Friday, January 15, 2010

Annie John: A Gay Boy's Hero

In grade 9 English Literature we studied the book Annie John, by Jamaican Kincaid. There are aspects of the book that I have never forgotten, and this is because I believe Annie's story provided a framework for me to envision a different future, perhaps away from Jamaica.

After looking at a summary of one of the chapters, I remembered why Annie's story stayed with me.

Chapter 6: Somewhere, Beligium

In this chapter, Annie is fifteen years old, and she imagines that she is unhappier than anyone else could possible be. I was also fifteen. I feet alone, yet everyone seems oblivious to the pain I felt. Her unhappiness cannot be traced to a simple factor, but thrives inside like a heavy black ball that is covered with cobwebs This is one of the symbols that I always remembered. Annie believes that this blackness inside makes everything that she once enjoyed appear sour.

Annie starts to daydream. She decides that she wants to move to Belgium, where Jane Eyre, her favorite character, once traveled. In Belgium, Annie's mother could address letters to her as "Annie John, Somewhere Belgium," because Annie would not say in what city she was. I have had a mild obsession with Belgium to this day. It is worth noting that the character of Jane Eyre, herself, is an orphan who always felt cast out and separated from the world. Annie's tendency to identify with Jane, despite the fact that she has a family, demonstrates how alienated and isolated she feels from her mother. I too started to feel alienated from my mother after my parent's divorce. Especially when my mother started to date men. She loved me less, surely.

One day Annie walks into town after school. She finds herself in front of a clothing store and sees her reflection in the window. Annie sadly observes that she looks awkward and ugly, and she compares herself to a picture of young Lucifer. Puberty was an interesting time for me. First I was the chubby child, then the maaga adolescent. I never felt attractive, and even today still am very self-conscious about my body. Some boys standing nearby start teasing Annie gently. Her mother explains that she was in the clothing store and saw Annie looking in. She also saw Annie flirting and conducting herself improperly with those boys. After Annie's mother uses the slang word for "slut" numerous times, Annie says "like mother like daughter." I too quipped at my mother when I felt she was out of line. I was punished, but parents should not be allowed to exercise power absolutely, absolved of wrongdoing because supposedly they know best. Sometimes parents do not know best. My mother lived in a time very different from my own. How dare her apply her own mother's parenting tactics today.

Annie's feeling of dismay at her physical body and appearance prefigures her physical illness that follows in the next chapter. Already by obsessing over the black ball of sadness in her and by seeing her face with distortion, Annie appears to be on the cusp of a mental breakdown. I'm not sure what insanity feels like, but I feel sure that I have come close to it. You think so much that you get absorbed into an alternate reality, characterized only by your concerns, anxieties and fear. Your resolve to fight disappears, and you become hateful of everything and everyone that has induced your feeling so inadequate. One of my teachers in high school once pulled me aside and informed me that she noticed I was quite aloof, and needed to change my approach to people if I was ever to be a good leader. I never cared to lead inconsiderate people, so her words meant little to me then.

Annie thinks she is ready to have her own trunk to put her own objects and stories into. Annie's desire for a trunk of her own foreshadows her eventual desire to emerge as a separate person. I can't as easily identify when I decided to step back from my reality and construct an identity and a place of my own. I think it happened near the end of high school when I made friends with other misfits who also sought to get away from their own realities.

The book ends with the following line:

"I could hear the small waves lap lapping around the ship. They made an unexpected sound as if a vessel filled with liquid had been placed on its side and was now emptying out."

Annie John drifts slowly away from every reality she has ever known, but towards one that she has dreamed of for years. The novel ends with her emergence as an independent young woman who will discover the world on her own, and determine a more agreeable reality. Not surprisingly, my own life follows a similar trajectory. I'll never forget the feeling I had while sitting on that Air Jamaica flight to Miami. I couldn't contain my excitement. I couldn't stop smiling. I looked out the window as the Kingston cityscape grew less and less visible. The cobwebs slowly started to fall from the black ball within.


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