Reading Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother as a Testimonium

Recently (May 2012), I presented at the 13th annual conference of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and  Scholars, and perhaps more importantly had the opportunity to be present for a number of presentations by women reading and writing on Caribbean literature from various parts of the world. And in the weird way that the world has of drawing people to each other, France-based, Yale educated scholar Victoria Bridges Moussaron and Antigua-based University of the West Indies educated writer Joanne C. Hillouse were drawn to each other. Perhaps our shared appreciation for the writing of Jamaica Kincaid had a little something to do with it. Victoria has graciously agreed to share a portion of her presentation with the blog’s readers (this is from a section that would have been published in the Surinamese press) and may be of interest to Kincaid scholars. Thanks, Victoria.

Reading Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother as a Testimonium

 by Victoria Bridges Moussaron

            Jamaica Kincaid grew up in Ovals, Antigua and was sent off to New York as an aupair. While there, she studied photography and then, through a chance encounter, began to write for the New Yorker and on her own. She is now widely read and taught.  Kincaid has written My Brother as a meditation on diaspora not from within a logical narrative, but from within feelings of life collapsing “as he lay dying” of AIDS. The words echoing Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, leave her stunned, unable to make sense of his dying, nor even of these words: “Sometimes when I was sitting with him, in the first few days of my seeing him for the first time after such a long time, seeing him just lying there, dying faster than most people, I wanted to run away, I would scream in my head” (22-3). This collapse of the ordinary connection between words and feelings includes those she uses with him: her quotations of his words are like “Patches,” his nickname, glimpses of who he was.

Writing on testimony, Derrida quotes Celan, “No one  bears witness for the witness.” He speaks of the singularity of the context, of the words and of their untranslatability. These quotations, these “patches,” are singularly Antiguan, singularly Devon’s as he lay dying, crypted in irrecuperably intimate tones as he spoke with her; she, too, is encrypted in them. Each quotation is preceded by a translation: “He said he did not think I would come to see him (“Me hear you a come but me no tink you a come fo’ true”) (9). “Me hear” has to do with hearsay, with the duplicity, the fallibility of the world as he knew it; his adding “fo’ true” makes that all the more poignant. The tragic disconnection that was his life’s situation is lost in translation. By quoting his words, she constitutes a testament for us and a witnessing for him, a testimonium saved from a different diaspora, that of oblivion.

She has, in and through her writing, left a trace, re-collecting him, re-joining him, weaving the words of her memories, of her observations, of stories told her with his own words, letting him speak “as he lay dying,” he who could not write it down. Writing stands as a performance that re-locates her on-going diaspora in relation to Devon’s diaspora: it opens up what has already happened, “continually processing it,” as Miriam Chancy has proposed, rather than its closing down the present and the future. By leaving a testimonium for him – “I will write about his dying…and not die with him” – she performs Celan’s poetic gesture to Tsvetaieva, “I encrypt myself in you.”

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