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A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

A Small Place

by Jamaica Kincaid

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An initial thought: Jamaica Kincaid is writing, as the blurb from Salman Rushdie alerts us, a “jeremiad.” She first expresses her discontent by scorning modern-day tourists in her native Antigua. She illustrates her feelings not by documenting behavior but by attributing behavior, a curious thing, as it duplicates the attitude, though not the damaging impact, of racial attributions made by the tourists’ ancestors.

But no. No. That’s not it. I mean, she is upset by the tourists but no, that’s not really the problem, this thing about how out-of-place the tourists are in this “small place” they treat as their own place. And while Antigua is a small place, and is her subject, the physical smallness is not her subject either.

The problem Kincaid is addressing is the smallness of place most Antiguans have in Antigua, the consciousness of that small place they have in comparison to the Europeans and North Americans there, in the small place that supposedly is their own.

To her mind and heart the situation is one from which she sees no justice issue, not from the foreign investors, the tourist economy, or her fellow citizens in government acting to procure riches and status for themselves alone. Kincaid is outraged, aghast, contemptuous, caustic, strident, vehement, accusatory. She repeatedly is witness to what is comic but what good is comedy without the reward brought by laughter and smiles? Bitter comedy it is.

She personalizes this in a gentler way, a way a book lover will appreciate, by expressing her love for a library:
“But if you saw the old library, situated as it was, in a big, old wooden building painted a shade of yellow that is beautiful to people like me, with its wide veranda, its big, always open windows, its rows and rows of shelves filled with books, its beautiful wooden tables and chairs for sitting and reading, if you could hear the sound of its quietness (for the quiet in this library was a sound in itself), the smell of the sea (which was a stone’s throw away), the heat of the sun (no building could protect us from that), the beauty of us sitting there like communicants at an altar, taking in, again and again, the fairy tale of how we met you, your right to do the things you did, how beautiful you were, are, and always will be; if you could see all of that in just one glimpse, you would see why my heart would break at the dung heap that now passes for a library in Antigua. The place where the library is now, above the dry-goods store, in the old run-down concrete building, is too small to hold all the books from the old building, and so most of the books, instead of being on their nice shelves, resting comfortably, waiting to acquaint me with you in all your greatness, are in cardboard boxes in a room, gathering mildew, or dust, or ruin.”

Imagine, then, will you, any one thing you ought to love best, would love best if it were possible. Further, imagine losing faith it can become possible. How would you feel? Read A Small Place with that thought dwelling in your imagination. Consider how impoverishing it would be to feel differently than does Jamaica Kincaid. ( )
  dypaloh | Nov 11, 2018 |
I've heard of Jamaica Kincaid for years, but I've never read her work until now. Of the titles she's written, A Small Place is not one I recall ever having been mentioned. It's a short book. It's non-fiction. It's brutally honest. And for these reasons, I think it's often skipped over. Regardless of how great her fiction is or is not, skipping this brief history of Antigua is a mistake.

A Small Place is a powerful exploration of Kincaid's home, the island of Antigua. Colonized by the British in 1632, and left in the hands of tourists and a corrupt government, Antigua is portrayed as a land of damaged beauty. A Small Place is an indictment against colonialism, capitalism, complacency, and so much more. Kincaid spares no punches; her lens is wide, but exact. Her outrage and rhythmic exploration of the island make this impassioned essay searing with pride and indignation. A Small Place is a Caribbean answer to Baldwin's The Fire Next Time; Kincaid's prose rises with a voice that rivals Baldwin's. While Baldwin offered hope and solutions, however, Kincaid largely focuses on the sources of the many problems.

I don't know what to expect from Kincaid's more popular fiction, but if it's anything like this, it will be incredibly poetic and powerful. I look forward to it. ( )
  chrisblocker | Aug 22, 2018 |
A SMALL PLACE may be small, but it sure is mighty. Published in 1988, when Jamaica Kincaid had been living in the US for some time, this book explores colonialism, post-colonialism, governmental corruption, and tourism through the lens of a small, Caribbean nation. Until it gained independence in 1981, Antigua was part of the British kingdom/Commonwealth. Before that, it was a major hub in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and, as most of the island's native population died -from diseases brought by European colonists, slavery, malnutrition, and stress- became repopulated by African slaves who were made to work on the colonists' sugar plantations. Before that, it was come upon by Christopher Columbus on a voyage in 1493. Before that, the island was inhabited by Guanahatabey, Arawak, and Carib people.

This history has shaped Antigua into the complicated place that it is today. On the one hand, it's a beautiful island in a beautiful part of the world. The sea and sky are an unbelievable shade of blue, and the temperature is sublime. The beaches are plentiful. However, most of the locals are prohibited from visiting the nicest beaches. The library, which was housed in a spacious building, was damaged in an earthquake and never repaired, so most of the books sit in boxes. If you get sick on the island, it is better to get yourself to a doctor in another country than to be seen at a domestic hospital. Plumbing and sewage systems basically transport the island's waste into the Caribbean sea.

Kincaid also dives deeply into the corruption that is so rampant across the government and private sectors. A son of the Prime Minister, who is also in government, might open a business. He enacts a policy so that his shop is the only one that can provide the good/services that it does. He may request a business loan, which is given to him but charged to the government's budget. This creates a vicious cycle that spreads great wealth to certain Antiguans, but leaves everyone else in poverty.

Another compelling concept that the author discusses is tourism as a form of neo-colonialism. In fact, that book begins with the narrator following a tourist as she/he is arriving for holiday in Antigua. By paying for a hotel room, gambling in the adjacent casino, and spending your time and money at resorts, you are benefiting those who own and operate them. Very little, if any, money goes to the islanders in any way. This reinforces the cycle of oppression of the lower classes by those who are in power, just like how the British oppressed the native Antiguans and the African slaves. Tourists never see the "real" side of the paradise they chose to visit.

For those of us who read travel writing, enjoy tropical vacations, or like to travel, A SMALL PLACE is a captivating piece of writing. It succinctly and honestly lays out the connections between slavery, colonialism, corruption, and tourism. It's a difficult, but necessary message. ( )
  BooksForYears | Oct 19, 2017 |
An angry--but justifiably so--essay about Antigua. A lyrical anti-travelouge that reads more like a prose poem than a work of nonfiction. ( )
  StefanieBrookTrout | Feb 4, 2017 |
Kincaid describes the complex relationship between tourism and the "real" life of inhabitants of Antigua, her native place. This drips with bitterness, with affection for home no matter how flawed. Kincaid's poetic expressions convey complex ideas in deceptively simple words. ( )
  kaitanya64 | Jan 3, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
There are places worth revisiting not to relive joyful memories, but to allow for the catharsis that comes from exposing festering wounds so that cleansing, and perhaps healing, can begin. This is the kind of journey Jamaica Kincaid allows us to witness. In this essay, orginally published in 1988 and recently released in paperback, she takes us behind idyllic countrysides and sun-kissed beaches to examine the underbelly of life in Antigua, the tiny island in the West Indies where she grew up. It is a place she lovingly describes as "too beautiful." But Antigua also elicits bitter memories for our tour guide, who makes it clear she has an ax to grind in this short but powerful billyclub of a book.
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For Brian and Veronica Dyde; for my brothers Joseph, Dalma, and Devin Drew with love; and for William Shawn (again) with gratitude and love
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If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see.
As your plane descends to land, you might say, What a beautiful island Antigua is—more beautiful than any of the other islands you have seen, and they were beautiful, in their way, but they were much too green, much too lush with vegetation, which indicated to you, the tourist, that they got quite a bit of rainfall, and rain is the very thing that you, just now, do not want, for you are thinking of the hard and cold and dark and long days you spent working in North America (or, worse, Europe), earning some money so that you could stay in this place (Antigua) where the sun always shines and where the climate is deliciously hot and dry for the four to ten days you are going to be staying there; and since you are on your holiday, since you are a tourist, the thought of what it might be like for someone who had to live day in, day out in a place that suffers constantly from drought, and so has to watch carefully every drop of fresh water used (while at the same time surrounded by a sea and an ocean—the Caribbean Sea on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other), must never cross your mind.
In the Antigua that I knew, we lived on a street named after an English maritime criminal, Horatio Nelson, and all the other streets around us were named after some other English maritime criminals. There was Rodney Street, there was Hood Street, there was Hawkins Street, and there was Drake Street.
And then there was another place, called the Mill Reef Club. It was built by some people from North America who wanted to live in Antigua and spend their holidays in Antigua but who seemed not to like Antiguans (black people) at all, for the Mill Reef Club declared itself completely private, and the only Antiguans (black people) allowed to go there were servants.
I attended a school named after a Princess of England. Years and years later, I read somewhere that this Princess made her tour of the West Indies (which included Antigua, and on that tour she dedicated my school) because she had fallen in love with a married man, and since she was not allowed to marry a divorced man she was sent to visit us to get over her affair with him. How well I remember that all of Antigua turned out to see this Princess person, how every building that she would enter was repaired and painted so that it looked brand-new, how every beach that she would sun herself on had to look as if no one had ever sunned there before (I wonder now what they did about the poor sea? I mean, can a sea be made to look brand-new?), and how everybody she met was the best Antiguan body to meet, and no one told us that this person we were putting ourselves out for on such a big scale, this person we were getting worked up about as if she were God Himself, was in our midst because of something so common, so everyday: her life was not working out the way she had hoped, her life was one big mess.
(The people at the Mill Reef Club love the old Antigua. I love the old Antigua. Without question, we don't have the same old Antigua in mind.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374527075, Paperback)

A brilliant look at colonialism and its effects in Antigua--by the author of Annie John

"If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you come by aeroplane, you will land at the V. C. Bird International Airport. Vere Cornwall (V. C.) Bird is the Prime Minister of Antigua. You may be the sort of tourist who would wonder why a Prime Minister would want an airport named after him--why not a school, why not a hospital, why not some great public monument. You are a tourist and you have not yet seen . . ."

So begins Jamaica Kincaid's expansive essay, which shows us what we have not yet seen of the ten-by-twelve-mile island in the British West Indies where she grew up.

Lyrical, sardonic, and forthright by turns, in a Swiftian mode, A Small Place cannot help but amplify our vision of one small place and all that it signifies.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:04 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

MODERN & CONTEMPORARY FICTION (POST C 1945). From the award-winning author of Annie John comes a brilliant look at colonialism and its effects in Antigua."If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you come by aeroplane, you will land at the V. C. Bird International Airport. Vere Cornwall (V. C.) Bird is the prime minister of Antigua. You may be the sort of tourist who would wonder why a prime minister would want an airport named after him--why not a school, why not a hospital, why not some great public monument. You are a tourist and you have not yet seen ? "So begins Jamaica Kincaid's expansive essay, which shows us what we have not yet seen of the ten-by-twelve-mile island in the British West Indies where she grew up. Lyrical, sardonic, and forthright by turns, in a Swiftian mode, A Small Place cannot help but amplify our vision of one small place and all that it signifies.… (more)

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