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Straight Growth and the Imperial Alternative:
Queer-Reading Jamaica Kincaid

Through the works of Jamaica Kincaid, this essay argues that queer West Indian women migrate to America to continue and expand their childhood queer exploration into adulthood by accessing an identity based on sexual orientation rather than race. It also argues that the United States has supplanted the United Kingdom in the queer West Indian imagination.

Straight Growth

In a small place, queerness has no room to grow. For West Indian girls who like girls, mother and motherland reinforce the colonial imposition of heteronormativity to prevent queer exploration in childhood from carrying over into adulthood.1 Thus the only way for such girls to grow queer is to leave mother and motherland behind. This phenomenon can be (and has been) easy to overlook when West Indian women writers are viewed solely through postcolonial and feminist frameworks. Take the novels of Jamaica Kincaid, which are replete with women’s love of women but are rarely the subject of queer scholarship. These novels merge fiction and autobiography to tell an overarching story of an Antiguan girl who migrates to America and becomes a successful author—a polyonymous narrator who is both not Kincaid and not not Kincaid.2 As one of the few critics to actually queer-read Kincaid, Keja Valens explicates Kincaid’s first novel Annie John as a narrative of desire between Antiguan schoolgirls who sex-educate themselves by experimenting on each other and mimic heterosexual relationships through cyclical friendships. According to Valens, such episodes constitute “a temporary stage in a developmental sequence” that West Indian girls eventually outgrow (132). Although Valens does not label this developmental process, I will refer to it as “straight growth,” thereby providing a West Indian dimension to Kathryn Bond Stockton’s theory of the queer child who “grows sideways.” Furthermore, while Valens limits her inquiry to childhood, I am interested in the implications of this exploratory queerness for adulthood, particularly in Kincaid’s second novel, Lucy (in which the narrator migrates to New York to work as an au pair for a well-heeled white couple), and her memoir, My Brother (in which the narrator returns to Antigua to visit her AIDS-afflicted brother). By expanding on Valens’s conceit, I will show that queer West Indian girls who do not want to grow straight migrate to become queer women.3 My aim is not to “out” the narrator but rather to explore the ways in which Kincaid’s narration accounts for and gives voice to queer desire among such women. Moreover, I argue that postcolonial and feminist readings of Kincaid have not been incorrect but rather incomplete, and that her texts require queer-reading as well.

Consider an interview in which the author rejects reading “lesbian tendencies” into the relationship between Annie John and her friend Gwen, but nevertheless reaffirms Valens’s conceit:

The relationship between Gwen and Annie is really a practicing relationship. It’s about how things work. It’s like learning to walk. Always there is the sense that they would go on to lead heterosexual lives. Whatever happened between them, homosexuality would not be a serious thing because it is just practicing.

(qtd. in Vorda)

To begin with, terms like “heterosexual,” “homosexuality,” and “lesbian” are beside the point since they connote politicized mainland labels, which according to Natasha Tinsley are inadequate for characterizing Caribbean sexualities. More telling is Kincaid’s description of the girls “practicing” for a future heterosexual relationship, [End Page 59] which means that they must be indulging in romantic and sexual acts with each other. That this behavior does not last does not mean it does not happen. Furthermore, by comparing this practice to “learning to walk,” Kincaid imbues it with a sense of growth, and by deeming it “not serious,” she also renders it childlike. Thus Kincaid is in full accord with Valens: the girls indulge queerness that is limited to childhood.

Indeed, childhood is a battleground where West Indian mother and daughter clash over the latter’s sexuality. While Lucy’s lament that her mother’s example “was designed to make me into an echo of her” (36) confirms the mother’s invigilation of straight growth, Kincaid’s writing goes even further, by attributing the West Indian daughter’s queerness to her dominating mother’s slut-shaming.4 In the colonial paradigm, female sexuality is only heterosexual and always shameful, and by reinforcing this paradigm and restricting heterosexual licentiousness, the mother inadvertently instigates queer longing: “It was my mother who told me that I should never take a man’s side over a woman’s” (Lucy 48), and she “communicated this to me so strongly that I grew up alienated from my own sexuality” (My Brother 69). As in Stockton’s observation that some children are “queered by Freud,” Kincaid’s narrator exemplifies the Freudian “my mother made me gay” cliché. The mother-daughter bond exists throughout Kincaid’s novels as the most significant relationship. The narrator both despises and desires her mother with a passionate intensity that often resembles an obsessive romance. While this bond has been interpreted by postcolonial critics as symbolizing the colonizer/colonized relationship and by feminist critics as placing women at the center of the narrative, few critics have applied the more obvious queer interpretation—that the narrator is quite simply a motherfucker.

Consider an excerpt from Kincaid’s short story “In the Night”:

Now I am a girl, but one day I will marry a woman—a red-skin woman with black bramblebush hair and brown eyes, who wears skirts that are so big I can easily bury my head in them. I would like to marry this woman and live with her in a mud hut near the sea. … This woman I would like to marry knows many things, but to me she will only tell about things that would never dream of making me cry; and every night, over and over, she will tell me something that begins, “Before you were born.” I will marry a woman like this, and every night, every night, I will be completely happy.

Not only does this girl want to marry a woman someday, to not grow up straight, but her ideal woman is also a mother figure since she can discuss events preceding the girl’s birth, and since the girl conflates a mother’s protective act with a lover’s erotic act by burying her head in the woman’s skirt. This doubling recurs in Kincaid’s novels, and Valens argues that Annie’s girlhood relationships constitute “an attempted replacement or transference of her dwindling connection with her mother” (126). Notably, this ideal woman has “red skin” and “bramblebush hair,” which resembles two of Annie John’s girlfriends: the Red Girl, and Gwen (“shrubbyhaired”), respectively. However, in wanting a lover who will never make her cry, the girl stipulates that this woman must provide maternal love without replicating maternal harm. Ultimately, she desires a lover who is both an imitation of and an improvement on her mother. In this context, Kincaid’s novelistic depictions of a mother’s eventual and painful withdrawal from her daughter—so painful that Lucy describes that moment as “the end of a love affair, perhaps the only true love in my whole life I would ever know” (Lucy 132)—is a concerted attempt to wean the daughter from queer exploration so that she can grow up straight. Thus the mother pulls her daughter closer to keep her away from boys and then pushes her away at the onset of adulthood. Eventually this vacillation drives the narrator out of her mind, and so she rejects mother and runs from motherland.

Twentieth-century Caribbean women were culturally coerced to go (and grow) straight from mother’s house to husband’s house. As an alternative, metropolitan [End Page 60] centers in America and Europe became attractive options for such women to delay marriage and indulge in a protracted period of autonomous singlehood, which is inherently queer since, according to Michael Cobb, singlehood holds the cultural status of a sexual minority.5 Most of these young women were financially limited to two migration options: either win an island scholarship to study abroad, or do domestic work abroad for a white family. The latter was particularly popular since the 1960s saw an increase in West Indian migration to New York, mostly involving unmarried women who were able to work as maids and au pairs.6 While being unmarried allowed such women to provide live-in services, it also meant that they were free to enjoy the advantages of big-city life, which included the kind of sexual freedom and financial independence that parental control and West Indian culture restricted. Consequently, many female migrants were able to decolonize their own bodies by becoming what Gary Holcomb calls “the transnational slut,” a migrant figure who utilizes the exile trope in a metropolitan center to enjoy a promiscuous sex life. Yet, while some migrant women delayed marriage because they wanted to explore sex with multiple men, others presumably delayed marriage because they had no interest in men. Since queers could not yet petition for asylum abroad on the basis of their sexuality, many would necessarily migrate to America under the same conditions as straight West Indians (for work or study), and as a result, their experiences are easily overlooked. While postcolonial critics examine the racial and class interactions between migrant workers and their employers, and while feminist critics analyze the sexual liberation migrant women enjoy in the city’s nightlife, it befalls the queer critic to identify and follow the migrant who disappears into the city’s shadowy underground. Thus, while Holcomb limits the “transnational slut” phenomenon in Lucy to heterosexual sex, I argue that as the setting shifts from Antigua to America, the narrator continues queer exploration rather than outgrows it.

In New York, Lucy becomes intimate with her best friend Peggy and her employer Mariah—two significant relationships that echo and expand upon her childhood experiences. The former represents an adult version of Annie John’s friend, the Red Girl, since Peggy’s Irish ancestry is also “red.” When they first meet, Lucy’s gaze narrows in on Peggy’s queerness:

Peggy smoked cigarettes, used slang, wore very tight jeans, did not comb her hair properly or often, wore shiny fake snakeskin boots, and generally had such an air of mystery that it made people who did not know her well nervous. I had met Peggy in the park once when I was taking Miriam for a walk. Peggy was with her cousin, also an au pair, a girl from Ireland. Peggy hated her cousin and only saw her because of family obligations. They were opposites; the cousin was someone who thought a good outward appearance and proper behavior should carry the day. … When I first saw her, she was standing off to one side, apart from everybody, her shoulders hitched up and bent forward, sucking in heavily the smoke of a Lucky Strike cigarette. I recognized the cigarettes instantly, for they were the same sort my father smoked. I had never seen anyone female smoke this kind of cigarette before. It was something I had always wanted to do, and so I started to smoke them also.

Like the Red Girl, Peggy is described as masculine and odd, and they both have unruly hair and untidy appearances, denoting their unwillingness to aesthetically feminize their bodies. Just as Valens argues that the Red Girl encourages Annie to “participate in gender nonconformity … that [is] unquestionably anticolonial” (133), such as by playing marbles like a boy, so too does Peggy encourage Lucy to smoke cigarettes like a man. The juxtaposition with her conventional cousin further highlights Peggy’s subversiveness. The reference to Lucy’s father codes the act of smoking as patriarchal, which Lucy can only subvert abroad. Furthermore, Peggy’s use of slang, her outrageous attire, her rejection of “proper” behavior, her “apartness from everybody,” and the “mystery” she exudes while inspiring “nervousness” in others, all indicate an inability to assimilate into conventional society. [End Page 61]

Fortunately, 1970s’ New York also had room for unconventional societies with which Peggy would likely be familiar. Indeed, she becomes a queer tour guide for Lucy. Lucy finds accompanying Peggy “quite thrilling” to “a party in a neighborhood that [Lucy] had never visited before” with “fewer streetlights,” “uncared for buildings,” and “almost no people walking around” (Lucy 96). This could easily describe Greenwich Village back then, which served as camouflage for queers meeting in the shadows and hiding from police. The presence of drugs and a “pervert” at the party—an antiquated term for homosexual—also supports the depiction of a queer neighborhood. Even as a migrant, Lucy can enjoy these spaces with queers who are outsiders in their own country. Therefore, while critics like Tinsley accuse metropolitan centers of excluding queers of color, Kincaid’s novel makes the case that queer migrants can claim these centers as well. Additionally, not only did Lucy and Peggy first meet “in the park,” but they also frequently go there to ogle men and discuss their sexual potential, a practice that mirrors homosexual “cruising” and which suggests that the two women were not looking only at men. Just as Valens contends that “the Red Girl occupies a fringe space outside of social convention, offering Annie John a path to the new, the unknown, the forbidden” (133), so too does Peggy for Lucy.

At the same time, Lucy’s queer exploration in America represents a step forward from Annie’s in Antigua. For example, while Annie and the Red Girl often “embraced and exchanged kisses” (Annie John 59), Lucy and Peggy graduated to actual sex: “[We] kissed each other until we were exhausted and fell asleep. Her tongue was narrow and pointed and soft” (Lucy 83). Thus Peggy represents queer evolution for Lucy by inducting her into queer communities and their transgressive rituals: gender subversion, drug use, and gay sex. Significantly, Lucy never evinces romantic love or sexual desire for Peggy—they are simply friends with benefits, a common relationship among queers—and when their friendship dissolves, the two women move in together instead of going their separate ways: “It was an old story: two people are in love, and then just at the moment they fall out of love they decide to marry” (109). In this way, the narrator subverts heteronormative chronology (“an old story”), which usually involves a man and a woman getting married after falling in love. Finally, while Lucy’s relationship with Peggy ends in “gay marriage,” Annie’s relationship with Gwen simply ends, with Gwen’s even attempting to marry Annie off to her brother, which, according to Valens, is an attempt to “reconfigure her relationship with Annie John into a clearly defined, nonsexual friendship of sisters-in-law supporting and supported by the law of heterosexual marriage” (143). Conversely, Peggy has no desire to marry Lucy off to her friend Paul (who is romantically interested in Lucy), and the two women notably expel him from their mutual company before moving in with each other. Thus the contrast is clear: in Antigua, the narrator would have to end up with a man, but in America she can end up with a woman. While there is still no politicized sexual orientation, migration grants queerness a reprieve and extends its reach into adulthood.

Of course, queer evolution would be incomplete without queer desire, and to that end Lucy has queer eyes only for the straight girl. In contrast to masculine Peggy, she does manifest romantic love or sexual desire for the feminine Mariah, whose blond hair, blue eyes, and generational roots in the United States mark her as a more conventional American beauty. Since Mariah’s husband Lewis works outside the home, and Lucy’s job requires her to work inside the home, Lucy and Mariah spend most of their time together. While sequestered in this domestic sphere, Mariah seems to exist for Lucy’s scopophilic pleasure: “She looked so beautiful standing there in the middle of the kitchen”; “Mariah look[ed] so beautiful, I couldn’t tear myself away” (Lucy 27, 59). In the latter scene, Lucy’s queer desire can be traced through her sense of sight and smell:

The yellow light from the sun came in through a window … and Mariah, with her pale-yellow skin and yellow hair, stood still in this almost celestial light, and she looked blessed, [End Page 62] no blemish or mark of any kind on her cheek or anywhere else, as if she had never quarreled with anyone over a man or over anything. … She had washed her hair that morning and from where I stood I could smell the residue of the perfume from the shampoo in her hair. Then underneath that I could smell Mariah herself. The smell of Mariah was pleasant. Just that—pleasant. And I thought, But that’s the trouble with Mariah—she smells pleasant. By then I already knew that I wanted to have a powerful odor and would not care if it gave offense.

Lucy’s focus on Mariah’s unblemished skin and blond hair indicates her infatuation with white perfection. By also casting Mariah as “celestial” and “blessed,” Lucy subscribes to the dominant culture’s association of whiteness with beauty and goodness. While shifting from sight to smell, she then subverts her own dominant cultural infatuation and rejects colonial femininity by dismissing Mariah’s shampooed hair as a scent she does not want imposed on her own body.7 Thus, by separating her attraction to white femininity from colonialism, Lucy distinguishes between white American women and white European women. By then smelling the real Mariah “underneath,” Lucy directs our attention to Mariah’s naked body, and by wanting to give off her own “powerful odor,” she essentially wants Mariah to pick up her scent and to think about her naked body underneath. The conflation of sexual arousal with the scent of the female body is a recurring trope in Kincaid’s texts and, through this olfactory exchange, Lucy undresses Mariah and herself.8 Finally, in supposing that Mariah never quarreled over a man, the narrator hopes that she may instead be interested in women.

It eventually becomes clear that Lewis is having an extramarital affair; as a result, Mariah becomes more vulnerable to Lucy’s allure. In fact, the two women become so intimate that they express love for each other in several scenes.9 Perhaps the most telling episode occurs when Lucy accompanies Mariah (without Lewis) on a trip to her childhood home in a small town. While driving through this town, Mariah “seemed to forget she was the wife of Lewis and the mother of four children” (Lucy 34); their journey thus reverses heteronormative chronology and becomes only about Mariah and Lucy—only about a small-town girl who made it in the big city, returning triumphantly home with another woman. In this context, Mariah’s background fits within an American tradition of small-town queers migrating to a metropolitan center to escape homophobia and enjoy sexual liberation, which is not unlike Lucy’s own migratory experience. Significantly, Lucy describes the small town where Mariah grew up as “miles and miles of nothing,” and is “glad not to live in a place like this” (34), thereby depicting the town in the same disparaging way as she does Antigua. In other words, growing up in a small American town would have been no more preferable to Lucy than growing up on a small West Indian island, and thus she can relate vicariously to Mariah’s story of wanting to escape to New York. In this way, the narrator generates a mutual level of understanding between Mariah and Lucy during an episode in which both women are together without men. In Mariah’s childhood home, Lucy narrates the following scene:

When I finished telling Mariah this, she looked at me, and her blue eyes (which I would have found beautiful even if I hadn’t read millions of books in which blue eyes were always accompanied by the word “beautiful”) grew dim as she slowly closed the lids over them, then bright again as she opened them wide and then wider.

A silence fell between us; it was a deep silence, but not too thick and not too black. Through it we could hear the clink of the cooking utensils as we cooked the fish Mariah’s way, under flames in the oven, a way I did not like. And we could hear the children in the distance screaming—in pain or pleasure, I could not tell.

The two women spend time just looking at each other, a sign of coveting the other, and the focus on Mariah’s eyes charges the scene with a romantic undercurrent. While connecting Mariah’s blue eyes to textual notions of beauty may indicate what Edyta Oczkowicz calls “colonial brainwashing” (148), Lucy assures us that she [End Page 63] would have found Mariah beautiful regardless, thereby once again separating her attraction to Mariah from colonialist notions of race (148). In “millions of books,” the narrator would be a man enjoying Mariah’s beauty, but here the gaze belongs to a woman, and Mariah reciprocates by not looking away. The deep silence between them resembles a filmic “meet-cute,” in which two characters pause to signal mutual romantic interest to the viewer. However, the description of this silence as “not too black” reintroduces race into the scene. A black woman and a white woman are present and we are reminded of Mariah’s superior position as both employer (they cook the fish her way despite Lucy’s distaste for it) and as the ideal object of attraction. Mariah’s white beauty dominates the scene and renders everything and everyone in it “not too black,” with the additional descriptor “not too thick” alluding to black body types versus a thin white ideal. What does it mean for Lucy to become not-black while desiring Mariah?

According to Samuel Park, “gay” in America is defaulted as white, and so queers of color attempt to appropriate whiteness as a way to access an identity based on sexual orientation rather than race. This results in an exclusive attraction to white perfection, which includes both the political ideal of “enlightened white liberalism” and the erotic ideal of “straight acting.” By being attracted to these white figures, the queer of color pursues “one who will enable the minority’s individual successful assimilation and integration into a larger, mainstream society” (Park 68). Although these categories obviously overlap, I argue that queer relationships between blacks and whites mirror queer relationships between West Indians and Americans since Lucy is not only black but also a migrant. Mariah ineluctably embodies the enlightened white liberal through her environmentalism and feminism as well as the “straight-acting” object of desire as a married woman with children. Accordingly, she ushers Lucy through dominant-culture society—Mariah’s offer of employment brings the West Indian to New York, and their intimate relationship allows Lucy to go everywhere with her, including her very white hometown. Furthermore, as depicted by the removal of blackness in the silent moment between them, Lucy’s relationship with Mariah allows her to participate in what Park describes as “a kind of shelving of race in favor of one’s sexuality” (71). For Park, the queer of color pursues equality and acceptance by rendering black and white as simply queer. Not only does their relationship similarly allow Lucy and Mariah to become two queers by rendering scenes not-black, but Lucy is even encouraged to see the world through dominant-culture eyes: “Mariah wanted all of us … to see things the way she did. … a woman who wanted to show me her world and hoped that I would like it, too” (Lucy 35, 36). In achieving the same result as Park’s conceit, the queer West Indian’s attraction to a queer American functions like an “elision of race” (Park 71). Whereas African American queers must become white to be accepted as just queer, queer West Indians must become American, by which I refer not only to citizenship or naturalization, but also more emphatically to the desire to live in America, have access to American culture, and love a same-gender white American.

Furthermore, by applying Park’s conceit to this migration narrative, the silent scene between Lucy and Mariah represents not simply the removal and reintroduction of race but, more specifically, the replacement of race as defined by England with race as defined by America. Through her participation in this elision of race, the narrator reflects the ways in which American culture offers a desirable and accessible platform for queer West Indians. At one point, Mariah broaches the topic of Caribbean history and Lucy replies, “You are welcome to it if you like,” thereby willfully surrendering her background so that she can be absorbed into an American identity. At that same moment, Mariah is “rubbing her hand against my cheek,” an intimate act that underlines the queer erotics of Lucy’s submission (Lucy 19). By relinquishing her history and becoming American, Lucy can essentially become queer. The emphasis on national identity is further demonstrated when Lucy marvels [End Page 64] that “if anyone could love a young woman who had come from halfway around the world to help her take care of her children, it was Mariah” (27). Note that she does not view race as the hurdle that Mariah’s love must overcome—she has only to surmount her identity as a migrant. In this way, queer West Indians must become not simply an ideal of whiteness but, more specifically, an ideal of American whiteness. This phenomenon is even predicated on West Indian vernacular wherein “American” means white, and vice versa. If whiteness is a border that queers of color must cross to enter a realm of queer identification, then for queer West Indians that border is both figurative and literal since they would extrapolate from their cultural understanding of whiteness that they must also cross the border into America.

Another example of this phenomenon occurs on the train ride to Mariah’s hometown: “the other people all sitting down to eat dinner all looked like Mariah’s relatives; the people waiting on them all looked like mine. … On closer observation, they were not at all like my relatives; they only looked like them” (Lucy 32). After noting the class disparity between white passengers and black servants, Lucy then separates herself from the black servants. Kevin Meehan interprets this distinction as indicating the lack of solidarity between black Americans and black West Indians, so that the minority identity attempting to assimilate here is also that of a migrant and not only a black person. His observation that “the scene in the dining car is a significant moment in Lucy’s becoming American” supports my argument about living in America and accessing American culture, but Meehan reads this phenomenon as containing only a racial dynamic (Lucy’s becoming white) rather than also a queer one (Lucy’s becoming queer) (263). For regardless of how Lucy views herself, the other white passengers on the train would certainly view her as black and would expect her to be in that privileged white space only as another servant; yet she is allowed to dine with them without incident. The only possible explanation for this is that her relationship with Mariah grants her access to privileged white spaces, allowing her to transcend racial and class distinctions. To that end, I argue that the au pair employment relationship is an inherently queer one, since it allows two women to live and raise children together. Recall that when Lucy marvels at Mariah’s ability to love her, she conflates “loving a young woman” with “helping take care of her children,” which suggests that queer desire can emerge from the au pair arrangement. In public, this arrangement allows Mariah and Lucy to act like coparents, thereby creating an alternative family structure that excludes the biological father and encourages the children to view the migrant employee as a surrogate mother. Lucy indeed takes care of Mariah’s children “the way I remembered my mother treating me,” and she even depicts their seating arrangements on the train with familial symmetry: “we settled ourselves and the children into our compartments—two children with Mariah, two children with me” (53, 31).

Having investigated the interplay of race, migration, and sexuality, I now return to the scene of queer desire between Lucy and Mariah in the latter’s childhood home. The romantic silence between the two women ends with a climactic confusion over identifying the children’s noises as pain or pleasure, which connotes sexual displacement. The sound of sexual pleasure can easily be mistaken for that of pain and its position in the distance intimates what Lucy and Mariah could be doing. Ideally, the romantic scene would end with the two women having sex and the eruption of the children’s pain/pleasure cries symbolize this latent desire, a recurring trope in Kincaid’s texts.10 After the children have interrupted the silence, a gay-panic reaction sets in as the two women “were saying good night to each other the way we always did, with a hug and a kiss, but this time we did it as if we both wished we hadn’t gotten such a custom started” (Lucy 39). The awkwardness they suddenly feel for a routine act of affection is a mutual acknowledgement that their queer desire has now been fully exposed. The presence of the children serves to unite biological and surrogate mother (by necessitating Lucy’s labor) while also revealing latent desire. [End Page 65] Lee Edelman argues that American culture is so obsessed with protecting children from sex that children become wholesome fantasy figures that indicate parental couplings while obscuring their sex lives: “Paradoxically, the child of the two-parent family thus proves that its parents don’t fuck” (41; original emphasis). In a similar way, Mariah’s children render the two women as co-parents while standing in for the sex they should be enjoying.

Significantly, it was Lucy’s mother who taught her the domestic chores and child-rearing skills (in anticipation of Lucy’s becoming a wife and mother) that makes her a good au pair. By putting off labor (giving birth) in favor of labor (au pair work), Lucy refines but still recalls her mother’s lessons so that the specter of the mother continues to haunt her. In fact, her mother is so much on her mind that, while growing intimately close with Mariah, Lucy reminisces about her mother’s own close friendship with Sylvie, “a friendship she did not advertise.” Lucy is particularly interested in Sylvie’s past relationship with a woman who had once “grabbed Sylvie in an embrace” and then left her with “a scar on her right cheek, a human-teeth bite” (Lucy 24), the result of an obviously homoerotic urge; additionally, the scar “bound her to something much deeper than its reality, something she could not put into words” (25), suggesting queer history between the two women that could not be discussed in adulthood, and perhaps even queer history between Sylvie and Lucy’s mother. If West Indian girls engage in queer exploration as practice for heterosexual relationships, and if, as Valens acknowledges, “Annie John and her friends do not discover something new but rather continue a long tradition” (130), then Lucy’s mother could also have explored queer desire in childhood with girls like Sylvie. By remaining in Antigua and growing straight, however, Lucy’s mother is expected to focus on marriage and motherhood and to have no connection with women like Sylvie: she knew that Sylvie “was not allowed to visit us when my father was at home, and that my mother’s friendship with her was supposed to be a secret” (Lucy 25). Through patriarchal figures like husbands and fathers, West Indian culture isolates women from their queer past and from each other. That Lucy’s mother nevertheless meets with Sylvie in secret is a sad reminder that these women yearn for the queer communities to which they once belonged.

One can feel the longing in the narrator’s description of this episode, and Heather Love argues that this is the purpose of queer criticism, that it must always involve a strategy of “feeling backward” into the past because “backwardness has the status of a lived reality in gay and lesbian life” (7). Migration allows queer Caribbean subjects to do precisely that because only from a migratory distance is the narrator able to tell her mother’s story, to show that adult Caribbean women were once queer girls too. More specifically, only after becoming intimate with Mariah is Lucy finally able to feel the hurt and discuss her painful past: “As I was telling Mariah all these things, all sorts of little details of my life on the island where I grew up came back to me” (Lucy 131). When Lucy tells these stories about her mother, she is essentially telling what could have been her own story. Annie John represents the narrator’s childhood self, a self that is threatened with straight growth, while Lucy represents the narrator’s adult self, one that escapes straight growth by migrating to America. Having found solace in queer communities abroad, Lucy can look back and negate matrimony and motherhood as dead-end options that narrowed her mother’s world: “I am not like my mother. She and I are not alike. She should not have married my father. She should not have had children” (123). The howl of pain that permeates Kincaid’s texts is therefore tantamount to queer therapy, an account of the demons that haunt the queer mind and an attempt to exorcise them.

One of those demons is the mother, who finds another body to possess when Lucy locates a version of her mother in the American object of her attraction: “Mariah reminded me more and more of the parts of my mother that I loved” (59). [End Page 66] Once again, we are confronted with the Freudian; even after leaving mother and motherland behind, the narrator remains a motherfucker. However, there is still some growth here because Mariah also represents an improvement on her mother. For example, she teaches Lucy about contraception and does not prevent Lucy from seeing Peggy (of whom Mariah disapproves) the way Annie’s mother prevents her from seeing the Red Girl, and “[t]his was a way in which Mariah was superior to my mother, for my mother would never come to see that perhaps my needs were more important than her wishes” (63-64). In this way, Mariah essentially becomes the ideal maternal figure from “Into the Night” as a woman the narrator can love and who won’t make her cry. Therefore, Kincaid’s novel completes the queer quest of her short story and suggests that the West Indian can locate this fantasy figure only in America. Ultimately, this girl is determined to work, and to make it work abroad, because only there can she become and be with a woman.

The Imperial Alternative

But why America? This is the question implicitly posed by Jane King, who does not queer-read Kincaid but identifies biographically with her: “I cannot pretend to be an unbiased reader of … any of Jamaica Kincaid’s writing: we share too many attributes” (886). Both are similarly named and similarly aged West Indian women who migrated, with King studying in Scotland on an island scholarship before eventually returning home. Since Kincaid was academically gifted enough to win a similar scholarship, King is skeptical of the author’s claim that her mother abruptly ended her education, and she does not believe that the author could support her family back home as an au pair in New York. Moreover, since island scholarships at that time allowed West Indians to study primarily in the UK, and since there was an increase in Caribbean women doing domestic work in the U. S., the choice between studying abroad and working abroad was essentially a choice between England and America. Therefore, King suggests, there was personal agency in the author’s migration and a personal preference for America. On the first point, King is overzealously litigating the author’s biography because research has shown that West Indian domestic workers in America were indeed able to support their families back home.11 As to the second point, King’s suggestions of agency and preference are more compelling when applied to the narrator.

Consider that at the end of the novel, Annie John is actually sent to England, but despite her desire to leave Antigua, the journey finds her “slowly emptying out” (A Small Place 148). Perhaps this is because England represents the source of colonial heteronormativity, so sending Annie there is tantamount to hastening, not halting, straight growth. While Annie John concludes with her departure and Britain is kept off-page, Lucy instead begins with the narrator’s arrival in America, and if, according to Justin Edwards, “Lucy picks up where Annie John leaves off: the girl has now left her home in Antigua and tries to forge a new life for herself in the United States” (9), then the space between the two novels constitutes a detour. Rather than going to England and growing straight as her mother intended, the narrator turns the boat around and heads to New York instead. In addition to aborting straight growth, the narrator’s preference for America marks a historical shift. By the late twentieth century, British influence over a newly independent West Indies was in retreat while American influence was on the march through a blitz of stores, products, and entertainment. In Anglophone Caribbean countries, U. S. dollars were circulating more freely than British pounds, “fries” was replacing “chips” in local vernacular, and airlines were scaling back on flights to London while scheduling daily flights to [End Page 67] New York. In an inversion of Walter Benjamin’s angel, the West Indies was turning its face toward American progress and its back on British history.

Yet many critics continue to treat the U. S. and the UK as interchangeable nations, as if American globalization merely represents a new version of British colonialism.12 King herself makes this mistake by assuming that her experience in Scotland can speak for Kincaid’s experience in New York. However, such conflation overlooks how West Indians assimilate more easily in America than England, with Kincaid herself claiming, “England was a special jewel all right, and only special people got to wear it. The people who got to wear England were English people” (“On Seeing England” 32).13 Moreover, Caribbean migrants have embraced America as a way of avenging the colonized past, and Kincaid believes that she could become the writer she is only because “you cannot express your anger at your historical situation in England” (qtd. in Birbalsingh 139).14 Therefore, West Indians can gain critical distance from both the home country and the imperial nation that has historically defined the home country only by migrating to an imperial alternative. Indeed, America is particularly appealing to Anglophone Caribbeans because it won independence from Britain and became the world’s most powerful nation, a historical triumph that Lucy invokes when she asks Mariah, “How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?” (Lucy 41). If America represents the “triumphant part of the world” (My Brother 101), then becoming American allows West Indians to finally and vicariously triumph over Britain.

As New York began to occupy space in the West Indian imagination that was once held by London, it was only natural that queer West Indians would be drawn to this queer city as well. Indeed, not only does Lucy view American cities as “points of happiness,” but she is also aware that these cities are beacons to others like her: “I could not be the only person in the world for whom they were a fixture of fantasy” (Lucy 3-4). Her description of such cities as “lifeboats to my small drowning soul” (3) is also consistent with Jennifer Pierce’s depiction of queer cities as “cosmopolitan sites of salvation” that appeal to queers living in a “national geography marked by intolerance, fear, and repression” (Pierce xi). While Pierce’s conceit pertains to queers living in small American towns, Kincaid illustrates how queer cities can hold the same symbolic value for queers living in small Caribbean countries. Thus American queer cities have a much wider bandwidth than just the surrounding towns; they also project the promise of acceptance, community, and sexual liberation all the way across the Caribbean Sea. This is why Mariah’s childhood experience living in a small town and dreaming of big-city life would not have been unfamiliar to Lucy growing up in Antigua. In the late twentieth century, West Indians began experiencing their lives as part of an American narrative; a small place has become small-town U. S. A.

To project across the ocean between a queer city and a small place, Kincaid uses a lighthouse symbol: Annie John and the Red Girl often meet in an abandoned lighthouse against their mothers’ wishes, and the narrator in My Brother wistfully notices the same lighthouse on her trip back home. For Valens, the lighthouse symbolizes both “the decline of colonial power” and “the continuation of colonial rule” (136), and I argue that this contradiction suggests the fading of England as an imperial nation and the rise of America as the imperial alternative. The flashing signal from a lighthouse tower can be either a cry for help or an offer of hope. Due to the transgressive nature of their relationship, Annie and the Red Girl meet there in secret, but the inoperable state of the lighthouse means it can only provide a space for them to hide, not an opportunity to signal for help. Meanwhile, recall that in Mariah’s childhood home, Lucy describes Mariah as emitting a “celestial light” and that her eyes “grew dim as she slowly closed the lids over them, then bright again as she opened them wide” (Lucy 39). With her eyes increasing and decreasing light in an intermittent pattern, Mariah personifies a lighthouse signal, which in turn [End Page 68] becomes a symbol of America and American beauty. Cities like New York and women like Mariah beckon to queer West Indians, sustaining them through childhood trauma and guiding them to an alternative future. From their tower of loneliness, queer Caribbeans can view this symbol of hope and follow it to a queer city, a liminal and international prelude to the It Gets Better Project.

At the same time, migrants are eventually forced to reconcile the fantasy of queer cities with reality. Before migrating, Lucy saw New York “[i]n a daydream,” but immediately upon her arrival, she is struck by its “ordinary, dirty, worn down” reality (Lucy 22, 23). Yet the fantasy retains an important role since without it, there would be no migration and no queer evolution. In recognition of this role, Lucy “wrote home to say how lovely everything was … as if I were living life in a greeting card” (10). Rather than expose the fantasy, she instead exports it back to the motherland and allows it to endure in the dreams of successive generations of queers. Similarly, although the reality of desiring American whiteness is highly problematic, the fantasy of whiteness nevertheless serves a useful purpose by inspiring the necessary migration that aborts straight growth.

Without such fantasies, and had Lucy remained in Antigua, she could have endured a sad fate like the one Kincaid delineates in My Brother, in which her brother Devon dies of AIDS on an island ill-equipped to treat his illness, and where both his homosexuality and his HIV-positive status remained secret. Without denying the power of this cautionary tale for queer men who do not migrate, I am interested primarily in queer women, and so I focus on the narrator’s encounter with an unnamed woman whom she meets first in Antigua and then again at a book reading in Chicago. Her description upon seeing this woman a second time suggests queer evolution:

I saw a face that I recognized from somewhere else. I didn’t know where, except I knew it wasn’t a dream I had had, or someone who was a part of my intimate life in the past (my intimate past being my youth, which was full of curiosity and conviction and courage, and since I have survived it, my intimate past, I simply shall never repeat it); it was just the face of a woman with thin skin (it was empty of pigment and so thin in color) and short hair, like a boy who has been bad and a part of his punishment is to have his head shorn of hair: a humiliation.

Describing the woman as boyish marks her instantly as queer, and the references to “punishment” and “humiliation” suggest the trauma that queers endure in a small place. That the narrator recognizes the woman, but cannot remember where she first saw her renders Antigua a distant memory in America. By connecting this queer woman to her “intimate” past, the narrator implies intimacy in childhood with other girls. The alliterative adjectives for her childhood (“curiosity” and “courage”) could certainly describe queer experimentation, and by then depicting childhood as something to be survived and not repeated, she alludes to her own queer trauma, which America has saved her from having to endure. Finally, the unnamed woman’s lack of pigment once again conflates crossing the border into America with crossing over into whiteness, which in turn allows the Caribbean to simply be queer. Significantly, during this second encounter in Chicago, the unnamed woman approaches the narrator, outs herself as a lesbian, and reveals that she allowed homosexual men to meet privately in her Antiguan home for sex, with Devon being one of those men. Prior to this revelation, the narrator was unaware of her brother’s sexuality, and so the two women come together in this moment to tell Devon’s secret story, which they can do safely only in an American metropolis. That this scene occurs at the narrator’s book reading confirms Timothy Chin’s assertion that writing from America allows Caribbeans “to break the silence surrounding issues of [gay/lesbian/non-normative] sexuality” (535). Only after migrating to America can the narrator write about mother, motherland, and brother. [End Page 69]

This revelation shows, on the one hand, that queer female community is rendered invisible even by queer men, since the two women unite to tell Devon’s story and the unnamed woman uses her house only to facilitate the homosexual activities of men, not women. Additionally, the narrator meets activists in Antigua who attempt to educate the population about AIDS, thereby promulgating issues relevant to queer men, but there are no activists for queer women whose issues remain unspoken. Therefore, such women are not only subject to the male gaze and pressured to conform to mother/wife roles, but even in the queer shadows are they also overshadowed by men. On the other hand, Kincaid’s memoir attempts to remedy the invisibility of queer West Indian women by using her brother as a surrogate. Although she was never close to Devon, “[it] surprised me that I loved him,” and she even connects to his suffering: “I may be dying much more quickly than he” (My Brother 20, 64). Since Devon would have been better off in an American city where he could have access to queer community and AZT treatment, the narrator’s portrayal of his life as a fate she narrowly escaped suggests that she can relate to his predicament: “his life was the one I did not have … I avoided or escaped” (176). The narrator even alludes to straight growth by contemplating the dire possibility of remaining in Antigua: “it frightened me to think that I might have continued to live in a certain way” (90). In this way, she suggests that queer women can be similarly afflicted and that their stories are equally relevant. Unfortunately, this effort has gone unnoticed by critics who fail to grapple with the memoir as a queer text, even when analyzing its portrait of a closeted homosexual dying of AIDS. For example, Sarah Brophy focuses only on issues of economics and nationality between the siblings, and although she concurs that “[s]peaking of Devon, Kincaid knowingly speaks more of herself” (Brophy 269), she does not follow her argument to its logical end, which is that the narrator understands her brother precisely because she understands his queerness.

Perhaps the tendency to overlook queerness in Kincaid’s texts is because critics find both author and narrator difficult. Who can close-read when you cannot get too close? Kincaid ridicules both middle-class American culture and poor Caribbean culture; she seems to hold progressive views but has little patience for political correctness; and, she describes Antigua with the humanity of a painter but also with the scorn and relief of an escaped prisoner. As a result, some critics accuse her of classism and ethnocentrism, of essentially turning the colonizer into a villain before turning into the colonizer. King is one such critic, combating Kincaid’s anger at mother and motherland with the indignant anger of a sister scorned: “Fine, so Kincaid does not like the Caribbean much, finds it dull and boring. … I do not see why Caribbean people should admire her for denigrating our small place in this destructively angry fashion” (899). Understandably, King takes it personally when someone from her background seems to be ashamed of it. As a result, her essay is a scathing and stylistic takedown, the poetic version of calling the author a motherfucker.

Yet her identification of Kincaid’s “Caribbean shame” is only half the story. It addresses issues of race and class but nothing else, and there are other kinds of shame at work here. Feminist critics have already identified the West Indian mother’s slut-shaming of her daughter, and I argue that there is also the presence of queer shame, which according to Love is a response to queer trauma and a necessary component of the therapeutic process of feeling backward. Consider these examples: Annie John is sent to England and the Red Girl is sent to Anguilla following the exposure of their relationship; the memoir narrator recalls an episode in which she was violently attacked by other schoolgirls for being “bookish” and “weak-looking” (My Brother 77); and Lucy describes herself as “outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true” (Lucy 18). These examples resemble the [End Page 70] traumatic queer experiences of being thrown out by one’s parents, being bullied in school, and being in the closet. Thus queer shame is all over Kincaid’s texts, and the narrator faces it by writing from the safety of an American metropolis. Viewed through a queer lens, her unflattering portrait of West Indian life may at least be partly about surviving such trauma and avoiding straight growth. At one point, King lists some metropolitan signifiers to indict Kincaid with snobbery—“shopping,” “nightlife,” “theater,” and “art galleries”—yet she fails to appreciate that these places and activities are also culturally important to queers.

It may be that King overlooks queerness in Kincaid’s texts because she can discern only those themes with which she identifies, but who can fault her for that? Perhaps queer-reading simply requires a queer reader because, as Love wonders, queer subjects “warm to the touch of the queer historian” or because of “a desire of the queer historian for a response from the past” (39, 40). To that end, insofar as I am a gay man who was born in Trinidad and migrated to New York, this essay is both not about me and not not about me. Certainly, I too take Kincaid personally by relating to the narrator’s trauma in a small place, her big-city dreams, and her complicated attraction to American whiteness. It was therefore clear to me while reading Kincaid that the performance between author and narrator was telling a queer story. Her texts chart the journey of West Indian women who migrate to an imperial alternative and who become American so that queerness can finally grow up.

Akash Nikolas

Akash Nikolas is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a former associate editor at Zap2It. He holds an MSt in English and American Studies from the University of Oxford.


1. Nasta argues that West Indian patriarchy has been colonially imposed and that “mothers and motherlands have provided a potent symbolic force” in this imposition (xix); and Simmons argues, “Like the betraying mother, the colonial system, in pretending to nurture the child, actually steals her from herself” (466). For more on these issues, see Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference (Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990), and Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido, Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature (Trenton: Africa World, 1990). Other critics argue that colonialism also imposes West Indian heteronormativity, which these maternal symbols also help reinforce: “The insistence on heterosexuality as the norm that can and must not be violated … belongs to a Victorian morality whose imposition forms part of British colonialism” (Valens 124), so that any “queering of a Caribbean landscape charts a poetics and politics of decolonization” (Tinsley 2).

2. Critics often approach Kincaid’s texts as an overarching story told by a single narrator. For example, Holcomb and Holcomb identify a “Kincadian script” (969); Ferguson maintains that the novels “produce a strategic formation … acquiring mass, density, and referential power among themselves” (107); Edwards argues that Lucy “continues to explore some of the themes found in A Small Place” and “returns to many of the themes covered in Annie John” (9); King asserts “that it is impossible not to feel that in reading about Annie or Lucy we are reading about Jamaica” (887); and McDonald-Smythe argues that Kincaid requires the reader “to separate the role of narrator from that of character and to recognize that each role occupies a distinctive performative frame” (44). Henceforth, I use the names of each protagonist to indicate a specific novel, but I use “narrator” to indicate Kincaid’s overarching persona. Furthermore, this essay is limited principally to the British West Indies (“West Indies”) and to queer West Indian women. I also use “America” to refer to the United States.

3. I do not claim that all queer West Indian women migrate, nor is this essay concerned with queer migrants seeking asylum abroad on the basis of their sexuality. I would argue that such cases do not tell a complete story because not every queer migrant is openly gay and applying for asylum (and even less so in the 1960s and ’70s). Instead, most queers migrate under the same conditions as nonqueer migrants—as students, as workers, as family members—and some are even undocumented. Specifically, this essay is only concerned with queer West Indian women who migrated to the U. S. to do domestic work, and I will show that Kincaid’s novels tell that story.

4. The West Indian mother’s slut-shaming of her daughter is a recurring trope in Kincaid’s writing. For example, Lucy declares, “my whole upbringing had been devoted to preventing me from becoming a slut” (127); in the short story “Girl” from At the Bottom of the River, a mother repeatedly warns her daughter to “walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming” (3); and after Annie John talks to a group of boys, her mother lets her know that “it had pained her to see me behave in the manner of a slut” (102). [End Page 71]

5. “I began attaching the letter ‘s’ to the LGBTQ abbreviation (LGBTQS) so I could affiliate those who were ‘single’ with the ever-elongating list of nonmajority sexualities … especially since the single seemed (and still seems) like one of the most despised sexual minorities one can be” (Cobb 5-6).

6. See Tonya Huber-Warring, Storied Inquiries in International Landscapes: An Anthology of Educational Research (Scottsdale: Information Age, 2010).

7. This connects the shampoo to a history of colonial bodily products, which, for Anne McClintock, inscribe femininity and beauty only onto the bodies of white European women. See McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995).

8. For example, Annie is drawn to the Red Girl’s “unbelievable, wonderful smell, as if she had never taken a bath in her whole life” (Annie John 57), and while masturbating, Xuela “wanted to smell myself. … my odor was quite powerful” (Autobiography 70).

9. For example: “Mariah said to me, ‘I love you’” (26); “if anyone could love a young woman who had come from halfway around the world to help take care of her children, it was Mariah” (27); “This woman who hardly knew me loved me” (30); “I had grown to love her so” (46); “The times that I loved Mariah it was because she reminded me of my mother” (58); “Mariah reminded me more and more of the parts of my mother that I loved” (59); and “I had grown to love Mariah so much” (73).

10. For example, Valens describes how Annie’s kissing and pinching her girlhood friends is about “locating the pleasure on the same surface as the pain” (137), and Xuela describes her first sexual encounter with a married man as “a long sharp line of pain … a long sharp line of pleasure” (Autobiography 71). See Valens for more on this trope in Annie John, and see Holcomb and Holcomb for a deeper analysis of sadomasochism in Kincaid.

11. “Whether they move to the United States or Britain, most West Indians emigrated to improve their economic position. In both countries West Indians have usually earned more money and maintained a better living standard than they did back home” because “by West Indian standards, United States wages are good” and such migrant workers are “often willing to scrimp and save” (Foner 284-85).

12. For example, Tinsley refers to North America and Europe as “the Global North” (26), and King views the U. S. and the UK as “interchangeable” nations so that migrating to either constitutes “the journey to the heart of Empire” (903).

13. For the differences between the West Indian migrant experience in America and in England, see Nancy Foner, “West Indian Identity in the Diaspora: Comparative and Historical Perspectives,” Latin American Perspectives 25.3 (1998): 173-88; and Foner.

14. Henry argues that West Indian migrants in the 1960s and ’70s benefited from a “freer atmosphere in New York,” which allowed them to indulge in “ribaldry” and “invective” against England (85). Condé and Lonsdale argue that Kincaid’s writing “work[s] out her relationship with her mother from the distance of the United States,” while still maintaining “the instinctive rebellion she felt against England” (176, 180).

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