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Jamaica Kincaid's incantatory, poetic, and often shockingly frank recounting of her brother Devon Drew's life is also the story of her family on the island of Antigua, a constellation centered on the powerful, sometimes threatening figure of the writer's mother. Kincaid's unblinking record of a life that ed too early speaks volumes about the difficult truths at the heart of all families.
Writing only a year after the death of her brother, Kincaid (The Autobiography of My Mother) uses the event to re-explore issues that permeate her novels and other writings: family, race, and migration. My Brother's flowing, stream-of-consciousness prose pulls readers along through the range of psychological changes Kincaid experiences as she grapples with her loss. From birth, Kincaid's brother Devon had been a source of trouble for the family: committing crimes, taking drugs, and being sexually promiscuous. The contrast between what her brother is at the time of his death (an unrepentant and fated man living in their native Antigua) and what Kincaid has become (a famous writer living in the U.S.) paints a poignant tableaux of sibling difference. What is most important here is the precariously complex and often emotionally violent relationships within families. At the forefront is the mother, a figure Kincaid finds herself unwillingly forced to wrestle with again as she attempts to care for the brother she left behind years ago. Distance is what pervades this world: distance from family, from one's origins, from understanding (it is not until after Devon dies that Jamaica learns of his homosexuality). The death of Devon and Kincaid's return to Antigua serve as metaphors for her belief that redemption and escape are finally impossible. But these ideas and the range of others Kincaid touches upon remain underdeveloped throughout the book. Kincaid states, 'These are my thoughts on his dying,' and reveals the book's flaw: My Brother is a tirade of depression and confusion that fails to make sense of the maelstrom.
I heard my brother cry his first cry and then there was some discussion of what to do with his after-birth, but I don't know now what was decided to do with all of it; only that a small piece of it was dried and pinned to the inside of his clothes as a talisman to protect him from evil spirits. He was placed in a chemise my mother had made, but because she had two other small children, my other brothers, one of them almost four years old, the other almost two years old, she could not give his chemise the customary elaborate attention involving embroidery stitching and special washings of the cotton fabric; the chemises he wore were plain. He was wrapped in a blanket and placed close to her, and they both fell asleep. That very next day, while they were both asleep, he snuggled in the warmth of his mother's body, an army of red ants came in through the window and attacked him. My mother heard her child crying, and when she awoke, she found him covered with red ants. If he had been alone, it is believed they would have killed him. This was an incident no one ever told my brother, an incident that everyone else in my family has forgotten, except me. One day during his illness, when my mother and I were standing over him, looking at him--he was asleep and so didn't know we were doing so--I reminded my mother of the ants almost devouring him and she looked at me, her eyes narrowing in suspicion, and she said, "What a memory you have!"--perhaps the thing she most dislikes about me. But I was only wondering if it had any meaning that some small red things had almost killed him from the outside shortly after he was born and that now some small things were killing him from the inside; I don't believe it has any meaning, this is only something a mind like mine would think about.
That Thursday night when I heard about my brother through the telephone, from a friend of my mother's because at that moment my mother and I were in a period of not speaking to each other (and this not speaking to each other has a life of its own, it is like a strange organism, the rules by which it survives no one can yet decipher; my mother and I never know when we will stop speaking to each other and we never know when we will begin again), I was in my house in Vermont, absorbed with the well-being of my children, absorbed with the well-being of my husband, absorbed with the well-being of myself. When I spoke to this friend of my mother's, she said that there was something wrong with my brother and that I should call my mother to find out what it was. I said, What is wrong? She said, Call your mother. I asked her, using those exact words, three times, and three times she replied the same way. And then I said, He has AIDS, and she said, Yes.
If she had said he had been in a terrible car accident, or if she had said he was suddenly stricken with a fatal cancer, I would have been surprised, for he did not drive a car--I knew that. What causes a fatal cancer? I do not know that. But he lived a life that is said to be typical in contracting the virus that causes AIDS: he used drugs (I was only sure of marijuana and cocaine) and he had many sexual partners (I only knew of women). He was careless; I cannot imagine him taking the time to buy or use a condom. This is a quick judgment, because I don't know my brothers very well, but I am pretty sure that a condom would not be something he would have troubled himself to use. Once, a few years ago when I was visiting my family--that is, the family I grew up in--I sat on his bed in the house he lived in alone, a house which was two arm's lengths away from our mother's house, where she lived with another son, a grown man, I told him to use condoms when having sex with anyone; I told him to protect himself from the HIV virus and he laughed at me and said that he would never get such a stupid thing ("Me no get dat chupidness, man"). But I might have seemed like a ridiculous person to him. I had lived away from my home for so long that I no longer understood readily the kind of English he spoke and always had to have him repeat himself to me; and I no longer spoke the kind of English he spoke, and when I said anything to him, he would look at me and sometimes just laugh at me outright. You talk funny, he said. And then again, I was not fat, he had expected after not seeing me for twenty years that I would be fat. Most women where we are from become fat after a while; it is fashionable to be a fat woman.
When I saw my brother lying in the hospital bed, dying of this disease his eyes were closed he was asleep (or in a state of something like sleep, because sleep, a perfectly healthy and normal state to be in, could not be what he was experiencing as he lay there dying); his hands were resting on his chest, one on top of the other, just under his chin in that pious pose of the dead, but he was not dead then. His skin was a deep black color, I noticed that, and I thought perhaps I noticed that because I live in a place where no one is of his complexion, except for me, and I am not really of his complexion, I am only of his complexion in the way of race. But many days later my mother said to me, He has gotten so black, the disease has made him so black (she said this to me in this kind of English, she makes an effort to speak to me in de kind of English that I now immediately understand). His lips were scarlet and covered with small sores that had a golden crust. When he opened his eyes and saw me, he made the truups sound (this is done by placing the teeth together while pushing out both lips and sucking in air with force all at once). He said he did not think I would come to see him ("Me hear you a come but me no tink you a come fo' true").
At the time the phone call came telling me of my brother's illness, among the many comforts, luxuries, that I enjoyed was reading a book, The Education of a Gardener, written by a man named Russell Page. I was in the process of deciding that as a gardener who designed gardens for other people he had the personality of the servant, not the personality of the artist, that his prose was fussy, tidy, timid; though the book bored me I would continue to read it because it offered such an interesting contrast to some other gardeners whose writing I loved. (I only thought all that before the phone rang. I now love The Education of a Gardener and look forward to reading it again.) And so when the phone rang I put this book down and answered it and I was told about my brother.
The next time I opened this book I was sitting on the lawn in front of the Gweneth O'Reilly ward and my brother was sitting in a chair next to me. It was many days later. He could barely walk, he could barely sit up, he was like an old man. The walk from his bed to the lawn had exhausted him. We looked out on an ordinary Antiguan landscape. There was a deliberate planting of willow trees, planted, I suspect, a long time ago, when Antigua was still a colony and the colonial government would have been responsible for the running of the hospital. It was never a great hospital, but it is a terrible hospital now, and only people who cannot afford anything else make use of it. Near the willow trees was an old half-dead flamboyant tree; it needed pruning and food. There was an old lopsided building in the near distance; and the rest of the landscape was taken up with cassi (cassia) trees. And when I picked up that book again, The Education of a Gardener, I looked at my brother, for he was a gardener also, and I wondered, if his life had taken a certain turn, if he had caused his life to take a different turn, might he have written a book with such a title? Behind the small house in which he lived in our mother's yard, he had planted a banana plant, a lemon tree, various vegetables, various non-flowering shrubs. When I first saw his little garden in the back of his little house, I was amazed at it and I asked him if he had done it all himself and he said, Of course ("How you mean, man!"). I know now that it is from our mother that we, he and I, get this love of plants. Even at that moment when he and I were sitting on the lawn, our mother had growing on a trellis she had fashioned out of an old iron bedstead and old pieces of corrugated galvanize a passion-fruit vine, and its voluptuous growth was impressive, because it isn't easy to grow passion fruit in Antigua. It produced fruit in such abundance that she had to give some of it away, there was more than she could use. Her way with plants is something I am very familiar with; when I was a child, in the very place where my brother's house is now, she grew all sorts of vegetables and herbs. The red ants that attacked him when he was less than a day old had crawled up some okra trees that she had planted too near the house and the red ants went from the okra trees through a window onto the bed in which he and my mother lay. After she killed all the red ants that had attacked her child, she went outside and in a great fit of anger tore up the okra trees, roots and all, and threw them away.