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Annie John | Context

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Colonization

Like many of Kincaid's works, Annie John is a novel about colonization. The island of Antigua, located in the Caribbean, was one of the many islands Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sighted on his first voyage in 1493, and it was conquered by British settlers in 1632. Within four years half of Antigua's population was African slaves brought over to tend to British sugar fields. After emancipation in 1834, freed slaves lived in poverty because of the lack of paying work for them, and most stayed on the island. As a result subsequent generations of Antiguans grew up in a blended culture of Caribbean, English, and African traditions.

As with most colonized countries, British culture was viewed as superior to native culture in Antigua. When Britain took control of the island, English became the national language and was thus taught in schools. Many Antiguans, such as the teachers in Annie's school who refuse to let students participate in traditional calypso dance, reject traditions from their cultural past and embrace British customs instead. This cultural divide left many individuals with a frustrated identity, since they belonged neither to the colonizing culture nor to the traditional local culture. Antigua earned its independence in 1981, but in 1950s Antigua, when Annie John is set, the island was under British control.

Bildungsroman

Annie John is a coming-of-age novel, also called a bildungsroman. A bildungsroman focuses on a character's growing from childhood toward adulthood. Typically, the character experiences an emotional awakening that causes him or her to see the world differently than he or she had seen it as a child. Traditional bildungsroman novels have two key concepts: the protagonist must struggle against society to shape his or her own identity, and the protagonist must successfully integrate, or settle into, his or her adult life.

Throughout the novel Annie pushes against social expectations of demure behavior, modesty, and other aspects of traditional female gender roles. She bucks against authority at home and at school, frequently lies and steals, and has no desire to settle down and get married. At the end of the novel, Annie has left home to embrace a new life in England. However, she hasn't begun to integrate into this life nor processed what she will lose by leaving Antigua behind. Annie will arrive in England as a black, unmarried woman, and her success off the island remains unknown.

Interestingly, Annie John can also be read as a coming-of-age novel for Antigua as Annie comes to realize the negative effects that colonization—and therefore British culture—have had on her Antiguan identity. In essence, Antigua, like Annie, must realize its own culture and break free of its own mother/colonizer, Great Britain. Although Antigua's struggle for independence isn't directly discussed in the text, modern readers know Antigua gained independence in 1981. This knowledge gives readers the insight that Annie's changing views of British colonialism represent a larger shift in opinion.

Literary Realism

Literary realism strives to present life exactly as it is in reality. Realism relies on attention to detail, descriptions of real rather than imagined events, and idiomatic language—conversations that sound real. When Annie John was first released, critics reveled in the unique Caribbean voice and the detailed setting Kincaid created. During her time at The New Yorker Kincaid became known for her verisimilitude, or specific cultural details. For example, the fish Annie carries home from the monger are not simply fish: they are "an angelfish for my father, a kanya fish for my mother, and a lady doctorfish for me." When Annie falls ill, her mother doesn't just bring her nutritious eggs; she brings her "an egg cordial with two tablespoons of rum." Each detail supports the plot while also giving local flavor and characterization.

Although Annie has a vivid imagination—she imagines watching a cruise ship sink, for example, or what life in Belgium would be like—this doesn't influence Annie John's classification as a work of literary realism, because Annie's daydreams don't actually happen. The reality presented is one of a creative teenager prone to flights of fancy. The same teenager describes in great detail the mundane details of her life, from the way her family bathes, to what her mother's mouth looks like when it chews, to the smell of an unwashed body. In this way Kincaid has become one of the most prominent voices of Caribbean literary realism.

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