’ famous dictum, cogito, ergo sum.

“I was actually two different persons,” he mused. “One of them was the schoolboy who could not grasp algebra and was far from sure of himself; the other… was an old man who lived in the 18th century, who wore buckled shoes and a white wig and went driving in a fly.” In other worlds, he was an old soul, sometimes.

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I was struck by this passage in college, where I first read Jung. I had long felt something like this dimly. Much of the time, I was comfortable being a teen who was discovering the angstiest 1990s and ’00s bands possible to listen to on her MP3 player and who wanted to fit in with the other kids, but never quite could; at other times, I felt more at home chatting with the adults at parties about literature and fine art and even imagined myself as a woman in a beret sipping espressos in a café, book in hand. (I was a very cringey kid.)

It was a projection, more than anything else, a romanticization of a kind of imagery that I identified with. I never believed I was actually from another era, plucked from an earlier century one night by some fiend who had commandeered a TARDIS, but I felt at home in multiple worlds, and, as a result, I never fully felt like I fit in with either the present or the past. At other times, I just wanted to be an adult woman who could walk through town and be accepted at a glance as female, rather than a kid people called a boy, a term that hurt me because it felt so discordant with how I saw myself.

My dreams were impossible. In them, everyone simply accepted me as a woman, and my brown skin was not an impediment to walking through old centuries. I was not the knot of prejudices waiting to happen—queer, trans, brown, female, often floating on the blue-grey river of partial depression—I would later understand myself to be. Living primarily in a majority-black Caribbean country, I didn’t as yet understand the politics of my body in America, where I would live later. I was dreaming impossible little things.

But there were moments when I realized, less romantically, what it meant to be an adult.

This was when I became aware that I had a body that other people saw. That, to strangers or family members alike, my body might be something their eyes lingered on.

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I didn’t always have language for this. One moment was when I realized, to my horror, that an uncle of mine was attracted to me, as he drunkenly told me one night at a party after years of implying it with uncomfortable statements I didn’t fully understand. Another was the first time a man propositioned me—a large security guard in a museum in Washington, DC—and I didn’t know what to do, and realized I was terrified of telling anyone because I hadn’t even come out as trans yet and had no friends or family in the area, and I was afraid that if I said anything, that someone would see, instantly, that I was trans and decide to blame me for “deceiving” the guard by wearing a dress and makeup.

My dreams were impossible. In them, everyone simply accepted me as a woman, and my brown skin was not an impediment to walking through old centuries.

I remembered it when a male taxi driver asked me repeatedly not to leave his car, so that I would fuck him, and it was only reluctantly that he let me go. I remembered it when a man went down on me and wouldn’t stop even though I told him no. I remembered it when I looked up from a subway train near Ditmars in Queens the second time I was in New York City on my own and saw an old, liver-spotted man in a suit with his circumcised pink penis in his hand, jerking it back and forth, his eyes ghostly and pale, all the while he was seated next to a little black girl and her mother; I remember wondering if I should say something as the child and her mother got up, somehow having seen nothing—the man had been trying to hide his masturbation under a blue blazer—and then I just fled the train, unable to put it all into language.

I remember it every time I walk through a body-scanning machine at the TSA, hoping that my body will not trigger yet another anomaly, that I will be brought by force to a room and asked to strip. I remember it every time I enter a changing room for a pool or bath and realize I cannot fully change with the other women, that the cis women, including my partner, can strip out of their swimsuits and put back on their clothes, but I have to leave my swimsuit on and put my clothes on top of it, or change in a bathroom stall, if there’s one available, because revealing my full body might cause a panic, might cause someone to yell and call the police on me.

I remember it every time I am reminded that I am a woman in the world and yet, conversely, that there are spaces where I cannot tread, because I am not the “right” kind of woman.

In these moments, words often failed me. I didn’t know what to say. I had seen something I both did and didn’t understand.

None of it surprises me, anymore. I’m used to it, used to silently fearing being alone with men. I’m accustomed to the uncomfortable music of the unexpected, that music of quietude, which has now become the silent song I hear much of the time, on instinct. In some ways, gaining this sharp music, which has taken the place that some old diaphanous dreams used to be, has taught me what it really means to be that adult woman I used to imagine.

*

By the time she was 25, Jamaica Kincaid had become accustomed to writing the unexpected. She had moved into 449 West 22nd Street in New York City, and she had begun to write short, striking pieces for the New Yorker, which her editors sometimes published without a single change. Kincaid—who had been born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardsonin St. John’s, Antigua, adopting “Jamaica Kincaid” as a pseudonym to hide her writing from the vigilant eyes of her father—satirized cocktail parties and other events, often weaving them into the shape of other literary forms: a mystery story, an expense report, blocks of dialogue.

Once she was hired to work full-time—and she was surprised to be hired, musing that “I didn’t go to Harvard. I’m not a white man. I had no credentials”—she composed scathing jeremiads and acerbic commentary, foreshadowing A Small Place, her great polemical look at tourism, colonial legacies, and culture in Antigua.

When she was allowed to write in her own voice, her brief pieces defied simple categorization. Were they short stories? Prose poems? Satires on the American upper-class? Her most lyrical compositions—like “Girl,” my favorite short piece of hers, a stream-of-consciousness dialogue of sorts between a mother and daughter—presaged, and occasionally would appear in, her first story collection. Her short work was sometimes mechanical, functional; at other times, it was like stepping into the luminous pool of a dream’s streetlamp, shadows rippling by at the light’s margins.

Party has layers. It functions as a subtle message about what it means to witness horror to such a degree that we lose our language for it.

One of those short pieces, “Party,” took on a life of its own. Originally a 1980 “Talk of the Town” composition, it has reappeared in 2019 as a lavish picture book, also entitled Party, featuring stunning large-scale illustrations by Ricardo Cortés. That it has reappeared nearly 40 years later is a testament to its expectation-defying power—a power that’s easy to miss, due to the story’s seeming slightness and its never-explained ending.

Just as James Baldwin’s own book for children (and adults), Little Man, Little Man, says something larger about race, gender, and America than it might first appear to, so, too, does Party, albeit much more subtly. In both books, Baldwin and Kincaid write, with an illusive gentleness, about black kids being forced to grow up too soon.

Party is superficially simple and safe—and, of course, for readers familiar with Kincaid’s oeuvre, “simple” and “safe” are not the first adjectives that usually describe her writing. Subtitled A Mystery, the picture book—Kincaid’s first for children—even initially seems cute and charming. Its cover features two black girls, one of whom is smilingly concentrated on an elaborately sprinkled piece of cake, and the other of which, bedecked in a purple floral dress over which she has overlaid a deep pink tutu, has wide eyes and her hand over her mouth, as if in an expression of melodramatic shock.

Behind her, in a dramatic windowpane from the New York Public Library, a haunting full moon peeks out from behind trees. From its cover, and even as one starts to read, it seems like a playfully dark, sweet mystery story for kids.

In reality, however, much like “Girl,” Party has layers. It functions as a subtle message about what it means to witness horror to such a degree that we lose our language for it; it is a quiet story about coming of age, suddenly, as a young black girl because of what the world shows us. It is about the many words our silence can hold, the way our absences can ring as loudly and discordantly as the words we do feel able to say.

Read more deeply, Kincaid’s narrative feels like a strange, soft introduction to the inexplicability of trauma, to that wandering, will-o-the-wisp language we have to search for before we can use it, and which none of us, really, can ever fully speak without the words hurting in our mouths.

*

The 1980 version of “Party” was intended, in part, as satire of the sometimes cliched writing of the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s popular mystery books, which included the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series. The New Yorker’s description emphasizes this. “Party” is a

Talk story about a party celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first of the Nancy Drew mystery books. Writer parodies the Nancy Drew books by describing the party through the conversation of three girls, Pam, Bess, and Pam’s younger sister Sue. Pam and Bess see something or someone among the milling guests that horrifies them. It goes away before Sue finds out what it was. They never tell her anything.

Because the narrative is so elliptical and parodic, it’s easy to ignore the profounder resonances of what it means for girls to see something terrifying—implicitly, something the adults are doing—that they cannot put into words, and that they perhaps wish to shield the youngest girl from, for a bit. This dynamic of children being shocked by adults echoes the imagery of Kincaid’s novels, like Annie John and Autobiography of My Mother, in which adults similarly inspire a sense of revulsion, even preternatural terror, in children.

It echoes “Girl,” too, as both feature a girl struggling to speak. A portrait in dialogue, “Girl” is almost entirely composed of a series of commands given, it seems, by a mother to a daughter, each punctuated by semicolons rather than periods, so that the entire piece is one long sentence. The mother’s advice generally seems rigid and puritanical, concerned with shaping her child into a proper lady rather than, as she says in a judgmental tone twice, “that slut you are so bent on becoming,” but the mother also teaches her child how to have an abortion, implying that she might have had one herself, and shows her both how men might bully her and how she, in turn, can bully men.

She wishes her child to be strong and self-sufficient at the same time that she does not wish for her child to stray from a predefined path of propriety. Twice, italics appear, and these, implicitly, are the responses of her daughter; the mother’s commands far outnumber the daughter’s comparatively mousy, seemingly timid presence. The single-sentence structure suggests the unendingness of the mother’s instructions.

Still, in “Girl,” it is implied that the daughter struggles to get a word in because of the sheer overwhelmingness of her mother’s deluge of dicta and pronouncements. In “Party,” something similarly overwhelms the girls’ ability to articulate what they’ve witnessed, but, like Sue, we are never privy to what that thing is; whereas the daughter in “Girl” tries to get a word in edgewise but is talked over or rebuffed, the girls in “Party” can’t find the words to begin with.

It’s difficult to read Party without thinking of this new edition of the book as a quiet commentary on how horror shapes young girls, even if something about it remains Kurtzian in its inexpressibility.

It isn’t just that the two eldest girls hold themselves back from voicing what they have witnessed; it is as if they can’t, or won’t, say what they saw, as if the revelation itself will be too heavy, too dense, too much, if rendered in language.

Party reproduces the core narrative of the 1980 story, but the latter is a little longer, lacks illustrations, includes additional dialogue, and gives the youngest girl, Sue, a more sardonic personality. There is less indication here that the girls are the dark-skinned protagonists of the 2019 version; the only description Kincaid gives of complexion is when one girl, Bess, sees the “vile” and “bilious” unnamed horror at the party: “her face turn[s] first a ghostly white, then a vivid red,” a description that could have been copied from countless mysteries about white characters.

This may imply the girls have lighter skin, but we are ultimately left without the definitive darkness of skin that Cortés’ images grants to the story. This racial emptiness, though, was likely intentional, a way to signal the tropes and overwhelming implicit whiteness of mystery series like Nancy Drew, and it makes Cortés’ and Kincaid’s decision to render them unambiguously black in the 2019 illustrations all the more powerful.

And, of course, what we don’t see is significant, too. “I resisted the urge to reveal anything too overtly,” Cortes said in a statement about illustrating the “disruptive spectacle” of Kincaid’s “strange tease” of a mystery. “With no explicit unveil of the great enigma,” he continued, “this created an extraordinary challenge of telling a story simply through the emotions and expressions of the characters.”

The first time he read her 1980 piece, he was astonished that, “unlike most children’s books,” there was “no clarity or convenient moral tale to wrap it up.” This allows us to translate the tale to our own experiences and understanding of what the girls likely saw, their memorable visages a suggestive guide.

Defying the template of most conventional mysteries, the crime is never solved; the climax, instead, is that there is a mystery at all, and an unfathomable one at that. Kincaid has gone beyond parodying Nancy Drew; she has subverted the basic expectations of the genre altogether. After this quietly climactic little moment, the girls are changed; they cannot return to what or who they were before witnessing this inexplicable thing. It is quite possible they do not even understand what they saw.

Perhaps they are prudes, simply reacting to seeing adults kiss, or something else consensual; but perhaps they saw something else, something that reshapes how they imagine their own bodies as girls, for what happened so “vilely” to the person in front them might, in turn, happen to them. The language of horror, of trauma, slips through our grasp like sand.

In 2019, it’s difficult to read the book without thinking of this new edition of the book as a quiet commentary on how horror shapes young girls, even if something about it remains Kurtzian in its inexpressibility. Kincaid’s gentle touch with the girls’ dialogue here belies the way this book shows what it is like to learn, suddenly, that there is a bit more night in the world, and that the lights never erase it, but just keep it at bay, for a bit longer.

It is one of those books that may seem silly, even boring, as a child, and may seem the same as an adult, until you explore it a bit deeper, and find something unsettling and quietly, darkly transformative in the music of those silences.

Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, The Cut, Tin House, The Guardian, Guernica, The Normal School, The Poetry Foundation, Lambda Literary, and many other places. She is working on her first novel.





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