Jamaica Kincaid

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Girl Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jamaica Kincaid's Girl. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid was born and raised in St. John’s, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda. Her family was poor and, by her own admission, her mother did not like her very much. She left Antigua at sixteen to work as a nanny in New York City. She then moved briefly to New Hampshire to accept a photography scholarship, but returned to New York in the early-1970s. She took the pen name “Jamaica Kincaid” for anonymity and began writing for The New Yorker, first in its “Talk of the Town” column, then, as a short-story writer and essayist. She published her first story collection, At the Bottom of the River, in 1983. Her best-known work, Annie John, is a coming-of-age novel set in Antigua. Kincaid’s work is noted for being autobiographical in nature, and for exploring themes related to family and gender. Some of her work deals more directly with the political and personal impacts of colonialism, such as The Autobiography of My Mother: A Novel and A Small Place. Kincaid is currently a professor of literature and creative writing at Claremont McKenna College.
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Historical Context of Girl

Antigua and Barbuda declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1981—three years after the first publication of “Girl.” The nation was among the last in the Caribbean to be granted independence during a wave of liberation that began in the 1960s. Kincaid’s references to Sunday school and benna reflect a tension between Antigua’s traditional British influences and Caribbean folk culture, as well as the persistent perception that the latter was incompatible with social propriety. The decade in which the story was published, the 1970s, was the height of the second-wave feminist movement. Though middle-class white women were the primary subjects of the movement, black women were vital participants and, with their counterparts, began to address the ways in which their lives had been predetermined and limited by gender. The Caribbean had no shortage of Black feminist writers who centered the lives and experiences of black women in their work, including Maryse Condé (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem) and the Trinidadian-Canadian writer Marlene Nourbese Philip (She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks).

Other Books Related to Girl

One of Kincaid’s earliest literary influences was Charlotte Bronte. As a child, after reading Jane Eyre, Kincaid piled on layers of clothing and pretended that she was a nanny working in Belgium, as Bronte had. As a result, Kincaid began to develop understandings of class, gender, and displacement that would later influence her work.  Kincaid’s career coincided with the developments of Postcolonial Studies and Postcolonial Literature. Postcolonial literature elevated the voices of formerly colonized subjects, encouraging them to write their own cultural and historical narratives. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) was instrumental in exploring the histories of subjugation and cultural erasure in former colonies. Kincaid’s interest in Anglophone Caribbean culture from a girl’s perspective mirrors the work of Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff. Cliff introduced the character Clare Savage, inspired by her own experience of growing up as a light-skinned black woman in Jamaica, in her first novel, Abeng (1984), then reintroduced the character as an adult in the novel No Telephone to Heaven (1987). “Girl” was Kincaid’s first attempt to write fiction from the second-person perspective. She repeated this technique in 1988 in her essay, A Small Place, in which she directed her narrative voice at a tourist viewing postcolonial Antigua for the first time.
Key Facts about Girl
  • Full Title: Girl
  • When Written: 1978
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: June 26, 1978 in The New Yorker; 1983 in At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid’s first collection of short stories and reflections
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Literature; Postcolonial Caribbean Literature
  • Genre: Short Fiction
  • Setting: An unnamed Anglophone Caribbean island
  • Climax: Mother asks the girl if she is “really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread.”
  • Antagonist: Mother
  • Point of View: Second-person

Extra Credit for Girl

Life at The New Yorker. William Shawn, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, invited Kincaid to write for the magazine in 1974 after an impromptu meeting facilitated by her friends, staff writers George Trow and Ian Frazier. “Girl” was her first work of fiction published in the magazine. Five years later, Kincaid married Shawn’s son, the composer Allen Shawn.

Singing. Mother tells the girl not to sing benna, or calypso music. Kincaid, too, enjoyed singing and had a brief stint as a back-up singer for one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars,” Holly Woodlawn. Kincaid never sang lead because, she insists, she cannot really sing.