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Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 938-953
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Speaking In (M)other Tongues
The Role of Language in Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother
Giselle Liza Anatol
The speech [that stays] in the belly is the child of your mother, the speech [that springs] from your mouth is the child of your father.
—Fulani proverb 1
As is evident by the prevalence of broken mother-daughter links in Caribbean women's literature, many female authors of the region write "against" motherhood. African-Caribbean women in particular must reconcile themselves with a maternal role that is not only affected by the legacies of colonialism, including the metaphor of the "mother country," but is also intricately bound up in the violence and dehumanization of enslavement. Jamaica Kincaid is one of many contemporary women authors who write out of a history in which maternity and gender have been manipulated in the name of an anti-colonial, Caribbean project. Her novels exemplify the idea that an unproblematic representation of biological motherhood seems near to impossible for Caribbean women; her fiction circles round and round the troubled concept of motherhood, constantly replaying a situation of loss, longing, lack, and unanswerable desire.
In The Autobiography of My Mother, Kincaid addresses the pervading notion of inescapable bonds between mother and daughter. The 1976 novel from which Kincaid derives her title and premise contains a U.S. version of this dynamic. In Rosellen Brown's The Autobiography of My Mother, set in New York City in the 1970s, Gerda Stein and her daughter Renata are embroiled in an exhausting and ultimately devastating battle, yet they are incapable of extracting themselves from the relationship that makes them so miserable. Gerda eventually comes to the conclusion that her life and her daughter's are inextricably entwined; in fact, she decides that they have but one single life to share: "I had not known we were to share but one life between us, so that the fuller mine is, the more empty hers." At another point in the novel, Renata, who is also a mother, speculates: "Will I have to die for [my daughter] to get free of me, free of the part of her history I carry around?. . . . [My mother is] not my history only: my future. She won't die, she'll be waiting for me in the graveyard no matter what" (241 [End Page 938] and 207, respectively). Kincaid focuses on this issue throughout her Autobiography; in her 1996 Caribbean version, the narrator's mother is the daughter's seemingly inescapable past, history, present, and future.
The Antiguan author creates a protagonist who is inordinately preoccupied with her deceased birth mother. The novel's development suggests that it is Xuela Richardson's obsession with this absent "natural" mother, and not the lack of a mother in and of itself, that inhibits her ability to have sustained relationships with other women in her life. 2 Her fixation causes her to mythologize her mother, thus creating an image of motherhood that is impossible for any other woman, including herself, to live up to. The identification of the birth mother as the only "real" or "natural" mother is a troubling concept that must be interrogated, both in Kincaid's novel and in the larger society. Redefining the categories of "motherhood" and "family" is essential if women are to find ways out of the constrictive roles determined by patriarchal dictates.
Investigating the role of language is one way to examine the complicated mother-daughter relationships in Autobiography. One's first language is often spoken of in terms of maternal connection: it is referred to as the "mother tongue." Throughout the Caribbean, the idea of having a "mother tongue" is firmly grounded within a nationalist consciousness, yet the gendered implications are rarely explored within the established nationalist rhetoric. Jamaican writer Velma Pollard provides the following definition of the mother tongue: "Mothertongue as it is traditionally defined . . . is that one language the individual first acquires and learns to use in communicating with other people" (252). Although...