Part of the girl’s schooling in femininity involves learning the traditions of her West Indian culture: recipes, gardening advice, superstitions, and rules of propriety and self-presentation. “Girl” was published during the liberation of numerous Caribbean islands from European colonial powers and during the development of Postcolonial Studies. While many former colonial subjects were told by their colonizers that their culture was not important and that they lacked the authority to speak and write their own cultural narratives, Kincaid depicts the traditions in “Girl,” not only to evoke the unique character of the Caribbean, but also to assert the value of customs that developed—not because of colonial rule—but, in spite of it.
Food is perhaps the most important part of Caribbean tradition in the story. Mother teaches the girl how to cook pumpkin fritters and how to “soak salt fish overnight” before cooking it. Mother also introduces a list of foods—doukona, pepper pot, and bread pudding—which demonstrate their culinary traditions and native foods. Mother’s instructions on how to cook prepare the girl for being a homemaker, but they also connect the girl to the foods that nourished and sustained those who came before her. Thus, the recipes are an intergenerational link between ancestors, mother and daughter, and future generations.
In addition to food recipes, Mother also instructs the girl on how to prepare a concoction for inducing a miscarriage, or “a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child.” Slavery and colonialism made black women the frequent victims of rape. Potions to terminate pregnancies were one of the few ways in which women could have some control over their own bodies. Her description of this recipe, as well as a recipe for a “good medicine for a cold,” indicates that remedies are passed down, not only to help women learn how to nourish and care for their families, but also to help them learn self-care. They are examples, too, of the resilience and creativity of Black Caribbean women who had to provide their own healthcare, particularly during slavery.
Just as the recipes in the story are derived from Caribbean folk wisdom and tradition, so are the superstitions and proverbs that Mother includes in her advice. Mother uses some of these proverbs and superstitions to offer moral lessons. For example, she mentions that the temptation to pick someone’s flowers can lead you to “catch something”—this admonition is not merely a warning to avoid strange gardens, but also probably subtle advice to avoid relationships with men who are romantically-involved with other women. The warning not to “throw stones at blackbirds,” for they might not be blackbirds at all, is a lesson on not judging everything by appearances.
Mother also intersperses her speech with proverbs that are not unique to Caribbean culture, such as throwing back an undesirable fish so that “something bad won’t fall on you” and “how to spit up in the air if you feel like it” and move quickly out of the way “so that it doesn’t fall on you.” This is a variation on the traditional adage, “Don’t spit in the air, it will fall on you”—an expression designed to discourage self-defeatist behavior. The inclusion of these adages, which would be known to a wider audience, offsets the more culturally specific proverbs. They also remind readers that the Caribbean islands, which are defined by their relative smallness and their subordinate relationships to more powerful countries, have a unique history, but have also been influenced by cultural exchange. Mother’s revision of the “Don’t spit in the air” proverb is exemplary of the way in which Caribbean people can take an ordinary proverb and make it specific to their own culture.
Mother’s lessons on Caribbean culture illustrate the ways in which women have expressed creativity and agency, despite the oppressive histories of slavery and colonialism. The generational wisdom emphasizes responsibility, but also accepts that women can be vulnerable and flawed.
Caribbean Culture and Tradition ThemeTracker
Caribbean Culture and Tradition Quotes in Girl
Don’t walk bare-head in the hot sun.
But I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school.
This is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child.