The Next Chapter

If you liked The Autobiography of My Mother you'll love...

The Next Chapter columnist Donna Bailey Nurse reveals the Canadian equivalent of The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid.

The Next Chapter columnist Donna Bailey Nurse reveals why Toronto writer Olive Senior's Dancing Lessons is the perfect companion book to Jamaica Kincaid's acclaimed novel The Autobiography of My Mother. 

Jamaica Kincaid's fictionalized take on her mother's real life

[One thing Jamaica Kincaid writes] about, which is very dominant in a lot of Caribbean and West Indian lives, is the subject of abandonment. This is one of the reasons why she means so much to me and to so many other black women writers. This particular novel is about a woman named Xuela Claudette Richardson on the island of Dominica. The first thing that happens to her is the most important event for the rest of her life, and that is her mother dies during childbirth. If you don't have your mom from the moment that you're born, you have to sort of figure out the world for yourself, which is particularly difficult if you're a black female.

How Olive Senior's novel touches on similar themes

​The main character in Dancing Lessons is a woman named Gertrude Samphire. Much of the book is comical, but we meet her when she's elderly and she's been sent to a very elegant, upscale retirement home because a hurricane has damaged her home and her daughter has placed her in there. Going back now, we see the beginning of her life. Like the character in Jamaica Kincaid's novel, Gertrude also loses her mother when she is born, and so she is then raised by her father's family — her father's mom, her grandmother, and her father's sister. Her father is a veteran of the First World War, and he's shell-shocked, so he's in and out of the picture and not always completely there. 

I think ultimately, this abandonment — and it is a true thing in Caribbean experience and perhaps particularly Jamaican experience — that this is a generational thing that has happened from slavery times. We have a history of abandoning not just our children, which sounds harsh, but slavery has left us with this legacy of pulling apart families and having challenges showing affection. There's a harsh legacy from slavery and I think that's one of the main takeaways from [Dancing Lessons]. And in fact Jamaica Kincaid's novel, in a way, to me, is a cure for what Gertrude experiences. 

Donna Bailey Nurse's comments have been edited and condensed.

Find Donna Bailey Nurse and Olive Senior on Twitter: @donnabnurse and @olivesenior.