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  • Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother
  • Ericka Hoagland
J. Brooks Bouson. Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother. Albany: State U. of New York P, 2005. ix + 242 pp.

The figure of the mother haunts Jamaica Kincaid studies, just as it haunts Kincaid herself. Bouson's work emerges from that milieu and seeks to understand how what can be termed Kincaid's obsession with her mother and the dominating mother figure she represents has evolved throughout Kincaid's career. In her study, Bouson applies shame and trauma theory to Kincaid's semiautobiographical works as she exposes the layers of intense emotional pain at the heart of [End Page 630] Kincaid's relationship with her mother Annie Drew, who died in 1999. Building on Kincaid's own words, which are interspersed throughout Writing Back, Bouson concludes that writing is as much an act of solace and self-rescue for Kincaid, as it is an act of self-fashioning.

Bouson claims that her study is a departure from the "psychological readings" of Kincaid's works that "have focused largely on the regressive preoedipal dynamics" of the mother-daughter relationship, as well as examinations that see that relationship primarily as a reflection of the colonized/colonizer dynamic (5). As the study's title implies, Bouson focuses on the role of memory, in particular, how the shame and trauma associated with the mother-daughter relationship Kincaid chronicles in her fiction shapes her memory. Reacting against her mother's attempts to write her daughter's life, Kincaid deploys memory as a defensive mechanism to assert her independence from her controlling mother (37). In so doing, Bouson notes, Kincaid became the "daughter-writer who publicly exposes shameful family secrets," from her own illegitimacy to her brother's closeted homosexuality and painful death from AIDS (13). Just as shame precipitates the disclosure of memories and secrets her mother would rather forget, Bouson argues that the trauma Kincaid experienced as a consequence of that shame prevents full disclosure; at the same time, this explains why there is "endless repetition in Kincaid's work" which in turn reflects "her difficulty in confronting and working through the past" (39).

Writing Memory is organized in three parts. "In the Shadow of the Mother" covers Kincaid's early fiction, including two novels, Annie John and Lucy, which prove particularly central to Bouson's argument. The second part, "A Very Personal Politics," examines Kincaid's nonfiction, and the third part, "Family Portraits," discusses Kincaid's later fiction. Bouson describes an artist who in her younger years experimented with transformation in an attempt to both find herself and remove herself from her painful past. It was writing, not the ever-changing clothes and hairstyles she sported as a young writer in 1970s New York that truly facilitated her quest for self-identity and eventual transformation from the "shame-sensitive Elaine Potter Richardson" to the angry Jamaica Kincaid (21). Kincaid's initial writings, the short story "Antigua Crossings" and the story collection At the Bottom of the River, set into motion the dominant script of her writing: the intense power struggle between a shaming mother and her shamed, traumatized daughter. While these texts anticipate in particular Lucy and Annie John, they lack the anger of those later works, suggesting that Kincaid was just beginning to scratch the surface of her intense anger. These early works also frame other emotions Kincaid would come to revisit throughout her career: her [End Page 631] twinned feelings of love and hate towards her mother, her fear and ambivalence towards her homeland, and her anger at the colonial enterprise. Bouson notes that Kincaid's young fiction is full of concealment, which as is as significant a trope in Kincaid's work as her anger. More importantly, Bouson establishes Kincaid's concealment as a clear indicator of the trauma the writer has experienced as a result of her painful relationship with her mother.

Kincaid's writing, Bouson points out, became more autobiographical and more invested in revealing and telling truth as Kincaid grew as a writer. This truth-telling was, and continues to be compromised, Bouson asserts, by the ever-circling presence of shame...


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pp. 630-634
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