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Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 920-937

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How Jamaica Kincaid Writes the Autobiography of Her Mother

Veronica Marie Gregg

Autobiography is a wound where the blood of history does not dry.

—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (172)

Much has been made of Jamaica Kincaid's anger. It seems as though her status as a "postcolonial" writer depends on this anger—an anger directed toward Europe's role in the West Indies and the Eurocentric construction of the history of the West Indies. This critical placement derives, in large measure, from readings of A Small Place (1988), Lucy (1990), and Autobiography of My Mother (1995). She herself has cultivated the pose of the angry woman, especially after the publication of A Small Place:

I now consider anger as a badge of honor. . . . I've really come to love anger. And I liked it even more when a lot of reviews said it's so angry. The New York Times said it didn't have the "charm" of Annie John. . . . [W]hen people say you're charming you're in deep trouble. I realized in writing that book that the first step to claiming yourself is anger. You get mad. And you can't do anything before you get angry. (Perry 497-98)

In a subsequent interview, however, she is less sanguine about the designation of herself as the angry woman, observing: "I've often thought that if I were a man, my expressions of dissatisfaction with the world would be regarded with interest and enthusiasm" (Jackson 2).

There are times, too, when she positions herself as a lonely voice crying from the wilderness, speaking the reality of the "native," claiming authenticity as a West Indian truthsayer: "One thing Antiguans said about A Small Place is: 'It's true, but did she have to say it?' No one says that it's a lie; the disagreement is did she have to say it" (Perry 499). Fearlessly, fairly, and evenhandedly, she maintains, Kincaid is castigating the colonial and neo-colonial powers, Europeans and West Indians: "The English were wrong when they were there, and it is wrong today. I think, dare I pat myself on the back, that it's very good that I'm able to admit that we've made a mess [End Page 920] of things. . . . Antigua is in terrible shape, and it should be changed into something better" ("I Come" 97). In these pronouncements, she establishes a demonstrative distance between herself and other Antiguans who have not, like her, seen the light.

Jamaica Kincaid's position may be partly explained by her personal situation in the US, and the means by which she became a writer. 1 She says that when she started writing, and prior to 1988, she had no knowledge of, and therefore no possible intellectual filiation to, West Indian literary and cultural thought.In an interview conducted by Selwyn Cudjoe, he asks specifically:

"What West Indian writers did you read before you came to America?"
"I didn't know anything about West Indian literature before I came to this country."
"At what point did you begin to read West Indian writers?"
"I've read very little. I wouldn't know how I fit." (401)

This position has changed significantly, as Kincaid has since discovered both West Indian writers and writing, and engages them in various ways (Birbalsingh 138-51).

How Kincaid fits into West Indian literature is the question to be explored. To read her work within the context of other West Indian women writers is to be apprised of what she shares with them and to better understand some of the traditions out of which she comes. (This forms part of a larger project.) Within the limits of this paper, a discussion of Kincaid's focus on history and language is a useful starting point for such an inquiry, as these are two of the most compelling and deeply engaged concerns of her own work and of Anglophone Caribbean writing as a whole. An analysis of A Small Place alongside Autobiography of My Mother reveals the complex ways in...


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