My Brother

MY BROTHER
Jamaica Kincaid

This sixth book by Antiguan-born Kincaid is a thoughtful memoir about her youngest brother Devon’s AIDS-related death. Remembering her role in the final years of his life, the author examines the nature of love, family ties, sacrifice, and death.

Having left home at the age of 16, when her brothers were three, five, and seven, Kincaid did not return to Antigua for 20 years. Her relationship with her siblings is distant, based on almost no personal knowledge of them. As she puts it, “I think of my brothers as my mother’s children.”

Upon learning of Devon’s illness, Kincaid gathers a supply of AZT, a drug too expensive to be made available in Antigua, and makes a rare journey home:

“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.”

Despite the distance between them, Kincaid is compelled to do all she can for her brother, condemned as he is by a poor nation with few resources to spare on the terminally ill. She finds her brother, Devon, near death in the poorest hospital in town. In Antigua, hospitals don’t even have drugs on hand. A family member must fill a prescription at a pharmacy for the sick person.

Devon is left to die in this hospital because he can’t afford better accomodations. After turning over the AZT and medicines to fight thrush and pneumonia, the author seeks out the best authority on HIV/AIDS in the area, Dr. Ramsey. The doctor holds out hope that Devon is not as bad off as his discolored, emaciated appearance would suggest, and that the AZT may make a difference in his condition. Kincaid attends one of Dr. Ramsey’s seminars, learning a lot about the HIV virus including the symptoms which mark its progression.

The author draws the line at bringing her brother to the United States where he can receive proper treatment, “I can’t do what you are suggesting — take this strange, careless person into the hard-earned order of my life….” She also comes to better understand the nature of the culture in which her brother carelessly caught and spread this illness. It is commonly known to the men in town that the Santo Domingan prostitutes are mostly HIV-positive, but young men would rather die than stop patronizing them. Most telling, and pathetic, perhaps, is the moment when the still-ailing Devon propositions a former girlfriend, “There he was, diseased and dying, looking as unattractive as a long-dead corpse would look, and he could still try to convince a woman to sleep with him.”

Miraculously though, the drugs work well, restoring Devon to good health. He returns to his mother’s house, his own having been usurped by one of his brothers. From her own home in Vermont, Kincaid continues to ponder the roads which led her and her brother to their respective places in life. For most of her life, the author has been involved in a turbulent relationship with her domineering mother. Her mother’s defense is that she was hard on Kincaid in order to steer her away from a life in which she would have had “ten children by ten different men.”

The author ponders whether or not, in the end, her mother’s actions did indeed drive her into a better life as a writer in the U. S., than she could otherwise have had. And also, whether Mrs. Drew’s relative coddling of Devon did not lead him to his carefree, Rastafarian lifestyle. MY BROTHER recounts how Devon was tale did not apply an industrious attitude, all the things he could have, but did not, become.

Kincaid pleads with her brother to make something of himself before he dies. She insists that he move out of their mother’s house, where there is no room for him, and establish a home of his own. A home that is more than an arm’s length away like his last one. The author also suggests that he hold down a job, something he has never done in the past. Devon doesn’t take any of this to heart and when his is healthier, begins sleeping with women again and denying that he has AIDS. When Kincaid hears of his behavior she attempts to reason with him, asking him how he would feel if someone did that to her. An odd question from someone who must seem more like a distant aunt than a sister. In any event, her appeals fall on deaf ears.

After Devon’s inevitable death (throughout Kincaid asserts that he was dead all the while, only his body had yet to drop), the author begins to contemplate the nature of grief and death in earnest. She is also surprised to learn of his homosexuality through a chance encounter. With these facts on the table, Kincaid is left to ponder how it is that two strangers can come to know each other in difficult times.

The frank tone and repetitive phrases make for an interesting writing style, though some may find it distracting at times. Overall, Jamaica Kincaid’s writing evokes images of flowing water in a stream: constantly in motion and yet reflective.


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