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Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 857-867
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Imaginary Homelands in Jamaica Kincaid's Narratives of Development
Maria Helena Lima
They should never have left their home, their precious England, a place they loved so much, a place they had to leave but could never forget. And so everywhere they went they turned it into England; and everybody they met they turned English. But no place could ever really be England, and nobody who did not look exactly like them would ever be English, so you can imagine the destruction of people and land that came from that. (A Small Place 24)
It was because I had neglected my brother when he was two years old and instead read a book that my mother gathered up all the books I owned and put them on a pile on her stone heap, sprinkling them with kerosene and then setting them alight; I cannot remember the titles of these books, I cannot remember what they were about (they would have been novels, at fifteen I read only novels), but it would not be so strange if I spent the rest of my life trying to bring those books back to my life by writing them again and again until they were perfect, unscathed by fire of any kind. For a very long time I had the perfect reader for what I would write and place in the unscathed books; the source of the books has not died, it only comes alive again and again in different forms and other segments. The perfect reader has died, but I cannot see any reason not to write for him anyway, for I can sooner get used to never hearing from him—the perfect reader—than to not being able to write for him at all. (My Brother 196-97)
Towards the end of My Brother, Jamaica Kincaid confesses that she became "a writer out of desperation"; that the act of writing about her own life (in fictional accounts of the artist's youth) has actually saved that life. Kincaid's ongoing narrative, then, is cumulative rather than linear: when seen together her characters constitute a single bildung—that of the writer. In My Brother, readers will find the same overbearing mother, whose "love for her children when they are children is spectacular, unequaled [ . . . ] in the history of a mother's love," but whose "mechanism for loving them falls apart" when her children are trying to become adults and pursue a career as a writer (17). Antigua is the "same" underdeveloped place Kincaid [End Page 857] has spent most of her writing life up to now trying to recreate. Her last book is only different from the others on the surface, in that it does not disguise itself as fiction. Kincaid attempts to understand both her brother's life in Antigua and her (non-)place in it until the moment he begins to die of AIDS. 1 In order "not to die with him," Kincaid tells her readers, "[she] would write about it" (195-96). Writing this book, obviously, is not meant to save her brother's life: she notes that her book is "about the dead for the dead" (197).
It is on the "for the dead" part of the statement that I want to focus, since, in a way, My Brother is also meant as an eulogy/epitaph for William Shawn, her editor/father-in-law, whom she claims is her "perfect reader," and who died just before her brother. With the intricacy that characterizes her style, Kincaid weaves layers of complexity as she links the loss of her brother to that of her "perfect reader" when telling the story of why she becomes a writer: in an effort to bring back to life the books her mother has burned to punish her for reading books rather than fulfilling what should have been natural to her as a woman—taking care of her baby brother.
Although Kincaid does not hide the guilt she feels for that first neglect (when her brother was a baby), it is hard...