“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid (1983)
Reprinted in 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology
by permission of Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, LLC
This is not your typical short story. It is a sentence. A very long one, but it doesn’t feel that way. Not when you begin to see between the lines, which I did as I read this, several times, each one providing a deeper meaning.
On the surface, it’s a list – a remembered list of a series of instructions a mother is giving to her daughter: how to clean this, cook that, behave properly, and on and on.
But as the sentence grows longer, the meanings grow deeper. Maturity begins to seep in as the daughter now sees some of those instructions differently, understanding their deeper meaning as she recalls her mother’s stern admonitions.
At first, it seems to be a tedious list of things that rub against the daughter’s nature as she only sees her mother trying to control her, misunderstanding her, not listening to her, and apparently judging her by the standards of her mother’s generation – not her own.
But as she matures, the list changes, and there is much more to what her mother is trying to say.
She instructs her daughter about how to handle other people, those she likes, and those she does not: how to develop different smiles for them as not everyone deserves to have such a gift given haphazardly. Here I see how we learn to wear masks, putting on the appropriate one depending on whom we are dealing with. Politeness is a highly admired trait – even if it is only a perceived one.
At this point, I see the list delving deeper into symbolism for what the mother wants to tell her daughter, but cannot in direct terms.
It is an amazing piece of writing in its conciseness, but yet its complexity is just as stunning. And it is a piece that really must be read more than once: first simply to get a feel for the flow and the tone, then to see the subtext.
This was a surprising find for me; definitely worth receiving a 5 Star rating.
Jamaica Kincaid has a published collection of short stories called At the Bottom of the River in which “Girl” is included. She has also published many stories about her homeland and experiences. These works include: My Brother, Autobiography of My Mother, Lucy, Annie John, and A Small Place.