Friday, June 18, 2010

Jamaica Kincaid's "My Brother": A Meditation on the Price of Connection

What I am writing now is not a journal; a journal is a daily account, an immediate account of what occurs during a certain time.  For a long time after my brother died I could not write about him, I could not think about him in a purposeful way.  It was really a short time between the time that he became sick and the time that he died, but that time became a world.  To make a world takes an eternity, and eternity is the refuge of the lost, the refuge for all things that will never be or things that have been but have lost their course and hope to recede with some grace, and even I believe this to be true, though I also have no real way of measuring it.

Jamaica Kincaid writing of the death of her brother Devon Drew of AIDS in 1996 (My Brother [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997], pp. 91-2).

As Kincaid notes, her book is not a chronicle of her brother's final days and death.  It is, rather, a meditation on his death, and in light of his death, on family, the ties that bind (and cripple), motherhood and fatherhood, the meaning of place and of displacement, the soul- and body-destroying consequences of colonialism even centuries after the colonial ruler no longer controls a colony.  And the secrets any member of a family carries to the grave, which, when eventually told aloud, provide a key to interpret a life whose significance the rest of us in the family have only glimpsed from afar.

Kincaid's book is an elegy: stark, meditative and unsparingly self-probing in the tradition of Marcus Aurelius and Augustine, deeply sympathetic at the same time that it is dispassionately clinical.  Clinical because Kincaid has no choice except to distance herself from a family and place that have fostered her, if she hopes to live with dignity and grace, and to make use of her extraordinary talents as a writer.

It is not the book I would have chosen to pass the long hours of an anxious flight from Little Rock to Atlanta and then San Francisco yesterday, with an irate cowboy pounding on the back of my seat and belching constantly in my ear.  But I'm grateful I pulled it from my shelf as I left home and read it in that peculiar non-space, non-time, non-community an airplane in flight forms, even as we're all pigged miserably together in the tiny vehicle--something approaching limbo, I've always imagined. 

No elegy I've read in recent years, other than Fenton Johnson's Geography of the Heart, reflecting on the death of his partner Larry Rose from AIDS, approaches its power.