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Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 844-856
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"The Difference Between the Two Bundles"
Body and Cloth in the Works of Jamaica Kincaid
Nicole C. Matos
In an autobiographical story, sadly and slyly entitled "Biography of a Dress," Jamaica Kincaid reflects upon a photograph of herself as a toddler, taken to commemorate the occasion of her second birthday. While the photograph itself captures a single moment—an image of the author backed up against a painted vista, staring out with a look of resigned anguish—the story captures a weeks-long chain of preparations, culminating in the final hours before the picture is snapped:
On the day I turned two years old . . . small hoops made of gold from British Guiana (it was called that then, it is not called that now) were placed in the bored holes in my earlobes . . . a pair of bracelets made of silver from someplace other than British Guiana (and that place too was called one thing then and something else now) was placed one on each wrist. . . . That afternoon, I was bathed and powdered, and the dress of yellow poplin, completed, its seams all stitched together with a certainty found only in the natural world (I now realize) was placed over my head, and it is quite possible that this entire act had about it the feeling of being draped in a shroud. As [my mother] walked along with me in her arms . . . I placed my lips against one side of her head (the temple) and could feel the rhythm of blood pulsing through her body; I placed my lips against her throat and could hear her swallow saliva that she had collected in her mouth; I placed my face against her neck and inhaled deeply a scent . . . [that] is not of animal or place or thing, it was (and is) a scent unique to her, and it left a mark of such depth that it eventually became a part of my other senses, and even now (yes, now) that scent is also taste, touch, sight and sound. (98)
In this crucial passage, a story of conflict and futility is distilled into opposing impressions: a dress and a shroud; a mother's sewing hands, a mother's beating heart. From these drifting juxtapositions emerges a much-needed instant of stasis, an interval in which forces are accounted for—the certain and the uncertain, the personal and the political, the things known then and the things known now—but momentarily suspended. But even more important, these juxtapositions set up an elastic and evolving dichotomy between body and cloth, naked and clothed, which continues evocatively not only within this single text, but throughout many of Kincaid's other [End Page 844] writings. In Annie John, Lucy, and The Autobiography of My Mother as in "Biography of a Dress," interactions between the competing and yet mutually dependent elements of body and cloth contribute another level to Kincaid's exploration of domination, oppression, and resistance in the West Indies. The subtle, almost mystical battles between these forces in the everyday lives of her characters underscore, reflect, and in some sense, allegorically represent dimensions of the perpetual struggle between colonizer and colonized.
Julia Kristeva's psycho-linguistic theories, and, in particular, her delineation of the interactive categories of the "symbolic" and the "semiotic," illuminate Kincaid's conceptualization of body and cloth as oppositional yet mutually dependent forces. In "The System and the Speaking Subject," Kristeva proposes a method for studying this interaction between the symbolic and the semiotic, explaining the difference between traditional semiology and her proposed alternative of "semanalysis":
The theory of meaning now stands at a crossroad: either it will remain [based] on a conception . . . of meaning as the act of a transcendental ego . . . or else it will attune itself to the theory of the speaking subject as a divided subject (conscious/ unconscious) and go on to specify the types of operations characteristic of the two sides of the split, thereby exposing them to those forces extraneous to the logic of the systematic; exposing them...