“How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?”

In Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, Lucy asks this question right after Mariah, her rich white American mom employer, makes a particular announcement (p41):

Mariah says, “I have Indian blood in me,” and underneath everything I could swear she says it as if she were announcing her possession of a trophy. How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?

I now heard Mariah say, “Well,” and she let out a long breath, full of sadness, resignation, even dread. I looked at her; her face was miserable, tormented, ill-looking. She looked at me in a pleading way, as if asking for relief, and I looked back, my face and my eyes hard; no matter what, I would not give it.

I said, “All along I have been wondering how you got to be the way you are. Just how it was that you got to be the way you are.”

 

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Sculpture of stretched pantyhose weighted by sand, by Senga Nengudi, on exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans. In this exhibit Nengudi works with discarded everyday objects and stretches them into unexpected shapes and configurations.

 

Some time ago I was G-chatting with Ginger about our usual suspects of writing hot topics (mothers, migration, postcolonialism) and she sent me looking for Jamaica Kincaid’s LucyThe book is deceptively thin. Nothing conspicuous about mothers at first. A young woman leaves the West Indies for America — the stuff of postcolonial lit.

Lucy leaves her mother(-land) and finds a mother figure in her employer, Mariah. Lucy is a live-in nanny for Mariah, who insists the two be friends. Mariah exudes the ineffable sincerity of the privileged. Everything she does is in earnest. Of her four children she says, “I have always wanted four children.” She wants to be friends with her foreign nanny to eliminate the discomfort that comes from the palpable power differential between them. Lucy is disdainful of Mariah at the same time that she is awed by her. She studies Mariah like a bird does a house cat, and Mariah tries to take Lucy under her wing as if Mariah was a (mother) bird too, and not a cat.

The main “themes” of the book are reducible to so many words: First-generation immigrant from a former British colony encounters the blithe genteel whiteness of upper class Americans. It is coming-of-age. It is a clash of values and class. It’s a “culturally relevant” work, to quote a recent New York Times Instagram post where I first encountered that phrase (I am marveled each time the zeitgeist comes up with a new code word for “non-white” without directly naming whiteness).

The problem with reading according to “themes” is it assumes too much empathy between reader and the story. It distills a story into a set of self-similar core elements, and reading becomes an automatic filing process. Power differentials are flattened into insipid categories.

From a Goodreads review, a disappointed reader failed to find the redemption so promised by the “themes” of the book:

Touted as a “coming-of-age” novel, I don’t see that it deserves the accolade. There is no growth here: just a bitter and cynical young woman who carries a chip on her shoulder the size of the island she just left behind. Neither does she look to leave it behind, grinding the same old axe at the same old wheel…I found it to be lacking in depth of emotion — especially for a young woman who is out on her own for the very first time. She speaks as if she is dream-walking through her life and everything that has happened to her is just a passing footnote in her history. I doubt very much that humans react in such a way, unless they are exposed to deep and prolonged trauma. From what the story reveals, Lucy experiences no such trauma: or at least not any more than any one who has had a passingly difficult childhood.

The reviewer is right. Lucy is apparently going nowhere and incapable of leaving things behind. All the trappings of an unlikable protagonist who failed to overcome the themes of her story.

But the reviewer misses how Lucy’s trauma unfolds. Lucy is so embroiled in her trauma she cannot disentangle from them and let them spill freely onto the page, the way Mariah does. Mariah has a bottomless depth of emotions the way Lucy appears to have none. Mariah the sincere employer. Mariah the sad friend. Mariah the hurt wife. Mariah the tired mother. Mariah the self-sacrificing white woman eager to conserve wildlife and celebrate diversity.

Where does all this leave Lucy? In contrast, Lucy is cold, unaffected, and stuck.

Susan Sontag once described European and Latin American fiction as a “neutral, reserved kind of writing,” “a style that holds back, that aims at neutral transparency,” in comparison to American writing that is “strainingly clever and bouncy.”

It’s clear where Lucy falls in this binary. Yet even as the voice of the unlikeable narrator is reserved, it is also immensely open, rhetorical, and bouncy. The moment Lucy keeps asking Mariah, “All along I have been wondering how you got to be the way you are. Just how it was that you got to be the way you are,” is an easy proof of bitterness. But who would cling to bitterness for bitterness’s sake? What lies behind Lucy’s condemnation? An inherited loss, and envy — of the ease with which Mariah moves through the world, of Mariah’s inheritance from her mother, from whiteness, from an entire existence that is used to receiving validation for every single felt emotion — everything that was not how Lucy got to be the way she was.

 

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Print of Senga Nengudi’s performance – a dancer navigates the constrained spaces between the stretched nylon mesh of used pantyhose

 

Bitterness is foreign. Unflinching steadiness is foreign. Lucy is an easily misread character. Even as she becomes friends with Mariah and comes to be able to return Mariah’s affection, Lucy never ceases her questioning of Mariah, and this tension enriches Mariah while it confines Lucy.

This is the “growth” Lucy experiences as a character: to deeply internalize the inequality of her existence next to Mariah, and to move through that confined space accorded to her, while accepting that Mariah will fail to see her (Lucy’s) confinement.

Easily Lucy has become one of my favorite books.