Autobiography of My Mother Summary

Jamaica Kincaid

Autobiography of My Mother

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Autobiography of My Mother Summary

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The Autobiography of My Mother is the 1996 novel written by Antiguan-American author Jamaica Kincaid. Set on the island of Dominica, the story revolves around 70 year-old Xuela Claudette Richardson, a half-Carib and half Scottish-African woman whose mother died in childbirth. Without a real connection to her past or a present role model to guide her, Xuela is left by herself to navigate a cruel and unforgiving world of poverty, racism, misogyny, colonialism, sex, fear, and loss. In the process, Xuela finds her identity and bolsters her character by overcoming a lifetime of obstacles and establishing a fierce sense of independence. The third novel in Kincaid’s Mother/Daughter trilogy, The Autobiography of My Mother has been called “an unforgettable account of singular survival” by the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, as well as “powerful and disturbing” by the New York Times.
Retrospectively narrated in the first person by Xuela Claudette Richardson, the story begins with the 70 year-old protagonist stating, “my mother died at the moment I was born.” Xuela lives on the island of Dominica. Her mother was a Caribbean native, her father was a red-haired African Scot, and her mixed identity underscores Xuela’s sense of racial confusion at her life’s onset.  As she puts it, “I am not a people, I am not a nation.” Left to her own devices to forge  character and independence, Xuela’s disconnection from her past leaves her with a sense of “sadness, shame and pity.” Xuela recounts several colorful episodes throughout the course of her life, starting with her tumultuous upbringing. Xuela’s inner-thoughts and descriptions of daily life seethe with anger and hatred, including her tough time as a schoolgirl. Xuela notes the oppressive discrimination she faces in the classroom, and how she is accused of cheating after receiving excellent marks on her schoolwork.
When her mother dies, Xuela’s father Alfred sends her to live with Ma Eunice, his laundress. Xuela spends the first seven years of her life under Eunice’s supervision, but quickly dismisses Eunice as her mother. Xuela sees Eunice as nothing more than the paid caregiver she is. Xuela even recalls leaving without saying goodbye to Eunice, and thanking her when she was too young to genuinely mean it. This sense of orphaned nihilism pervades Xuela’s recollections throughout the novel. Following her troubles in school, Alfred brings Xuela back home to live with him and his new wife. When her stepmother gives birth to boy and girl, Xuela wants little to do with them. Similarly, her competitive stepmother makes it clear that Xuela will never truly be Alfred’s daughter. Xuela’s anger, loneliness and sense of alienation persist. As Xuela states in her own words: “who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you. And why not, why not!”
At 15 years old, Xuela is sent to live with her father’s friends, Jaques and Lise LaBatte, to further her education. While Xuela is somewhat taken by Lise’s glamorous lifestyle, she eventually has an affair and first sexual encounter with Jaques. Xuela finds immense pleasure in her sexual encounters, and openly explores her body and carnal appetites throughout her life. She has affairs with married men that she does not love, masturbates incessantly, and enjoys the feeling of her liberated sexuality. When Xuela becomes impregnated by Jaques, she as a  motherless woman is left to consider her own role in motherhood.
Xuela realizes she’s unprepared and unwilling to become a loving mother, and opts to terminate her pregnancy via abortion. For the rest of her life, Xuela is infertile. But even if she could bear children, Xuela makes it clear she does not want to give life, belong to anyone, or have anyone belong to her. The lack of motherly love shown to Xuela when she was a child forces her to deny love of any kind when she’s an adult, be it as a lover or a mother. Xuela expresses that she’s better off braving the world on her own.
After parting with the LaBattes, Xuela moves to the small town of Rosea, where she finds work as a doctor’s assistant. Xuela becomes romantically involved with a dockworker named Roland, who steals fancy linens from Irish ships and gives them to Xuela to use in her dressmaking. Despite finding a mate of a similar social class, Xuela soon realizes Roland comes from a family tradition of male dominance and female subjugation. Their relationship sours when Xuela refuses to bear Roland’s children. Just like everything else she encounters and coldly dismisses shortly after, Xuela soon grows tired of Roland and abandons their relationship.
Upon leaving Roland, Xuela eventually meets and marries a man she does not love, an English doctor named Philip Bailey. Xuela recognizes Philip’s love for her, a feeling she does not genuinely reciprocate, yet their marriage affords her an amount of wealth and social status she’s never enjoyed before. In a fleeting moment of contentment, Xuela fantasizes about her parents’ courtship. Still, she resigns to her station in life as the victim of colonial oppression and decades of defeat. As the novel concludes, Xuela is left alone at the end of her life to await the one thing she cannot avoid: death. But she does so without fear, as her hardscrabble life without a mother has inured her to such feelings of dread. As Xuela states on the final page of the novel: “I long to meet the thing greater than I am…the thing to which I can submit.”
The Autobiography of My Mother won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1997. It is Jamaica Kincaid’s third novel, and the last in her trilogy of mother/daughter themed novels following Annie John (1985) and Lucy (1990). Kincaid is currently Professor of African and African-American Studies in Residence at Harvard University.