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A Close Look at Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl"
Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl"
This was originally published on Wizzley but, Wizzley messed up my adsense account and refused to fix it. Meanwhile, they continued getting paid on my work. So, I removed it, as everyone should. Wizzley is a terrible forum...
But I digress...
Novelist Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson May 25, 1949 in the city of St John's on the island or Antigua in Antigua and Barbuda, she now summers in North Bennington, Vermont and teaches at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
Her short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, where her novel Lucy was originally serialized.Her first book, At the Bottom of the River (1983), was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. She has also received the the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, Center for Fiction's Clifton Fadiman Medal,the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Prix Femina Étranger, and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award.
"Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true. You couldn't admit any of it to a court of law. It would not be good evidence," She says of her work, which is usuallylooslely autobiographical. In her work, she prefers "impressions and feelings over plot development"and often depicts conflict with both a strong maternal figure and colonial and neocolonial influences.
She has written numerous short stories and novels.
Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl is a hybrid of sorts. It certainly has the arc of a work of fiction, but it reads more like a prose poem, or like a movie monologue. Kincaid’s choice to forgo the use of periods and treat the story as one long run on sentence effectively compliments the meaning, urgency, and mood of the story. The inclusion of semi colons adds to an air of confusion (how am I supposed to read these?) and also of breathlessness, which is a strong theme in this story.
Girl is a prime example of style adding to the substance of a piece.
Don’t believe me? Try to read the story out loud. You’ll exasperated and out of breath before you hit the third line.
The story depicts a mother teaching her daughter how to be a woman, using a series of rules, nags, and observations. Written as a giant honey-do list of do’s and don’ts, the repetitive constancy with which the mother speaks to the daughter, indicated by the lack of periods, shows both the monotonous, unromantic life that awaits the girl as well as the nagging nature of the mother’s talk. The reader reads the story looking for that break—for that chance to take a breath that a period would provide—and doesn’t find it. They feel just as nagged by the mother—and just as out of breath and exhausted—much like the daughter must feel. Kincaid forces the reader to empathize through the style in which the story was written.
In addition to the form and feel of the story, the piece completely lacks description. Unlike most prose, where we might have a traditional setting and descriptions or names of the characters, Girl lacks those. We have hints about the location of the story based on the items that the girl is taught to cook and bake (doukona, pepper pot, salt fish) and the plants she is instructed to plant (okra) and why (red ants are a threat) but we don’t know when or where this conversation is occurring and it is likely a collage of events and conversations the girl has had with her mother throughout her whole life.
We don’t have any idea what the characters look like or what their names are. Kincaid leaves this completely up to our imaginations but, to be frank, it doesn’t matter. The point of the story isn’t where the characters live, how old they are or what the mom and her daughter look like. The point is that the mother has very specific ideas for how a girl is supposed to act—everything from cooking, to sex, to how to dress and even how to clean and hang laundry—and she is going to get that point across with no protest from her daughter—because any potential protests are shot down and interrupted. This is seen on two occasions. The first protest is ignored, the second, which ends the story, is answered condescendingly. The mother is too considered with the impending slut-hood (she uses the word slut, in reference to the future state of her daughter, on three occasions) of her daughter to be concerned with her protests.
After a few thoughtful readings of this story, a definite cadence and rhythm is picked up. It becomes clear, also, that if this story were told any other way, it would be excruciatingly boring. The way Kincaid tells this story is the most effective and interesting way to tell it. The form and style of the story is effective in getting across the point that would perhaps take several hundred words to effectively communicate and be far less memorable.
While the style of this piece certainly wouldn’t work for or appeal to everyone, it’s a great example in choosing how to tell a story using rhythm and punctuation to your advantage. It doesn’t matter if it’s a poem or a piece of flash fiction; it’s an excellent tale that succeeds on so many levels.