The power of Kincaid’s work seems to rise equally from her themes of family relationships and alienation, her use of detail to create exotic settings, and her anger, which is aimed at the world that has betrayed her—that is, at her family (especially her mother) and at the affluent white world, which generally treats people of developing nations with the same callous disregard that Great Britain brought to bear on Antigua during its rule of the island.
Family relationships are central to Kincaid’s work. In “Girl,” a story created from one two-page sentence, Kincaid nevertheless manages to evoke the tensions between a young woman and her mother. As the mother instructs the daughter in every level of “right” behavior for a young woman, she is interrupted only twice, and then only briefly, by the protesting daughter.
The tensions of “Girl” are expanded into a major plot element in Annie John, a brief novel that begins by describing a child who finds herself in the emotional paradise created by her loving relationship with her mother. Inexplicably, their devotion begins to crumble. No reason is given, and the reader is left to imagine the source of the trouble. Perhaps the mother is distracted by her relationship with her husband. Perhaps it is the inevitable result of Annie John’s approaching adolescence and of her simultaneous intellectual and sexual awakening. At the end of the novel, as Annie John leaves her beautiful island to pursue nurse’s training in Great Britain, she feels both desolated at the thought of leaving her family and tense with uncertainty and expectation about the future.
In Lucy, Kincaid continues her examination of mother-daughter relationships, this time on two levels. Lucy, the novel’s central character, seems in many ways to be the continuation of Annie John. As the novel opens, Lucy has just arrived in New York to work as a nurse to the four young daughters of a wealthy family. In the succeeding months, Lucy watches the family, at first assuming it to be idyllic in its happiness. Gradually, she becomes aware of its tensions, and at last those tensions result in the parents’ separation and divorce.
At the same time, Lucy is carrying out a bitter battle with her own family, especially with her mother. At home, as a child, she had carried out her rebellions secretly, by making friends of whom her mother would not approve and by experimenting sexually (also in secret). She continues this behavior in New York, but she adds to it a refusal even to open her mother’s letters. She assumes that such behavior is the only way in which she can free herself from her past. At last, she learns from a family friend that her father has died and that her mother is in desperate need of money. Lucy sends all of her savings to her mother, but she also writes her a bitter letter of rejection and accusation. When she later relents and writes a gentler letter, she includes a false return address, and she knows that her promise to go home soon is a lie.
Kincaid’s spare, concrete style is often regarded as a particular characteristic of her narrative skills. Her descriptions of the island (it is never actually named) in Annie John and Lucy are full of exotic details about foods, plants, animals, and colorful local people. She names the fish that make up every islander’s diet—pink mullet, lady doctor fish, angel and kanya fish—and foods such as green figs cooked in coconut milk, plantains, bananas, lemons, limes, almonds, dasheen, and cassavas. She describes the herb-laced baths her mother prepared for her and the stone heap in the yard on which white clothes were dried. She refers to herb and magic doctors (one of them, Ma Jolie, helps Annie John during a dangerous illness) and to people who are possessed by evil spirits. Kincaid’s story collection At the Bottom of the River is especially rich in this sort of detail.
One critic has noted that Kincaid is uncompromising in presenting these pictures of a world that is quite foreign to most of her readers. She never explains or clarifies details; she never describes the island world in reference to North America. She approaches race in much the same way. She never speaks to the reader as a writer of color; instead, her color becomes the norm. In the same way, she speaks as a representative of the people who have been colonized. In her work, “we” always refers to people of color from colonial countries. The rulers and tourists, like the inhabitants of the middle-class world of the United States, are the outsiders.
Kincaid’s anger at the ruins that British colonial rule created in Antigua is the topic of her essay A Small Place (1988). She decries the governmental, educational, and administrative shambles that resulted when the British left and complains about the island’s inability to govern its own affairs without corruption, waste, and ineptitude. Such problems, she implies, are the natural legacy of slavery and colonial rule.
In Annie John and Lucy, Kincaid displays the same anger in fictional settings. Annie John, for example, reflects on a new schoolmate, an English girl, imagining that she must long to be in England, where she would not constantly be reminded of the terrible things her ancestors had done. In the same chapter (“Columbus in Chains”), Annie John writes a satiric caption under a picture of Christopher Columbus in her schoolbook, outraging her teacher. Similarly, Lucy, living in New York, has frequent occasions to make observations about the relationship between wealth and poverty in the world. She notes, for example, that her employers, Mariah and Lewis, often express concern for rain forests and endangered animals without ever reflecting that their own standard of living creates much of the threat to these things. That sort of acerbic observation is as much a part of Kincaid’s style as are her references to obeah women and green figs. That she can combine narrative, description, and social commentary into her slender novels is part of her achievement.
First published: 1983 (collected in At the Bottom of the River, 1983)
Type of work: Short story
In this single-sentence story, a mother instructs her daughter in the ways of womanhood.
Like Kincaid’s other short stories, “Girl” is extremely brief and can hardly be said to have a plot, although the reader can easily imagine a dramatic context in which this monologue might be spoken. The central voice is that of the unnamed mother; the reader must assume that the “girl” of the title is her daughter, although the relationship is never stated. Twice the daughter’s voice (indicated by italics) interrupts the mother to protest the implications of her instructions, but the mother continues her directions.
The mother is directing her daughter about how to live as an adult woman, and many of her comments comprise practical advice. From the first clause, when the mother tells her daughter to put freshly washed white clothes on a stone heap and to wash the “color clothes” on Tuesday, the reader recognizes that the story’s setting is not the United States. The speaker tells the daughter how to soak salt fish, how to cook pumpkin fritters, how to iron her father’s shirt and pants properly, how to grow okra and dasheen, how to sweep the house and yard.
Also early in the story, the reader senses that the daughter is at the edge of sexual maturity. The mother’s direction to her daughter to “soak your little cloths” as soon as she takes them off—a reference to menstruation—establishes that fact. Throughout the story, many of the mother’s directions are aimed at preventing the girl from becoming the “slut” her mother obviously thinks she longs to be. She directs her not to sing popular music in Sunday school, not to talk to wharf-rat boys for any reason, and not to eat fruit on the street, because it will make flies follow her. This sort of advice is intermingled with commentary about practical matters of cooking and cleaning, but the speaker’s primary motivation is to prevent her daughter from becoming a “slut”—or at least from being perceived as one. She also tells her daughter about a medicine for abortion and makes the observation that if her directions about how to love a man do not work, the girl should not regret giving up.
The mother’s sexual advice is intermingled with social advice. She tells the girl how to smile at someone she does not like, as well as how to smile at someone she likes very much, and tells her how to avoid evil spirits (what looks like a blackbird, the mother says, may be something else entirely).
The two-and-a-half-page monologue does not actually include the instructions for all these activities; instead, the parallel clauses introduced with “this is how . . .” suggest the ways that adults model behavior for children. Presumably, the daughter is watching and learning. At the same time, the mother’s negative tone indicates that she has little hope of her daughter’s growing into decent adulthood, so that the daughter’s two protests create the story’s tension. Nevertheless, the mother has the last word. When the girl asks what to do if the baker will not let her test the bread’s freshness by squeezing it, the mother wonders if her daughter will become the “kind of woman the baker won’t let near the bread.”
First published: 1985
Type of work: Novel
A young girl comes of age in an island nation and discovers the depth of her...
(The entire section is 3973 words.)
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; don’t walk bare-head in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum in it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; 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; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you; but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; 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; this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease; this is how you grow okra—far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it; this 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; 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; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don’t squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know; 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 a 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; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you; this is how to make ends meet; always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread? ♦