I read a ton of short stories this week but the only one that stuck with me was “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. It’s incredibly short – approximately 650 words. Despite its brevity, it manages to convey an intense degree of emotional depth. It explores the power of our parents’ words (for better or for worse), and delves into complexities of love, cruelty, and autonomy.”Girl” plunges the reader straight into the middle of a contentious mother-daughter relationship — Google reveals that the story was based on Kincaid’s own mother, of whom she has said, “The way I became a writer was that my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me.”
If you have just a few minutes, I highly recommend reading “Girl.” Even if you have a great relationship with your mom (like I do. Love you mom!) (She doesn’t even read this blog), you will find yourself empathizing strongly with Kincaid. The structure of the story, as you’ll see, demands empathy and a certain degree of immersion.
Here’s the link. I’ll wait.
Back? Hopefully you read the story because it was literally the length of a glorified paragraph and if you’re reading my blog in the first place I KNOW YOU HAVE THE TIME.
You might have noticed that that the story is one long sentence, separated by semicolons:
“is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you; but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button;”
At the risk of sounding like a MAJOR NERD, I have to say that Kincaid’s stylistic choices in this short, short story are absolutely brilliant. It’s the perfect example of a story accomplishing an incredible amount in a brief time, encapsulating the nuances of an obviously complex mother-daughter relationship, in fewer than 1000 words. Which techniques does Kincaid use to achieve this? Why, I’m glad you asked.
1. Semicolons; so many semicolons;
Really, this story left me breathless when I first read it. Because of the semi-colons and the resultant lack of any full stops, you’re forced to read it without tearing your eyes away. It washes over you. This quickly and seamlessly created empathy for the “you” addressed in the story, the daughter. Just like the daughter, we’re afforded no break from the criticism, the unrelenting pace of the commands and the insults. We can’t tear our eyes away. We can’t stop hearing it. And the stream-of-words format doesn’t make any room for a past, present, or future. If you excerpted any section of this, it would stand on its own. This reflects the timelessness of a mother’s words, the way they travel through time and space to haunt you.
Because of the lack of structure, everything the mother says is afforded the same amount of importance as everything else. So her thoughtful and obviously loving remarks about how relationships sometimes end (“this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up”) occur on equal standing, in the same sentence, as her insults. We’re not given any structure with which to separate these thoughts, as readers, so we do the same as the daughter: take everything as it is, weigh the good against the bad advice, and reel in the aftermath.
2. Unusual narrative structure
Mostly, this story is a snapshot of a mother’s advice directed to her daughter, who is the “you” addressed throughout. Twice throughout the narrative, we’re faced with italicized “I” statements among a sea of “you” statements: the daughter speaking back to her mother. This break in form reflects the incredible struggle daughters face to establish autonomy in relationships with their mothers. The daughter speaks and the mother continues, totally steamrollering her. These italics stand out in the narrative, physically proclaim themselves as the only instances we’ve seen of change. That these “I” moments are brief and surrounded by didactic “you” words is telling of the relationship between the two, and speaks powerfully to Kincaid’s acknowledgment that her mother utterly shaped her world. Like Kincaid said, “The way I became a writer was that my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me.” When reading the story, the words of her mother literally surround and envelope any words she speaks in the physical landscape of the story.
3. Repetition or anaphora or something
In several sections of the story, the narrator repeats this is how. Generally, this occurs at the beginning of a a thought, which if memory serves is known as anaphora in fancy-speak. Feel free to correct me.
“this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease;”
This technique accomplishes a couple things. First of all, anaphora, when used well, is hypnotic and powerful (think, “I have a dream”). The daughter is under the spell of her mother, like most children are with their parents up until a point. It lulls us into a false sense of security, and makes the narrator’s second mention of “the slut I know you are so bent on becoming” even more jarring. This is the second–but not the last–mention in “Girl” of sexual promiscuity and the most eyebrow-raising aspect of the mother’s admonishments. These cruel and malicious statements sprinkled in amongst otherwise innocuous pieces of advice? This is the very embodiment of the way a mother’s cruel words (even few and far between) can poison a narrative, can poison a life.
Jamaica Kincaid could have told this story in a million different ways. She could have shared a specific anecdote from her past; she could have described a specific scene. But in my opinion her stylistic choices–the long semicolon sentence, the unusual narration, the hypnotic, repetitious flow– accomplish an incredible amount. Yes – we learn details about this mother-daughter relationship. We learn about the physical aspects of growing up in Antigua, like how to grow okra or how to sew a button or how to set a table, which colors in and texturizes the background of the story. But it’s the way we’re told these things that really gives the story its emotional depth.
Popular writing advice claims we must show not tell but Kincaid does the absolute opposite and it’s astounding. She tells us everything we need to know and in the telling we feel what she feels; we’re immersed in the story and swept up inside these mother-daughter complexities. We’re ensnared, by virtue of this neverending sentence , in just one loop from the daughter’s memory and we’re left gasping when it ends – knowing as we do that it’s only the end for us – not her.
Write Like Jamaica Kincaid
As part of my quest to someday not be absolute shit at writing, I have to admit I indulge in practice-writing that basically just rips off other people’s styles. These aren’t pieces that I publish or try to sell (also: lol at selling anything), but they help me find my own voice as a writer. They help me experiment with form, structure, and technique.
I’m not sure that writers are necessarily taught to do this, though it’s common in other artistic fields. Budding pianists are given Beethoven to play. Dancers use choreography by someone else before creating their own routines.
Writers, too, should practice in the style of the greats. (And believe me: sit in on any junior composition course in America and–whether or not they’re being told to write like this– you will peer-critique a whole lot of mini-Hemingways and baby-David Foster Wallaces.)
So for this prompt, do as Kincaid did in “Girl.” Using a similar loose style, write in the voice of your mother/father/guardian. Experiment with some of Kincaid’s techniques, like the run-on sentence or the second person POV. In my case, this exercise would result in an altogether more whimsical and kind series of suggestions. What would it mean for you? What would it tell you about your relationship with this person if you wrote in their voice?