I was about halfway through The Autobiography of My Mother when I realized the main character really bugged me. It was several more pages before I realized the value of an unlikeable protagonist.
Xuela — Kincaid’s main character — isn’t nice. She’s not trying to be your best friend. And she’s pretty unapologetic about it. She’s a woman who marches to the beat of her own drum and shuns love in all its forms. Sex to her is just a form of physical pleasure, which she experiences no shame in fulfilling.
I started the book thinking I’d see a lot of myself in the main character’s development and story, but no such luck. Yes, there were some aspects to Xuela I understood – she was considered inferior by white people and she was not seduced by material wealth. But Xuela’s lack of emotional response to other characters – such as her husband of many years – was something I couldn’t relate to:
“He grew to live for the sound of my footsteps, so often I would walk without making a sound; he loved the sound of my voice, so for days I would not utter a word; I allowed him to touch me long after I could be moved by the touch of anyone.” (pp217-218)
However, it was about three-quarters of the way through The Autobiography of My Mother that I started to understand (and appreciate) what the author, Jamaica Kincaid, was doing with this book. She’s turning the traditional “coming-of-age” story on its head. The book isn’t about Xuela coming into herself as a woman, finding a true love to complete her, and settling into a routine of domestic sensibility. Xuela seems already completely formed when we meet her. The death of Xuela’s mother at her birth is the event that leaves her as an adult-child, already aware that she will need to fulfill all of her own needs and desires.
Kincaid revolts against the notion that we need to change in order to be content with our lives. With the constant focus on death as the “only reality” (p228), she is telling us to stop striving to “be” anything at all except fulfilled with ourselves, and ourselves alone.
It doesn’t hurt that Kincaid’s prose is beautiful. I mean really, astoundingly beautiful in some places. Like this passage for instance, reflecting on the Caribbean island of Dominica where the novel takes place:
“One night Roland and I were sitting on the steps of the jetty, our backs facing the small world we were from, the world of sharp, dangerous curves in the road, of steep mountains of recent volcanic formations covered in a green so humble no one had ever longed for them, of 365 small streams that would never meet up to form a majestic roar, of clouds that were nothing but large vessels holding endless days of water…” (p177)
It’s pretty much like poetry. Kincaid’s prose is what kept me moving through the book, even in the parts where I wanted to shake Xuela upside down to try and make her connect with something, anything. The prose kept me even. I cannot deny that it was an exquisite literary journey.
So while the main character and I would never have made it as best friends, I deeply appreciate what Kincaid did with The Autobiography of My Mother. My conception of self is expanded. I’m reflecting on what I still need to accept about me. And the next time I meet a Xuela in real life – perhaps a friend of a friend of a friend — maybe that next time I meet her will be the day I finally understand where she’s coming from.