Food, Sex & Violence: A Decolonizing Feminism in Caribbean Literature

By Jon W. O'NeillHumanities, Cycle 1, 2010



In Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory (1998) and Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother (1995), cooking and eating are acts that describe for us the conflicts and confusions of forming a national, familial or sexual identity in the (neo-)colonized, or decolonizing, Caribbean. The connections between sex and food/cooking are easy to make–they are both acts of creation, fonts of life, inherently sensual and tactile and frequently intimate or domestic–they thus frequently appear together in many different literary traditions. What is particular and interesting about the connections between sex and eating/cooking is that both acts are necessarily as destructive as they are creative, sensual and violent in equal measure. Danticat and Kincaid do not fail to recognize and explore this duality. Breath, Eyes, Memory and Autobiography of My Mother explore, through metaphors of sex and sustenance, the psychological and social or political conflicts inherent in the formation of an identity in a diasporic and decolonizing context.


Desire for food is the first and most basic of human appetites, the appetite that defines, directs and describes not only our discourse but also our feelings toward the later and more complex desires that we develop. As such, food—both as a gift of the earth and as a product of art or labor—and the implements that surround our eating and cooking practices take on powerful metaphorical significance in literature concerned with the expanse and understanding of human desire. In Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory (1998) and Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother (1995), cooking and eating are acts that describe the conflicts and confusions of forming a national, familial or sexual identity in the (neo-)colonized, or decolonizing, Caribbean. The connections between sex and food/cooking are easy to make—they are both acts of creation, fonts of life, inherently sensual and tactile and frequently intimate or domestic—and they thus frequently appear together in many different literary traditions.1 What is particular and interesting about the connections between sex and eating/cooking is that both acts are necessarily as destructive as they are creative, sensual and violent in equal measure. Danticat and Kincaid do not fail to recognize and explore this duality. Breath, Eyes, Memory and Autobiography of My Mother explore, through metaphors of sex and sustenance, the psychological and social or political conflicts inherent in the formation of an identity in a diasporic and decolonizing context.

Cooking is a creative act insofar as we shape and reconstruct products of the earth in order to make something good to eat. We select from the limited supply of food that is available to us and, using our mind and hands, we craft something to eat. In this we are focused not only on what is a practical and efficient use of the material given us and what will be the most suitable to eat, but also what will be the most gustatorily and digestively pleasurable. Alongside the creative quality of food-as-craft and the physically gratifying aspect of food-as-sustenance runs the no less apparent but frequently discounted destructive process inherent in both of these relationships with food. In order to cook we must perform such physically violent tasks as dicing and rending, tearing, boiling and, perhaps worst of all, stuffing. All this takes place not only in the culinary (i.e., domestic) sphere, but also in the agricultural (i.e., economic) sphere. The violent acts of agriculture more specifically include the raising and slaughtering of the animals, the former commonly as violent as the latter. In the Caribbean context these two domains are sometimes conflated, as the raising and slaughtering of animals are tasks often carried out in and around the home.

Eating is ultimately even more devastating than cooking. The destruction is inevitable and inextricable from the creation and maintenance of human life, Leon Kass points out, as food once consumed can never be reconstituted or returned; “preservation of life and form [is only possible] through destruction of life and form, constitutive of the activity of eating” (Kass 61).

Sex mirrors both the creation and destruction of cooking in several ways. The act is not only a physiological imperative, but also a pleasure seeking one. Sex also has a necessarily violent or destructive aspect. The physical distress—the actual tearing of flesh—that accompanies a virginal performance of heterosexual intercourse is an extreme example of this violence; the act of rape is even more extreme. (Henceforth, I am referring to heterosexual intercourse when I mention sex, a limitation I am allowing both because of heterosexuality’s prominence in these texts and because of its metaphorical neatness in discussing colonial relations.) Heterosexual intercourse is never lacking this element of violence, however, even in its most mutually pleasurable manifestations. It is always a violation of one body by another, an invasion by a physical force whose aim, whether implicit or stated, is to establish a colony in the invaded form. To sow seed as a sexual metaphor equates the economies of fecundity and of agriculture. By this logic, a child is as much a cash crop as sugar cane; a mother becomes just as much a land colonized for agricultural and economic expansion as Dominica or Haiti.

Colonial (and, to a subtler extent, neo-colonial) projects operate with a similar set of needs and desires as cooking, eating, and by extension, sex. It is a drive to exploit a resource, to take something or someone and convert it into a source of economic sustenance or even profit. This sustenance is often above and beyond the drive for what is efficient or—within the construct of this metaphor—physiologically necessary for the colonizing nation and is instead a drive for luxury, wealth, and surplus.2

The starvation of an exploited people and land is the end of this colonial drive. To take the example most relevant to the texts under consideration here, the current economic, ecological and agricultural poverty of Haiti can be understood as a direct consequence of the various colonial projects on the island. The former French colony—originally called Saint Domingue, named by the Spanish who bequeathed it unto the French in 1697—produced sugar, coffee and “other tropical crops” at levels and by means that depleted the natural fertility of the soil. While today over eighty percent of the Haitian population works in agriculture, “productivity is [nevertheless] low,” and the limited crops produced are still, by economic rather than political necessity, shipped off the island.3 The inequity of this agricultural exploitation produced the violent revolutions in Haiti (of 1791 and more lastingly in 1803), but despite these revolutions, this inequity remains.

Colonial powers rationalize this rending and reforming of a human community and a piece of land in a similar fashion to the manner in which humanity rationalizes the reconstitution of an animal into medallions of meat or the manipulation of various crops, like potatoes, so as to make them entirely dependent on humanity for their survival—we must use these and other resources in order to survive as individuals, a nation, a society.

Similarly, colonizing projects (whether direct or indirect) often justify themselves by projecting upon the colonized subject a sociological, theological, or economic need that the colonizer can satisfy. Thus, these projects often feature rhetoric that recalls the mutualism of consensual heterosexual intercourse. In this rhetoric, for example, colonized peoples are often heathens in need of religion, democracy (in the neo-colonial context), or an entryway into the global economy that will help in their transition from an ‘under-developed’ nation into an industrialized one. We see this rhetoric at work in the French (and later, the United States’) relations with Haiti. 4 The fulfillment of this projected need allows the colonizer to rationalize his own gains from the ‘relationship’; this rationalization is analogous to a defense of rape.5

With this understanding of the colonial project as metaphorically akin to an aggressive sexual or culinary act, we can begin to discuss how manifestations of sex and cooking or eating in the literature of a colonized community (especially by the women of a colonized community) are responding to this violence in kind, and are therefore part of a counter or decolonizing movement. Before turning to Kincaid and Danticat’s texts, Audre Lorde’s Zami provides a necessary and useful entry point into this discourse. Lorde is concerned with examining her identity as a West Indian (born in the United States) as well as her identity as a lesbian, and how those two identities can relate to one another either in conflict or in harmony. The following oft-cited passage is from a chapter of Zami entirely devoted to Audre’s relationship with her mother’s mortar and pestle, a tool that represents rather explicitly her ancestral home of the West Indies, her burgeoning sexual awakening, and the power of motherhood and matrilineage, as the following passage explains:

Every West Indian woman worth her salt had her own mortar. Now if you lost or broke your mortar, you could, of course, buy another one…but those were usually Puerto Rican mortars…they were never really as good as West Indian mortars. […]6 That invisible thread, taut and sensitive as a clitoris exposed, stretched through my curled fingers up round my brown arm into the moist reality of my armpits, whose warm, sharp odor with a strange new overlay mixed with the ripe garlic smells of the mortar and general sweet-heavy aromas of high summer.

(Lorde 78)

This passage functions to make cultural heritage and a matrilineal tradition a foundational element of Lorde’s marginalized sexual identity, though she interestingly appropriates and romanticizes the overtly heterosexual relation of the pestle to the mortar. (Wiley 207)

Edwidge Danticat, in Breath, Eyes, Memory, re-imagines this sexual awakening though mortar and pestle in a rather different light. The following excerpt follows the same format as the previous one from Zami: the mortar and pestle connect to a matrilineal tradition and the personal search for identity. After a protracted ellipsis, the same object prompts a sexual experience.

I was feeling alone and lost, like there was no longer any reason for me to live. I went down to the kitchen and searched my mother’s cabinet for the mortar and pestle we used to crush spices. I took the pestle to bed with me and held it against my chest. […] My flesh ripped apart as I pressed the pestle into it.

(Danticat 87, 88)

Sophie, instead of romanticizing or even eroticizing the relation of pestle to mortar, brings the pestle into violent contact with her hymen. This act is significant for several reasons. Firstly, it is done out of a desperation for identity (an implied solution for her “feeling alone and lost”; Sophie is the product both of her mother and of her mother’s colonizer, a rapist7; as such, her identity is nebulous, uncertain, and difficult for her to understand. This act also reveals Sophie’s desperation for freedom from her domineering aunt who, through her rigorous and even violent, violating maintenance of her niece’s purity, represents the values and repression of the patriarchal and colonial systems. This moment also addresses Lorde’s stress on the importance of matrilineal traditions and artifacts; the testing of the daughter’s virginity that Sophie is trying to escape is a matrilineal tradition that functions as a tool of the colonial system of repression and dominance. That is, the relation between ‘mother’ and daughter mirrors and enacts the relation between metropole and colony. At work in this virginity-maintenance is a subtext of woman-as-commodity, valuated through her virginity. A bride must be virginal if her husband/impregnator is to know that the child she carries is his. If the child is to benefit him socially or economically, it must be his.

To understand physical virginity testing—when a mother probes her daughter’s hymen to make sure it is still intact—as simply an enactment of imported Christian morality would be to ignore the economic reality of the situation. Caribbean parents are not worried that their daughter will be impregnated per se, but that she will be impregnated by a man who is unable to fulfill his economic duty to his child, and, by extension, to its mother and her parents. Indeed, parents often encourage their daughters to flirt and maintain relations with wealthy or married men so that they may become pregnant and in doing so provide a source of income for the family. This provision of economic support by the man is so socially regulated and culturally important that such a practice, according to Timothy Schwartz, “appeared to outsiders (i.e. citizens of those countries enforcing the economic stagnancy of the Caribbean archipelago) [as] a type of institutionalized prostitution” (217).

Danticat, while gesturing to the economic reality of the situation, is also exploring a genealogy of the maternal; Sophie’s aunt is continuing a practice that her own mother performed upon her and her sister, Sophie’s mother. The problems of sex and gender that Sophie, her aunt and her mother experience—and not only internal conflict but external as well, in their consistently fraught relations with men—can be understood as a result of this traditionalized virginity maintenance as it stands in for imperial presence and practice in Haiti. Furthermore, Sophie’s self-rape reveals the unexamined violence intrinsic to sexual intercourse and to the colonial project. Finally, this act of violence not only represents the violence of the colonizer but also works against it. Sophie takes the violent agency of the colonizer upon herself and demonstrates that she, a colonized subject and a woman, has the potential to enact violence on her own behalf, even though she stages this violence upon her own body. She does not raise a hand against the colonizer or the metropole itself, but against her own body in order to purge the colonizer’s influence from it.

This rejection of the colonial project is similarly apparent, and similarly violent, in Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother. The narrator Xuela’s mother dies in childbirth. Her death, succinctly described in the very first clause of the novel, puts motherhood in an interesting position in relation to the layered metaphor we are considering. While matrilineal tradition is posited as a potential tool of colonial repression and violence in Breath, Eyes, Memory, here the connection becomes more sinister and more explicit. A woman with child is colonized; a woman who dies in childbirth represents a people or a land destroyed entirely by a colonizing force. If this is the case, how can we understand Xuela?

Xuela’s abortions, both her own and particularly the one she performs on her sister, mirror the violent rejection of the colonizer symbolized in Sophie’s self-rape. This rejection can be understood as a rejection both of the colonization of her body and of the colonization of Dominica. Xuela sees her own abortion as an act of self-determination and a rejection of matrilineal traditionas an institution perpetuating heteronormative patriarchy in a place in which “brutality is the only real inheritance”: “I had carried my life in my own hands” (Kincaid 5, 83). Her manual removal of her sister’s fetus is a shocking act of violence that functions much as Sophie’s self-mutilation. Performed in Xuela’s “small room behind the kitchen,” the abortion is as tied to culinary violence as it is to sexual violence, it is as domestic in setting as it is inherently political in its importance. By taking the agency of the colonizer upon herself and violating female (colonized) space, she both demonstrates her potential for equal agency and violence and uses that brutality to (again, indirectly) combat the colonial project by removing the colony of cells from her sister’s body: “I put my hand up into her womb and forcibly removed [the child]” (Kincaid 114).

While Danticat’s novel is coming to terms with matrilineal tradition and ultimately forming a discourse in which motherhood persists in its importance despite its subjugation to colonial values and violence, Autobiography of My Mother attempts to reject motherhood entirely. Xuela, without a mother, and without the attendant traditions, is completely without identity; she is disenfranchised entirely. She does not inherit her mother’s face, symbolic of all the matrilineal knowledge she is denied. Because she “had never had a mother,” she would “refuse to become one.” It seems as though this refusal might be irrelevant, however, because she appears incapable of being a mother (i.e. acting maternally), even if she were to become one (biologically). Not having any matrilineal knowledge to pass on to her progeny, she is no longer capable of acting as a tool of the colonizer, as Sophie’s mother and aunt do. In destroying the font from which the colonized subject (she herself) springs, Xuela creates a subject who is freed from the social, religious and economic strictures that in past iterations had prevented such a subject from acting in violence against the colonizer.8 Where Sophie indirectly fights only through self-mutilation, Xuela acts on a larger scale, preventing not only herself but also her sister–both literally and figuratively, for she says that her sister “became her sister” (Kincaid 114)–through violent abortions from becoming sites of colonization.

Breath, Eyes, Memory and Autobiography of My Mother are very consciously part of a movement towards and in advocacy of the violent refusal of any colonial or neo-colonial project in the Caribbean. Their mission is also inherently feminist: through their mobilization of metaphor, the two authors make violence against and domination of women a global, cultural, and political issue deserving the same attention earned by decolonizing projects the world over. This decolonizing project is necessarily violent in response to the violence of the original colonizing one. To paraphrase Franz Fanon, the naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the bloodstained abortive hands and pestles which emanate from it; “for if the last shall be first, this will only come to pass after a murderous and decisive struggle between the two protagonists” (Fanon 30). This project is unified across national and cultural barriers, despite the fragmented geography and identity of the Caribbean archipelago. Danticat subtly demonstrates her unity with Kincaid’s decolonizing project within the first sentence of Breath, Eyes, Memory. The “daffodil…for Mother’s Day” poetically encapsulates both writers’ connection with motherhood and colonialism—the comparison of the colonization of the female body with the colonization of a land and a people (Danticat 3). As Kincaid wrote in one of her books of botany, Plant Parenthood, “The reason I do not like daffodils is not at all aesthetic but much more serious than that: having been forced to memorize a [William Wordsworth] poem about daffodils, when none were to be found in the place I grew up” (Smith 802). Kincaid and Danticat seem to be working towards a pan-Caribbean movement of social, economic, cultural (and feminist) liberation from colonial economic, political, and even cultural values.

There is also a critical opinion that suggests that Xuela’s refusal to become a mother nullifies the possibility of the harmonious unification of the colonized and colonizer in one body and one nation. This reading denies that unity was never possible, never even imagined outside of the colonizer’s rhetoric. Harmony was never the project; indeed, the project has always been discord, violence. Kincaid and Danticat are concerned with the ways in which a colonizing force can—through food, sex, and violence—first violently and then insidiously dominate and oppress a land, a people, a person. And they are concerned with establishing a language of violence on these terms that may have the power supplant one project of violent suppression with another of violent liberation, violent self-realization and of a unified Caribbean decolonizing feminism.


1. A notable example to which we will turn later in this paper is a novel by Audre Lorde, a Caribbean-American author whose seminal work Zami: A new spelling of my name was published more than two decades before either of the central texts we are examining here and of which both Danticat and Kincaid were doubtless aware.

2. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that, as upright animals, humans travel along their line of site—and therefore their line of projected desire—rather than along their digestive axis, the line of their humbler and necessary sustenance. I footnote this thesis because I think it is highly problematic and I am reluctant to defend it. It did, however, strike me as an interesting enough off-hand observation to merit inclusion in this, the rising action of the argument actually at hand.

3. May also notes that “[a]gricultural products account for 50-60 percent of exports by value” (May 150).

4. We are probably more familiar with this rhetoric as it is mobilized in support of the United States’ foreign policies.

5. Similarly, a rapist will frequently project wantonness or reciprocal sexual desire onto his victim. We recognize the invocation of provocative female dress as rationalization for this projection as an unfortunate commonplace.

6. Several pages pass during this ellipsis. During these pages young Audre talks about her relationship with the mortar as a young child and it’s sensually clitoral design elements, which she does not explicitly evoke until the famous part of the citation that follows this rather protracted ellipsis and note. I wanted to include the cultural significance of the mortar alongside the highly sexualized significance of the mortar so that we can later compare this passage to a similar one in Danticat’s novel.

7. Perhaps “raper” would be a better term than “rapist,” which seems to imply a sort of ideological, ethical, or intellectual (perhaps even medical) project being carried out in the act of rape. (We might associate the word with words such as sophist, hedonist, internist.) While this understanding of “rapist” functions quite well in the analysis I am undertaking—in which a rape is an ideological and economic violence as much as a personal one—in most actual cases I would hope we consider a person who rapes an enactor of violence rather than an espouser of an ethical view.

8. By iterations I mean past children born of colonized mothers, like Sophie and like Xuela’s mother, impregnated by a man half African and half-Scottish, an entirely colonial man even before he decides to embrace his whiteness and reject his colonized (black) subject position.



Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991. Print.

Jones, Michael Owen. “Food Choice, Symbolism, and Identity: Bread-and-Butter Issues for Folkloristics and Nutrition Studies (American Folklore Society Presidential Address, October 2005).” Journal of American Folklore 120.476 (2007). 129-177. Print.

Kincaid, Jamaica. The Autobiography of My Mother. New York: Plume, 1997. Print.

Lorde, Audre. Zami, a New Spelling of My Name. Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1982. Print.

May, Jacques M. and Donna L. McLellan. The Ecology of Malnutrition in the Caribbean; the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, and Trinidad and Tobago. New York: Hafner Press, 1973. Print.

Schwartz, Timothy T. Fewer Men, More Babies: Sex, Family, and Fertility in Haiti. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2009. Print.

Sklodowska, Elzbieta. Espectros Y Espejismos : Haití En El Imaginario Cubano. Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2009. Print.

Smith, Ian. “Misusing Canonical Intertexts: Jamaica Kincaid, Wordsworth, and Colonialism’s ‘Absent Things’.” Callaloo 25.3 (2002): 801-820. Print.

Warnes, Andrew. Hunger Overcome? : Food and Resistance in Twentieth-Century African American Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. Print.

Wilentz, Gay Alden. Binding Cultures : Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. Print.

Wiley, Catherine, and Fiona R. Barnes. Homemaking : Women Writers and the Politics and Poetics of Home. New York: Garland, 1996. Print.


Jon W. O'Neill

Comparative Literature, Film, Hispanic Studies, Creative Writing

Jon W. O'Neill

Comparative Literature, Film, Hispanic Studies, Creative Writing