by Jamaica Kincaid
It sometimes seems that each Caribbean country has its own single most-famous writer. V.S. Naipal for Trinidad and Tobago. Derek Walcott for St. Lucia. Jean Rhys for Dominca. For Antigua and Barbuda, that author is Jamaica Kincaid who grew up in Antigua and now lives in Vermont. I wonder how other Antiguans and Barbudans feel about that, given how blunt Kincaid can be in her criticism of her own country. Perhaps they would prefer to have a famous author who paints them in a kinder light. Nonetheless, I loved her memoir A Small Place when I read it in college and therefore wanted to read this more recent memoir of hers when I saw that my local library had a copy.
My Brother is a collection of Jamaica Kincaid’s thoughts associated with return visits to Antigua when her youngest brother was diagnosed with HIV in the mid 1990’s. Following his diagnosis, Kincaid made regular trips back to the island to visit her brother and provided him with the anti-retroviral medications that weren’t available in Antigua, sometimes going into debt to be able to afford the medications. But she is by no means simply a benevolent older sister. She has a conflicted relationship with her Antiguan family, particularly her mother, who she at one point went 20 years without seeing or speaking to.
The frankness of Jamaica Kincaid’s thoughts about her family are the really remarkable thing about My Brother. The book is almost like a therapeutic exercise in which someone writes out all of their innermost thoughts about a traumatic event. Most people, I think, would have edited out or softened their most unpalatable opinions a bit before publishing them for the world to see, but not Jamaica Kincaid. She openly states her lack of love for her mother and brothers and that she would rather read a book than take care of her own children. I definitely don’t trust her as a narrator to be giving an accurate account of the history of her family, but I do enjoy the honest accounting of her own feelings.
One other unique thing about My Brother: It’s probably the only book I’ve ever read where the excerpt on the back of the book is from the second to last page.
In many ways the book is a look back in the history of the AIDS epidemic. In the mid-nineties when Jamaica Kincaid’s brother* was diagnosed the anti-retroviral drug AZT was available in the United States, but not in Antigua. Medications to treat associated infections often weren’t available either. Kincaid says that in Antigua, AIDS patients were considered to be dying and that therefore it wasn’t worth spending money on them. There was a huge stigma in Antigua surrounding AIDS. Her brother wouldn’t admit that he had it. Friends wouldn’t come visit him in the hospital.
It would be easy to write this off as the ignorance of a poor country, but looking back to 1995, there was a lot of ignorance surrounding AIDS in the United States too. I remember that many people didn’t yet accept that AIDS couldn’t be transferred by casual contact. And it was only two years ago that the United States lifted its policy of forbidding the immigration of anyone with HIV. I’ve come to take our improved understanding and acceptance of those living with HIV somewhat for granted. It’s useful to look back and remember how much progress has been made.
Wikipedia tells me that current HIV prevalence in in the Caribbean is second only to sub-Saharan Africa. While most transmission of the virus is through heterosexual activity, HIV prevalence is highest among men who have sex with men. The fact that homosexuality is still illegal in Antigua and Barbuda and many other places in the Caribbean raises a lot of barriers to both treatment and data collection. It seems that the British government has recently begun an active effort to persuade countries in the British Commonwealth, including Antigua and Barbuda, to legalize homosexuality. I hope they succeed.
*The brother, like the rest of Kinkaid’s family, is almost never referred to by name. They are all referred to by their relationship to her. If Kincaid is feeling particularly angry, her brothers are no longer ‘my brothers’ but instead ‘my mother’s sons’.