Our mother worried we would be seen as sluts. My friends were blessed with less direct mothers — the ones who believed in gentle shaming, who cajoled their daughters into less revealing clothes or hummed their disapproval when they found out that boys would be at the movie their daughters were attending with friends. “Be careful,” they’d say, when they really meant “don’t do anything stupid with a boy.”
My sisters and I were not blessed with such a mother. At the first sign of breasts, my mother would begin her campaign about the dangers of descending into promiscuity. They were sermons about the fragility of a woman’s will and the uncontrollable libido of men. Neither women nor men could help themselves, my mother would tell us.
My sisters were unbothered by these sermons, listening with pretend patience as my mother tried to make ladies out of them with a Victorian zeal she had acquired living under British colonialism in Ghana. I, on the other hand, would fight with my mother every single time. Why didn’t my brothers get lectures about guarding their virtue? And why should what I wear matter? “Because boys are different,” she would say, “and men will get the wrong idea if you wear something provocative.”
Once, the words my mother and I said to each other were like the blunted edge of a knife: sharp enough to cut, but too dull to leave a lasting wound. But when I sprouted breasts, and my mother worried about all these changes entailed, and I chafed at her attempts to make me into a “proper” woman, our relationship, once bound by love, turned into a battle in which we both needed armor. I retreated further into books.
I’m not sure how I discovered At the Bottom of the River (1983), Jamaica Kincaid’s collection of short stories, but I do remember that the moment I read “Girl,” it echoed throughout my body. Ah, so it’s not just my mother with a mouth full of fire, I thought to myself. It felt like Kincaid had found a crevice in our home, entered unnoticed, and written down everything she heard (never mind that “Girl” was published before I was born).
“On Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming,” the unnamed mother tells her also unnamed daughter. “Walk like a lady,” was a favorite phrase of my mother’s when we were growing up. Likewise the mother instructs her “how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well” so they “won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming.” This was so close to my mother’s accusation that I was too “friendly” with boys that I felt Kincaid was speaking directly to me. No story or book, no matter how much I had loved it, had ever done that before. So often, when my mother and I would fight — when I hadn’t lived up to her expectations of how a girl should behave — I would take out At the Bottom of a River and reread the story of my life.
The girl’s story was not my story because we had a lot in common. After all, she’s poor and lives in the Caribbean, while I grew up in a well-heeled town in America. I also didn’t have to learn how to grow my own food, fish, or make my clothes to survive. But what we both had in common was a mother who feared her daughter would descend into promiscuity, not unwillingly.
“This is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming” the mother in “Girl” tells her daughter. When I read this as a teenager, I imagined the mother saying this to her daughter had the face of my mother and I was the daughter protesting what her mother thought of her; that mother didn’t know her daughter any more than my mother knew me. “But I don’t sing benna [an Antiguan folk song] on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school” the girl says when her mother tells her not to sing benna in Sunday school. But the mother continues, unwilling to hear her daughter’s protests. My mother would also ignore me when I would insist to her that I wasn’t trying to give boys the wrong impression when I spoke to them.
At some point my mother must have decided she didn’t like fighting with me about how I behaved, or perhaps she thought I was a lost cause, since my tongue had been made even sharper by the feminist writers I had recently discovered, and she stopped her sermons. And since I no longer needed “Girl,” I stopped reading what I had once declared was the story of my life.
Years later, in one of my periodic fits of cleaning, I found a bruised and battered copy of At the Bottom of the River at the bottom of a box. I opened the book to “Girl,” but I hesitated before reading it. To love something when you’re young is to love it with reverence. I was afraid if I reread “Girl,” I would find myself a disillusioned devotee. Despite these misgivings, I sat down on a pile of clothes and read “Girl” for the first time in probably 15 years. After I finished, I was sorry that I had waited so long.
Rereading the story, I was struck by Kincaid’s ability to say so much with a mere 681 words, how she created a world with as much detail and depth as short stories far longer than “Girl.” The story manages to convey to readers some of the food eaten in Antigua (pumpkin fritters, tea, salt fish, okra, doukona, bread pudding, dasheen, and pepper pot), the family’s socioeconomic standing and cultural beliefs (“don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all”), the connection between respectability and domestic knowledge, and the tense relationship between a mother and her daughter. It is a sweeping list, yet it still doesn’t cover everything Kincaid addresses in the story.
In my rereading of “Girl,” I also realized that I never noticed how transgressive the story is. The mother’s liturgy about behaving well so people won’t think you are a slut is partly about pretense; about maintaining a public facade in a culture that demands prudishness from its women. “This,” the mother tells her daughter casually, “is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child” before she immediately moves on to how to “catch a fish.”
Derek Walcott once said of Kincaid: “As she writes a sentence, psychologically, its temperature is that it heads toward its own contradiction. It’s as if the sentence is discovering itself, discovering how it feels.” “Girl,” one long sentence interrupted by commas and semicolons, heads toward its own contradiction from its very first word.
The story begins with the mother telling her daughter how to behave so as to not be considered a slut, then veers to the mother teaching her daughter what to do if her sexual transgressions catch up with her. The story then ends with the mother’s dismay that her daughter will become a loose woman even after all the instructions she’s been given. “You mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?”
I was young when I first read “Girl,” so I’ll partially absolve myself for reading the story as if I were reading my own diary instead of seeing it as a complex, arresting story that should be read for its own sake. But I also think that it’s just how many (most?) of us are taught how to read and appreciate books. When my father gave me a copy of Pride and Prejudice he told me, “You’ll like this story; the main character is feisty just like you.” We always look for connections to our own lives.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that part of the beauty of literature was that “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” I believed this once. Passionately. But reading in hopes of finding yourself reflected back now feels like a barren endeavor. It is mistaking solipsism for intimacy. A gaze that looks only for itself will never see anything else but its own reflection. If literature serves any purpose, it’s to take us outside of ourselves. But the young girl I was remains grateful to Jamaica Kincaid for those blissful moments when it felt like I wasn’t alone.