Jamaica Kincaid: Refusing always to bow

January 14, 1996|By REBECCA PEPPER SINKLER | REBECCA PEPPER SINKLER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Autobiography of My Mother," by Jamaica Kincaid. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 228 pages. $20

"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," goes the old spiritual, claiming for the singer a state of misery and self-pity at the bottom of human wretchedness. Jamaica Kincaid sings such a song.

Or rather her character, Xuela Richardson, does. "The Autobiography of My Mother" calls itself fiction and, though Ms. Kincaid uses details of her parents' lives here, this is a novel, like her earlier "At the Bottom of the River," "Annie John" and "Lucy."

The central fact of Xuela Richardson's life is this: her mother died at the moment she was born. She tells us so in the book's first sentence, and repeats the information in countless incantatory passages that at first seduce us, then force themselves on us, as if we were sloppy readers, stubborn children, or simpletons incapable of remembering what we've been told.

And of course she is dead right to do so. Because what is being told is deeply unpleasant. And we know how easy it is to forget what we don't care to remember. Xuela's pain isn't just that her mother died at her birth, leaving her ungraced with love and unprotected from the world. It's also a consequence of what happens after: her abandonment by her father (a vicious little police official on their native island of Dominica); her sexual and emotional abuse by the man she is sent to live with; the cascades of beatings and harsh words from her schoolmasters; her loveless marriage; and the degradation brought on her by her black skin.

To be sure, Xuela captures brief happiness with a local stud, and she is blessed with some remarkably hot sex, but what love she gets is of little use to her. (Xuela becomes her own best lover, and doesn't care who sees or knows it.) And she never lets us forget that she is among the vanquished.

So, is Xuela just a victim of circumstance and status? And is this novel a whine? Yes and no. Ms. Kincaid has seldom curried favor with mainstream readers: Her work sizzles with contempt for the colonizers of her native Antigua, and she displays a delicious disgust with the tourists who flock there and with white people in general. (Her 1988 polemic "A Small Place" should inoculate anyone against fantasies of Caribbean-as-paradise.)

Xuela may be victimized, but she rises to her own defense, through deed and word, refusing to bow to her oppressors, to give comfort to the enemy, to bear children, to remain silent. A cry from her heart in the form of a letter to her father accidentally acts as a springboard to power: "I had through the use of some words, changed my situation; I had perhaps even changed my life," Xuela writes.

Thus from being just a victim she makes of herself a monument of victimhood. A wail of self-pity becomes a song of spiritual indignation. Xuela is hatred hardened to a shine, like a Brancusi bird, all gleaming cold at first sight, but paradoxically alive, sexy, passionate. In the lushest of prose, in passages of breathtaking specificity, Ms. Kincaid convinces you of her truth. This novel may send readers back to her earlier work, but "The Autobiography of My Mother" also stands alone, sufficient to itself, a portrait of a woman that is unforgettable, however much we might wish otherwise.

Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, editor of the New York Times Book Review from 1987-1995 and deputy book editor from '84-'87 and before that book editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, is writing a family memoir set in the 1930s.

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