At the Bottom of the River (1983)

© Copyright Vintage Contemporaries
© Copyright Vintage Contemporaries

Our social environment is like a river that flows both ways: our culture affects the way we perceive the events that occur in our lives the same way the events in our lives affect the way we react to our culture. Literature is a reflection of both these flows. For example, though they allow for intimacy and introspection, the inter-connected stories in Jamaica Kincaid’s At the Bottom of the River also extend to a wider scope in regard to identity and its construction, examining not just who we are but also who we want to be.

Linked to identity construction are interpellation and resistance. With the aid of cultural references and innuendoes, interpellation constructs a way of living that will later become or remain standard in real life. Resistance is the opposite phenomenon. By writing with a different point of view, often criticizing the current prevailing ideology, the author creates and promotes a new ideology. Consider the first entry in At the Bottom of the River, “Girl”, which, at first glance, reads like an easy guide to housekeeping. As its title indicates, the narrative poem is about a girl, but it is not as much about the girl herself or what she does as it is about what it is believed the girl should do or should be doing:

“Cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum on it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak slat fish overnight before you cook it.”

This seemingly endless counsel is given to a young girl by a speaker who the reader can only assume is her mother. Though the poem never openly states that the voice is female, it’s insinuated that only a woman would know the things that are being taught. Also, the reader knows the voice doesn’t belong to the girl’s father because he is mentioned in the third person: “this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease.”

The titular girl is never truly referred to as a girl or a woman either until the very end of the poem: “you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near her bread?” Three elements let the reader know she’s a girl before the end of the text. The first is the fact that she is not a boy: “you are not a boy.” The second is the list of tasks she is given: “this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man.” The third is her mother calling her a slut, something only a woman can be called: “on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not the slut you are so bent on becoming.” It should also be noted that there is no male equivalent to the word “slut”, thus giving weight to Monique Wittig’s argument in Les Guérillères that the language women speak “is made up of words that are killing” them.

In the hegemony “Girl” depicts, women are defined by what they are not, by their obligations toward men, and by the unique ways they will be degraded. However, the depersonalization of the girl isn’t complete. The main voice refers to her in the second person, meaning that the girl still has an identity, a self: “Is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?” If the girl’s identity had been completely destroyed, “you” would have been replaced by “a girl” or “a woman”: “This is how a woman…”

More importantly, the girl has a voice of her own, presented in italics: “but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school.” Each of the girl’s interventions begins with the word “but”. It is a protest, a thought that resists the dominant ideology. The shapeless structure of the poem is intimidating and confusing, emphasizing the ridiculous aspect of what society is asking of her. Using irony, Kincaid’s At the Bottom of the River protests against the dominant hegemony. Throughout the ten stories depicting her quest for an independent identity, the prejudice its protagonist faces as an Afro-Caribbean woman is undeniable. Whether a subtle whisper or a loud cry, her complaint must be heard.

Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."