Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Autobiography of My Mother

For this quarter's Read and Write, we read and discussed and wrote from Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid. The book, from title forward, is a bit of a mind-fuck, as I said to my students.
First of all, how can someone write someone else's autobiography?
Second of all, the character immediately writes that her mother died.
Third of all, it becomes clear (if it does) that the narrator is actually telling the autobiography of her mother, but in her mother's voice. So this is a story that exists - and yet - the mother claims she has no children, and her child is the one writing her autobiography.
Finally, this book is classified as a novel. What?

What do all of these gaps do? They turn the head on its side, playing with our expectations and biases in literature and memoir. Hopefully, they keep us wide open. The book demands that we stay open, keep exploring, sometimes coming in at a distance, sometimes going in full face, right up to oppression and trauma.

The gaps also allow enough mystery to question if this book is about a person at all. On the one hand, it clearly is: she has sex, loves her own smells, has a father, has a mother, has or does not have children. On the other hand, she speaks with great love - not often, but when she does speak of great love, it is for the land. Begging the question: could this book in fact be called Autobiography of My Motherland?

Many students found the book a challenge. Almost impossible for some to sink into, with the narrator's rage and also cool distance alternating. Some found it so powerful - to speak of an oppressed experience in an unbiased way, with a sense of equinimity - or what appeared to some as equinimity and appeared to others as dissociation. What happens to generations of people happens to each of us as individuals, and one thing that Kincaid makes clear in this book is that the victors, the conquerors, are not free from this suffering. She sympathizes equally with all, while making it clear that the victors - white men in Dominica in particular - do have the spoils. But those spoils are spoiled. No one wins with oppression.

Told as a personal story, as an "autobiography," we are face into these facts, this life.  This does something that telling it as a factual, dry textbook version of the history of a nation doesn't do. It breaches a gap between personal and national that is tricky, implicating and delicate. And in the end, she also points out all it cannot do - all we cannot do, all a narrative cannot do. Some of the closing lines:
This account of my life has been an account of my mother's life as much as it has been an account of mine, and even so, again it is an account of the life of the children I did not have, as it is their account of me. In me is the voice I never heard, the face I never saw, the being I came from. In me are the voices that should have come out of me, the faces I never allowed to form, the eyes I never allowed to see. 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.
As one student noted, it is also an account of culture: "What comes next is gone and what came before is gone."  Bridging those gaps is tricky, hard, and rarely done well. Rarely done easily. But so important.

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