The Autobiography of My Mother

The following is a sort-of review of Jamaica Kincaid's Autobiography of My Mother. This is the sort of thing I post on my blog that tends to end up getting plagiarized for someone's assignment. It's so obvious from the referrers: people search for something like "essays julia alvarez in the time of the butterflies." Then, a while later, there come those searches for a sentence or two of my post in quotation marks. For those portions of my audience, then:

1. You really ought to read the book yourself. This you're about to read is my personal reaction to it. You may very well see something I didn't. Also, my book review may not touch on the content of your particular course. This will be a dead giveaway for your teacher. Finally, it offends me that you would take my name off this and put yours on. I put time and effort into reading the book and writing my review.

2. Glad you found the original source. Typing that sentence into Google and seeing that hit come up feels like a punch in the gut, I know.

Forgive that distraction, but I wanted my opinion to be right here in the post. My friend Darren has a similar note, but on the About page of his blog:

A special note to students: if you quote from this site—and judging by traffic statistics, The Woman Warrior, Benito Cereno, July's People, and Buried Child are popular choices—please cite it properly. Your teachers are not stupid.

On with the review...

Prior to this, I had read the following works by Kincaid: Annie John, Lucy, A Small Place, and At the Bottom of the River. I own My Brother and Mr. Potter and hope to read those when I get back home after the holidays.

I started reading Kincaid in college. A professor had assigned her short story "Girl" in a class, and I went out and got my hands on all the Kincaid I could. I did that all the time with other authors I liked. Do undergraduate students still do that? I would love to hear about it if they do. :-)

Whereas Annie John and Lucy are Bildungsromane, albeit with their own complexities about race, economics (Lucy is an au pair for a white family), and identity, Autobiography is on a par with A Small Place in its exploration of colonialism and its consequences.

The narrator, Xuela Claudette Richardson, has a father who is half Scottish, half African. Her father has wholly identified with his Scottish side; he is greedy and power-hungry. The narrator is sent to live with several different families, but for a time lives with her father and his new wife. The new wife gives birth to two children, a girl and a boy. Xuela has no friends, and she feels no love or affection for anyone, though she has several lovers; as a character she is shockingly empty, but she does have sympathy for the poor, "defeated" people around her in the aggregate and abstract. She is indifferent to her half-siblings until the boy dies of a terrible disease and the girl experiences an unwanted pregnancy (Xuela helps her terminate the pregnancy).

Xuela doesn't love anyone, and she doesn't want anyone to love her. The postcolonial condition of herself and others in her community coupled with the loss of her mother, a Carib woman, in childbirth cause Xuela to be utterly alienated from everyone. By that I mean that people in her country don't trust each other; as children, they are taught not to trust anyone, and they are trained to be ashamed of themselves -- their hair, skin color, and language ("proper English" and French or English patois are referenced several times. Xuela's stepmother speaks to her in patois as a sign of disrespect, for example).

Recurring themes include defeat, sex (and the absence of its attendant shame, and masturbation, and fascination with one's body), disappointment, silence (and its various characters), internalized misogyny (the women in the novel hate each other inexplicably), existential crisis. There's an example of that last one on page 202:

It is said that unless you are born a god, your life, from its very beginning, is a mystery to you. You are conceived; you are born: these things are true, how could they not be, but you don't know them; you only have to believe them, for there is no other explanation. You are a child and you find the world big and round and you have to find a place in it. How to do that is yet another mystery, and no one can tell you how exactly. You become a woman, a grown-up person. Against ample evidence, against your better judgment, you put trust in the constancy of things, you place faith in their everydayness. One day you open your door, you step out in your yard, but the ground is not there and you fall into a hole that has no bottom and no sides and no color. The mystery of the hole in the ground gives way to the mystery of your fall; just when you get used to falling and falling forever, you stop, and that stopping is yet another mystery, for why did you stop, there is not an answer to that any more than there is an answer to why you fell in the first place. Who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you. And why not, why not!

Xuela also gives sensuous descriptions of landscapes and bodies, and she reflects at length on motherhood, mothering, and the absence of a mother. It was a great novel, and I recommend it.