Jamaica Kinkaid's My Brother , (1997)
Reviewed by Bronwen Low
"I became a writer out of desperation, so when I first heard my brother was dying I was familiar with the act of saving myself: I would write about him. I would write about his dying."
Despite Jamaica Kincaid's gesture, her latest book has very little about her youngest sibling who died of AIDS in 1996. More than many authors, Jamaica Kinkaid writes about herself, and in My Brother once again explores her difficult and ambivalent relationships with her mother and Antigua. This time. however, she adds reactions to death and mourning. Still, it is as much autobiography as the "fictional" Annie John ,--a girl's coming-of age in Antigua-- and Lucy, -- a Caribbean au pair in New York.
Kincaid's remarkable memory is able to recollect details her mother would have her forget ("You mind long, you know," she tells Elaine Potter Richardson, Kinkaid's christened name). Not only is this a collection of memories -- Kincaid recalling her brother as an infant and child, and as an adult stricken with AIDS -- but My Brother is also about what is necessarily selective memory, and therefore controversial, but still a vital source of family history. Characteristically undermining her own project, towards the end of the book Kincaid wonders: "But without memory what would be left? Nothing? I do not know."
It is her memory, with its idiosyncratic connections, regressions and repetitions, that structures the work. At points, the narrative logic belongs to a thirteen year old child: Kincaid's opening account of her brother Devon Drew's birth moves from details of that night's supper to the sight of midwife Nurse Stevens' large rolling bottom. Elsewhere, adult grief and anger move the narrative, which jumps frantically between accounts of Devon in the hospital, the time Kincaid's mother burned her books, and Lindsay, the friend who used to borrow these books and who her mother drove away.
When her emotions take over, she battles her own prose. "This way of behaving, this way of feeling, so hysterical, so sad, when someone has died, I don't like at all and would like to avoid." But she can't seem to avoid it, and her pain erupts in frenzied repitions such as "And then again, and then again" and qualifying parenthetical asides such as (the man who was really my own father, my brother's real father) and (though his father, not really mine)> These clutter Kinkaid's usually lucid writing.
To enjoy My Brother, the reader must find Kincaid's perspectives, passions and obsessions interesting, as she herself implies. After drawing a parallel between the red ants who nearly killed Devon at birth and the "small things" now "killing him from the inside" she admit s: "I don't believe is has any meaning, this is only something a mind like mine would think about."
The reader learns little about Devon because Jamaica Kincaid knows little herself. This is due partly to Kincaid's self-imposed exile from Antigua at 17, when Devon was only 3. She doesn't see him again for 20 years. "I no longer understood readily the kind of English he spoke, " she writes, "and always had to have him repeat himself to me." Here, as elsewhere in her writing, Kincaid seems profoundly alienated from her roots, both her family and Antigua. My Brother is therefore a story about not knowing. Kincaid can only "suspect" and "suppose" about his life; she decides "He must have wanted to be a singer."
Devon's silenced story is also the story of AIDS. As in most places, Antigua's AIDS victims are socially disparaged and therefore "ashamed to make their suffering known." To be diagnosed with HIV in Antigua, according to Kincaid, is to be said to "be dying of AIDS" since there is no AZT on the island. Of course, this is partly because most could not afford the very expensive drug, and there is no public concern for those with the disease. Many sense that health care resources should not be spent where there is possibility of a cure. Devon is never able to talk about having AIDS, and never names his illness other than calling it "de chupidness".
By the end of My Brother, Kincaid and the reader realize what else Devon hasn't been able to voice, perhaps not even to himself -- the truth of his sexuality. Using the gardening metaphor she develops throughout the story, Kincaid describes Devon by saying, "His life was the opposite of that, a flowering, his life was like the bud that sets but, instead of opening into a flower, turns brown and falls off at your feet." Not only has the bud died prematurely because Devon does, but he also never flowers because he is never able to share "the complexities of who he was" with the people he knows best.
Kincaid is at her best here as elsewhere in her willingness to voice the socially unspeakable; only she would announce "on the whole I like to know whom people have sex with, and a description of it I find especially interesting." This frankness allows her to explore the complexities of human emotions such as what it means to love someone, and the tenuous relationship words have with feelings. She says: "I love the people I am from and I do not love the people I am from, and I do not really know what it means to say so, only that such things as no love now and much love now, these feelings are not permanent, or possibly not permanent.'
While Kincaid explores human psychology in all her writing, her insights on the work of mourning are unique to My Brother. Despite the inevitability, the certainty, the naturalness of death (which Kincaid seems to try to convince herself and her reader by weaving stories of birth and death) she wonders: "Why is it so new, why is this worn-out thing, death, someone dying, so new, so new?"
Devon's death also reminds Kincaid of her own mortality: "our death was imminent, only we were not anticipating it ... yet". And it takes her to a place where she has to consider the costs of her remove from her past; she realises that although she spent her 20 years away from her mother actively hating her, she "had never imagined her dead."
It is not clear whether Kincaid can ever completely work through the issues of this mother-daughter relationship, nor if they deserve a reader's continual attention. Kincaid's tally of the wrongs her mother has done her in this and other works is tiresome to some readers (who might wish this oft-maligned woman had the opportunity to write and publish The Mother Writes Back).
Another familiar element of My Brother is Kincaid's rigid thinking on Antigua, so that even compliments to her birth place are backhanded ones. Of a workshop for counselors of HIV positive patients she says, "This was something very new to me: ordinary people in Antigua expressing sympathy and love for one another at a time of personal tragedy and pain, not scorn or rejection or some other form of cruelty.
Despite heavy criticism of her bitingly honest style, Kincaid will clearly keep on writing with her own particular blend of astringency and insight. In a 1990 interview, Kinkaid said of Lucy: "I wanted to be very frank and to be unlikable within the story. To be even unpopular. " It is safe to say that popularity is not a concern for Kinkaid in any of her work, and My Brother is no exception.