Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Autobiographical Impact on Kincaid`s Writing

Individual Dynamic; Kincaid as herself

“I write about myself for the most part, and about things that have happened to me. Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true. You couldn't admit any of it to a court of law. It would not be good evidence.”
Jamaica Kincaid (Mo Review interview, Kay Bonnetti)

Does Jamaica Kincaid write autobiographically? The preceding quotation seems to be an answer to this question; however, she seems to enjoy muddying up a clear answer by both affirming and contradicting herself in the same answer. Later on within this same interview, rather than clarifying her answer, Kincaid attributes her ambiguity to her Caribbean ancestry, continuing to embed her formative identity into this location.

In J.Brooks Bouson`s book, Jamaica Kincaid; Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother, assertive statements about Jamaica Kincaid`s identity and intention are tidily solved as Kincaid and her works are placed neatly within the psychological field. Her motivation is attributed to an experience of shame and trauma experienced primarily within the mother-daughter relationship. Though this book appears to address the psychological aspects of Kincaid`s life, the differences between cultures of the United States and the Caribbean are collapsed. Kincaid is viewed within the minority construct within the United States.

This oversight of cultural difference between the Caribbean and the US is most apparent in the simplification of the mother, Annie Drew, who is characterized as a dominating shame inducing mother. The complete oversight of Kincaid`s contradiction of her understandings, her own ambivalent portrayals of herself and her Antiguan family, points to a serious flaw in Bouson`s analysis. The glossing over of cultural difference and simplification of understanding is a problem. When Kincaid’s contradictions are admitted to, they are attributed to her effort to gain greater personal freedom, which is similar to the social construct of the American feminist`s independence movement. Bouson repeatedly writes that Kincaid had a cruel and humiliating mother, without considering Annie Drew`s place within Antiguan society. What stresses might she have been under to behave in so harsh a manner towards her daughter? In two books, Kincaid writes that her mother should not have had children (My Brother, Lucy) and Bouson takes her at her word; but what does Kincaid actually and permanently mean this statement? Is she actually saying that her mother never was an adequate mother? By inquiring further, it soon becomes clear that Kincaid also has moments of praise toward her mother. She attributes her reading skill to her mother, her writer`s voice is directly connected to her mother. If Kincaid actually hated her cruel mother as Bousen claims, why would she have named her daughter Annie, after her mother? Kincaid`s complication of her relationship with her mother can be discovered by noting the factual contradictions uncovered in reviews, interviews, and in her fiction and nonfiction examined over her lifetime.

This question points to another oversight, as a writer who seems self-aware yet continually contradicts herself, maybe she has a reason for her inconsistencies? What would be her reason for this ambiguity? Individuals change over time; and too, their opinions may change based on situational reasons, more information, or even whim. Anyone who has written privately in a journal knows that the explorations there are frequently transitory insights that are revised or re-understood at a later time, especially when subjects are revisited over many years. Kincaid’s work has to be viewed within a cultural framework that accounts for her individuality. Kincaid writes public journals that play with the tropes of autobiography but always feel as if they might be revised again.

Reflecting back to Kincaid´s comment that her mother should not have had children, would not circumstances create a powerful woman such as Annie Drew who pushes forward even as she makes mistakes? Consider the chapter, “Girl” in At the Bottom of the River, where the mother continually tells the daughter that she will become a “slut”. Some Caribbean students have responded that the mother is worried about the daughter and wants to protect her from what has happened to so many others. It is not rare within the Caribbean for a parent to use negative/harsh criticism in order to express concern for the child’s safety or to prevent mistakes. What is seen as a cruel comment by Bouson, should be placed in the Caribbean context.

Kincaid said in an interview that she stopped criticizing her mother because her mother did not have the public access to respond in a fair way. Kincaid has been able to write personally and provide her own perceptions whereas those within her family cannot publicly respond. Kincaid reveals in this interview that she is carrying on an argument, like a public street fight, but she realizes the other side cannot be heard. Anne Drew is verbally gifted. Kincaid writes about her mother´s talent in her collection of essays, In a Small Place; it is a sense of fair play that later constrains Kincaid. She knows that her mother`s gift for public rebuttal is unavailable.

If the reader were to set aside everything outside of the text, author biography and personality and just look at the written words alone, would this be a fair reading of Kincaid? The author, Margaret Atwood writes that since the author’s life factors are always changing and flexible, the only reliable understanding of the work is found within the work itself, i.e. the only truth to be found is within the text. This disconnected approach cannot be applied to Kincaid’s writing because she repeatedly references the author and her biography. Sometimes Kincaid uses accurate names, or changes them slightly. She also elaborates on events that occur from one work to another, only shifting the emotional tone or casting the events in a different light. Additionally, when Kincaid writes, there is a Caribbean audience whose presence hovers within the text even while she seems to address a western (or American) audience. This presence makes it difficult to isolate the work outside of multiple contexts. The reader of Kincaid becomes obsessed with the author’s biography, what is a factually true statement verses an emotionally true one? What is in fact a lie? Kincaid writes to this reader by relentlessly pointing to her biography.

In Walking in the Himalayas, Kincaid writes that she is obsessing about her son, Harold; she is excessively fearful of his well being, though he has stayed home in Vermont and she is the one traveling. She has encountered threatening military Maoist and has more than once felt threatened. Nevertheless, she worries like an over protective mother. She continually writes about her motherly anxiety but her fear for her son seems to be out of place. After all, he is in a much safer environment than Kincaid. Her concern comes across as somewhat forced or put on. In this same context, Kincaid is troubled over calling herself Canadian, in order to hide from the angry militants, but she writes that she “would never call herself or think to call herself anything other than American” and later she writes that she could only be called “Antiguan now living in Vermont.” All of her contradictions are related to a kind of identity movement that can only be securely grounded in Antigua.

What are the reasons for her changes? In My Brother she reverts to her own family as a healthy new space/place for herself but her old role as daughter and sister does show a shift towards peace making. When Kincaid visits her home with her children, she encourages their relationship with her mother even though Kincaid points out that there is a competitive feeling between them. Her mother continually tries to obtain confirmation that her grandchildren like her better than their mother. When the grandmother believes that they like her better, she celebrates but Kincaid just accepts that this is a quality of her mother’s love. She also makes a genuine attempt to know her youngest brother who later dies of AIDS despite her active involvement in obtaining treatment and drugs for him from the United States. When she returns to the states, she continually refers to her Vermont home as the perfect place and her ideal role within her family. She never mentions that her husband can never travel with her to Antigua because of his agoraphobia or any other domestic points where problems in her paradise might exist. So much so that many are surprised when they find out that she is divorced. These inconsistencies create questions about what is hidden and what is revealed by Kincaid creating a wary atmosphere when reading her work.

Two theoretical/critical approaches are particularly relevant when considering Kincaid’s autobiography and her writing focus; these are the Feminist Standpoint Theory and the individualist’s perspective. Both approaches point to the question, who does Kincaid represent? Does she speak for a community?

One aspect of Kincaid’s identity formation has to do with her shifting sometimes called fluid subject position. Nevertheless, she has been latched onto by various groups who claim her as their own, African American scholars and American feminists, for example. Kincaid is classified by publishers as African American but Kincaid does not actually embrace the classification. Nevertheless, she often is an invited speaker to activities that celebrate African American contributions to literature. She has been both embraced and rejected by feminists but claims that she does not want to box her creative self into a particular perspective. Is Kincaid a feminist? This is too broad of a question and it makes more sense to focus on to one approach, such as Feminist Standpoint Theory as understood by Nancy Harcourt. (Her input to this question is particularly valuable because she also writes about autobiography and subject positions.) Does Jamaica Kincaid have a standpoint? Does she have a position to argue from? Clearly it is difficult to place her without a through analysis of her written texts and her interviews.

Does being flexible mean that there is no standpoint? Brooke Lenz argues that Kincaid’s multiple standpoints offer a way to more accurately understand her experience of being a woman and the power dynamic that characterizes the role of a post-colonial subject. Kincaid refuses to be boxed into a pre-constructed identity because she wants to maintain her freedom and nurture her creativity. The resultant oxymoronic identity construction is highly individualized. An example of a competent woman falling into non-feminists discourse is found in My Garden Book. Kincaid points out that she cannot handle money. She writes that her husband will not allow her to write checks because she does not keep track of the accounts. Her husband has to pay all the bills. Feminist scholars who want to claim Kincaid as their spokesperson or a role model, must revolt at her reference of the gender biased script of the woman who cannot handle money. Kincaid’s love of all things domestic [her own words] might also rankle, even though the concept of domestic space has a more complicated meaning related to a power base and as validation in African American and Caribbean writing and living.

Returning to Standpoint Theory, Lenz interrogates Lucy by referring to classic literary frames such as identity and point of view in order to question if Lucy has a standpoint -or rather to show how Lucy arrives at a standpoint by reflecting on the processes she undergoes while adjusting to an alien country, the United States. It is important to consider that Standpoint Theory has most often been used within the field of the social sciences and applied to identity and social behavior. Kincaid’s work can be more easily connected to social science analysis because it is autobiographically based; it is uniquely situated.

As to Kincaid’s standpoint, can she be a feminist if she does not claim it is so? Even without the term feminist, it is clear that Kincaid`s characters Annie in Annie John and Lucy in Lucy were both rebellious because of an unequal difference in how the genders are treated. Annie John spoke of her change in relation with her mother after her brothers were born; Lucy, too, mentions the obstacle of her brother’s birth to her education, both character’s mention that the reason they left Antigua was to earn money to send home. Kincaid confirms that her mother did intend for her to send money home to help support the family but she decided to break from the family and cultural expectation of self-sacrifice. The entire concept of privileging males over females as it relates to education and expectation is addressed frequently in most of Kincaid’s books. For example, Lucy confronts the double standard related to sexual freedom and becomes empowered through enjoying sexuality without commitment and without love. Annie rebels when her brothers are born and a new set of expectations for her behavior are insisted upon.

These two core threads connected to the feminist movement; i.e., the imbalance of power through unequal treatment of the genders, specifically the preference of sons over daughters, and through the double-standard regarding sexual freedom, fit in with most definitions of a feminist. Kincaid’s reason for resisting labels is well documented but they primarily focus on the constraint that those labels might place on her writing. There is tension between an author’s freedom to create and producing work that is marketable. Kincaid’s resistance to the feminist identification while calling attention to well known feminist’s concerns is likely her way of negotiating a creative space for her individuality while gesturing toward the concerns of a particular identifiable group.