Monday, July 23, 2001

Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

I want to talk to you this morning about an astoundingly good book entitled Autobiography of My Mother, by Jamaica Kincaid. Those of you who have heard me discussing other books over the years will realize that my tendency is simply to review what I am currently reading, and while I never bother to talk about books that I think are bad or mediocre (and, indeed, rarely bother to finish such books), I do talk about a lot of good first novels. I also mention many books that are good, seem really to have important social or political points, but are not great books or must reads. I say all of this in order to call your attention to this book, to put it in a category not simply of the good, or even the excellent. This book is simply superb.

Let me hasten to add that this is not a book you should read if you are depressed, nor is it one that you should read if your attention is scattered or distracted. You will need to be focused, and you will need to feel strong, for this is a book about oppression—layers of oppression, even a hierarchy of oppression. On the cover one reviewer says that this book is “Fierce, incantatory, lyrical, powerful and disturbing.” Yes, at least. It is also about a person who is fierce and disturbed.

Were I to try to compare this book or to find others of its kind, the first thought that would come to mind is Richard Wright’s Native Son. In Native Son Wright is trying to warn his readers what happens to people who are ruthlessly oppressed and exploited for too long, what the consequences of exploitation are. There is nothing sentimental or heartwarming about that book, and much the same can be said for this one. The entire book is told through the eyes of a woman who is thrown into the world without a mother and left to wonder what might have been had she had one. She is unloved as a baby, unloved as a girl, and incapable of love as an adult. But though the book is, at least on the surface, about this poor girl and woman, it is really about economic exploitation and about the racism and sexism that follow in its wake.

I would say that this is an ugly book were I to concentrate on the events described, on the life of this woman, but the writing is almost searingly beautiful. Indeed, it seems to me that in reviewing this, I could turn to almost any page and begin reading, and if you are a lover of good writing, you would be entranced by the lyricism of the words. Indeed, instead of even trying to overview the series of events this book describes or to encapsulate what I take to be the obvious political messages, I am in a moment simply going to read to you a few passages, trusting Kincaid to recommend herself to you in a way that I never could. In order to provide just a bit of context for the passages I read, let me say that Kincaid understands as well as Franz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, and his other book The Wretched of the Earth what it means for oppressed people to inculcate the values of the oppressor. The woman in this story is not only motherless, but the daughter of a father who aspires to everything that his oppressors represent. Indeed, he is a jailer, a policeman for the oppressors, as proud of his light-dark skin as he is of his money and his power over those unfortunate enough to be beneath him, to be be subject to his reign. In Kincaid’s words: “... his presence as always was a sign of misfortune. Wherever he was, someone was bound to have less than they’d had before my father made an appearance.”

Almost from first breath, Xuela distrusts, even hates her father—hates who he is and what he stands for, hates what he sees as his strength and his superiority. If she allows him to represent what it is to be a man, it is no wonder; allows him to represent what it is to white, it is no wonder, allows him to represent what it is to be an owner, a ruler a person-in-power, it is no wonder. There is no doubt that Xuela is a person who is full to the brim with bitterness, a person who hates life, who distrusts the future, who is cynical and who preaches a kind of destructive nihilism. A kind of echo of Wright’s essay, “White Man Listen,” this book is a warning about what we can expect to reap from decades and generations of oppression.

And now, let me direct your attention to Kincaid, to her writing, her words, and then you can decide when you will choose to pick up this book.
“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.” Though the language of her peers, the language of Dominica, is French patois, her first words are in English. As she later reflects on this, she says: “That the first words I said were in the language of a people I would never like or love is not now a mystery to me; everything in my life, good or bad, to which I am inextricably bound is a source of pain.”

Dropped off by her father to be cared for by a woman who did his laundry, she in one bundle, the laundry in another, she is not surprised by the indifference of her keeper. When her proud, even supercilious father sends her to school (unlike the other girls around her), the first words she learns to read are at the top of a map; the words are, The British Empire. “My teacher was a woman who had been trained by Methodist missionaries; she was of the African people, that I could see, and she found this a source of humiliation and self-loathing, and she wore despair like an article of clothing, like a mantel, or a staff on which she leaned constantly, a birthright which she would pass on to us. She did not love us; we did not love her; we did not love one another, not then, not ever.” Xuela says of herself that she is partly of the Carib people, partly of the African. “The Carib people had been defeated and then exterminated, thrown away like the weeds in a garden; the African people had been defeated but had survived.” Because Xuela can read so well and can remember every detail of what she reads, her teacher tells the other students that Xuela is possessed, that she is evil, and cites as evidence the fact that her mother is Carib. Everywhere there is distrust; her father tells her that “these people” cannot be trusted, though she quickly comes to see that “these people” were ourselves. “.... this insistence on mistrust of others—that people who looked so very much like each other, who shared a common history of suffering and humiliation and enslavement, should be taught to mistrust each other, even as children, is no longer a mystery to me. The people we should naturally have mistrusted were beyond our influence completely; what we needed to defeat them, to rid ourselves of them, was something far more powerful than mistrust. To mistrust each other was just one of the many feelings we had for each other, all of them the opposite of love, all of them standing in the place of love.”

When her father remarries, Xuela is (eventually) brought ‘home’. “Not long after I came to live with them, my father’s wife began to have her own children. She bore a boy first, then she had a girl. This had two predictable outcomes: she left me alone and she valued her son more than her daughter. That she did not think very much of the person who was most like her, a daughter, a female, was so normal that it would have been noticed only if it had been otherwise: to people like us, despising anything that was most like ourselves was almost a law of nature.”
That this book is beautifully, hauntingly written is undoubtedly true, and even more important is the substance, the ‘message’ of the book. It is a great book, and one that you should read.

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