Country Focus: Antigua & Barbuda
Antigua, which means “ancient” in Spanish, was named after an icon in Spain’s Seville Cathedral (Santa Maria de la Antigua) by Christopher Columbus.
Originally published: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1983.
My edition: Plume, 1985.
Acclaim: “Best Book of 1985” – Library Journal
To make a long story short: Twelve-year-old Annie John’s adoration of her mother turns to hate after her mother pushes her away, saying that Annie John needs to start “becoming a young lady.” Hurt and angry, Annie John spends her teenage years in continual defiance of her mother, suffers a year-long bout with depression and leaves her native Antigua for England.
My opinion: Coming of age stories have always appealed to me, so I was eager to read Annie John. But by the end of the first chapter, Annie John has remorselessly admitted to stealing, lying, and regularly pulling the hair of a “dunce” and I had begun to dislike her. I told myself to give her time; the protagonist in a coming of age novel always “grows up” after they’ve had a life-altering experience, and that character growth is precisely what intrigues me about the genre. But by book’s end, Annie John was just as dishonest, mean-spirited, arrogant and hyper-sensitive as she was at the start. Only in the final sentence does Kincaid hint that a personality change has taken place and for me, that was too little, too late.
After reading up on Kincaid, I discovered that Annie John is more autobiography than fiction. Kincaid was deeply connected to her mother until she was nine, wounded by her mother’s increasing aloofness, bright but unruly, a thief and liar. She abandoned Antigua for New York at age seventeen.
The biography also mentioned that Kincaid was unhappy with her education in Antigua’s British school system; her prose is indicative of a European education. Annie John’s first person narration is stiff and impeccable, without even the slightest hint of informality, slang or patois.
She also offers no historical and few technological clues from which to determine what decade she is living in. That feeling of timelessness combined with a rebellious teen who talks like My Fair Lady‘s Henry Higgins makes Annie John an extremely odd read.
The armchair travel experience: Kincaid weaves Afro-Antiguan customs and behaviors throughout the novel, including: fear of the dead; elaborately prepared scented and oiled baths; the significance placed on dreams; and reliance on folk healers called obeahs. Local foods are mentioned but not lingered upon, with the exception of the much hated breadfruit. Don’t look to Annie John as a resource for Antiguan history; only the briefest references to its Spanish discoverer and English colonizers are given.
Antigua and Barbuda by the numbers:
- Number of beaches on Antigua: 365
- Maximum number of miles you could ever be from a beach while on Antigua: 7
- Number of mountains in Antigua named after American President Barack Obama: 1
- Height of Mount Obama, the highest point in Antigua: 1,319 ft
- Number of murders on Antigua in 2007: 19
- Number of times higher Antigua’s murder rate was in 2007 compared to New York City’s (per capita population): 3
- 2009 net worth of Oprah Winfrey, a part-time Antigua resident: $2.7 billion
- Antigua’s 2009 Gross Domestic Product : $1.522 billion
- Number of drug and alcohol recovery centers that Eric Clapton has established on Antigua: 1
- Cost of a 4-week residential program at his Crossroads Centre: $21,500
- Gross national income per capita in Antigua and Barbuda: $15,130
- Number of frigate birds living on Barbuda’s Frigate Bird Sanctuary, the largest frigate bird breeding and nesting colony in the world: 5,000
- Number of people living on Barbuda: 1,500
- Average arm span of a 6 foot tall human: 6 ft
- Average wingspan of the frigate bird: 7-8 ft