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
This is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you; this is how to make ends meet”Damn, how Ms. Kincaid swung this story about, and how each time I’ve read it I never see the end coming or know if it’s a monologue or not, but I always feel better about giving up on household chores immediately, and how this story never fails to feel like a warm breeze on the back of your neck when you’re speeding on a motorbike. ‘Girl’ is an adventure ride, and its boldness is in every semi-colon, every em-dash. Girl, this is how you live.
First published in The New Yorker, June 26, 1978. Collected in At The Bottom of the River, FSG, 1983. Read it here
Ah, the voice! The pace! The concision! A whole childhood and burgeoning adolescence, plus a mother-daughter relationship, plus all the eyes of the neighbourhood, plus the wider system, is packed into just a couple of pages. It’s a forerunner of so many of those “rules for” or “instructions for” stories, but without any of the coy fluff they often have. It just kicks arse.
First published in The New Yorker, 19 June 1978. Collected in At the Bottom of the River, FSG, 1983
Becoming a teacher did much to refresh my love of reading: it lets you go over and over small bits of text and share them too. I came across Jamaica Kincaid as a writer of teenagers, but actually she has a wide range and a startling biography.‘Girl’ is a very short story entirely in the imperative about the duties of a young girl in the Caribbean – another story about women, and cleaning. The voice, shape and details are all spot on: I love to teach this; it’s the definition of a rich text.
First published in The New Yorker, June 1978 and collected in At the Bottom of the River (FSG, 1983)
This story navigates a child’s early encounters with death. Aspects of her life find sharp and bright relief as she entertains a humorous and deeply creative kind of curiosity about the end, and everyday occurrences take on a sinister mystique: ‘One person had known very well a neighbor who had gone swimming after eating a big lunch at a picnic and drowned. Someone had a cousin who in the middle of something one day just fell down dead. Someone knew a boy who had died after eating some poisonous berries. “Fancy that,” we said to each other.’
First published in The New Yorker, 1983. Subsequently included as part of the novel Annie John (Vintage)