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Girl turns ten: is perfectly happy. Girl turns twelve: is suddenly super uncomfortable in her body. Girl turns fourteen: is totally miserable except with her buddies, hates her mom, and is bored out of her skull in her small town. Girl turns seventeen: has had enough, says, "Let's blow this popsicle stand," and starts her own life.
No, it's not the most original storyline in the world. It's actually one of the most universal: adolescence; coming of age; growing up; experiencing years of being an angstypants; figuring out who you are. But that's exactly what makes this storyline enduring. No matter how often we see it—whether it's Boyhood or A Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man or The House on Mango Street or Bend It Like Beckham—we love bildungsromans because we can relate.
We also love them because of the ways that they are idiosyncratic and different. A bildungsroman in the right hands can be unlike anything you've ever read before. And multiple-award winning Jamaica Kinkaid's are totally the right hands.
Published in 1985, Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John is set in Antigua… but it's not the Antigua part that makes this story unique. It's a scathing view on colonialism… but nope, that's not really the part that makes this unique. This novel appeared first in serialized form in The New Yorker… but that's not what makes this unique, either.
No, what makes this book unique is its unflinching portrayal of seriously rocky mother/daughter love. This isn't a simple story about abusive mothers, or about rebellious daughters, or about happy go-lucky familial love. This is about the dark undercurrents that can exist in Mama/daughter relationships, and about how this relationship—and the rebellion from this relationship—is formative in shaping female identity.
Does that sound dry or academic? It's anything but. In the series of vignettes that make up Annie John, we see adoring love, cold refusal, vitriolic anger and the contemplation of murder. Everything that our protagonist Annie John does (yup, like the subject matter, the title of Annie John is deceptively simple) is in some way shaped by her relationship to her mother.
This book will challenge the way you feel about identity and family dynamics. It gives you an insider's look into the mind of an adolescent that is both totally familiar and totally alienating. You'll laugh, you'll get squeamish, and you'll get furious with the injustices of puberty all over again.
And sure, you'll probably mull over your own relationships with your Mommy or Mommy figures. You might even want to call he up to check in with her. But hey—pro tip—when Mother's Day rolls around, don't send her a copy of Annie John. Send Mommy another one of Jamaica Kinkaid's eleven published books instead. Except don't send her The Autobiography of My Mother, or Lucy or… um, actually maybe just send Mom some flowers.
In fact, as Annie John proves, mommy issues aren't just about mothers and sons. They're about mothers and daughters, too. In fact, Jamaica Kinkaid suggests that mother/daughter friction may be more intense than anything between a mother and a son because it's so fraught with issues of identity.
Annie John and her mommy dearest don't see eye to eye, and it all comes down to their perception of themselves in relation to each other. Basically, Mama John sees her identity validated by her daughter's actions, and Annie John sees her identity challenged by her mom's actions… and vice versa. We don't want to fall down a psychoanalytical rabbit hole here (because, for starters, Freud would laugh at us for talking about "rabbit holes" and "mothers" in the same breath) but it's safe to say that this dynamic duo has a fraught relationship.
So why should you care about this? Not because you have a mother too, and probably a passel of mother figures, but because we all view our own identity as existing in relation to other people. And that can get super-sticky.
Have you ever been angry with someone when they peg you a little too closely, like when they say, "Oh, Bobby is such a know-it-all/kiss-up/neurotic/neat freak." Have you ever been angry with that same person when they assume you'd like something you totally do not like, like when they assume you would totally like Black Mirror when they should know that you don't like sci-fi?
It's not just that you're annoyed; it's that your very identity is being called into question. Whether you're being is being summed up in an overly glib way (even if its accurate) or being confused with someone else's, it cuts deep.
So whether you're a daughter or a son, whether you have an awesome relationship with your mama or a strained one, whether you have six mother figures or zero, you can relate to (and care about) Annie John.
Salon.com Interview with Jamaica Kincaid
Dwight Garner interviews Jamaica Kincaid for salon.com. Among other things, they discuss her childhood and why she resigned from her post at The New Yorker.
Jamaica Kincaid July 2003 Interview
Jamaica Kincaid reveals she likes The Matrix and Eminem in this excerpt from an interview in The Believer magazine.
Jane Smiley publishes a review of the book in The Guardian in 2006.
New York Times Book Review
This article, "Paradise With Snake," offers Patricia T. O'Conner's 1985 review of Annie John. The last paragraph includes insightful excerpts from a telephone interview with Jamaica Kincaid and the priceless gem: "my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me. I can't help but think it made me interested in myself as an object."
Map of Antigua
Take a look at this map of the Caribbean and the island of Antigua, Kincaid's birthplace.
Edward Lamson Henry's "Kept In" (1889)
This painting appears as the cover illustration of recent editions of Annie John. Kincaid chose to discuss this painting at the Smithsonian's American Pictures series and told the audience that it inspired her to write Annie John.
Jamaica Kincaid discusses her novel My Garden (1999), but this talk gives you a sense of her relationship to her work.
Jamaica Kincaid on Being a Professional Writer
This is a very short clip of Jamaica Kincaid recalling the difficulties of being a young professional writer and how one makes a living as a writer.
A Reading by Jamaica Kincaid at MIT
Kincaid discusses her early writing for The New Yorker and reads from some of her early "talk stories."
Audio Interview with Jamaica Kincaid
Kincaid discusses, among other things, the reasons for her name change from Elaine Potter Richardson to Jamaica Kincaid.