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  • Obvious and Ordinary:Desire between Girls in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John
  • Keja Valens (bio)

The Antiguan girl narrator in Jamaica Kincaid's 1985 novella, Annie John, announces her love for other girls and her plans to marry women when she is grown up in simple, straightforward terms seamlessly incorporated into the narration of her coming-of-age. The simplicity of the declarations of desire between girls, often expressed in the easily recognizable formulas "I love you/ her" or "I am in love with you/her," align with the apparent simplicity of style throughout Kincaid's work. Kincaid's simplicity, however, is a foil: she uses the ordinary, the familiar, the commonplace only to subvert them through their own performance.

Appearing to conform to the conventions of the bildungsroman, Annie John is narrated in retrospect by Annie John herself. The first chapter begins "during the year I was ten" (AJ, 3)1 and the last chapter relates "the last day I spent in Antigua," six years later (AJ, 130). Between the beginning and the end, Annie John recounts her struggles through adolescence as she confronts the expectation that she become a "young lady," negotiates her shifting relationship with her mother, expands her consciousness of colonialism, and forms erotic attachments to other girls. At the end of the book, after she has passed through several forms at school, entered puberty, and emerged as a young adult, Annie John finally waves goodbye to her island and her family.

The classic bildungsroman traces the singular account of a universal (read: white, male) protagonist who progresses from childhood into adulthood, where marriage consummates his self-realization in community. Although he may take a few detours, his path is one of relatively straightforward development. The genre has been reworked in certain ways to make room for "other" identities; whence, for example, "the female bildungsroman" and "the Caribbean bildungsroman." Annie John can be, and has been, fit into both of these categories.2 However, Annie John undermines as much as it mines the bildungsroman, in a way that can perhaps best be understood as queer: it bends [End Page 123] the bildungsroman into a narrative of desire between girls, and the narrative desire is one that Caribbeanizes and queers (that is: twists, perverts, makes strange) the straight white lines of the bildungsroman. Not despite but through the form of the bildungsroman, Annie John's narrative and desire revel in a proliferation of routes and destinations for girls to travel, alone and together.

The pursuit of desire between girls in Annie John is intertwined with anticolonial struggle, for it undermines colonial heteronormativity. The roots of heterosexuality in the Caribbean certainly reach beyond the history of conquest and colonialism, but while male-female relationships are extremely common throughout the Caribbean, they do not always take on the same institutional or symbolic roles that they do in Europe, more specifically in colonial England. The insistence on heterosexuality as the norm that can and must not be violated—and its concomitant regulation of the boundaries of gender and family roles—belongs to a Victorian morality whose imposition forms part of British colonialism.3 Desire between girls in Annie John does not oppose a heterosexual norm; it simply pluralizes it. It does so not by supplanting or even supplementing desire between women and men but by shifting the focus, so that we consider not what is wrong (and colonial) about desire between women and men but instead what is right (and autonomously Caribbean) about desire between women.

The first person for whom Annie John professes her love is Sonia. Annie John says, "I loved very much—and so used to torment until she cried—a girl named Sonia" (AJ, 7). The sentence shares the grammar of descriptive assertion of those that follow: "She was smaller than I, even though she was almost two years older, and she was a dunce—the first real dunce I had ever met" (AJ, 7). Like Sonia's status as a dunce, Annie John's love for the girl is an obvious, irrefutable fact. Annie John speaks openly of her feelings for Sonia not only in the narration but also to Sonia and to her other...


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