Phobias, Obeah and the Emergence of Self in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John
Goddard, Horace I., Kola
West Indian folklore is replete with phobias and neurotic beliefs which impact the lives of children and affect their psycho-emotional development. Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John is such a book. The thematic threads in the novel are held together by Annie's primal concern about death, its meaning, the loss it engenders, and the frustration and pain which emanate from it. Amidst this turmoil, there is the individual identity which is smothered in a geographical wasteland.
Annie's obsession with the nature of death is also linked to two myths: the living dead and the effects of touching the dead. Death, in Annie's situation, is symbolic of a separation which foreshadows her growing estrangement and alienation from her mother. Another inter textual layer is the reality and adjustment that she has to go through from her pre-teen years to adolescence which in essence is the death of one age and the growing emergence of another milestone in life. This transition into young adulthood is fraught with danger for Annie, especially with respect to sexuality.
Questions of sexuality (homo and hetero), of physiological and psychological maturing and mother-daughter relationships, are part of the intricate, narrative fabric. There are also sociological details about obeah, bush baths and burials that establish the boundaries of fear that lead to Annie's self-deprecating development. Kincaid weaves an intricate human interest story using colonial English to present her point of view. Jamaica Kincaid delights in the use of the colonizer's language and literary traditions but detests everything that this "mother country" represents. Anger and hate permeate her novel, Annie John. Let us begin this inquiry by examining the novel.
Annie John is a powerful story which revolves around eight episodes in the life of the heroine. The novel delineates the filial links that bind a child to her parents, her friends, her country and herself. In the rights of passage from childhood through puberty and into young womanhood, we are propelled along a route of a psychological journey through the exploding minefields of growing up in Antigua. Our first encounter with Annie is representational of the lives of most West Indian children in the nineteen fifties. Annie's life is constrained. There are only two neighbours and her only chore is to collect the vegetable scraps from them to feed the pigs.
Trapped in this veritable wasteland, Annie develops a phobia about death. She declares: "We were afraid of the dead because we never could tell when they might show up again" (p.4). This primal fear of the living dead, zombies, has a connection to the Black West Indian's African past. Mbiti illuminates this concept:
While surviving relatives remember the departed, the spirit more or less leads a personal continuation of life. It has become what we have called the living dead. People regard it as being much like a human being although it is dead. If it appears to members of the family, they will say they saw 'so and so.' (Mbiti, p. 119)
Annie's preoccupation with death is symptomatic of her inability to let go of the past which haunts her constantly. Nalda's death and preparation for burial leaves an indelible odour of bay rum: "a scent that for a long time afterward made me ill." (p.6). This psychosomatic connection of bay rum to death widens the gulf in Annie's relationship with her mother. She did not want her mother to touch her after these visits to places of death. Given that death is a constant in Annie's life, it points forward to her inability to mend the fractured ties with her mother. After Nalda's death, a neighbour, Miss Charlotte, dies and another girl around Annie's age. Death, decay and rot of all that is youthful, indicate the brutal waste in this harsh environment. To remove this curse of death, Annie's mother resorts to the ritual bush baths and increases her visits to the obeah woman:
... other times, it was a special bath in which the Barks of many trees, together with all sorts of oils, were boiled in the same large caldron. …