Reflections on Jamaica

by Joanne C. Hillhouse

“Is Jamaica Kincaid from here?”

Jamaica Kincaid (smiling, right) greeting her fans following her reading at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in 2005

An acquaintance asked innocently enough. It can be a loaded question in the Antiguan author’s home country. If her critical and critically-acclaimed book, A Small Place, wasn’t enough, Kincaid’s caustic comments about a controversial investor and co-honouree* following Antigua’s 2006 Independence awards certainly underscored that the author hadn’t mellowed with time. Suddenly, even those who’d never read a single word of her writing had an opinion about her perceived island bashing.

Up to and since meeting her for the first time in 2005, when I was invited to introduce her ahead of a political and artistic conference in Antigua, I’m often cast as lawyer for the defense in the not uncommon debates about Jamaica. No unthinking sheep, I have and do disagree with some opinions espoused by the creator of one of my admitted literary heroines Annie John.

But for the young dreamer I once was, the trail blazed by Jamaica Kincaid was among the ripples in a quiet river of hope.

It said, in ways I maybe didn’t even understand then, that it was not crazy to think that the stories I wanted to tell would someday be worthy of their own readers; readers who like me sat in a corner in some corner of the world and floated for hours across borders, centuries, life spans.

It said that it was not impractical or living with my head in the clouds, not even for a little girl of humble means from Ottos, Antigua. After all, Jamaica Kincaid née Elaine Potter Richardson of St. John’s, Antigua had. She was born right here, in 1949. The world she wrote in early work, Annie John, was one I recognized; even the Dominican bits. I’m not talking exclusively about the physical world, but also, the title character’s emotional landscape. I was a teenager at the time, and these words rang true:  

“In the year I turned fifteen, I felt more unhappy than I had ever imagined anyone could be. It wasn’t the unhappiness of wanting a new dress, or the unhappiness of wanting to go to cinema on Sunday afternoon and not being allowed to do so, or the unhappiness of being unable to solve some mystery in geometry, or the unhappiness at causing my dearest friend Gwen some pain. My unhappiness was something deep inside of me, and when I closed my eyes I could even see it”. (Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John, P. 85)

I’d read coming of age books, of course, including favourites like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Judy Blume’s Are You there God?  It’s me Margaret, and Stephanie Tolan’s Last of Eden. I’d been entertained and affected by each of these and so many others; all of which in some way tapped into the angst that comes of transitioning from girl to woman – but perhaps none so intimately, for the Antiguan girl transitioning to Antiguan woman, as Annie John.

Also given my own literary ambitions, Annie John carved out a special place, that in time I came to understand fully. It helped remove bars on my world that were as much my own construction as society’s.

Now, I don’t wish to suggest that this was the only significant ripple on my way to becoming a published writer or that it hit me all at once. But, as I prepared my introduction for Jamaica Kincaid’s reading at the aforementioned conference, a rare and remarkable happening at the time, the surreality and nervousness pressing in, it did come home to me in a way. That is the beautiful reality of role models, among which I count literary mothers, aunties and sisters like Zora, Alice, Toni, Edwidge, and fellow Antiguan scribes Althea Prince and D. Gisele Isaac, to name a few. Not that we put them on pedestals; they are, after all, human. But that they show us some spark of what our own talent, hard work, and the right opportunity can create.

Those that go before us, on whose shoulders we stand, remind us that others may not always understand our dream, but then they don’t need to. But we must hold on against all that would deem it the stuff of fairytales.

Of course, Annie John, also resonated because I recognized it; the places, the faces, the scenes, the sentiments.

One of the Annie John scenes that has always lingered with me, I think because of my own sensibility, was from the chapter ‘Columbus in Chains.’ Specifically, Annie’s likening Columbus’ state of being in chains after having fallen from glory as the ‘discoverer’ of this ‘new world’ we inhabit to her mother’s comments about Pa Chess – her mother’s father. “So the great man can no longer just get up and go.” (Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John, P. 78)

 It is within a coming of age story that has general appeal, a statement of particular relevance to us as once conquered people watching the conqueror get his comeuppance.

The unresolved and ugly issues lying beneath the Caribbean of white smiles and blue seas was being written into existence; our pain and anger represented and acknowledged. Annie John critiqued our society and its historical and educational legacy, even as it crafted a tale of a girl’s increasing isolation first from the mother and in time from the mother country, Antigua.

Annie John, a Caribbean literary classic, was not the only successful to me flowing from the pen of this most prolific – and certainly most internationally-renowned – of our authors. The list includes Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother, My Brother, and Mr. Potter.

Among these, another standout for me has been My Brother. It is one of the two Kincaid books done by the book club of which I am was a part, Sisters with Books. Its raw vision of AIDS in Caribbean life, groundbreaking, I think, at the time, was highly intimate and uncompromisingly frank. Though ostensibly centered on her brother, the gaping divide between mother and daughter, was there, as ever. Throughout her writing life, Kincaid has, relentlessly, mined the terrain of this mother-daughter conflict in exploring female bonding and female isolation, while undoubtedly dealing with her own ghosts.

A Small Place, a stinging non-fiction indictment of colonialism’s effect on Antigua and of Antigua itself, is another book not easily forgotten. As noted, it stirred up bitter feelings between home and the author, in ways Annie John had not – though there are certainly those who’ve taken issue, as well, with Annie John’s portrayal of island life.

I’ve encountered a number of Antiguans who plainly denounce Jamaica – who question her motives, even the truth of her experiences – and others who are conflicted – wondering why she can’t just let go of the past. 

For my part, while I don’t always agree with every word, syllable and sentiment, or the propensity of some to ingest indiscriminately everything written as literal gospel, I am not offended the way some others are. And I do take it as a measure of our Independence that when she read at the 2005 conference, Jamaica felt the freedom to read from this same A Small Place, this thorn in so many sides.

Kincaid reads at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda (2005)

I take it as a measure of our Independence that after that same reading we could stand around speaking of how beautifully she uses words, even as conflict stirred still about the uneasiness evoked by her expressed sentiments. I take it as a measure of our Independence that, after everything, the artiste can be celebrated for her accomplishments on the international literary scene in spite of whatever bitterness the art may have evoked. I take it as a measure of our Independence that we can acknowledge that we are free to disagree.

I think there are as many stories as there are people. And I have argued as well that our artistes cannot and must not simply express the stuff of tourist brochures. Some will paint the pretty pictures and some will paint the darkness they see beneath it; and both have a right to exist.

Jamaica was once quoted as saying, “For me, writing isn’t a way of being public or private; it’s just a way of being. The process is always full of pain, but I like that. It’s a reality, and I just accept it as something not to be avoided. This is the life I have. This is the life I write about.” (Interview with Marilyn Snell in Mother Jones magazine, September/October 1997)

All else aside, I cannot argue with the truth of this. For me the process of writing fiction is a relationship with characters that, as I write them into existence, trust me to be true to their voice and experience – its dark and light places. Even amid the noise of others’ expectations and the challenges of writing home from home.

 *The co-honouree here is, at this writing, facing charges in America and has been stripped of the national honour referenced.

This version of the article was published in the Daily Observer in 2006. An earlier version appeared in St. Lucia’s Island Where magazine. Please do not re-post without the author’s permission. To contact the author, email wadadlipen@yahoo.com or visit http://www.jhohadli.com

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