The Autobiography of My Mother (1996) is an exploration of the self as other – and back.
The book is centred on Xuela Claudette Richardson, a woman who recounts her life looking back over seventy years. Born in a small island in the Caribbean, Xuela is a mixed-race child. When her mother, a Carib woman, dies in childbirth, Xuela’s father, a policeman of Scottish and African ancestry, leaves his daughter in the care of the woman who did his laundry, where she remains until she was seven years old. Then, having married another woman, he comes back for Xuela. Her father’s new wife, however, has no affection for the girl, and soon bears two children of her own.
When Xuela is fifteen years old, her father sends her to live with one of his business partners as a boarder, so that she can continue her education. Our narrator ends up by being seduced by her father’s friend. When she finds out she is pregnant, Xuela arranges her own abortion, and moves on. From an early age, she is unwilling to belong to anyone. She will eventually shun a man she comes to love, and marry another for whom she feels nothing.
We follow Xuela through her loveless childhood, her teenage years, her emotionless love affairs. She seems determined to be unpleasant and cruel, but her voice keeps drawing us closer and closer to her: she is angry, defiant, ironic, urgent. She is looking back over seventy years in the past, but her voice makes the events ever more present to us, as if she were experiencing everything as she goes on recalling it: we feel the smell of menstrual blood, the scorching sun, the sweat.
Xuela refuses to morn her past, but she also refuses to forget and forgive: the events in her life seem to be woven together in a thread of hatred and wrath. Having grown up in a loveless household and in an overall environment that discouraged children to trust one another and forced them to feel ashamed of themselves (for their skin colour, their gender, their class, their lack of education, their patois language), Xuela is determined to be as emotionally detached as she can, as if any meaningful connection were a defeat.
The whole novel rotates around this sense we have that there is something missing in her life – a lack of affection that epitomizes, perhaps, the ever-present absence of her mother. “My mother died when I was born,” she repeats throughout the book, as an incantation.
The mother-daughter inexistent relationship, which is at the heart of the novel, also mirrors the story of enslavement and colonialism in the West Indies: conditions that not only make motherless people of its inhabitants, keeping them disconnected from their traditions and their past, but that also continue to influence their lives even when the conditions themselves are no longer present.
Likewise, Xuela’s life will be irrevocably shaped by a woman she never knew: her mother’s absence will haunt her throughout the novel. As in the recurrent dream she has had since she was a child – where, when her mother appears, Xuela can only see her heels -, our protagonist’s quest is one after a face: her mother’s face.
It’s no wonder that the story she is telling us is an autobiography of another person altogether – and, at that, someone she never met or knew. It is, at once, the story of the mother she never had (nor was); and it is also her own story – as if her mother were living through her; or, as if both of them were interchangeable women: “the one who describes becomes the one who is described”. It’s the story of anyone, of no one, of one who never was, of one who was but was not the one. “I missed the face I had never seen; (…) I was just looking for that face, the face I would never see, even if I lived forever.”
Devoid of love and orphan, Xuela is left free to invent the mother she yearns for, as well as to recreate her own self out of nothing – an absence out of which she is able to be her own mother and thereby to embody a void: from herself to herself.
“Observing any human being from infancy, seeing someone come into existence, like a new flower in bud, each petal first tightly furled around another, and then the natural loosening and unfurling, the opening into a bloom, the life of that bloom, must be something wonderful to behold; to see experience collect in the eyes, around the corners of the mouth, the weighing down of the brow, the heaviness in heart and soul, the thick gathering around the waist, the breasts, the slowing down of footsteps not from old age but only with the caution of life-all this is something so wonderful to observe, so wonderful to behold; the pleasure for the observer, the beholder, is an invisible current between the two, observed and observer, beheld and beholder, and I believe that no life is complete, no life is really whole, without this invisible current, which is in many ways a definition of love.” ― Jamaica Kincaid,
“This new experience of really leaving the past behind, of going from one place to the other and knowing that whatever had been would remain just so, was something I immediately accepted as a gift, as a right of nature. This most simple of movements, the turning of your back, is among the most difficult to make, but once it has been made you cannot imagine it was at all hard to accomplish.” ― Jamaica Kincaid,
“It is said that unless you are born a god, your life, from its very beginning, is a mystery to you. You are conceived; you are born: these things are true, how could they not be, but you don’t know them; you only have to believe them, for there is no other explanation. You are a child and you find the world big and round and you have to find a place in it. How to do that is yet another mystery, and no one can tell you how exactly. You become a woman, a grown-up person. Against ample evidence, against your better judgment, you put trust in the constancy of things, you place faith in their everydayness. One day you open your door, you step out in your yard, but the ground is not there and you fall into a hole that has no bottom and no sides and no color. The mystery of the hole in the ground gives way to the mystery of your fall; just when you get used to falling and falling forever, you stop, and that stopping is yet another mystery, for why did you stop, there is not an answer to that any more than there is an answer to why you fell in the first place. Who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you. And why not, why not!”
”I had never had a mother, I had just recently refused to become one, and I knew then 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.”
“We were not friends; such a thing was discouraged. We were never to trust each other. This was like a motto repeated to us by our parents; it was a part of my upbringing, like a form of good manners: You cannot trust these people, my father would say to me, the very words the other children’s parents were saying to them, perhaps even at the same time. That “these people” were ourselves, that this insistence on mistrust of others – that people who looked so very much like each other, who shared a common history of suffering and humiliation and enslavement, should be taught to mistrust each other, even as children, is no longer a mystery to me. The people we should naturally have mistrusted were beyond our influence completely; what we needed to defeat them, to rid ourselves of them, was something far more powerful than mistrust. To mistrust each other was just one of many feelings we had for each other, all of them the opposite of love, all of them standing in the place of love.”