Jamaica Kinkaid’s “My Mother” reads like a beautiful series of surreal prose poems. Together they tell the intimate story of the sometimes difficult but ultimately nurturing relationship between a mother and daughter.
The daughter wishes to separate from her mother and to form her own identity. Saying she wishes her mother dead, she feels sorry and cries so “that all the earth around me was drenched.” This hyperbole is treated literally: her tears become a dark pool filled with poisonous invertebrates. In response, her mother draws her so close that she suffocates.
Kinkaid’s surreal imagery paints a picture of a relationship where mother and daughter are so symbiotic they cannot be torn apart. In one scene, the mother smears her body in golden oil from reptile livers and changes into a lizards. The daughter accompanies her, walking on her belly. The mother and daughter might be goddesses in a creation story, or powerful shapeshifters, but they are certainly archetypal.
One episode captures their conflict. The mother encourages the daughter to build a home “suited to [her] nature.” The daughter builds a floorless house above a deep pit, as if to trap her. However, this proves ineffective, since her mother can walk around in it as if there was a floor already there. Her daughter, frustrated, burns the house. This short fable captures how children attempt to satisfy their parents, even while trying to rebel against them, and how their parents, due to their boundless love and experience, seem frustratingly immune to their spite.
Later, the mother sends her daughter off on a boat to a new land. In the new place, she sees a woman who does not look like her mother but who she recognizes as her mother nonetheless. Another subtle piece of surrealism, this suggests that the mother is an archetype that can be embodied by different women, and that daughter, in this way, cannot escape her mother’s love.
The daughter then returns home, united with her mother, and, together, they achieve their final “evolution” into perfect harmony.
“My Mother” seems to imply that even when children mature and gain distance from their parents, their parents always remain through memories or a felt presence. Maturity is not defined as being independent but by achieving a symbiosis, which Kincaid imagines as happening between two shapeshifting organisms. Maturity comes in recognizing the richness of one’s relationship to one’s mother and honouring it.
I found this story a gentle palate cleanser between the visions of cosmic horror and abject terror presented in this anthology. It reminded me a little of the contiguity of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics in that the characters act human but could be/are also animals, in this case lizards. Certainly in the transformation scene, the mother and daughter grow scales, but it’s possible to read them as ambivalently human in later scenes too. In the aspect of transformation, it shares a bit in common with Cortazar’s “Axolotl.”
“My Mother” serves as a pleasant reminder that a story doesn’t have to be terrifying or violent to qualify as weird fiction. It can be surreal and life-affirming, not just bleak and nihilistic.
Next week, I’ll be re-reading a monument in my personal development as a writer, George R. R. Martin’s “Sandkings” (1979) and I am stoked. Till then.