Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in 1949 in Antigua, in the British West Indies, but changed her name when she started writing because her family disliked her career choice. She came to New York at age seventeen, taking a job as a nanny for a rich family and met New Yorker columnist George S. Trow, who eventually helped her publish in the magazine. She wrote for the New Yorker for years and moved to Vermont in 1985. She has written ten books, including Annie John (1986); A Small Place (1988); Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip (1989); Lucy (1990); At the Bottom of the River (1992); The Autobiography of My Mother (1996); My Brother (1997); Talk Stories (2001); My Garden (2001); and Mr. Potter (2003).
The New Yorker published Kincaid’s short story “Girl” in 1978, her first piece of fiction. The story has since appeared in Kincaid’s short-story anthology At the Bottom of the River and numerous other anthologies. The story is so popular in part because it speaks to so many audiences, including young people, African Americans, and women.
Much of Kincaid’s work deals with ramifications of Antigua’s history as a colony of Great Britain. The British controlled Antigua from 1632 until 1967, shortly before Kincaid left for New York. By 1967, the island had become self-governing, but it did not achieve independence within the British Commonwealth until 1981. The British imported many Africans to Antigua during the early colonial years to labor as slaves in the sugarcane fields. Despite independence, many of the descendents of these slaves still live in poverty there. Kincaid appreciated the education she received in the Antiguan school system but learned to hate almost everything about the British occupiers. Many themes in her stories—especially those of oppression and powerlessness—stem from her experiences in Antigua.
Kincaid visited her homeland in 1985, four years after independence. The rampant poverty shocked her so much that she felt compelled to write about it, describing the conditions in a nonfiction book called A Small Place (1988). She disliked colonialism but felt that Antiguans had squandered the opportunities that independence offered by relying too heavily on tourism. In her work, she also seeks to combat the negative effects of discrimination, detrimental environmental policies, and spread of AIDS, which killed her brother in 1996.
The short story “Girl,” like many of Kincaid’s books, deals with the experience of being young and female in a poor country. Kincaid’s complicated relationship with her mother comes out in the mother-daughter dynamic in the story. She describes her mother as a literate woman who struggled against her poor circumstances, eventually feeling bitterness toward her children because of all her problems. Kincaid also wrote the book Autobiography of My Mother (1996), which explores the life of a woman stuck in poverty and resentful of her children. She has also said that her mother’s anger toward her seemed to get worse when Kincaid became a teenager. Just as the voice of the mother in “Girl” resents and worries about her daughter becoming a woman, Kincaid’s mother seemed to become more oppressive and bitter toward Kincaid as she grew older.