Saturday, July 15, 2006

"All days in Antigua must be the same, people count on it, it is for this reason they go there, it is for this reason they leave there. . . "

Jamaica Kincaid wrote that in her book, "My Brother." She grew up in Antigua, and over the fierce resistance of her mother, used her school smarts to get out of there. She lives now in Vermont (different, or what?) and writes beautifully.

When she's writing about her brother, who died of AIDS, one thing she said is he never saw a season change, because he never left Antigua.

Jamaica Kincaid writes phenomenally well. She writes about two things: her family, who are still in Antigua, and gardening. One time a friend of hers said, "Why don't you stop writing about your mother, and write about gardening? You like to garden so much." Hence the second topic.

She writes books of gorgeous writing that are either heavy (her family) or about something I'm not too interested in (gardening). It sort of doesn't matter what she writes about she writes so well. I mean, it matters that what she writes about matters to her, or she wouldn't write so well, but for me, I'll take her topics, whatever they may be.

Her books are fairly short. Her book about her brother is about 200 pages. I read it in one sitting because there was no evident reason to stop.

I am more blown away by her non-fiction than her novels. Her novels I can stop reading easily and take a big break before finishing them. Her non-fiction is not at all easy to put down because she is so demanding of precision and beauty of herself when she's writing that's it's hard to leave the place where such a pure effort is going on and succeeding.

I think her non-fiction is harder to leave because she is able to make her very exact own relationships and follow no rules made by someone else.

When she was a child in Antigua every moment she could she read novels, usually nineteenth
century British novels. Her mother thought she was wasting her time. In fact, she was learning her job, being a writer.

I think in her novels those nineteenth century folk and how they think things fit together are a bit too present which doesn't leave the best amount of room for her and how she thinks different parts of life relate.

On numbered page 5, actually the third page, of "My Brother," she tells of something that happened to her brother the day after he was born.

"He was wrapped in a blanket and placed close to her [his mother], and they both fell asleep. That very next day, while they were both asleep, her snuggled in teh warmth of his mother's body, an army of red ants came in through the window and attacked him. My mother heard her child crying, and when she awaoke, she found him covered with red ants. If he had been alone, it is believed they would have killed him. This was an incident no one ever told my brother, and incident that everyone else in my family has forgotten, except me. One day during his illness, when my mother and I were standing over him, looking at him--he was asleep and so didn't know we were doing so--I reminded my mother of the ants almost devouring him and she looked at me, her eyes narrowing in suspicion, and she said, 'What a memory you have!'--prehaps the thing she most dislikes about me. But I was only wondering if it had any meaning that some small red things had almost killed him from the outside shortly after he was born and that now some small things were killing him from the inside; I don't believe it has any meaning, this is only something a mind like mine would think about."

That is precisely her job--thinking about the things that only a mind like hers would think about. Thinking and remember what has happened and seeing how it feels to her it fits together.

In earlier books, she wrote about how she had a great loving mother until one day all of a sudden for now reason her mother turned on her and has hated her ever since.

In this book, the picture is bigger. The last child, the brother who died of AIDS was one child too many and with his coming, everything fell apart.

Her husband was getting old. He had supported the family as a carpenter and now was getting so he could barely support the old family, much less the new family with another child.

The mother with the new child hated her life, it sounds like, and that came through to Jamaica Kincaid (not the name her mother gave her but names of her choice) as being hated. It worked that way.

In Antigua now, there are many women who could be pregnant who aren't. That's new. When Jamaica Kincaid came back to Antigua after being away for years, people pointed that out to her as a new amazing thing--women who could biologically be pregnant but weren't. The people who told her about it credited one man for that, Dr. Ramsey.

Small places have disadvantages and advantages. Dr. Ramsey has made a huge impact in Antigua. He has probably cause some women to be able to keep being the good mother in the fairy tale instead of, like Jamaica Kincaid's mother, turning from the good mother to someone like the cruel stepmother.

One person can make a big difference in a small place. It is difficult, maybe impossible, for someone who grew up in a small place to stay there and think long, big thoughts that are different than other people's thoughts.

Jamaica Kincaid, like many other writers and thinkers, had to leave her small place of birth to think her own thoughts and write her own words, many of which are about the small place she came from.

James Joyce wrote Dublin only and could never have lived there as an adult. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote of the small town he grew up in which is changing its name from the name it had when he lived there to the one he gave it in "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

At the beginning of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" a man is about to be shot by a firing squad and is rememberin his childhood, the first time he saw ice in his tropical little town. We the readers are rooting for the miracle, which occurs. He isn't shot.

After not being shot, he goes on to become a human monster as a general fighting in his country's endless meaningless civil wars. I got confused about what outcome I should have been rooting for back there at the beginning of the book.

At the end of the multiple generation book, in the last sentence the author that in one hundred years no one in his family had had sex with anyone else with love.

I hadn't noticed that in reading the book, not quite like that, so that means, rereading, rethinking.

Life is mysterious and how love happens and doesn't is odd and intense either way--when it happens and when it doesn't. Some people are born to leave their childhood place and spend there lives trying to notice what happened there for themselves, and for all of us. Our lives are wildly different and part of one mystery.

One day early in her brother's life, Jamaica Kincaid was supposed to be watching her brother while her mother tried to make her economically impossible life work out there in the world all day. Kincaid read and ignored him and didn't change his diaper, which was a big old mess at the end of the day.

Unchanged diaper isn't the worst thing that can happen to a kid, but to the mother it didn't seem that way. "She gathered up all her daughters books, took them outside, poured kerosene on them, and burned them.

When Jamaica Kincaid was young, during the part where it seemed that her mother loved her, she would remember parts of things that happened that her mother had forgotten and her mother praised her for that. Later she hated that quality, like she hated the books.

When Kincaid was explaining to her mother why she wouldn't stay in her mother's house when visiting, she told her she was a great mother when her children were sick or in jail, but horribly cruel when they were functioning.

Jamaica Kincaid's books and her memory are how she became independent, strong and herself, and her mother hates them. So there's that, too, not just too many kids.

If one person really figured out the piece of the puzzle that they are, and found a way to tell the rest of us what they knew, we'd all be smarter and know more how to be here.

Jamaica Kincaid is working on that--what was it that happened to her young, and what is happening now. Her efforts make us all smarter if we read her. Reading her isn't hard because she does what she does so beautifully.

Her brother, the one who died of AIDS, didn't do much with his life, spent time in jail for his part in a murder, get very sick and died. (Sick and jail being two things that Jamaica Kincaid said made her mother be kind.) He dreamed of being a famous singer and that if he was women who heard him sing would take off all there clothes and be there for him.

His room where he lived in his mother's house was covered with pictures of famous singers with brown skin.

Jamaica Kincaid has two children in Vermont, a son and daughter. She mentions in "My Brother" that her daughter is good at math and good at singing. Jamaica Kincaid says to her husband, "Does the world need another rather brown singer?" She is not in a place to think about that the musical mind and the mathematical mind are often related, that a mathematically minded musician might be an amazing composer. She's not there at all--she doesn't mention those things.

She does know where she is--in her brother's room with the pictures of the stars. She knows that's the root of the feeling she has about her daughter pursuing her singing. She's somewhat open to thinking about it. Looking at the roots of her thought to get better thoughts.

The friend who suggested that Jamaica Kincaid write about gardening as a change from writing about her mother asked her to please never learn the Latin names of plants.

That friend won one and lost one.

She writes about gardening. She knows the Latin names.

People who are way into plants love the Latin names because they are so precise. Unaffected by local slang and folkways, the Latin names say this plant is exactly this plant no matter where it is or what the person next door calls it. It is what it is.

Jamaica Kincaid wants to know what is going on exactly. What exactly was going on when her mother started to hate her? What was going on with her brother? What is going on with her and her children? How exactly can she be a good mother when the example ingrained in her is so bad?

She seeks to know by seeking to say what is true in precise language. She seeks to know by honoring and saying connections that she feels even if they are connections nobody else makes.

It's sad that her daughter's musical bent is so naturally hard for Kincaid because the precision of Kincaid's language and dedication of effort she brings to saying what is going on and how things are connected makes her language on the page sometimes as beautiful as very good music, written by someone who really understands to deep structure of music.

"And that day that he was buried was not at all unlike the day on which I first saw him lying almost dead in a bed in the Gweneth O'Reilly ward of the Holberton Hospital. All days in Antigua must be the same, people count on it, it is for this reason they go there, it is for this reason they leave there; the days are the same, the sun shines, no rain will fall, the sun rises at around six in the morning, the sun sets at around six in the evening; if this does not remain so, it is a catastrophe; a hurricane can change this, or the coming-awake of a volcano, but Antigua does not have such a thing as a volcano. He died on a sunny day, he was buried on a sunny day."

--Jamaica Kincaid, "My Brother"

Antigua has no volcano, but it is deeply connected to a person who goes down to where the rocks are made and brings them up and presents them to us others in a way that we can see them. So that we can see what hard-earned, painful truth is like when it is also beautiful.