My Brother
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My Brother

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by Jamaica Kincaid

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Jamaica Kincaid's brother Devon Drew died of AIDS on January 19, 1996, at the age of thirty-three. Kincaid's incantatory, poetic, and often shockingly frank recounting of her brother's life and death is also a story of her family on the island of Antigua, a constellation centered on the powerful, sometimes threatening figure of the writer's mother. My Brother is an


Jamaica Kincaid's brother Devon Drew died of AIDS on January 19, 1996, at the age of thirty-three. Kincaid's incantatory, poetic, and often shockingly frank recounting of her brother's life and death is also a story of her family on the island of Antigua, a constellation centered on the powerful, sometimes threatening figure of the writer's mother. My Brother is an unblinking record of a life that ended too early, and it speaks volumes about the difficult truths at the heart of all families.

My Brother is a 1997 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Controlled and fearless perfection.” —Carolyn See, The Washington Post

“A sustained meditation on the grinding wheel of family, with mother always at the hub; on the countries of our past, both real and emotional, which we have fled and in which we have felt like strangers; on death as a devastating injury and dying as an irritating inconvenience . . . a memoir about death that portrays it as it is, not as we would have it be, as we so often tailor it both in memoir and fiction.” —Anna Quindlen, The New York Times Book Review

“Visceral and wrenching, this is a memoir of mourning . . . Kincaid's revelations are both intoxicating and redeeming.” —René Graham, The Boston Sunday Globe

Library Journal
A successful writer living in Vermont with her husband and two children, Kincaid is called back to her West Indian home on Antigua where her youngest brother, Devon, is dying of AIDS. They never knew each other well because she went to the United States when she was 16 and he was three. During Devon's last year she visits Antigua frequently to help her mother nurse him. Yet her brother is only part of the memoir. Much of the book concerns Kincaid's continued and troubled relationship with her domineering and manipulative mother. Kincaid's flat tone and sharp diction intensifies the words as memories interweave with present happenings, making this compelling listening. -- Nann Blaine Hilyard, Fargo Public Library, North Dakota
Kirkus Reviews
The death of Kincaid's brother from AIDS results in a book that is lyrically beautiful and emotionally forceful, but lacking a deep examination of its many themes.

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.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Product dimensions:
5.53(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.54(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

When I saw my brother again after a long while, he was lying in a bed in the Holberton Hospital, in the Gweneth O'Reilly ward, and hewas said to be dying of AIDS. He was not born in this hospital. Of my mother's four children, he was the one born at home. I remember him being born. I was thirteen years of age then. We had just finished eating our supper, a supper of boiled fish and bread and butter, and my mother sent me to fetch the midwife, a woman named Nurse Stevens, who lived on the corner of Nevis and Church Streets. She was a large woman; the two halves of her bottom rolled up and down with each step she took, and she walked very slowly. When I went to give her the message that my mother wanted her to come and assist with my brother's birth, she was just finishing her own supper and said that she would come when she was through. My brother was born in the middle of the night on the fifth of May in 1962. The color of his skin when he was born was a reddish-yellow. I do not know how much he weighed, for he was not weighed at the time he was born. That night, of course, the routine of our life was upset: the routine of my two other brothers and I going to sleep, our father taking a walk to a bridge near the recreation grounds--a walk recommended by his doctor as good for his bad digestive tract and for his bad heart--the heavy black of the streetlampless night falling, our father returning from his walk, a dog barking at the sound of his steps, the door opening and being locked behind him, the click of his false teeth as they were placed in a glass of water, his snoring, and then the arrival of early morning. We were sent to neighbors' houses. I do not remember exactly to whose house my other brothers were sent. I went to the house of a friend of my mother's, a woman whose six-year-old daughter took sick not so very long after this night of my brother's birth and died in my mother's arms on the way to the doctor, exhaling her last breath as they crossed the same bridge that my father walked to on his nightly outing. This was the first person to die in my mother's arms; not long after that, a woman who lived across the street from us, Miss Charlotte was her name, died in my mother's arms as my mother tried to give her some comfort from the pain of a heart attack she was having.

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.

Meet the Author

Jamaica Kincaid's books include At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, A Small Place, Lucy, and The Autobiography of My Mother. She lives in Vermont.

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My Brother 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid is an account about her youngest brother Devon's AIDS-related death. Remembering her role in the final years of his life, the story examines the nature of love, family ties, sacrifice, and death. An important message is about family. What does it mean to be a family? Even though she didn't ever personally know her brother who was born with aids until the end. She finds that her struggle to not care is a greater battle, almost an inner conflict with ones integrity. "I felt myself being swallowed up in a large vapor of sadness...I became afraid that he would die before I saw him again...It surprised me that I loved him; I could see that was what I was feeling, love for him, and it surprised me because I did not know him at all." This was my favorite quote in the book, when she going to go back to her bothers. She left when she was 16 and they where five and seven because of how bad her mother was to her. I think this really shows that when someone's family and they need you, you go. Because you love them no matter what. This was a huge inner conflict with Jamaica since the time she left as a young women, why should you care about someone you don't even know? The book really shows you what it means to have compassion and love for a stranger. That kinda made me think that if everyone in the world cared for another human just because we are all trying to get through life, I believe our world would be a way better because we are happy. This book also helped me to become aware of what it's like to have aids in a place where there isn't any medical help. Devon is just lying in a hospital bed waiting to die, because his family cant afforded the medicine. And the struggle of just aids, he finally is taken to get treatment in the US and it works, at first. Now they are able to become a family and talk about what went wrong in the family, and start to feel what its like to be one big family. However the battle with aids ends up taking the brothers life, and even after his death Jamaica says that if it wasn't for her brothers Devon's battle with aids her family would of never of healed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author visits her brother who is dying of AID's on the Island of Antigua. The story is quite emotional and the descriptions are graphic. Their were several interesting incidents in this biography such as the burning of the books and the attack of the red ants. You might also learn several things about AID's that you might not have known. Overall, this book is decent and I would recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author Jamaica Kincaid speaks /tells the story. Sometimes other author's voices are not professional but in this case, her voice is clear and beautiful. This part of her autobiography deals with her relationship with her brother. He has contracted the HIV virus and is in the hospital. He looks terrible. Jamaica Kincaid blasts the hospitals not having AZT for their patients that are HIV. She says that the hospital was never any good, perhaps referring to the British colonial administration, but now she says it's terrible. She goes on to describe the dirt on the revolving fan in 'the' HIV room, sometimes falling off. She says the island government is corrupt. She is able to bring the AZT from the U.S. and he recovers only to relapse with his promiscuous sexual activity. I felt great frustration at this point in the book. A person coming so close to death, escaping only to do it all over again. He is 33 years old. Jamaica Kincaid also examines the relationship of her brothers to her mother and her relation to her mother. She says that her mother is great with children but not empathic with her adult offspring. She tells of her mother burning the collection of books that Jamaica Kincaid had. It was hard to believe that a mother could do that to her daughter. There are many other interesting explorations with a sense of balance.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jamaica Kincaid's brother died from the aids virus. This book is about her dealing with this loss. Although she was older and never knew him that well she visited him ni the hospital often. Her brother Devon was involved in unprotected sex, as well as drugs. By the time he died Jamaica had a family of her own, but she got her brother medicine from a Doctor in the U.S.A. Their family lived on the island of Antigua where medical attention was hard to get. When he dies its about half way through the book. The rest of the book is how their family deals with the fact of the Aids virus and the loss of their family member. This book was decent , but it got pretty boring after he died, it was a little to emotional, and to me just unintresting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Well, I think all could have been said in a lot less that almost 200 pages..maybe about in a third of the pages...the author is quite repetitious at times and some of the descriptions are quite graphic. I learned a few things about AIDS that I did not know... I think the author has some forgiveness to do of her own and perhaps in reading this book it will give the reader a better understanding of why it does no good to hold on to bitter and hatefull feelings..maybe this was her way of letting go......I hope so!