all content, design, and site development is © wreck park 2014

  • facebook-square
  • Twitter Square

REBECCA BRINGS

Queering Genre: A Queer Reading of Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother

Jamaica Kincaid does not endeavor to be an unambiguous writer who fits neatly into a single genre of her profession. In her own words: “I write about myself for the most part, and about things that have happened to me. Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true.”[1] Seemingly paradoxical statements such as this one are at the center of biographical and autobiographical scholarship surrounding Kincaid’s work. As part of my queer reading The Autobiography of My Mother, a work which already carries such a logical opposition in its title, I want to show that the conscious bridging of genres, that is the merging of fiction and nonfiction, is Kincaid’s realization of her story. Within the confines of the story, Kincaid queers the main character Xuela, who constantly renegotiates her identity by performing gender roles and by engaging in sexual acts that resist normalizations. More precisely, the autosexuality depicted functions as non-conformative performance of identity, which in turn, negotiates revailing power dynamics of sexuality in Caribbean culture. Kincaid portrays heteronormative sexual acts; however, these acts reinforce heteronormative and male dominant power dynamics creating the notion of dependency that functions to juxtapose the process of autonomy. In other words, Kincaid’s “queering the genre” appropriates the use of fiction in autobiographical explorations of identity and represents autonomous singlehood as a queer female identity in present day Caribbean Culture.

          In order to establish fictional representations of autobiographical experiences as appropriate response to retrospective reflections of identity and as part of a queer identity construction, it is necessary to illustrate how identity has been described by gender studies as well as by queer theory as an act or performance, renegotiated in every situation and every day. In the same way that queer theory resists normalizations or conventions of identities, queering a genre means resisting genre conventions. And just as resistance in queer theory divests our differences from their social power, resisting conventions divests restrictions of their literary power. By consciously breaking genre conventions, in other words, Kincaid queers her work from the outset.

          The Autobiography of My Mother resists conventions of genres in two ways. The first and more obvious one is the genre of life-writing (more specifically autobiography) and the second one is that of the Bildungsroman. Within auto/biography studies, scholars have found themselves in a loop, a ‘continuum,’ as Allison Donnell puts it, ‘between autobiography and fiction.’”[2] Donnell points out that while Kincaid’s writing follows strong traditions of feminism, it simultaneously signals that “this work is not seeking to define itself unproblematically as a piece of life-writing which takes either herself or her mother as its subject, but as a piece which addresses the multiple imbrications of self, m/other, and writing.”[3] Breaking the “continuum” in favor of either genre is problematic because it assigns an ultimate truth to autobiographies or an ultimate falsehood to fiction, which leads toward a dead end regarding Kincaid’s work. Her work is best understood outside of fixed genre and within alterbiographical terms, a terminology introduced by Jane Braziel. Braziel explains: “I theorize alterbiography, contrarily, not as a new form of creolized or hybridized genre, but rather as a deconstructive and diasporizing impulse within literary texts both preoccupied with notions of self, and subjectivity, and eroding the metaphysical definitions of such terms.”[4] The term alterbiography, then, does not attempt to introduce a new category, but to establish a mode of writing that deconstructs identity. The consideration of genre, not as a fixed category, but as a mode in which the author is able to present the negotiation of identity appropriates Kincaid’s ambiguous writing style. Kincaid synthesizes fiction and nonfiction in order to negotiate the past and its influences on identity construction in the present. In other words, while The Autobiography of My Mother may not be an accurate depiction of Kincaid’s mother-daughter relationship, it is not necessarily false or less authentic. It is the version of truth that Kincaid is able to present.

          According to Zoran Pecic and Louis F. Caton, the other genre queered by Kincaid’s works is the Bildungsroman. Pecic argues that by queering the Bildungsroman, Kincaid produces queer resistance to normative conventions constructed through colonialism. He explains that Kincaid colonizes “fictions by queering the male tradition of the coming out narrative as well as to insert queer female desire within Caribbean space.”[5] Most relevant is the idea of queer (black) female desire that is resisting the tradition of the white, male lead character. This resistance is also central to Caton’s argument; however she is less concerned with queering the Caribbean space and more with queering the typical male/female romantic relationship. She defers the idea of romance and explains that the “romantic journey from innocence to experience emerges from within this mythical, psychological interpretation: the Bildungsroman and the mother-daughter plot combine to form a novelistic version of a contemporary female quest.”[6] While Caton bases her research on Kincaid’s earlier work Annie John, the same holds true for The Autobiography of My Mother. The concept of a “novelistic version” of Xuela’s autobiography legitimizes the use of fiction for a quest of female identity construction. Moreover, the Bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story about moral, psychological, and educational growth that traditionally normalizes a white, male elitist standardization. By queering the Bildungsroman then, Kincaid divests normalizations of an educational standard regarding race and gender of their social power and renegotiates educational power dynamics in the Caribbean.

          On the structural level this quest of female identity resists normalization by queering genre; on a textual level by queering sexual constructions of the main character’s identity. Scholars, such as Akash Nikola, represent the critical view that queerness in Kincaid’s work is depicted by homosexual desire. [7]  Nikola identifies the reluctance of social conformity as queer desire for the other and joins the rank of scholars considering gender and sexuality as exclusive binary between heteronormativity and homosexuality. This neglects depictions of autosexuality as resistance to normalizations of coupled relationality. This work understands autosexuality as a sexual orientation that has the self as its object of desire as well as the active choice of singlehood and is reflected in Xuela’s sexual desire directed towards herself. Power and powerlessness are constantly negotiated in Xuela’s youth and reinforced through institutions such as school, and personal relations with friends and teachers. Especially striking is the powerlessness established by heteronormative sexual acts. This finds its climax in the acts of sexual assault during the time Xuela is placed in the care of Monsieur and Madame LaBatte where she is supposed to work in exchange for boarding. However, Xuela’s female presence does not go unnoticed by Monsieur LaBatte. Using his position of power, he begins to assault her sexually in his private office.

          While she may not have verbally or physically objected, she did not give consent, and did not know how to do either. She describes her attitude toward her way of paying as follows: “I did not object, I could not object, I did not want to object, I did not know then how to object openly.”[8] “Openly” clings to this statement almost like an afterthought, but it functions as a qualifier all the same. The time maker “then” additionally indicates that in reflection she might have objected if only she had known how to communicate it at the time. While at first glance this statement seems contradictory, a closer look at Xuela’s circumstances helps clarify her conflicting understanding of self, dependency, and authority.  The defenselessness paired with her lack of maturity is the source of her at-times ambiguous reflections of traumatic experience.

The processing of the traumatic experience itself, Xulea’s age, and the social dependency are all factors influencing the factual accuracy and produce ambiguous statements such as the one discussed above. However, the expectation of truth in accounts of traumatic events is a problematic concept. Elena-Maria Chandler explains that

 

the mutually preclusive nature of various theoretical stances within the study of trauma is predicated upon certain assumptions about meaning, identity, and subjectivity. Those assumptions tend to be reductive, conceiving of subjectivity as monolithic, claiming that “truth” can be shared by the individual and the society to which s/he belongs, or that there is one true narrative to be produced in describing traumatic experience. [9]

Xuela writes the truth accessible to her at the moment of narration, which is constructed against current reconstructions of her memory and influenced by subjectivity. In this, her picture of Monsieur LaBatte is a collection of meaning-makings affected by various understandings of the situation through time. It is also important to consider that while Monsieur LaBatte, or Jack as she will later call him, is not a family member, at this point in the story he is Xuela’s legal guardian: she is dependent on him. Her power and sexual independence are negotiated in relation to her social dependency on Jack. This conflicting perception at the time influences her judgment in the moment of writing making the memory a lived reality.

          As a result of those sexual relations with Jack, Xuela becomes pregnant and consequently decides to perform an abortion. Scholars have analyzed the abortion predominantly as a symbolic act in response to post-colonial heritage. Brathwaite, as cited by Veronica Marie Gregg, has described Xuela’s abortions as “echos of genocide within.” Similar to this, Gregg also expands on this and describes the abortion the “destruction at the point of conception – repeat the aborted life that is her inheritance.”[10] Gregg continues this argument and transfers it from the protagonist’s personal history to a colonial history, claiming that “Xuela’s unflinching gaze assesses the history that she herself has inherited and finds it unusable. Her multiple abortions, often carried out with ruthless will, are self-canceling and self-flagellating acts… .”[11] In other words, scholars have seen her abortion as a symbolic discontinuation of abuse and neglect caused by a colonial past, however she is not only rejecting the past, she is rejecting a future of motherhood. While the first interpretation represents a political and historical resistance, the second one is personal, indicating a resistance to social and gender expectations.

The refusal of motherhood has been frequently discussed among Kincaid scholars. Niklas determines the escape from motherhood as the source for emigration; however, in contrast to Brathwaite and Gregg, he argues that the rejection of motherhood is the result of the desire for a non-reproductive sexuality. Nikolas sets this trend in correlation to Caribbean culture and explains that

 

twentieth-century Caribbean women were culturally coerced to go (and grow) straight from mother’s house to husband’s house. As an alternative, metropolitan centers in America and Europe became attractive options for such women to delay marriage and indulge in a protracted period of autonomous singlehood, which is inherently queer since, according to Michael Cobb, singlehood holds the cultural status of a sexual minority.[12]

 

Niklas continues to argue that an ultimate refusal of motherhood is signified by homosexual desires and acts, which represent the queerness that is the basis to his argument. While this work departs from arguments that place queer only within LGBT studies, the quote includes a highly relevant reasoning – the wish for autonomous singlehood. This is the first time that the idea of singlehood has entered queer conversations of Kincaid’s scholarship. Important to distinguish is, however, that Xuela’s autonomous singlehood is not inherently queer because it has a minority status, but because it resists heteronormativities. While queer theory is concerned with sexual minorities and has traditionally been associated with LGBT studies, it in fact tries to resist any form of gendered and sexualized identification.

          A period of autonomous singlehood follows the rejection of motherhood and is a period marked by gender fluidity, self-exploration, and ultimately autosexuality that creates sexual and social empowerment. Mentioned representations of gender fluidity highlight gender performativity as negotiations of identity construction. In other words, certain performances of identity have certain purposes and may be reconstructed when that purpose has been fulfilled. Xuela leaves the house of Monsieur and Madame Labatte to live by herself. She buys clothes that belonged to a dead man. Wearing those clothes, she describes herself as follows: “I did not look like a man, I did not look like a woman.”[13] In this gender fluidity becomes a way for Kincaid to queer her characters.

          As a consequence of living by herself, she is also confronted with a deeper understanding of herself. She enters new territories of self that are unfamiliar to her and that she has to renegotiate in reference to herself, and only herself. The uncertainty and instability are counterbalanced by seeking reassurance through her reflection, a picture of herself that is stable and unchanging; this is an act of literally facing her fears. This comfort of her own reflection is also illustrated by the confidence she finds through her appearance. She explains:

It was seeing my own face that comforted me. I began to worship myself. My black eyes, the shape of half-moons, were alluring to me; my nose, half flat, half not, as if painstakingly made that way, I found so beautiful that I saw in it a standard which the noses of the people I did not like failed to meet. […] My own face was a comfort to me, my own body was a comfort to me, and no matter how swept away I would become by anyone or anything, in the I allowed nothing to replace my won being in my own mind. [14]

Her own perceived beauty is a standard to which she holds and even judges other people. It becomes a tool to negotiate and position herself within as well as against society. Scholars such as Elizabeth J. West have recognized Xuela’s self-embracing acts and their relation to social power:

Recognizing and exercising her power to determine the course of her life, Xuela relishes in her “self”. This celebration of the self leads her to ongoing practice of self-sensual/sexual gratification. Though she seeks intimacy with men, she regularly pleases herself, and she holds nothing in life before herself. Xuela becomes for Xuela the greatest pleasure in life – no greater source of knowledge, of pleasure or power she can find.[15]

It is important to point out that West also observes notions of self-love and sets them in relation to power negotiations in which the word “gratification” becomes most significant. Xuela is enough, the desire for her herself is the sexual satisfaction needed. Furthermore, Xuela used in the third person, “Xuela becomes for Xuela the greatest pleasure in life”, is an additional linguistic presence that reinforces the image of a relationship with herself. This demonstrates the involvement of autosexuality in the act of empowerment and construction of identity.

          The confidence Xuela gains through her autosexuality also enables her to renegotiate the relationship with her father, which has always been a relationship marked by dependency and powerlessness. The change of the power dynamic between Xuela and her father is indicated symbolically. Xuela explains that “a wild bush had been in bloom for many days now. As I read the letter I looked at it. Its many flowers were small and deep pink, with long deep throats and short flared lips for petals.”[16] The blooming bush may be read as a symbol for the blooming of her pubic area and in that the re-awakening of her sexual identity. The affirmation and comfort she finds in herself enables an autonomous understanding of herself in relation to society. She has learned to depend on herself, and, in turn, her father loses his power of parental authority.

          This self-love, however, developed at a much younger age and in accordance with sexual self-exploring, and self-pleasuring. Self-love is demonstrated by the lengthy description of her changing body after she received her first period. It stretches over an entire page that lists all the body parts that show signs of puberty. In remembering the obsession with her reflection, she embraces everything that comes along with her maturing body and voices her conviction that she will love herself regardless. It reads as follows:

I never doubted that I would like completely whatever stared back at me. And so, too, the smell of my underarms and between my legs changed, and this change pleased me. In those places the smell became pungent, sharp, as if something was in the process of fermenting, slowly.[17]

It is important to reflect on the extent of self-adoration demonstrated by Xuela toward her body. In particular, I want to draw attention to the description of smell. The adjectives pungent, sharp, but especially the comparison to the process of fermenting are a rather unusual choice to describe a pleasing smell. However, pungent and sharp also suggest a penetrating quality to their referent. And this is exactly the case for Xuela, in response to her smell “then and now, my hands almost never left those places”[18] In this, self-pleasuring is established as part of her sexuality, and masturbation as a sexual act that she embraces. It is also important to notice that she uses time markers, “then and now,” and thereby suggests the impact of self-love as a constant element in the performance and construction of her identity throughout her life.

          Another way of looking at the period of autosexuality is as a self-inflicted (s)exile. Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel establishes a working definition for sexile that exceeds queer terminology in order to uncover patterns of displacement in postcolonial writing. The term refers to the exiling of a subject as response to non-heteronormative sexual behavior as well as temporary exiling of subject with different, yet possibly heteronormative, desires from shared spaces.[19] Using the term to uncover patterns of displacement in The Autobiography of My Mother, living by herself and avoiding human contact is a form of self-inflicted exiling into sexile. In the aftermath of her experience of abuse and the resulting abortion, Xuela’s sexile represents an active choice of displacement and functions as process of healing and empowerment.

          Notably, the sexile initiated the process of healing and empowerment. Just as performing neither as a man nor as a woman had an expiration date, the sexile fulfilled its purpose. Xuela voices this change explicitly:

I suddenly grew tired of the life I had been living; it has served its purpose. I suddenly felt I did not want to wear the clothes of a dead man anymore. I took off my clothes and set fire to them. I bathed myself. I wanted to set fire to the house I had lived in all this time before I left it…[20]

 

This construction of identity served its purpose and is then rendered unnecessary. This sudden change reinforces the performativity of identity. This assumption has as its center the idea of identity as a social construct established by most canonically by Judith Butler. Butler claims that “gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed.”[21] Xuela stopped performing a more gender fluid identity and in doing so its reality stopped, making space for new reconstructions of identity. In Xuela’s case this is an identity marked by a newly gained autonomy.

          The acts of self-love, self-pleasuring, and frequent masturbation in relation to sexual and social power are especially significant in consequence to their cultural role in Caribbean culture. According to Arthur N. Gilbert, who explores the negative perception and subsequent repression of masturbation, “throughout the nineteenth century, auto-eroticism was viewed as a great evil, a threat to the individual and to society. At one time or another, nearly every disease which nineteenth-century doctors could not cure was blamed on self-abuse.”[22] In the following, he also explains that masturbation has been attributed to a “lack of self restrain.”[23] The suggested correlation between masturbation and self-control, or lack thereof, contributes to the picture of the Caribbean as hypersexualized, and unruly which, according to Kamala Kempadoo, is still a common perception. She says “to many, the Caribbean continues to be an unruly and promiscuous place.” [24] Most importantly, however, she suggests that we should not dismiss this as European imagination. Instead, Kempadoo intends to promote a positive perception of sexual diversity by arguing that “Caribbean sexuality is characterized by diversity, in which multiple partnering relationships by both men and women, serial monogamy, informal polygamy, same-gender and bisexual relations are commonplace.”[25] The evaluation of western understandings of monogamy and cis couple relationships as dominant moral and less “unruly” is an evaluation through the lens of colonialism. While the entire range of diversity is not depicted in The Autobiography of My Mother, the depiction of autosexuality represents a significant representation of sexuality to Caribbean identity. This is an identity that resists traditional perceptions of a woman’s role in society as well as colonial ideas of power, dependency, and sexuality. Moreover, it suggests Caribbean sexual diversity, not as a sign of an unruly, underdeveloped society, but as a society that does not seek to normalize sexual identity.

          The intention of this critical work is to show that queering Kincaid’s works, in particular The Autobiography of my Mother, is twofold. The first level on which Kincaid arguably queers her work is on the structural level. This means that she consciously blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction and diverges from traditional conventions of the Bildungsroman. The second level on which a queer reading is possible is the textual level. The depiction of autosexuality functions as a self-empowering force and in reconstructing identity, the protagonist obtains autonomy. Xuela renegotiates those relations in regards to her environment, which is Caribbean space. In this, queer reading Jamaica Kincaid’s work also means queer reading it in the context of Caribbean culture revealing an empowering sexual diversity. These issues are presented, documented, and negotiated by textual and meta-textual ambiguity challenging our understanding of genre, sexuality, and, especially, truth.

 

 

Notes

[1]. Kay Bonetti, “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid,” Missouri Review 15, no. 2 (1992): 124, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/410276/summary.

[2]. Allison Donnell, “When Writing the Other is Being True to the Self: Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother,” In Women’s Lives into Print, (1999): 124, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9780230374577_9#citeas.

[3]. Donnell, “When Writing the Other is Being True to the Self,” 124.

[4]. Jana Evans Braziel, “Alterbiographic Transmutations of Genre in Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Biography of a Dress’ and The Autobiography of My Mother,” A/B: Auto/Biograpy Studies 18, no.1(2003), 85.

[5]. Zoran Pecic,“Queer Tactical Diaspora and the Caribbean Space,” In Queer Narratives of the Caribbean Diaspora: Exploring Tactics, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 134.

[6]. Louis F. Caton, “Romantic Struggles: The Bildungsroman and Mother-Daughter Bonding in Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John.” MELSUS 21, no. 3 (1999):126-143.

[7]. Akash Nikolas, "Straight Growth and the Imperial Alternative: Queer-Reading Jamaica Kincaid," African American Review 50, no. 1 (2017), 59-73.

[8]. Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother, 63.

[9]. Elena-Maria Antonia Chandler, Trauma as [a Narrative of] the Sublime: The Semiotics of Silence, (Austin: University of Texas in Austin Press, 2005): 3.

[10]. Veronica Marie Gregg, "How Jamaica Kincaid Writes the Autobiography of Her Mother," Callaloo 25, no. 3 (2002), 929.

[11]. Gregg, "How Jamaica Kincaid Writes the Autobiography of Her Mother," 929.

[12]. Allison Donnell, “When Writing the Other is Being True to the Self: Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother,” In Women’s Lives into Print, (1999): 124, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9780230374577_9#citeas

[13]. Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother, 99.

[14]. Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother, 99.

[15]. Elizabeth J. West, "In the Beginning There Was Death: Spiritual Desolation and the Search for Self in Jamaica Kincaid's ‘Autobiography of My Mother’." South Central Review 20, no. 2/4 (2003): 18, doi:10.2307/3189783.

[16]. Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother,104.

[17]. Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother, 58.

[18]. Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother, 58.

[19]. Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, "Female Sexiles? Toward an Archeology of Displacement of Sexual Minorities in the Caribbean," Signs 36, no. 4 (2011): 813-36.

[20]. Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother, 104.

[21]. Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (Routledge Classics. New York: Routledge, 2006), 907.

[22]. Arthur N Gilbert,"Masturbation and Insanity: Henry Maudsley and the Ideology of Sexual Repression," Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 12, no. 3 (1980): 268.

[23]. Gilbert,"Masturbation and Insanity: Henry Maudsley and the Ideology of Sexual Repression," 68.

[24]. Kamala Kempadoo, Sexing The Caribbean, (NewYork: Routledge, 2004), 1.

[25]. Kamala Kempadoo, Sexing The Caribbean, (NewYork: Routledge, 2004), 2.