A Small Place

The anger in Jamaica Kincaid’s short guide to Antigua is fierce and inescapable. Written in the second person, addressing a tourist from North America or Europe, A Small Place speaks of the past and present-day Antigua that tourists do not see. Kincaid writes of the Antiguans’ scorn for the white tourists looking for a lovely island getaway, and she notes that the tourists can only enjoy themselves by closing their eyes and their minds to reality:

You must not wonder what exactly happened to the contents of your lavatory when you flushed it. You must not wonder where your bathwater went when you pull out the stopper. You must not wonder what happened when you brushed your teeth. Oh, it might all end up in the water you are thinking of taking a swim in; the contents of your lavatory might, just might, graze gently against your ankle as you wade carefree in the water, for you see, in Antigua, there is no proper sewage-disposal system. But the Caribbean Sea is very big and the Atlantic Ocean is even bigger; it would amaze even you to know the number of black slaves this ocean has swallowed up.

Kincaid makes it impossible for this unseeing tourist to remain blind. She lashes out in anger at what history has wrought for her people. She does not mince words or offer caveats. When she considers the excuses a white person might make for not accepting responsibility for Antigua’s sad state, her only response is scorn. She feels scorn for all things English, even for the language she employs with such finesse:

For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime? And what can that really mean? For the language of the criminal can contain only the goodness of the criminal’s deed. The language of the criminal can explain and express the deed only from the criminal’s point of view. It cannot contain the horror of the deed, the injustice of the deed, the agony, the humiliation inflicted on me. When I say to the criminal, “This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong,” or, “This deed is bad, and this other deed is bad, and this one is also very, very bad,” the criminal understands the word “wrong” in this way: It is wrong when “he” doesn’t get his fair share of profits from the crime just committed; he understands the word “bad” in this way: a fellow criminal betrayed a trust. That must be why, when I say, “I am filled with rage,” the criminal says, “But why?” And when I blow things up and make life generally unlivable for the criminal (is my life not unlivable, too?) the criminal is shocked, surprised. But nothing can erase my rage—not an apology, not a large sum of money, not the death of the criminal—for this wrong can never be made right, and only the impossible can make me still: can a way be found to make what happened not have happened?

Kincaid’s rage can be off-putting, to put it mildly. Of course, not every individual European is culpable for crimes of the past. However, I didn’t see her rage as being directed at individuals but at the ugly history of white versus black. When considered in that light , I was able to step back and decide that Kincaid is not angry at me but at my history—and that is fair enough. In addition, I saw this less as a cogent, rational argument about the evils of Colonialism and more as a no-holds-barred rant. Rants are not logical; they rise from the gut, like bile. It’s painful, but sometimes it has to be let out.

When writing about present-day (1980s) Antigua, Kincaid recognizes that black Antiguans themselves bear some responsibility for their plight. They allow themselves to remain servants, even celebrating their servanthood by broadcasting the graduations from the Hotel Training Schools, where black Antiguans learn to serve white tourists. Corrupt governments were voted into power by the Antiguan people in free and fair elections. Kincaid notes that white Europeans brought their corrupt ways to the island, but she lays bare the complexity of the situation. I saw a similar pattern of post-Colonial corruption in The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, which pairs nicely with this book.

Although the overwhelming tone in A Small Place is one of fury and grief, Kincaid does offer one small glimmer of hope at the end, and I’d like to share that now with you:

Once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

Shared humanity—that’s a dream worth embracing.

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18 Responses to A Small Place

  1. Lenore says:

    Whoa – that sounds hardcore!

  2. cbjames says:

    This sounds very much in keeping with the overall spirit of the 1980’s. I wonder what sort of book she’d write now on these same topics. I’ve no idea what the situation is in Antiqua these days. I hope things are better.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder–and I wonder if all her books are this angry. I too hope things are better in Antigua, but even if they’re better there, you could probably substitute Haiti today and end up with a similar picture.

  3. Deb says:

    Call me a bleeding-heart, but one of the myriad reasons I haven’t taken one of those relatively-cheap Caribbean cruises (aside from my dreadful sea-sickness), is the sense I know I would have the whole time that I was participating in a re-enactment of the owner-class/slave-class dynamic that built that area in the first place. It’s easy to say that plenty of Black people take cruises too, but I think that’s beside the point. The whole area basically transitioned from being one where white people were the ruling class to one where white people (for the most part) are the served class. I suspect it would make me very uncomfortable to be in that position.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve never taken any of those cruises either, but only because I hate hot weather. And after reading this, I’d be uncomfortable for other reasons. But then again, some of the people on the islands probably rely on tourism for their livelihood. It’s complicated, but I think it’s good to be aware of the complications.

  4. This sounds like an important book. I find it sort of ironic perhaps (?) that what JAMAICA Kincaid writes of the Antiguans’ scorn for white tourists looking for a lovely island getaway is also what I’ve read about the Jamaicans. Ironic that she embodies this situation in her own name. I agree with Deb – it’s one reason I have avoided those places.

    Your paragraph about her rage is very interesting. I don’t know how I come out on that one…

    • Teresa says:

      I suspect people of a lot of Caribbean islands would share Kincaid’s sentiments.

      I actually surprised myself in my reaction to her rage. Normally, I strongly favor more measured arguments, but the fact that this is short and Kincaid is so eloquent probably helps. I wouldn’t want all the discourse surrounding these issues to have this tone, though.

  5. softdrink says:

    I read this book a year ago and struggled with the rage. And then I read an interesting article about Kincaid in which she talks about being more interested in finding the truth rather than happiness, and I decided she was a little too intense for me. Not that I don’t think she has important points, because she does, it’s just that her intensity overwhelms me.

    • Teresa says:

      That is interesting–I hadn’t read anything about Kincaid before this, but yeah, happiness doesn’t seem to be the goal here. And if this had been much longer, I probably would have found it too much.

  6. Vasilly says:

    I own this book but haven’t picked it up. I had no idea what the book was about when I bought it. I’m pushing this up on my tbr pile.

    • Teresa says:

      I had no idea what it was about when I picked it up either. I just ran across it on library shelves. Hope it’s a good read for you.

  7. Pacze Moj says:

    Interesting that she doesn’t quite use the language of the criminal. In the second quotation, for example: livable (not liveable). I wonder if that’s a choice or simply the result of Kincaid being American.

    The ugly history of white versus black also isn’t the entire point. Slaves who ended up in the Americas were often sold to Europeans by black African slavers. Europeans bought, transported (to destinations of choice) and forced the slaves to work, but Africans caught and sold them.

    Although most Antiguans are now black or mulatto Christians (Kincaid herself is Jewish) who speak English, none of these characteristics is native to Antigua. I’d argue that that makes it impossible for anyone, black Antiguan or white tourist, to close one’s eyes to history. White tourists have the leisure of not caring, but it must be complicated for black Antiguans, whose very presence — the language they speak, as Kincaid says, religion they practice and how they look — is itself evidence of a European historical “crime” against the Native [“Indian”] Antiguans.

    Whites may have brought corrupt government to Antigua, but they also brought blacks. Indeed, black Africans have no greater claim to Antigua than white Europeans. That’s a hard thing to come to grips with, I imagine: to argue no-white-corruption means to argue no colonisation, which, for a black Antiguan, means to argue against much of your own history.

    • Teresa says:

      Livable is the standard American spelling, and the book uses American spellings throughout. So I doubt that’s significant.

      You raise some good points here, and I agree that the issues are complex. Kincaid does mention black Africans’ complicity in the slave trade, but it’s not an angle she pursues. She doesn’t talk about Native Antiguans at all. I wonder if she does in some of her other books.

  8. Aarti says:

    Wow, based on the comments above, I seem to be the only person who’s never heard of this book. I think it’s an interesting point, but I kind of agree with the comment above. Who is a native Antiguan, and are there any left on the island? Though I think the point is probably more to do with the slavery and sugar trade than about colonization, perhaps. It sounds like an important message that probably doesn’t get heard through all the noise of anger. I think I’ll try to learn more about race relations in a different book.

    • Teresa says:

      I’d never heard of this book before I happened upon it at the library, but I had heard of Jamaica Kincaid. Her focus really is more on the slave trade and the long-term effects than colonization per se. And yeah, if you’re looking for a nuanced exploration of the issues, this is not the book for you. It’s a great example of passionate rhetoric, but not rational argument.

  9. rebeccareid says:

    I picked this up at Borders recently. I think I’m still glad to own it — sounds like one I need to read to better understand post-colonial attitudes. I hope I can handle it, sounds VERY intense.

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