When Meursault learns of his mother’s death in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, he is apathetic to say the least. It is this strange detachment from emotion Camus explores in his existential search of meaning and existence. Fifty-four years later Jamaica Kincaid’s Xuela is also confronted with the loss of her mother and regards it with Mersault’s similar apathetic detachment as she states:
“My 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”
but unlike Meursault, Xuela does not get to attend her mother’s funeral as she is but a newborn when her mother dies. Much like Camus’ interrogation of the existential question of existence, Kincaid explores the affects of a severed bond between mother and child in a theme that stretches far beyond Xuela’s personal story.
Mother’s are always much more than the women who push us into the world and that is especially so in the works of Jamaica Kincaid. Like many of Kincaid’s female protagonists the quest, the desire, the desperation for self-identification is so intimately and intricately intertwined with their mother that only a violent break from one can grant autonomy to the other. This break is delivered early on for Xuela, the daughter of a half Scot, half African father and a Carib mother, which leaves her stumbling through turbulent relationships with older women who could easily be mistaken as substitute mother figures for the young girl if only they were not beating her, attempting to kill her, or prostituting her to their husbands. And yet, in spite of all of this chaotic mistreatment, Xuela learns how to defend herself with a myriad of weapons, one of them being Kincaid’s most famously given to her female protagonists–self-love.
Whatever about me caused offense, whatever was native to me, whatever I could not help and was not a moral failing–those things about me I loved with the fervor of the devoted.
This self-love is a visceral and intensely sexual awakening; it’s a foraging into a place many women–for reasons complex–cannot go and for that reason again she faces violent confrontations with those of whom look just like her.
that people who looked so very much like each other, who shared a common history of suffering and humiliation and enslavement, should be taught to mistrust each other, even as children, is no longer a mystery to me.
The act of self-love is also an act of defiance and rebellion against a history that teaches her that her skin and lineage makes her of the vanquished, the conquered, the defeated sect of people: African People who “had been defeated but had survived,” and the Carib people who “had been defeated and then exterminated.” Kincaid explores this history through the ways in which it still lived on in the firey red tendrils of her father’s hair and “the color of corruption,” that was his skin, she explores this history’s manifestation on her own body, the faces, the gestures, and the language(s) of all who live on the island in their ascribed roles. This a-chronological tale follows Xuela from her early childhood through her seventies. In these transitions are exertion of certainties that transform into stream of conscience questions about life, about love, about death. What you read is not simply an autobiography about Xuela’s mother, you read an autobiography of Xuela herself
In me is the voice I never heard, the face I never saw, the being I came from
The two women share more than a name, more than blood, but a historical connection as vanquished women, motherless women, forced to traverse the tiny island of Dominica and make sense of a world forced on to them by the victors, the colonizers who violently rewrote the history of the land and its human habitants. Xuela’s mother was a part of the almost extinct evidence of life pre-European-colonial-genocide and when she died she left Xuela half of that blood; her father’s racial and cultural tense mixture of African and Scottish make up her other half and through this creolized woman who refuses to adopt to one specific race or nation gives us the story of how she, and those who made her, came to be.
And so my mother and father then were a mystery to me: one through death, the other through the maze of living; one I had never seen, the other I saw constantly.
Reading Kincaid is imperative, intimate, and intense. She will take your senses, and sensibilities, on a journey through the Caribbean–a place deemed as paradise–and introduce to you the startling dark truth in a way that blends folk with fact, myth with logic. There’s no way you won’t re-read this novel.