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Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 868-884
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"Mwen na rien, Msieu"
Jamaica Kincaid and the Problem of Creole Gnosis
she didn't hear anything—me nevva hear nothing—me na hear nuttn—mwen na rien, msieu. (Brathwaite 67)
When I asked the Caribbean critic whose manuscript on Black feminist themes I was reviewing why she had not included a discussion of Erna Brodber's work in her study, she told me she had run out of time. Later, when the constraints of my role as reviewer no longer mattered, she offered me another explanation: her good friend had committed suicide. It happened around the time that she had been trying to write about Brodber, trying to work out how to discuss Brodber's takes on madness in Jane and Louisa Will Soon ComeHome and spirit possession in Myal. After the suicide, the evil spirits that had sent her friend plunging to destruction, like the biblical Gadarenian swine, tried to invade the critic's body. She had wrestled with them nightly, swinging between a languorous attraction to the pleasures they seemed to offer and a lurching dread of the evil they represented. She identified with Brodber's views on spiritual renewal and cultural affirmation, yet she could not help feeling that Brodber, by invoking this spiritual world through the folk culture, was dabbling with forces of evil, allowing Satan's minions a space and power that could ultimately destroy her reader. The critic had prayed her way through the writing and emerged stronger, spiritually. But she had left out the chapter on Brodber.
I went back to the manuscript after our conversation in search of the traces of this fearsome battle. There were very few. The critic was smart on theory, accurate on history. Her footnotes were in place, her analyses worked. But where was the passion that had been part of our conversation? Why hadn't she had it out with those demons on the page instead of arguing with Chodorow? Why didn't she spell out for her reader the spiritual striving that informed her readings instead of belaboring her texts' connections to the development of the European bildungsroman? Her struggle with the meaning of the spiritual forces around her mirrored that of Brodber's characters. Indeed, the very passion of her resistance to Brodber's text made her in some ways its ideal reader. But there was no gnosis, no sanctioned code for articulating Caribbean systems of belief and knowledge, through which the spiritual battle she had experienced could be incorporated into her academic text, even though Brodber's novels take precisely this problem of articulation as their point of departure. [End Page 868]
Jamaica Kincaid offers us a commentary on this paradox in The Autobiography of My Mother when her narrator tells a story about a group of schoolchildren who witness how a female water spirit laden with riches seduces one of their playmates, enticing him into death by drowning. Although the children's story invokes a familiar spiritual presence that takes many forms in Caribbean folklore, no one in the children's world will acknowledge the veracity of their story. Finally, the children themselves discredit the event, even though all claim to have witnessed it. The narrator comments:
It was almost as if the reality of this terror was so overwhelming that it became a myth, as if it had happened a very long time ago and to other people, not us. I know of friends who witnessed this event with me and, forgetting that I was present, would tell it to me in a certain way, daring me to believe them; but it is only because they do not themselves believe what they are saying; they no longer believe what they saw with their own eyes, or in their own reality. This is no longer without an explanation to me. Everything about us is held in doubt and we the defeated define all that is unreal, all that is not human, all that is without love, all that is without mercy. Our experience...