Jamaica Kincaid’s short book (long essay?) A Small Place is about the ravages of colonialism on the small island of Antigua. It’s about perception versus reality, and the importance of opening the privileged eyes of those who might never have a reason to open their eyes. It’s about the many sneaky ways oppression shows itself: in language, in priorities, in rituals, in attitudes, in what we do and do not accept for ourselves and others. And perhaps most of all it’s about anger, or rather through the medium of anger: anger that is rage for the past, anger that is fury for the present, anger that is grief for what might have been, anger that provides impetus for what could be.
A Small Place is written in the second person, addressed to a specific, white “you” who is an American or European tourist to Jamaica Kincaid’s beautiful island. You, the tourist, are accustomed to closing your eyes and closing your mind:
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.
But what are the consequences of this lack of thinking — even to you? Sometimes what is bad for the Antiguans, day in and day out, may even affect a tourist, and jog her awareness:
You pass the hospital, the Holberton Hospital, and how wrong you are not to think about this, for though you are a tourist on your holiday, what if your heart should miss a few beats? What if a blood vessel in your neck should break? […] Will you be comforted to know that the hospital is staffed with doctors that no actual Antiguan trusts; that Antiguans always say about the doctors, “I don’t want them near me”, that Antiguans refer to them not as doctors but as “the three men” (there are three of them); that when the Minister of Health himself doesn’t feel well he takes the first plane to New York to see a real doctor…?
As you can see from these brief excerpts, Kincaid is interested in the wide chasm between what “you” might see, or choose to think about, and the harsh and irrecoverable reality of postcolonial life in Antigua. She tells the story, for instance, of a British princess who came to visit her island one year when Kincaid herself was a child. Every house, every building the princess would see was repainted; every road the princess would drive on was repaved; every person the princess met was the best person for her to meet. The rest of the island, of course, was untouched: poverty, drought, servility, and racism reigned unseen, and therefore unchecked.
Kincaid’s acrimonious tone can feel harsh, because it feels so personal. What do you mean, me? we think. I’ve never even been to Antigua. Talk to the people who are at fault. But Kincaid is living in a world where softer words and gentler actions simply haven’t worked; it’s time now to talk about corporate and individual responsibility, about the way the postcolonial system oppresses people without those who benefit really realizing it most of the time, about the fact that we have to intend change if change is ever going to happen. It’s time to get people’s attention, including you, including me. Sometimes the way you do that is by shouting, says Kincaid. Sometimes it’s by blowing things up.
One of the images to which she returns again and again is the library in Antigua. This building used to be splendid and beautiful, quiet in an unquiet city, full of books and the smell of the sea. But it was damaged in an earthquake in 1974 and never repaired. What remains of the books are housed over a dry-goods store. There’s no Antiguan money to rebuild the library, and British people don’t think it’s worth while to provide a library to the Antiguan people. You can see that no mythical past can provide comfort for this; the present is over a dry-goods store; the future is a mystery.
Kincaid does present one spark of hope. She describes slave masters as “human rubbish” (without exception and without nuance), and slaves as “noble and exalted,” (equally without exception.) But after independence, she says, things change.
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.
What happens to human beings is unpredictable. It is up to them. It is a shared destiny, if not a shared history. If we can learn to listen to human voices (that wake us, and we drown), we may learn one day to be human beings together.