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Jamaica Kincaid knows about the English language what one knows about a close relative—that the source of its fascination is its familiarity, and that it has the capacity to wound. Xuela Richardson, the 70-year-old narrator of The Autobiography of My Mother, recalls that she spoke her first sentence not in the Dominican patois of those around her, but in the queen’s English. It’s a telling detail; for Xuela, resentment is a source of vital, harrowing energy. As she puts it, “That the first words I said were in the language of a people I would never like or love is not now a mystery to me; almost everything in my life to which I am inextricable bound is a source of pain.”
Autobiography is the saddest and angriest of Kincaid’s three sad and angry novels. Xuela is the daughter of a Carib Indian woman and a Dominican policeman. She scorns her father, an obsequious man who, in pursuit of approval from his white superiors, has fashioned “another skin over his real skin.” But Xuela’s mother is the true love and agony of her life. In all Kincaid’s fiction, the embrace of mother and daughter is a death-grip, even if the two have never known each other: “My mother died at the moment I was born,” Xuela relates, “and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind.”
The novel is fueled by the impact of that single irreversible loss. Xuela’s entire life is an attempt to shape some meaning out of the void where her mother should have been. As a result, her story is, she tells us, the “autobiography” of the mother she did not know.
Readers of Kincaid’s earlier fiction will recognize Xuela’s similarity to the towering mother figures in the autobiographical novels Annie John and Lucy. But Xuela is not Kincaid’s mother, nor anyone else’s: Xuela’s decision to abort every child she conceives is the supreme expression of her fierce self-possession: “This account is an account of the person who was never allowed to be and an account of the person I did not allow myself to become,” she says. Xuela has no desire to live on through children: She is determined that the meaning of her existence be contained in her own life span. The sour force of this renunciation makes Xuela an oddly compelling narrator.
Family is the rock to which all of Xuela’s anguish is tethered, and the wrong she suffered at birth also informs her searing vision of the colonial “encounter.” Just as there is no consolation for a motherless child, there is no possible reparation to be made for the history of slavery. “It was impossible, it was an impossible situation,” Xuela writes of her relationships with whites. “We did not like ourselves, we did not like each other, and so it was impossible to like them.” This judgment extends to the white man she will eventually marry. Even in her most personal decisions, she chooses to live under what she terms “the spell of history,” rehearsing the injustices of the past.
Autobiography is written in a cadenced, steely prose; there isn’t a slack line in the book. The schoolmistresslike precision of Xuela’s voice proves surprisingly flexible as it chills into accusation or takes on the bass tones of mourning. Hypnotic paragraphs are built of repetitive, simple sentences, like the words copied onto a blackboard by a misbehaving child; here, though, the child is being punished for the transgression of her own birth, and the lesson to be learned is that the bitterness of life ends only with death.
Jamaica Kincaid reads from The Autobiography of My Mother at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 15, at Chapters, 1512 K St. NW. CP