‘Girl’, by Jamaica Kincaid
It’s very short – less than a 5-minute read.
Thinking about elements of story…
The thing about short stories is that they’re able to defy expectations in a way that novels cannot (with a few exceptions), and the way this short story handles structure is a fantastic example of that. The story consists of a stream of instructions and questions, with no sentence or paragraph breaks; no sense of time; and no beginning, middle and end. So, how is this really a story?
Well, stories need characters, dialogue and action, and we do have those.
We have two characters – a mother and a child. We can infer this relationship, and that the child is not yet a teenager, based on what is said, e.g. the mother asks about Sunday school, and says ‘don’t squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know’. The mother is talking to the child, giving her instructions and advice on how to do tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and making traditional medicine. There are also instructions, and warnings, on how to behave and manage relationships, although this is not always age-appropriate, e.g. ‘this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much’; and ‘this is how to love a man’.
The story comprises a dialogue between the two characters, although there are no speech marks; all but two of the lines, those in italics, are spoken by the mother, and the first line spoken by the child is not responded to, which indicates the balance of power lies with the mother.
The instructions, questions, and warnings show the mother preparing her daughter for womanhood. While some of the advice is practical and reasonable, for example ‘don’t walk bare-head in the hot sun’, ‘this is how to sew on a button’, and ‘this is how to catch a fish’. There is also a continuous focus on her concerns about her daughter’s future sexual behaviour: ‘try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming’, ‘this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming’, and ‘this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming’. The mother displays particular habits in her speech here, such as the repeated use of ‘bent on/becoming’, and the word ‘slut’.
As well as showing her speech habits, the things the mother says also betray her personality and thoughts – her flaws and quirks – and thus make her a rounded character: clothes should be washed on certain days, depending on their colours; she distrusts others, or perhaps doesn’t want her daughter to associate with people outside of the family, e.g. ‘don’t pick people’s flowers—you might catch something’; and she has religious or superstitious beliefs, e.g. ‘don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all’.
We also have conflict – the instructions, questions, and warnings are presented as an overbearing list, and the repeated mention of the daughter becoming a ‘slut’ illustrates the conflict between the mother and child, and perhaps also the conflict between the daughter’s desire for freedom and society’s expectations. The first time the daughter speaks her mother does not acknowledge her, but the second time, right at the end of the story, she responds with an admonishment, returning to her concerns about ‘the kind of woman’ her daughter may become.
I intend to play with structure more in my writing, and this story offers food for thought.