The Autobiography of My Mother - Jamaica Kincaid
My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind. I could not have known at the beginning of my life that this would be so; I only came to know this in the middle of my life, just at the time when I was no longer young and realized that I had less of some of the things I used to have in abundance and more of some of the things I had scarcely had at all. And this realization of loss and gain made me look backward and forward: at my beginning was this woman whose face I had never seen, but at my end was nothing, no one between me and the black room of the world. I came to feel that for my whole life I had been standing on a precipice, that my loss had made me vulnerable, hard, and helpless; on knowing this I became overwhelmed with sadness and shame and pity for myself.

So opens The Autobiography of My Mother, a fierce, complex discourse on love and lack of love in the context of colonialism. Although this paragraph sets up many of the themes that will be developed in the course of the book, it is not to be accepted as definitive. For one thing, this is the first and only time the narrator, Xuela Claudette Richardson, will represent herself as helpless or vulnerable. It's true, there's little if anything she can do to change the circumstances of her life; but she takes complete control of the way she lives in those circumstances. And she only rarely expresses pity for herself.

I'll admit, it took me a while to warm up to this book. Xuela's voice makes no attempt to conciliate the reader. Also, many of the statements she makes clash with each other; at first these contradictions irritated me – was the author being careless? Just throwing poetic phrases together? For just one example of many, she writes "I could say [my husband] loved me if I needed to hear I was loved, but I will never say it." – but she did say so a couple pages earlier. However, I came to realize that these were deliberate choices of the author. Most often, Xuela will both speak of herself or others as not loving or incapable of love, and also speak of them loving or being in love. This destabilization throws into question, for one thing, what she even means by "love". It is not safe to assume that this is obvious, even in context.

One thing Xuela never expresses is uncertainty – even when she contradicts herself, she makes her statements with a tone of absolute authority. She is determined to control her own voice, at the end of her life as she is telling her story, just as the course of her life has been ruled by her self-possession, her fiercely independent determination to be sufficient to herself and please herself, and no-one else. This has sometimes led her to ruthlessness. She is capable of feeling sympathy for others, occasionally, but will not allow herself to do so in any way that might make her vulnerable. Consider the following paragraph (which also demonstrates the author's control of style):

My life was beyond empty. I had never had a mother, I had just recently refused to become one, and I knew than that this refusal would be complete. I would never become a mother, but that would not be the same as never bearing children. I would bear children, but I would never be a mother to them. I would bear them in abundance; they would emerge from my head, from my armpits, from between my legs; I would bear children, they would hang from me like fruit from a vine, but I would destroy them with the carelessness of a god. I would bear children in the morning, I would bathe them at noon in a water that came from myself, and I would eat them at night, swallowing them whole, all at once. They would live and then they would not live. In their day of life, I would walk them to the edge of a precipice. I would not push them over; I would not have to; the sweet voices of unusual pleasures would call to them from its bottom; they would not rest until they became one with these sounds. I would cover their bodies with diseases, embellish skins with thinly crusted sores, the sores sometimes oozing a thick pus for which they would thirst, a thirst that could never be quenched. I would condemn them to live in an empty space frozen in the same posture in which they had been born. I would throw them from a great height; every bone in their body would be broken and the bones would never be properly set, healing in the way they were broken, healing never at all. I would decorate them when they were only corpses and set each corpse in a polished wooden box, and place the polished wooden box in the earth and forget the part of the earth where I had buried the box. It is in this way that I did not become a mother; it is in this way that I bore my children.

This paragraph expresses, for one thing, all the love and sympathy she could not or would not allow herself to feel. The fates of these imaginary children are those of her real-life half-siblings; and more figuratively, her husband, who "became all the children I did not allow to be born"; she spoke of wanting to push him into an abyss, but not in anger.

The pain of the book arises from her circumstances, in Dominica, as one of the people she always calls "the defeated" – the Carib and African people. There would be a lot more to discuss about this, but I will leave it for now. She writes:

I am of the vanquished, I am of the defeated. The past is a fixed point, the future is open-ended; for me the future must remain capable of casting a light on the past such that in my defeat lies the seed of my great victory, in my defeat lies the beginning of my great revenge. My impulse is to the good, my good is to serve myself. I am not a people, I am not a nation. I only wish from time to time to make my actions be the actions of a people, to make my actions be the actions of a nation.