by Jamaica Kincaid
In A Nutshell
You wouldn’t think that we'd have that much to say about something shorter than most people’s list of tweets, but you’d be wrong. "Girl" is the blood, sweat, and tears of a certain Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson. No, that's not the head of your local Daughters of the American Revolution. She's a woman who fled her native land of Antigua, changed her name, and forged an internationally famous career as a writer.
Kincaid grew up in Antigua during the '50s and '60s. For nine years, she was an only child with great relationship with her single mom, Annie Richardson Drew. And then her mom remarried. Pretty soon, there were three little brothers running around and absorbing all her mom's energy and attention. Kincaid had to leave school and, when she was only 17, travel to the United States to work as a nanny. She cut herself off from her family, changed her name, and started writing.
This story, “Girl,” was the very first piece of fiction that Kincaid published. It appeared in The New Yorker in 1978. "Girl" also opened Kincaid's collection of stories At the Bottom of the River, published in 1983. Even with such an impressive start, no one suspected that she'd become the most important female Caribbean writer around.
The prose poem is 650 words of a mother simultaneously berating her daughter and teaching what's she's expected to be and do as an Antiguan woman. There's no traditional plot, no action, no character descriptions, and no setting. Only two voices, and it takes us a while to figure out that they are mother and daughter.
Yet somehow, only using two voices, Kincaid manages to hit the big issues: the difficulty of mother-daughter relationships, the contradictions of femininity, life under patriarchy, adolescent sexuality, and even the legacy of colonialism. That's a lot to pack into 650 words, and it's no wonder that critics praised Kincaid's mastery of language, rhythmic phrasing, and the poetry of her words.
Do you agree? Check it out for yourself—it'll take you less time to read than checking your Facebook newsfeed, and we bet you'll get a lot more out of it.
Why Should I Care?
You don't have to be a girl to know what Jamaica Kincaid is saying. "Girl"—as its title suggests—is universal.
Got parents? Ever been a teenager? Then you know what it's like. There are expectations: get on the honor roll. Have lots of friends. Be well-behaved. Dress how I want you to. Get into a top-tier college. Get scholarships. Graduate and find a good job. Find a nice girl or guy and have pretty babies when you are not too old, and not too young, and not too poor (because, remember, you have a good job) as quickly as possible so that I can show my friends what a cute grandchild I have.
Not to mention the accusations: are you really going out dressed like that? Did you clean your room? Why didn't you fill up the gas tank? Don’t be late for curfew, or you're grounded for a week. Are you really going to the dance with him?
It's a lot to live up to. We mean, we know Shmoopers are some of the most awesome people around, but you aren’t Superman. (Right? Tell us if you are, because that’s sweet.) Say you make the honor roll and get into a good college, but you don’t make friends because you're in your room studying all the time, or you don't have time for an internship because, you know, you're studying all the time. The right set of parents can still make you feel like a failure.
In fact, sometimes it seems like it isn’t even about you. There’s a whole show about this. It’s called Toddlers and Tiaras.
The girl in "Girl" feels your pain. We mean, look at that list of her mom’s expectations. We get tired just reading it. If she can figure out a way to get through it and still become a big-shot writer, then we're pretty sure you can manage to survive until you get to college. Who knows, maybe you'll pick up some tips while you're reading.
Not that we're telling you what to do. We're not your mom, after all.