One great short story to read today: Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl”

Brittany Allen

May 8, 2024, 10:30am

According to the powers that be (er, apparently according to Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network), May is Short Story Month. To celebrate, for the second year in a row, the Literary Hub staff will be recommending a single short story, free* to read online, every (work) day of the month. Why not read along with us? Today, we recommend:

“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about narrative compression in fiction. How do (some) writers manage to pack a full emotional wallop into just a few paragraphs? Or vividly capture an entire experience? Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” published in The New Yorker in 1978, manages to do both these things. Structured like a to-do list and narrated in a hectoring maternal voice that vacillates between judgmental and caring, this single sentence story carries the reader through—well—all the concerns of a girlhood. Here’s my favorite section, towards the end:

“…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…”

I go back to this one page(!) piece because it holds a universe of wisdom in its tiny hands. The casual profundity breaks my heart. Yet our narrator’s so witty, so matter-of-fact about the perils and pleasures of womanhood. Her litany of reminders remind me of every mother figure I’ve ever known. Which is fitting, given the weekend ahead.

Give it a read! (Then if you can or care to, call your mom?)

The story begins:

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 bare-head 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 in 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…

Read it here.

*If you hit a paywall, we recommend trying with a different/private/incognito browser (but listen, you didn’t hear it from us).

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