The Autobiography of my Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

This is an exquisite book that is exquisitely beautiful and sad at the same time: exquisite in its language and rhythm and exquisite in its relentless lack of love.

Xuela Claudette Richardson looks back on her life, starting with her birth and the death of her mother at the same time, an event which shaped the rest of her life and we are reminded of constantly throughout the book. It is a book of memories and events, no dialogue, that have seared themselves on her life and have always been accompanied by her will to survive and to know herself.

Her father gave her to his laundry woman, along with a pile of dirty clothes, to be looked after and raised. The laundress already had six children of her own so although she was not cruel, nor did she have time to laugh and encourage a child who was not her own. Eventually Xuela returned to her father’s house after he had remarried only to find his new wife hated her, tried to get rid of her and meant that she was constantly on her guard. But Xuela was made of strong stuff – how does a child rise above this? How does she know, beyond her years, what is happening to her and how the other woman feels? This is distant parenting that is oceans apart.

. . . an outburst of emotion meant as an expression of love but which only made me feel a new hatred and isolation in which we all lived.


I think, in the end Xuela’s hatred of everyone, including herself, becomes an act of self-love; twisted and in places quite repulsive but it is all she has and is left to create herself from herself. No one loves her, she loves no one, the world still turns and the journey from birth to death continues.

Her father is a continuing presence in her life with his mask that hides all and his clothing of the conquerer. He was born of a red-haired Scots man and a woman of ‘the African people’ and so is a product of colonialism which he continues in the way he dresses, his work as a policeman with his uniform and his house and furniture. At one point he is described in part as the land, his eyes as volcanoes, his back as strong as the mountains and his face like the globe cracked open and laid flat to reveal its shape. It is through this that we see Kincaid’s love of the land of Dominica and that love can be expressed in many ways. When Xuela does feel intense desire for a stevedore who lives next door he is described with

. . . a mouth that looked like an island, lying in a twig-brown sea, stretching from east to west


But the land also represents colonisation and privilege as her husband-to-be tries to show her plants and pictures of gardens from England where flowers are only grown for pleasure and pictures of ruins, purposely built to show decay.

He was obsessed with this idea, too, decay, ruin and that again made sense, for he comes from a people who had caused so much of that they might have eventually come to feel that they could not live without it.



The memories, although chronologically ordered, jump around. They never show the day to day life or discussions but as Xuela admits when looking at her memories, they shift and look different each time she looks at them, sometimes in the shadows, sometimes in the light – but never the same.

Taken as content only, this is not an easy read. It is brutal, but taken with the writing it is lyrical and in fact, I finished reading this book for the writing rather than the story. Kincaid is a lover of long sentences. The sentences demand your attention and provide one of the sources of power in the book. They can convey the passing of time and the detail and can feel like the camera focusing in.

I loved that moment when the white flowers from the cedar tree started to fall to the ground with a silence that I could hear, their petals at first still fresh, a soft kiss of pink and white, then a day later, crushed, wilted, and brown, a nuisance to the eye; and the river that had become a small lagoon when one day on its own it changed course, on whose bank I would sit and watch families of birds, and frogs laying their eggs, and the sky turning from black to blue to black, and the rain falling on the sea beyond the lagoon but not on the mountain that was beyond the sea.


Like the river, this sentence changes course at the semi-colon, from the flowers to the land and the sea and the sky and what was beyond almost as if the land is refusing to be small like the lives of the Xuela’s family. As the quote on the back of the book says, incantatory – a charm to draw us in and spit us out, troubled and a little cowed.

The book shows us what a struggle for identity can look like and the forces which can shape it. Craig Brown talks about biography being a form of fiction and the reverse is also true. Fiction can also be a form of biography.

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