Thursday, January 24, 2013

"Annie John" by Jamaica Kincaid

Growing up in Antigua, one of the many islands of the Caribbean Sea, is not easy for Annie: she has to endure the competition of her schoolmates, deal with her changing body, with pubic hair sprouting in a couple of places, and get along with her beautiful mother who, much to her dislike, has just started to consider her a young girl, rather than a child. While white English teachers impart her lessons on Shakespeare and the right way to write autobiographical essays, Annie also experiences an alternative culture: when she is weak and feverish from an undiagnosed illness, her father calls an obeah woman, who puts scraps of paper with names of her father's former lovers all around her, drawing crosses on the soles of her feet and on her head. Her mother, who believes in Western medicine instead, takes her to an English doctor, and the medicines he prescribed end up next to the ones from the obeah woman. Which one was responsible for her recovery it is not clear.

As her body grows, so does her dislike for her mother, and  the desire to be independent. This brings Annie to leave her island, which is intrinsically connected to the figure of her mother. At the end of the book, before leaving for England, Annie reflects on the fact that she is going "away from my home, away from my mother, away from my father, away from the everlasting blue sky, away from the everlasting hot sun, away from people who said to me, 'This happened during the time your mother was carrying you'" (134). 

Jamaica Kincaid reflects on the eternal tropes of colonizer/colonized in a clever way. She references The Tempest more than once, constructing a fascinating answer to Shakespeare's text. For example, Annie's English schoolmistress, Miss Moore, is compared to a fish, "her throat [beating] up and down as if a fish fresh out of water were caught inside. I wondered", thinks Annie, "if she even smelled like a fish" (p.36). Here Kincaid is reversing the moment in Shakespeare's text when Caliban is described as a strange kind of fish, because of his smell and appearance. Shakespeare's play is also referenced directly when another teacher of her, Miss Nelson (note how "historical" all the surnames sound) is seen as reading an "elaborately illustrated edition of The Tempest" (p.39).
"Annie John" is a strange novella: there is the hint of a homoerotic bond and then its dismissal, and a growing difficult mother-daughter relationship that is not resolved until the end of the book with an unconvincing tear and a hug before sailing for England. It is clearly an autobiographical work, as it has been observed that the author is haunted by her own conflict with her mother. All in all, it is beautifully written, with short, simple and sometimes poetic sentences, of the kind Naipaul has accustomed us to. It is a window, albeit small, on how life was on a Caribbean island before mass tourism arrived.
For those of you who don't know her, Jamaica Kincaid is a writer born in the Caribbean island of Antigua in 1949. She moved to the USA in the 1960s to be an aupair there, and then studied photography and started to write for newspapers and magazines. She is now considered one of the most important Caribbean women writers. In her works, she often deals with issues regarding the colonial education she received and the failures of the postcolonial Caribbean nation. Her anger, directed at both the colonizers and the Antiguan people, is sometimes the reason why she is still nowadays a controversial writer.

In italiano: "Anna delle Antille" di Jamaica Kincaid
Edito da DeAgostini, 1997
pp.176, € 9,30

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