‘Girl’ by Jamaica Kincaid

When I was growing up, I found a lot of Caribbean literature [shhh, whisper it] unbearably worthy. Perhaps it was what they gave us to read at school, perhaps I had swallowed a colonialist aesthetic [ahem, Stephen King], but there was something so obedient about these literatures of my youth, before I had the capacity to realise, for example, what Naipaul or Sam Selvon were trying to do. Our nonfiction, speeches, essays, our political rhetoric from Garvey to Fidel was so subversive and often so beautiful, our poets from Mutabaruka to Louise Bennett so playful and irreverent. Was reggae our only recourse for story? It was really only when the deliciously vulgar and mischievous Anthony C. Winkler blew Kingston apart with his 1987 novel The Lunatic that I stopped being so annoyed by the literary conservatism. All along, it was Antiguan writer Jamaican Kincaid’s short stories that sustained me. She never explained her femaleness, her heritage, her blackness. She was just that, and you accepted it, and she assumed your ass would get her, and if you didn’t, she seemed unbothered. She was a modernist, a sometimes-magic realist, and she seemed fearless to me. ‘Girl’ is one of her better-known and most beloved short works, taking the form of a list of declarative statements or commands, made by an unknown mother figure to who we presume is a daughter. In one long, unfurling, brilliantly detailed sentence, we see the entirety of domestic and social expectation on a young black girl’s head. I realise, curating this anthology, how important sound is to me, just as in Jean Toomer’s work, so in Kincaid. “Are you really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?” Kincaid asks, a po-face, bad-gyal call-to-arms. I wanted to be exactly that kind of woman. 

First published in The New Yorker, June 26, 1978. Collected in At The Bottom Of The River, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983. Read it online here

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