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Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 954-968
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Jamaica Kincaid's Voracious Bodies
Engendering a Carib(bean) Woman
Kathryn E. Morris
Engaged in a literary tradition and a cultural heritage which remains defiantly patriarchal, Jamaica Kincaid's writing thrives on bringing erasures back to life, to re-placing the lives of women and indigenous cultures as foundational elements of the discursive Caribbean. Her fiction emerges as a voracious poetics, aimed at consuming colonial Caribbean narratives. In Kincaid's 1996 novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, Xuela Richardson is born at the moment her mother, a Carib woman, dies. Xuela laments: "[m]y mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind" (3). This paper examines Kincaid's portrayal of Xuela's self-making as a re-fashioning of that "bleak, black" space. Kincaid constructs a metaphor of sexual devouring as a response to colonial history's objectifying representation of the Carib people as ravenously sexual and cannibalistic.
After the mother's death, Xuela's father abandons her, placing her in the care of the woman who launders his clothes, Ma Eunice. The mother's van(qu)ished Carib body and voice is a marked, compensatory space in which Xuela attempts to transcend the fate she inherits from her mother. Xuela is the receptacle of the mother's life and history, a history that culminates in vanquishment.
Without the mother's presence and without her father's presence, Xuela must find out for herself who she is and what her place is in Dominica. At the age of four, she becomes accustomed to seeing her father every fortnight when he comes to Ma Eunice for his clothes. When he does not appear after one fortnight, Xuela asks "Where is my father?" (6-7). This first utterance in English, a language that Xuela has never heard anyone speak, yet in which she knows how to form a sentence, sets up the novel's argument with history and colonialism. Xuela continues: "That the first words I said were in the language of a people I would never like or love is not now a mystery to me; everything in my life, good or bad, to which I am inextricably bound is a source of pain" (7).
As a child, Xuela can already identify the histories that make up her identity. While at school, in a class with seven boys and herself, she is conscious of the marks that distinguish her from the teacher and the other students:
I had thick eyebrows; my hair was coarse, thick, and wavy; my eyes were set far apart from each other and they had the shape of almonds; my lips were wide and narrow in an unexpected way. [End Page 954] I was of the African people, but not exclusively. My mother was a Carib woman, and when they looked at me this is what they saw: The Carib people had been defeated and then exterminated, thrown away like the weeds in a garden; the African people had been defeated but had survived. When they looked at me, they saw only the Carib people. (15-16)
Xuela clings to her dead mother's history as a matter of belonging. She grows into herself and becomes enveloped in a world that takes shape around her body and her voice: "I spoke to myself because I grew to like the sound of my own voice. It had a sweetness to me, it made my loneliness less, for I was lonely and wished to see people in whose faces I could recognize something of myself. Because who was I? My mother was dead; I had not seen my father for a long time" (16). By drawing the Xuela character as an orphan and as the daughter of a woman of the vanquished Carib people, Kincaid dramatizes the isolation of the colonial Caribbean subject. Xuela's childhood socialization, a process centered on herself, becomes the model for her self-fashioning as...