This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Jamaica Kincaid (1949 – ) is a critically acclaimed Caribbean writer living in the United States. Her stories have appeared in the Paris Review, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker as well as the anthology The New Gothic (1990). She has won the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Prix Femina Étranger, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, among others. “My Mother” (1979), which is featured as part of The Weird, appeared in her first collection, At the Bottom of the River (1983). Her evocative fiction often features strong maternal characters as well as colonial and post-colonial themes. “My Mother” is a phantasmagorical take on the weird through the lens of transformation. 101 Weird Writers is delighted to present this appreciation of Kincaid and “My Mother,” written by our newest contributor, Leif Schenstead-Harris.
– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
“It is in this way my mother and I have lived for a long time now.”
— Jamaica Kincaid, “My Mother”
“There is no there there.”
— Gertrude Stein
I. Living the Unreal
Jamaica Kincaid is more than familiar with the power of writing. Worried about the consequences of writing stories and protective of her identity, she changed her name in 1973 from Elaine Potter Richardson to Jamaica Kincaid. The change disguised her, in part, but also inaugurated a linguistic self-invention; it gave her license to explore the limits and permissions associated with the weird power of names and language. As the writer herself puts it, the change of name was an attempt “to do things without being the same person who couldn’t do them” (Garis). We might note at the very outset a basic strangeness to Kincaid’s writing, a tense relationship between the power of names and the identity of the things that are named. There is, in other words, a productive tension between conventional expectations of a name’s given identity and the power generated by escaping such conventions.
However Kincaid is not often discussed as an especially weird writer. There are, it must be said, good reasons for this inattention, foremost among them the strong biographical elements of Kincaid’s writing. At the age of sixteen she left her home and family in Antigua for New York where, some nine years later, her career as a writer began as a New Yorker contributor. From that period onward her stories have thematized her memories of Antigua and her dislocation from family and culture. Kincaid’s style is often judged complex, confrontational, sometimes controversial, and undeniably powerful. When critics examine family and geography in her work, they generally focus on two central themes: “the inequality of gender relations and the aftermath of colonization” (Edwards 3). Most commonly, then, Kincaid’s fiction is addressed as a long if complicated mediation on family roles and personal history.
Yet these themes are part of a deep and far-reaching structure visible in Kincaid’s literary output, namely, a critique of representation through language—an argument with realism. As Kincaid puts it, she realized long ago that the idea of writing in a “realistic” fashion, of “representing something as it is,” is “absurd” (Cudjoe 403). Not coincidentally does she express admiration for Polish writer Bruno Schulz (whose “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” also appears in The Weird), nor does she accidentally describe her interest in South African writer Nadine Gordimer in the following way: “the writing of hers that I like […] is completely weird” (Cudjoe 403). In an aesthetic approach similar to the post-impressionist painters or modernist writers such as Paul Cézanne or Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, Kincaid employs intense distortions of form and narrative to convey a strong sense of felt experience. She describes her earliest writings as “attempts to discard conventions, my own conventions, and conventions that exist within writing” (Vorda 87). In this regard she is like Samuel Beckett, pushing at the conventions of language (and language is only a set of conventions) in the search for something beyond language, a form of communication that, while using words, goes beyond them to find something else. It is here—in a wordless space of intensity—that Kincaid’s work becomes truly weird. “I come from a place that’s very unreal,” Kincaid has said of her childhood in Antigua (Vorda 88).[i] Her writing can be approached as a weird normalization of this very lived unreality.[ii]
“Girl”—one of the most prominent short stories in Kincaid’s early collection At the Bottom of the River—demonstrates exactly this line of attack on conventional modes of representation and narrative. Only one sentence long, if a very long sentence, “Girl” presents a controlling barrage of commands and questions with a devastating accretive effect. Ostensibly the story is a mother’s list of directions to her daughter about the proper and improper ways of doing things. However the voice is rhetorically manipulative and repetitive, leaving almost no room for the hearer to draw back, breathe, or respond in its cramped domestic space:
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 to 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 (4)
As one critic observes, this is “the verbal equivalent of a sudden slap to the face” (Boulson 25). The very structure of these commands counteracts their plausible intent and, in this, they reflect St. Lucian writer Derek Walcott’s famous observation that each of Kincaid’s sentences “heads toward its own contradiction” (qtd. in Garis). Far from focusing on how these demands could be carried out, and in opposition to any nurturing or educational intent, the carriage of the mother’s words breaks down in Kincaid’s antirealist style as the language used to communicate the demands crumples from a punishing weight—in other words, “Girl” demonstrates how language cannot carry the emotional force of the mother’s repeating demands, while also uncannily simulating such intensity for the story’s reader. This is emphatically not realist narrative. “Girl” instead admits the impossibility of realist representation and performs an intense expression of the felt reality of a girl staggering under the weight of her mother’s insistent presence. It is also a silent dialogue between the girl’s presumed sexual maturation and her mother’s contemptuous exhortations against her daughter becoming “the slut I have warned you against” (4).[iii]
To sum up, there are good reasons to approach Kincaid as a writer in the weird, although not, perhaps, a weird that comes screaming from beyond humanity as other American writers of the weird, such as H.P. Lovecraft, have demonstrated. She is instead a writer of the intimate weird, one eminently human. Her writings are the work of a secret sharer stealing in to catch a reader off guard—it is a weird uncannily recognizable and domestic, in fact. Perhaps this is where Kincaid’s emotional intensity emanates from. Take for example the following passage, from another of the stories in At the Bottom of the River, “The Letter from Home”:
I ate my food, I chewed each mouthful thirty-two times, I swallowed carefully, my toe healed; there was a night, it was dark, there was a moon, it was full, there was a bed, it held sleep; there was movement, it was quick, there was a being, it stood still, there was a space, it was full, then there was nothing. (38)
Scanning the rhythms of this passage requires letting go of a plot-based or conventional understanding of narrative. We find instead an assemblage of intensities represented by sudden details, suggestive images, and syntactic disorientation. These sentences require thoughts to stretch and include not just the conventions of logic but also irrational thought and feelings. Kincaid’s literary world in At the Bottom of the River is one in which metaphors and dreams effectively obtain the reality they always had, but which has been obscured by the busy materiality of things and the armature of details that disturb the haecceities of life’s “luminous halo,” as Virginia Woolf might put it (160). It’s in this light that we should turn to “My Mother.”
II. Suffocation & Reconciliation
On the face of it “My Mother” is a simple story. It tells the story of a daughter and her mother as they vie for control over each other and, in the process, as they deal with the difficult closeness of their relationship and the separation that the daughter’s maturation entails. After many manipulations of size and emotions, the daughter finally leaves her mother on a long boat journey, recalling Kincaid’s own trip from Antigua to America. On the water’s other side the young girl finds a new mother, one much friendlier than the old. They are blissful. Such is the plot. However shifting perspectives and a fantastical play of figures characterize the story and make indistinct the differences between rhetorical overstatements and lived experience. It has thus been given a number of explanatory labels: surrealist, magical realist, Modernist. It has even, as one critic points out, been deemed one of the many stories in a puzzling collection which, on the whole, “defie[s] sensible communication” (Edwards 17). But how is the story so strange?
One way to approach the story is to consider the relationship between mother and daughter as it becomes intensified by changes in identity. “My Mother” suggests and reflects on the daughter’s physical growth and gradual sexual maturation. The conflict already present in the relationship between girl and mother “intensifies when the girl, growing her own bosoms, becomes an adolescent” (Bouson 31). Thus a familial relationship of nurture and care becomes one of torturous closeness as the two navigate the changing power dynamics of their shared space. Seeking an individual identity and a different kind of acceptance, the daughter tries to break away. However, as one commentator writes, “this decision to ‘break away’ is seen as a traitorous act by the mother, who feels that her impositions cater to the well-being of her daughter” (Alexander 19).[iv] The oscillation between love and hate results in near-suffocation—an intense emotion that comes across in the extremism of the story’s language and its rapid changes of place and figure—and the daughter understandably wants to escape her mother’s influence. On close inspection the domestic subject matter demands a mode of expression suitable to conveying such a complex and changing pattern of associations and emotions.
A series of weird transformations and constructions convey this oscillating relationship and grant the story a dangerous, even threatening edge. Early on the mother becomes a metallic, toothy snake from rubbing reptile oil over herself, and invites her daughter to do the same. Stung by an competitive instinct the girl imitates her mother and tells us “now I too traveled along on my white underbelly, my tongue darting and flickering in the hot air” (519). Yet the daughter cannot outpace her mother through such fantastic events: “I had grown big, but my mother was bigger, and that would always be so” (519). Neither can the girl create a domestic structure in which to trap her mother (the attempt is perhaps an ironic reflection on the trap of words and commands the mother of “Girl” built for her daughter). Building a house with a deep hole for a floor, the girl is chagrined to hear her mother pointedly pound her feet on the air. A set of complicated emotions attends this competition as the girl feels sadness and anger, distance and attachment. After burning down the floor-less house, the girl departs to a self-imposed isolation but “soon grew tired of living in this way and returned to [her] mother’s side”; there, she “remained, through glowing red with anger” (519). An impasse: the girl does and does not want her mother in her life.
I missed my mother’s close company and cried constantly for her, but at the end of each day when I saw her return to her house, incredible and great deeds in her wake, each of them singing loudly her praises, I glowed and glowed again, red with anger. Eventually I wore myself out and sank into a deep, deep sleep, the only dreamless sleep I have ever had. (519)
A drastic splitting or schism seems the only route forward for the story’s characters at this critical moment—or a complete dissolution of the tension that marks their boundaries. Thus, despite her crying protestations, the daughter departs across an ocean to a new land. To transform a blocking wall, a suffocating other into an escape route is to pass over water, Kincaid suggests, but must be with the full knowledge that on the far side an uncanny doppelgänger might be waiting for us in the figure of a secret shared between strangers. “When the boat stopped,” the daughter tells us, “I got off and I saw a woman with feet exactly like mine, especially around the arch of the instep. Even though the face was completely different from what I was used to, I recognized this woman as my mother” (520). In this dreamlike story the girl’s collapse into a sleep without dreams does the impossible. It transports her into a kind of reconciliation with the image of her mother. Having traveled across the waters the girl finds a shape of alterity more amenable to herself:
I fit perfectly in the crook of my mother’s arm, on the curve of her back, in the hollow of her stomach. We eat from the same bowl, drink from the same cup; when we sleep, our heads rest on the same pillow. As we walk through the rooms, we merge and separate, merge and separate; soon we shall enter the final stage of our evolution. (520)
Here, as in so many other weird stories, the reader must decide what to do with an ambiguous ending. The story demands readers evaluate its last, ambiguous paragraph as it narrates exactly this “final stage”: a full capitulation to the suffocating closeness of the earlier antagonistic relationship between mother and daughter. Paradoxically, this new relationship is less suffocating despite its exact congruence with the old. The daughter seems to have “fully embraced her submission to the mother” and, strikingly, almost “merge[s] with her” (Paravisini-Gerbert 78). “I am sitting in my mother’s enormous lap,” the daughter reports, and while she rests in this new paradise the natural world reflects her passage into sexual maturity (520). Trees are producing fruit.
The lime trees are weighed down with limes—I have already perfumed myself with their blossoms. A hummingbird has nested on my stomach, a sign of my fertileness. My mother and I live in a bower made from flowers whose petals are imperishable. There is the silvery blue of the sea, crisscrossed with sharp darts of light, there is the warm rain falling on the clumps of castor bush, there is the soft ground welcoming the soles of my pink feet. It is in this way my mother and I have lived for a long time now. (520)
After so many transformations the characters of “My Mother” appear to have reached a kind of peace in a frozen pastoral landscape.[v] Legitimate questions remain about this ending, however; its very dreamlike perfection suggests the transience of an otherworldly vision. In an interview elsewhere, the author acknowledges a private dream. “I suppose I just want things to stay still,” she admits, talking about her desire for “something that won’t perish or won’t go away; that it would remain just sort of paradisiacal. Not eternal … but just the possibility of …” (Cudjoe 411). The suggestive ellipses remain blank. Their waiting emptiness concedes the dream of the story’s pastoral ending. It is not part of reality, but not apart from reality either. The location pointed to by the words is empty. Kincaid instead gives her readers a pensive hope for peace as she searches for a place where there is a “there there,” to reverse Gertrude Stein’s famous phrase.
III. Weirding the Real
At the story’s end readers are left in a state of estrangement, familiar with the given words but pushed away by the sheer intensity and depth of their feeling and desires. Perhaps this tension helps explain why Kincaid’s writing would change so drastically after At the Bottom of the River. Describing the intricate and minatory language of these early stories, Kincaid has remarked that “[e]ach word in that book is carefully weighed. I no longer do that because I’m in a big hurry to get to say something, and I don’t have time for nice weighings, I just sort of want to crash through” (Dilger 23). “It amazes me now that I did that then,” Kincaid frankly says elsewhere; “I would never write like that again” (Perry 498-99).
The stories in this volume, “My Mother” chief among them, pulse with the energy of a literary world that goes beyond any conventional lived experience. And yet it twines itself within that experience, compressing itself into the shape of a suffocating relationship of mother and daughter. From here the weird’s inner intensity reinvents the world outside the story—reinvents, in dreams and secrets, the ghosts of biography and Antiguan geography. Kincaid’s carefully chosen and brilliantly explosive language draws her figures in what Paul Cézanne memorably called “iridescent chaos,” a mode of expression that goes beyond form and formalism to see the intensity and strangeness of things accepted as normal (Gasquest 160). Cézanne described this type of expression as an attempt to “realize” in art, which for him fused emotional intensity and intellectual representation: the one “purely sensuous and true to what the eye saw, the other an abstract conception of composition” (Hanson 274). Translating such imperatives into literary form, Virginia Woolf argued that across all literary experimentation writers must convey the “myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent” of “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day” (154). While much in Kincaid’s work goes beyond the Modernist framework—elements taken from folk tales, obeah, and the rhythms of Caribbean speech—Cézanne and Woolf’s struggle to “realize” reveals a similar dynamic in Kincaid’s early fiction. The tension between realism and chaos produces uncanny sensations given an intensity more characteristic to dreams and nightmares than the stuff of waking life.
In “My Mother” the central tension is a struggle between the conventions of realism in literary prose, on the one hand, and the memory of emotions on the other; it is an active exchange between things mundane and intense, formal and weird. “I think there is no such thing as an ordinary event,” Kincaid has said: “I believe everything is of the deepest significance” (Vorda 87). With such convictions language finds the power to give itself over to the weird and, in a brilliant paradox, thus expresses the intensities of lived experience once more. While this movement foreshadows Kincaid’s turn toward a more familiar language of realism in her later work, its original point—the weird stories of At the Bottom of the River—should not be forgotten from this trajectory. We too often assume that realism is what grounds the weird. In truth, the opposite comes more closely to the truth.
Alexander, Simone A. James. Mother Imagery in the Novels of Afro-Caribbean Women. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Print.
Bouson, J. Brooks. Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005. Print.
Cudjoe, Selwyn R. and Jamaica Kincaid. “Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview.” Callaloo 39 (1989): 396-411. Print.
Dilger, Gerhard and Jamaica Kincaid. “I Use a Cut and Slash Policy of Writing: Jamaica Kincaid Talks to Gerhard Dilger.” Wasafiri 16 (1992): 21-25. Print.
Ferguson, Moira and Jamaica Kincaid. “A Lot of Memory: An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” The Kenyon Review 16.1 (1994): 163-188. Print.
Garis, Leslie. “Through West Indian Eyes.” New York Times Magazine 7 October 1990. Web.
Gasquet, Joachim. Cézanne: A Memoir with Conversations. Trans. Christopher Pemberton. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Print.
Hanson, Lawrence and Elisabeth. The Post-Impressionists: Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh. London: Cassell, 1963. Print.
Kincaid, Jamaica. At the Bottom of the River. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978. Print.
———. “My Mother.” 1978. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. New York: Tor, 2011. 518—520. Print.
Perry, Donna. “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Henry Louis Gates. New York: Penguin, 1990. 492-509. Print.
Schulz, Bruno. “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.” 1937. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. New York: Tor, 2011. 248—259. Print.
Stein, Gertrude. Everybody’s Autobiography. 1937. New York: Cooper Square, 1971. Print.
Vorda, Allan and Jamaica Kincaid. “I Come from a Place That’s Very Unreal.” Face to Face: Interviews with Contemporary Novelists. Ed. Allan Vorda. Houston: Rice University Press, 1993. 77-106. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” 1919. The Common Reader. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 150-58. 1953. Print.
[i] Critic J. Brooks Bouson draws attention to Kincaid’s divided religious background, noting that “her maternal grandfather was a pious Christian and her Carib Indian grandmother accommodated her husband’s Christian beliefs while retaining her belief in obeah spirits, and Kincaid’s mother, reflecting the beliefs of her parents, ended up practicing both Christianity and obeah” (26). Kincaid understandably felt torn between these very different life perspectives. Additionally, Kincaid understands there to be a fundamental blurring between dreams and life: “I don’t really think I make these distinctions between dreaming and waking,” she comments; “Your dreams could tell you things about your waking life; it illuminates your waking life” (Cudjoe 409). Beyond illumination—the borderland of light between sleeping and waking—dreams held frightening power for the writer. Kincaid is blunt about dreams’ perceived revelatory power and what that implies for the apparent solidity of everyday life:
I used to be quite afraid [of dreams] because they would tell me things I didn’t want to know, and I really believed all my dreams and took them quite seriously. I still do, in quite the same way. So when I write about dreams, it’s not really a dream, it’s something that happens, but in this way […] this had to do with the strange perception about reality where I grew up. Reality was not to be trusted; the thing you saw before you was not really quite to be trusted, because it might represent something else. (Cudjoe 409)
As Kincaid is aware, this understanding of life is very similar to one put forward by psychoanalysis, and she rightly rejects attempts to reduce it to banal or exotic folklore. It is simply, as she says, “a way of making me understand that the world was not what it seemed—which is true” (Cudjoe 410).
[ii] Although the present reading of Kincaid’s work refers to landmarks of European modernism, I do not mean to foreclose properly postcolonial readings that would align it with other writers and literary traditions outside of a strictly European heritage, nor do I mean to exoticize Kincaid’s Antiguan relationship. Rather, I simply aim to suggest one possible reading of Kincaid’s transnational weird through well recognized figures.
[iii] Kincaid has commented on the dynamic as one of power and emotion both: “The girl is powerless, and the mother is powerful. The mother shows her how to be in the world, but at the back of her mind, she thinks she never will get it. She’s deeply skeptical that this child could ever grow up to be a self-possessed woman and, in the end, she reveals her skepticism; yet even within the skepticism are of course, dismissal and scorn.” (Vorda 86-87). This self-reflection suggests that Kincaid’s own literary voice inhabits her mother’s voice ironically in order to expose it thoroughly from the inside. Thus Bouson glosses At the Bottom of the River in general as an attempt “not only to make sense of and work through her [Kincaid’s] past in her writings but also to talk back to and assert some control over the voice that haunts her and that she carries on endless conversations with in her head: the contemptuous voice of the mother” (35).
[iv] Often the mother becomes associated—through a similar linguistic transformation implicit to ‘motherland,’ for instance—with colonial history. This association is found in the dynamic interplay between those with power and those without: “the (powerful) mother fits the profile of a colonizer and the (powerless) daughter is the colonized” (Alexander 19). Critics are not the only ones to draw these associations. Kincaid has linked the idea of familial relationships with the colonial / colonized relationship, seeing a common spectrum of power:
In my first two books, I used to think I was writing about my mother and myself. Later I began to see that I was writing about the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. That’s become an obsessive theme, and I think that it will be a theme for as long as I write. And then it came clear to me […] that I was writing about the mother—that mother I was writing about was really Mother Country. It’s like an egg; it’s a perfect whole. It’s all fused some way or other. (Ferguson 176).
[v] Biographically there is a parallel, of course. When asked about her dislike of her mother, Kincaid responded that she “hope[s] it’s an adolescent dislike, because now we get along very well. It’s possible that as human beings we don’t like each other at all but that as a mother and daughter we love each other” (400). The tension in the impossible reconciliation of these emotions—one directed to a person, the other to a role and responsibility—is precisely the generative aspect of stories such as “My Mother.”