Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Girl" (1978)

Read story by Jamaica Kincaid online.

Jamaica Kincaid's story is short enough to qualify as a "short short"—only two printed pages. One paragraph and a single long sentence, in fact, with its many clauses separated by semicolons. It is thus a kind of stunt, or experimental, whereas I think of short shorts as coming with some kind of hard twist against expectations. "Girl" has no surprises after you figure out what's going on. It is fragments of a lifelong dialogue between a mother and a daughter, with the mother doing all the talking: " ... 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; ... " And so on. It was published in the New Yorker in the '70s and bears the preoccupation of the time with feminism, exploring the ways that women themselves train each other into the various social expectations of their gender that have become so toxic and stifling. The mother may be wrong in her values but she is not unsympathetic. The implicit theme of sexuality comes up frequently in this strangely formal harangue, in the form of blatant slut-shaming, as we call it now. Despite the harsh tone, a bond plainly exists between the mother and the daughter, and large portions of this story, perhaps most of it, are fierce love. Yet the overt messages are so destructive, so soul-inhibiting, it's hard to see around them. The structure of the single long sentence with handfuls of semicolons implies a litany that went on for years, went on forever. It's all the mother, except for the title, which gives us the point of view and subtly reminds us that the harangue is directed at a person who is impossibly vulnerable, a child. The brevity of this story, and its bludgeoning punch, help us feel the rage that motivates it. It also explores the rage, which is almost intimidating, the result of a lifetime of growing up with lies, distortions, and oppression. The mother reminds me, in this day and age, of nothing so much as Fox News zombies, made angry by the lies fed them and yet beaten down themselves by a lifetime of unfair struggle against forces simply more powerful, who dictate the terms of reality to them, over and over, until they repeat them as if they are common sense. We're all in this boat now, it sometimes seems, a fact seen better, in the '70s, by women, gays, and people of color. Kincaid's story strikes very hard.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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