In Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl", there are repeated mentions of "singing benna", in a sequential pattern:

[...] 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; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you; but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; [...]
"Girl", Jamaica Kincaid (bold emphasis added)

What's the significance of singing benna in Sunday school - or not at all on Sundays? Why is this laid out like this, in this sort of escalating pattern, interspersed with the other things?

1 Answer 1


Kincaid's Girl consists of a single 650 word sentence, in which a mother is providing advice to her daughter about how to behave as a lady. A few clues are provided, such as the "little cloths" required to deal with menstruation, which indicate the girl is close to the point of maturing physically, and so needs to stop behaving like a girl, but now act as a woman.

It starts with providing practical advice about the correct way to do laundry and how to cook. It then graduates to advice with a more moral character:

on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming

This phrase "the slut you are so bent on becoming" is repeated several ties throughout the piece, revealing the attitude the mother has towards her daughter. At this point the mother forbids her daughter to sing ‘benna’ in Sunday school: benna being a calypso-like genre of singing, "characterised by scandalous gossip" and a call-and-response format. It is clearly not a ladylike way of behaving. At this point the daughter’s voice answers, portrayed in in italics, and the piece becomes a dialogue, with direct speech being woven into the litany of advice. The daughter protests that she has never sung benna in Sunday school, so she is being cautioned against doing something she already knows not to do.

is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?... don’t sing benna in Sunday school... but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school

The mother seems to ignore this reply though, and continues on giving advice on how to plant okra, how to attract a husband and so on, many times repeating the injunction not to become a slut. The daughter only speaks once again in the piece, when her mother is advising her how to buy good bread:

always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?

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