Page count: 81 | Published: 1988 | Rating: 5 stars!
“If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see…”
So begins Jamaica Kincaid’s powerful portrait of the damaged paradise that was her childhood home.
The island of Antigua is a magical place of breathtaking beauty, with cloudless skies, dazzling blue waters, and majestic sunsets. But it is also a place of dramatic contrasts. What one doesn’t see when on holiday there is the sweeping corruption, the dilapidated schools, hospitals and houses, and the shameful legacy of its colonial past.
In A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid candidly appraises where she grew up, and makes palpable the impact of European colonisation and tourism on her home. The book is a missive to the traveller who arrives wanting to escape the banality and corruption of some large place. Kincaid, eloquent and resolute, reminds us that the Antiguan people, formerly British subjects, are unable to escape the same drawbacks of their own tiny realm – that behind the Caribbean scenery are human lives, always complex and often fraught with injustice.
Originally published in 1988, this short essay exceeded my expectations. I’ve had my eye on Kincaid’s works for a while – I reviewed the novel ‘Lucy’ a few weeks ago; ‘A Small Place’ was however my intro (back in October 2018) to this distinguished Antiguan author.
Kincaid opens the book in conversation with the reader, asking you to imagine you’re a tourist touching down in Antigua; taking in the pretty views and looking forward to a period of escapism in paradise. This opener lulls you into a false sense of security because she quickly (before the first paragraph even closes) starts highlighting the privileges you – most likely from Europe or the US – have over the people who live and work on the island (in roles that make your stay easy/breezy). Do you stop and think about what life is like for them?
“…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.”Page 4 – ‘A Small Place’
‘A Small Place’ is 81 pages of acerbic commentary on how the tourism industry in Antigua is basically neo-colonialism, upheld by a corrupt government. You the emboldened tourist, facilitated by the government, live it up in private resorts blissfully ignorant that the carving up of pockets of the island by hoteliers is akin to privatisation – that beach the locals used to enjoy, is now your private oasis…literally locked away, accessible only at an exorbitant cost.
Pick up this book and get a wake up call on what ‘independence’ actually means in the Caribbean, the term (and the annual pomp and ceremony surrounding it) is simply a misnomer – have ties with the ‘mother country’ really been cut? How can they be when these countries are heavily dependant on the contributions tourism makes towards GDP, owe criminally insane debts to the IMF, and are effectively forced into import/export trade deals that bring little back into the economy. Let’s not even start on the individuals who govern these states – Kincaid likens the Antiguan government (at the time) to the Duvaliers of Haiti.
Reading this book made me take a good look at the privileges I have as a British born black woman – I too have sought out resorts when I’ve visited the Caribbean, I have acted like the tourist Kincaid describes and to be totally honest I’m embarrassed and will do better!
Liked this book? Try these:
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn – offers a really good (albeit fictional) account of the tourism industry in Jamaica and the impact it has on local life.
Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique – although I didn’t love this book Yanique’s barbed commentary on tourists and private resorts in the Virgin Islands echoed points made by Kincaid.