The Autobiography of My Mother By Jamaica Kincaid. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 228 pages; $20.
In her third novel, "The Autobiography of My Mother," Jamaica Kincaid presents Xuela Claudette Richardson: independent-minded, antisocial, barren by choice. Xuela recounts her life as a mixed race inhabitant of Dominica, during the waning years of British rule.
This novel does not contain the word "colonialism," but colonialism is present everywhere, forming a template for interactions at every level. Colonialism is like a folding fan, like a wooden doll that opens to reveal dolls inside of dolls, like boxes inside of boxes, like a folding telescope, like two facing mirrors that reflect infinite faces. Domination folds in its wings a replica of itself and that domination enfolds another. Imagine looking into the facing-mirror infinity, and seeing, fifty or so faces down, another face, looking back, a contrary face that interrupts the others, that breaks the enfolding repetition and declares simply, "I was not tempted to be swallowed up whole in it."
Xuela's mother dies during childbirth, and her father (a petty official who wears "the uniform of a jailer") sends her to be raised by his laundry woman; she is then passed back to her father and his new wife, only to be passed on as a teenager to another couple that wants her to be a surrogate lover for the husband. Xuela, the woman who will not be swallowed, ponders the boxes within boxes of Dominica's hierarchy: language, family relations, gender, and the politics of eroticism. The English words that are her first comprise the language of the oppressor, and the French patois that she speaks regularly is "the language of the captive, the illegitimate."
After being dumped off like a bundle of laundry, baby Xuela looks continually over her shoulder for her mother; later she has recurring dreams of her mother's feet, stepping down a long, long ladder from heaven, coming to get her. But she remains alone, and awesomely independent in a world where no one can be loved, trusted, depended upon: "No one observed and beheld me, I observed and beheld myself. . . . I came to love myself in defiance, out of despair, because there was nothing else." As a result, Xuela guards her independence, refusing to have her lover's baby, refusing the role she sees his wife in. A wife is only worn out by a man's demands, needs, desires.
Xuela goes to a woman for an abortion and spends several days miscarrying in great pain. Rather than coloring this act with grief or regret, Kincaid portrays it as a moment of power, a decision that ends Xuela's part in the perennial reflection of colonialism. Xuela's body, eggs, potential children, are hers, and she repossesses them. During this time, she has a dream of power, regeneration and destiny, a rare dream for someone in a town that is "a way station for people for whom things had gone wrong." She dreams of traversing Dominica, of being followed by an agouti which she eventually leaves behind by saying her name and spinning around three times. In her dream, magic and religion and nature coexist, eliminating hierarchy; "And that is how I claimed my birthright . . . I dreamed of all the things that were mine."
After the abortion and the dream, Xuela understands her power to end the painful repetition of her loveless childhood and she vows to remain deliberately childless. Admitting no understanding of love herself, Xuela takes lovers when she needs them, eventually marrying the man she works for, a white doctor from England. Unlike the wife of her previous lover, Xuela is in charge--if her husband longs for the sound of her voice, she will not speak to him. If he listens for the sound of her footsteps, she will tiptoe through the house. Though she does not love him (she feels that her dead mother is the only person she might have loved and would have allowed to love her), she does begin to come to terms or a sort of forgiveness: the son of oppressors, and the daughter of descendants of slaves and native island inhabitants can find a tentative kind of coexistence. "I married a man I did not love. . . . and yet I would have saved him if ever he needed saving, I would have saved him from a death I had not sanctioned myself, I would have saved him if ever he needed saving, as long as it was not from myself."
"Autobiography of My Mother" circles around like a spiral, touching back on itself, repeating itself like a ballad, touching again and again upon the lost mother, the father that chose to identify with the oppressor, love in which one must choose to be captive or captor, the island, and its people, who remind Xuela of shadows.
Xuela's story is her mother's as much as it is hers. In some sense, Xuela dedicates her life to her mother, as if her mother really had climbed down the ladder from heaven and lived a life that faced oppression without fear or capitulation. The story is also that of Xuela's unborn children whom she saves from the cyclical life of colonial Dominica--her mother was a baby left at a church doorstep, she was left by a mother who died, and Xuela also believes she would abandon her children because of her inability to love, and to abandon them would be to sentence them to her life. Xuela's story is a dedication to the children, a letter in their defense, a documentation of their lives, an answer to why? and Xuela's solution to a loveless life: honesty, self-love, and self-respect.