My Brother: Honesty and Self-Care

Cover of My BrotherTitle: My Brother

Author: Jamaica Kincaid

Publication Date: 1997

LC Call Number: PR 9275  .A583

My Brother is Jamaica Kincaid’s account of her brother’s death from AIDS and how it affected her.  Although the book is named after her brother, it’s not really about him so much as it’s about Kincaid herself and her complicated relationship with her family.  I’ve read a little bit about how much discourse around chronically ill or disabled people tends to center their family members or caretakers, and one could certainly object to the book on that score, taking that context into account. However, Kincaid is very honest about what she is doing and does not invite the reader to admire her as the heroic caretaker.  Instead, she makes it clear that this is the only book she could write about her family.  She acknowledges straightforwardly that she did not know her brother well, and throughout the book, she carefully illustrates the vast gulfs that exist between herself and her family.  There is no pretense at capturing her brother’s experience because she is aware she does not have access to it.

Kincaid was born in Antigua and now lives in the United States.  She is an academic and a writer.  Her family still lives in Antigua, and consists of her mother and her three half-brothers.  In a way, the book reminds me a little bit of one of the first books I wrote about in this space, Hunger of Memory, because it is about how Kincaid has adopted a culture that is significantly different from her family’s, so different that they cannot understand each other any longer. However, unlike Rodriguez, she doesn’t use her life as a jumping-off point for a political position or theorize about what it means in a universal sense.  She is only telling a story about something that happened to her.

In fact, Kincaid’s writing is characterized most of all by her unsentimental honesty.  Her discomfort with her family and with her brother’s illness are clearly laid out and examined without hesitation or disguise.  At the news that her brother is in a hospital, dying of AIDS, she writes:

The usual deliberation that I allow myself whenever my family’s needs come up—should I let this affect me or not?–vanished. I felt I was falling into a deep hole, but I did not try to stop     myself from falling. I felt myself being swallowed up in a large vapor of sadness, but I did not  try to escape it.

Kincaid mentions, without apology, that she often does withdraw from her family for the sake of self-preservation, because interacting with them is difficult and stressful. It is difficult partly because there are so many cultural differences between them.  Antigua is an English-speaking country, but Antiguan English is very different from American English, and Kincaid tells us that understanding it does not come naturally to her anymore and that one of her brothers sometimes imitates her speech to her, somewhat mockingly but not maliciously.  She recalls trying to warn her brother that he should be more careful about sex in order to protect himself against AIDS; he laughs at her.  But cultural differences are not the only thing that make Kincaid’s relationship with her family difficult. It is also because of the people they are.  She describes her mother as a very good caretaker who has, however, no other way of interacting with people kindly.  In fact, she can be callous and uncaring.  Kincaid writes:

It is when they [her mother’s children] are living in a cold apartment in New York, hungry and penniless because they have decided to be a writer, writing to her, seeking sympathy, a word of  encouragement, love, that her mechanism for loving falls apart.  Her reply to one of her children who found herself in such a predicament was “It serves you right, you are always trying to do  things you can’t do.” Those were her words exactly. (17)

Kincaid’s mother dislikes her daughter’s accurate memory, disparages her children to each other, and believes that without her intervention, Kincaid would have had ten different children by ten different men.  One of her brothers remarks to her at one point, “Mom is evil, you know.”  But Kincaid makes every effort to be fair to her mother in the text, explaining that while she did cut down the lemon tree that could have served as a memorial to the brother who had died, she also goes to great and heroic lengths to care for young children and anyone who is sick.  Kincaid brings her children to Antigua for a short while, and they love her mother.  In any case, this is a difficult family and I understood very well Kincaid’s desire to limit her contact with them.

Under these very stressful circumstances, she does what she can. She visits her brother several times in Antigua.  She brings medicine from the United States which is not available in Antigua, and which allows her brother to recover enough to leave the hospital, unlike all other AIDS patients who simply come to the hospital to die.  She does not stay in her mother’s house, but she does spend time with her mother and brothers.  She learns more about her brother and his life.  It is difficult to learn more about her brother because even before he dies, she cannot find out more from him.  He does not talk about himself. After his death, she is able to learn more about how he lived, and his possible bisexuality.  Although she acknowledges from the beginning that she did not know him well, learning these things makes her even more aware of how much she did not know about him.

Kincaid’s time in Antigua is entirely separate from the life she lives in the United States with her husband and children.  She is very protective of her life in the US.  A British woman she meets casually suggests that Kincaid should take her brother to the United States to live with her and receive care. There are many practical reasons that this cannot happen, but :

What I really meant was no, I can’t do what you are suggesting—take this strange, careless person into the hard-earned order of my life: my life of children and husband, and they love me and love me again, and I love them. (49)

In order to be able to do any of the things she does for her brother, Kincaid needs her separate life of happiness and stability.  I admire her dedication to self-care; she keeps what she needs and doesn’t apologize for it. While keeping this sacred, there is still room for her to think about her mother and her brother.

In fact, she hints that the book is one way for her to take care of herself in the wake of these events by processing his death.  She writes:

I became a writer out of desperation, so when I first heard my brother was dying I was familiar     with the act of saving myself: I would write about him. I would write about his dying.  … When     I heard about my brother’s illness and his dying, I knew, instinctively, that to understand it, or to     make an attempt at understanding his dying, and not to die with him, I would write about it.     (195-196)

Perhaps this is also why other accounts of other people’s illness and death are written, but Kincaid is explicit about it.

This is a difficult read in some ways, but Kincaid’s writing is very compelling, and again, very honest. I liked it very much.

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