At The Bottom Of The River

Jamaica Kincaid

Editor’s Note: This is the author’s first book: ten brilliant, beautiful stories. Many of which I read for the first time in The New Yorker back in the 70’s and 80’s.

There are some critics who believe a writer’s earliest work is his best work. There are some writers who believe this as well. I still say the jury’s out. There are other factors that sometime come into play through a writer’s journey from beginning, middle, to end. The trick is to keep alive that what was once there…nurture it. Stay attentive, fresh in both your living and writing. Early success can often turns to “original-self” destruction. You are listening to the wrong voices.

Jamaica Kincaid went on to write other well-received books, meaningful and memorable in their own right: ANNIE JOHN, A SMALL PLACE, LUCY, among them.

But none of them enter you, teach you a new language, set you adrift on a river of solace and story like this book.

If after an entire life of writing, I were to leave behind only one book published when I was very young, when everything was alive, coursing through the bloodstream, anxious to be redeemed in words, let it be a song AT THE BOTTOM OF THE RIVER to listen to. Never forget. –Norbert Blei

GIRL

Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum on it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you; but I don’t sing henna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school, this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; 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; this is how you iron your fathers khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease; this is how you grow okra—far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it; this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely ; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; 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; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don’t squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know; don’t pick people’s flowers—you might catch something; don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don’t like, and that way something bad won’t fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you; this is how to make ends meet; always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?

[from AT THE BOTTOM OF THE RIVER, A Plume/Penguin Book, 1992]

6 Comments

  1. Wow Norb. That was the top of my day. I haven’t read Ms. Kincaid for many many years. Thank you for reminding us just how wonderful she is.

  2. very nice indeed. and a beautiful work of art on the cover …

  3. I throw this flat stone into the pond, and oh,
    how it skips!

  4. Alice D'Alessio

    May 4, 2011 at 1:42 am

    OH I ABSOLUTELY LOVE THIS! I missed it the first time around, though I’ve always looked for her stories. I must admit, there are many things she includes in this that I would like lessons in and I agree, this is first and freshest writing, at its raw origin. Would that we could go back…and start over.

  5. I knew I’d love this as soon as I started reading it! It reminded me of a poem I wrote once after having lunch with my mom and we were talking about my grandmother. The end lines of my poem reminded me a lot of what Jamaica wrote: Excerpt from “Things My Grandmother Told Me.”

    by Julie Eger

    …This is the way to pull back your hair
    when you are working hard.
    This is the way to pull back your hair
    when you are working hard to attract a man.
    This is the way a whore wears her hair.
    This is the way a whore makes a bed.
    This is the way to wear your hair
    when you want to keep a man.
    This is the way to mark your calendar.
    This is the rhythm to follow when you don’t want a baby.
    This is the rhythm to follow when you want a baby to come.
    This is the way to make your bed,
    especially when you are expected to lie in it.

    And if I don’t want to lie in it?

    Then you haven’t been listening.
    We all have to lie in it.

  6. Phil Hansotia

    May 7, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    A wry look at the seamy -tough side of life in a neighborhood. The author’s ill concealed critique leaves me cold. When you live in a dumpy area,neatness doeson’t matter. There are other more presssing things on your mind. Just coping is enough.hanks, Phil

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