For decades, Kincaid’s 'Girl', the first piece in her collection, At the Bottom of the River, has posed a conundrum. Is it a short story or a prose poem? Even the blurbs on the collection tiptoe around definitions: ‘these stories have all of poetry’s virtues,’ (Anne Tyler, The New Republic); ‘word paintings,’ (Jacqueline Austin, Voice Literary Supplement). But let’s be reminded that 'Girl' was first published as fiction in The New Yorker in 1978. Sure, there’s the length, unconventional structure and that hypnotic repetition, but, unsurprisingly, I’m with The New Yorker on this one, claiming Girl’s brilliance for story.
As to the story, well, there isn’t one as such, in the sense there is no traditional beginning, middle or end. But there is a narrative arc, as Kincaid uses two voices, and the rhythm and nuance of speech, to convey lives and places (the Caribbean). It’s a series of directives, in turn instructive and admonishing, from a mother trying to teach her daughter how to be a respectable woman. The arc starts with normal life, escalates with the mother’s admonitions to not be a ‘slut’ and the daughter’s protests, and ends with the knowledge that the mother’s litany will persist for years.
In the mother’s world, there are two types of women – respectable women and ‘sluts’. Respectable women don’t speak to wharf-rat boys and know how to smile at someone they dislike. ‘Sluts’ don’t sew their hems and aren’t allowed near the baker’s bread. Yet, the mother not only teaches the girl how to make cold medicine, but also how to make abortion medicine, showing that despite all, she is realistic about the possible life ahead for a poor, young woman.
So, mother-daughter relationships, femininity, domestic life and sexual propriety, all pulled off in one sentence of less than seven hundred words, broken only by semi-colons.
Why it Sticks
Lovely, lyrical, compressed prose: In deceptively simple style, Kincaid lays out complex and divisive issues. To do so using only dialogue is masterful. The words ebb and flow musically, so that the ear does not tire of them.
Truth: The best stories contain at least one seed of truth based in reality, and the reader suspects long before googling it that Kincaid was the only child (for nine years) of an Antiguan single mother. There is also truth to the mother’s litany, something perhaps familiar to many female readers, albeit not restricted to singing benna in Sunday school.
Emotional punch: It’s an emotional portrayal of adulthood in an impoverished, patriarchal society where a woman’s power lies in her domestic control. At the same time, Kincaid shows the strong connection between mother and child.
Form: It brings joy to anyone invested in words.
When I first attempted fiction in my 30s, charging forward, bellowing, 'Now or never', it was as if someone laid a corporate writing tripwire across my path. I fell and realised that after years of writing news reports and brochures, I would have to learn how to fiction-walk all over again.
Adjectives and adverbs, latent since high school, were resurrected. First person point of view was re-employed. Knuckles whitened, hearts pounded. As I tried to teach myself, apparent ‘rules’ were found in how-to books: write what you know, nix the adjectives. Gritty realism, it seemed, was the path to publication. I was in the second phase of rehabilitation, and it was depressing.
Then came writing workshops and 'Girl'.
As an ‘emerging’ writer, in turn being instructed and admonished by writing rules, this story was the voice of protest. It was liberating. I discovered other stories that didn’t fit the mould: 'The Harvest' (Amy Hempel), 'Boys' (Rick Moody), 'Jealous Husband returns in the Form of Parrot' (Robert Olen Butler), and 'How to Talk to Your Mother' (Lorrie Moore).
Kincaid was a staff writer at The New Yorker long before 'Girl' was published, and it was probably this that gave her the edge on bending rules in her first fiction publication. The story’s themes of mother-daughter relationships and memories of the Caribbean are continued throughout At the Bottom of the River, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and won the Morton Darwen Zabel Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Kincaid has said, 'Whatever a novel is, I’m not it, and whatever a short story is, I’m not it. If I had to follow these forms, I couldn’t write. I’m really interested in breaking the form.'
By the way, this post is now officially longer than 'Girl'. It has a beginning, middle and end, and there’s at least one seed of truth based on reality, so maybe’s it’s a story, too; and in the end this is the short story writer’s condundrum, as valid now as it was in 1978 – how best to tell stories that are truthful, emotional and universal, even while blurring lines and breaking forms.