by Jamaica Kincaid
Poor Girl. We can't imagine having to put up with that torrential downpour of commands that she gets from her mom. So what's going on in her head during this intense how-to?
We’ve mentioned in Mom’s Character Analysis that Kincaid’s work is very autobiographical, and that her relationship with her mom is the inspiration for her writing. So it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to guess that Girl is Kincaid and Mom is Kincaid’s mom. Since Kincaid is obviously not a girl anymore, Mom's tirade is really a distillation of years and years of advice to Girl.
Why, after all this time, did Girl decide to tell us these things that her mom said? Well, if you were going to imitate all the things your parents told you, there would probably be a lot of room cleaning and homework-doing, and not so much man-bullying and abortion-having.
But Kincaid didn't get her first work published in The New Yorker for nothing. So we get the standard cooking and cleaning stuff like, “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap” and “this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease" (1, 18).
But we also get things that maybe her mom didn’t actually say but taught by example, and make us think a little bit more about the text, like “this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you" (45-46). You can imagine that, writing years after her childhood, the unspoken (or spoken) cultural lessons would make much more of an impact on Kincaid than the ironing tutorials.
At the end, Girl asks Mom, "but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?" (52). We can tell that Girl is a bit nervous and confused about how she is supposed to act according to society's complicated rules even though (or maybe even because) her mom gives her all of this advice. Maybe no matter what I do, she seems to think, I'll do the wrong thing.
Where Mom, who takes up 51 out of 53 phrases in “Girl,” is big, powerful, and loud, Girl is small and meek. Notice that even though her mom accuses her of singing benna in phrase 8, Girl doesn’t get up the courage to respond until phrase 14. And she never defends herself against being called a slut.
Since this is a prose poem, we have to assume that everything about “Girl” has a point, and Girl’s words are in italics in the middle of Mom’s wall of text. It even looks like her words are squashed and stifled. Thinking about it this way, it makes a bit more sense why Girl only interrupts Mom twice in the whole text. At the time, she probably had things to say, but now she can only remember defending herself, saying, "but I don't sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school" (14).
So what do we make of the fact that this is only one of Girl's two phrases? Well, since benna is a popular folk genre of music, it sounds a lot like we've got a conflict here between white culture (church on Sundays) and Antiguan culture (folk songs, which sometimes included coded information). Girl is caught between two cultures.
Of course, this is the adult Kincaid looking back on her childhood. Just because the girl in the poem is meek and mild, that doesn’t mean that Kincaid was. Actually, now she’s famous for being angry.
After reading “Girl,” we were left wondering: what’s going to happen to Girl? Is she going to be just like her mom? Is she going to be totally different? Will there be a “Girl: Part 2” where she's giving her own daughter a list of chores and advice? We all know what happened with Kincaid (hint: she is totally not going to smile if she doesn’t like you), but what about Girl?