Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place; Literary analysis and review

Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place is a piece of realistic fiction that describes the impact of tourism on the small island of Antigua. It provides a blunt and critical look at post-colonial society in Antiqua and is a significant piece in the canon of postcolonial Caribbean literature. Through an assertive yet poetic voice, Kincaid takes the reader on a highly descriptive and personalized tour of Antigua. She presents a surprising and sometimes startlingly dark outlook on the tourism industry of the West Indies.

This paper will demonstrate how A Small Place fits into the canon of postcolonial literature by exploring three significant aspects within this work.. Kincaid cleverly outlines the growth of the tourism industry in the 1970’s in the aftermath of the end of British rule which began in the 16th century. She portrays her own love-hate relationship towards the British colonial rule; something that makes this piece unique in voice, although this type of exploration is common in postcolonial literature.  In Kincaid’s work, she refers to all visitors to the island as well as readers as “you,” and in doing so, depersonalizes the readers  by addressing them directly. This creates an aggressive “us” against “them” feeling in the piece.  The choice of the pronoun “you” constantly challenges the colonial hierarchy and perceived elevated social status of the visitors. This creates a certain shock value while Kincaid’s descriptions and the associations she makes towards the reader become more and more abrasive which makes her work bold in contrast to other works published in the 1980’s  such as the vagueness in the handmaids tale, or Macho Camacho’s BeatFinally, Kincaid presents a scathing view of tourism and equates it to a type of “new-colonialism” and most certainly a legacy of colonialism. She even ties it to the end of the sugar cane plantations that were run by the British as Kincaid breaks down the process of deterioration following Antigua’s independence from Britain.
A Small Place explores many themes common in  postcolonial literature. “Postcolonial literature generally  adapts the language of the colonizer. The authors elaborate on an alternative history expressing how history has been rewritten, while expressing an interest in their nationhood while challenging the idea of cultural and social hierarchies and racial stereotypes.”(Shmoop Editorial Team, 2008) Here we will examine the way Kincaid details the difficult transition from colonialism to independence. To readers unfamiliar with the history of Antigua, Kincaid gives a shocking portrayal of the history of the island while at the same time presenting the troubled relationship between Western European societies and the island of Antigua in the postcolonial world. Kincaid works towards challenging the use of language, through her assertive and blunt style of writing, while portraying a world turned upside down following a shift from British rule to independence. As the country of Antigua struggles to rebuild their society from colonial rule, they are left vulnerable to exploitation, falling victim to crooked government. Kincaid expresses how the tourism industry is one of these exploits. She portrays the society through her own point of view making this book a unique postcolonial piece of literature which focuses on the disruption following independence from colonial control.
When a colonial power leaves, often the local people are struggling with the challenges of having been  stripped of their own identity and culture.Sometimes in this chaos, some individuals fondly remember some aspects of colonial culture. These people struggle with balancing the discomfort which comes from change while regaining their independence and reforming a new independent identity. This is one of the main themes Kincaid examines through her fondness of the library which is now in ruins. Despite the library serving as a tool to glamorize British culture, Kincaid expresses her fondest childhood memories and love of reading that was only possible because of the library. The glamorization and cultural promotion of British culture was replaced with American pop-culture which resulted in a deterioration of education. Despite Antiguan education being predicated on British history and educational style, Kincaid admires this as the one good thing about the former British rule from her childhood, (though Kincaid does not entirely endorse either; she explains it as “British rubbish” from her generation being replaced with “American rubbish”). Meanwhile. Kincaid’s beloved library remains in ruins while a smaller library sits above a run down dry goods store which isn’t even large enough to hold most of the books from the original library. Due to Kincaid’s strong connection to the library, she expresses a longing for old Antigua before British rule was lost, yet expresses hatred towards colonialist rule and influence – a love-hate relationship of a  glorified past. Kincaid’s longing for old Antigua and the corruption that has taken place following Antiguan independence demonstrates a conflicted relationship with being ruled by a culture that is not their own  while struggling to create independence.
Kincaid writes using powerful and provocative language that turns colonial language upside-down.  In particular, the objectification of the reader/tourist (which she presumes to be a white person) by the use of the personal pronoun “you” to describe all of them.  Kincaid speaks of the tourists in the way that the colonists would have spoken about Antiguans but at the same time she is speaking to the tourist in the way she imagines they speak and think of the locals.  Again this interesting use of language is common to postcolonial writing.
By the author’s  choice of the pronoun “you”, Kincaid directly and personally engages the reader. It gives the assertion that she believes that the reader contributes to the tourism industry in some way, thus contributing to the glorification and support of impoverished living conditions being representative of West Indian culture. Kincaid expresses how literally anyone could be a tourist and everyone is a local, except that only the tourist had the privilege of actually being able to save up the money to go on a vacation. Kincaid throws her feeling of injustice back into the reader’s face, through the use of “you” followed with her own impersonation which works towards humbling the reader, bringing them down to the level in which she perceives how she and other local Antiguans are viewed by common European and American. Kincaid also explains why the Antiguan economy is the way that it is  through the use of a small history lesson. She begins by describing the common routine of the tourist; first by forming a bond with the locals. By pointing out small procedures such as how the tourist would provide their own literature, and avoid the local health care, Kincaid builds up to the explanation  as to why these conditions exist, i.e. postcolonial damage and economic abandonment. Kincaid expresses how the glorification of their broken roads, impoverished living conditions, and lack of a proper library simply adds insult upon injury. Meanwhile the majority of revenue from the tourism industry simply works to keep Western Europe and North American economies wealthy while locals remain in impoverished conditions; an issue Kincaid addresses in anger, how “we made you bastards rich”(Kincaid, p.10). his exploitation is omitted from common history books, thus leaving the common tourist ignorant towards these issues and the real relationship between Western and European societies and local West Indian communities.
Through Kincaid’s attempt to reverse roles, she actively challenges the way Antiguans are treated and portrayed in this post-colonial culture. Through Kincaid’s counter discourse, she helps the reader to identify with the Antiguans and to feel that their situation is unjust and also urges the reader to share her anger. Kincaid describes modern tourism as just another form of exploitation; contradictory to the belief that it supports their economy. Kincaid presents tourism as a form of economic colonialism and relates it to the sugarcane industry going bankrupt. In other words, the tourism industry simply developed as a way to compensate for the lost revenue from the sugarcane industry since slavery was finally outlawed and plantations became bankrupt.  Kincaid’s  critique offers an alternate narrative to mainstream thinking that supports tourism, demonstrating how this literary piece fits into the post-colonial cannon. By explicitly demonstrating the relationship between modern industrial exploitations and the slave industry, the reader can now better understand how these injustices continue today, except disguised under a different label.  Kincaid works towards educating her readers  about their role and influence as a tourist. t. Kincaid does this by painting a picture of a tourist that is in fact despised by locals, and seen as something ugly and a contributor to maintaining a foreign market that Kincaid argues simply replaced the colonial (and exploitative) sugar cane industry once that was no longer profitable. However, according to Kincaid, the average tourist would not be interested in such disruption placing them in the same category as the few wealthy people who are redeemed as Bourgeois or at least consider themselves as such.
Kincaid’s assertion of a counter discourse and appropriation of colonial language reverses the patronization she feels is projected onto local Antiguans when Westerners visit for a holiday  Such as her assumption from the pleasure tourists get from experiencing some of the run down places such as the damaged roads which Kincaid imagines are the complete opposite to the roads in the western world. Kincaid feels it is insulting and patronizing to locals (herself included) to have tourists deem the impoverished conditions of  Antiguans and the the fallout of  postcolonial damage as glorified, and/or viewed as an exotic culture. Kincaid utilizes these feelings and reverses the roles, creating a controversy among some of her readers from her use of assertive and blunt language, for example , her description of the western tourist as “an ugly human being”(Kincaid, Pg.14). However, this is simply a change in authority, and Kincaid’s way of trying to reclaim power over her country through reversing roles and trying to assert an independent voice while urging Antiguans to reclaim their power .
From this real life scenario of the tourist to local Antiguan relationship, Kincaid begins to emphasize the historical relationship between the tourism industry and colonialism based on actual events. She uses the library as a metaphor.  The date in which the library is destroyed by an earthquake is around the same time that the last sugar plantation was shut down. The author draws an indirect link between Antiguan social and economic downfall and the end of slavery. Since the sugar industry was no longer profitable, tourism was used to take its place, again exploiting the land and resources for financial gain.   Since Colonialism dictatorship and control were eliminated, there was no socio-economic culture to maintain structure resulting in some disintegration within society that the British rule once provided. Again, this is symbolized by the library which was once functional, but became abandoned with a sign stating that repairs are pending while being bypassed by pedestrians. Similarly, the Antiguan community sits in ruins as tourists visit and contribute minimally to the local economy, keeping their current economic state stationary. Postcolonial damage remains, which is a result of the former economic structure being taken away suddenly resulting in an economic crash. Because of this economic crash, locals have very little economic grounding which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation contributing to power differences (ability to travel/vacation) and objectification (glorification of impoverished conditions as exotic culture) resulting in the prevalent resort and tourism industry. Despite the wealthy class being aware of these issues, none of them had contributed to repairing some of the broken roads or repairing the library. Kincaid recalls having a conversation with a member of a family which established the Mill Reef Club in regards to restoring the library. At this point it is expressed that their main concerns in complying with wealthy visitors and investing in enterprises would only generate more revenue for themselves. If any tourist were to be brave enough to leave their comfy resort and venture out into the local community, they would see a drastic difference. The wealth on the island is generally kept amongst the wealthy. Kincaid mentions that they hide their money away in Swedish bank accounts, thus preventing any revenue from entering the economy which would help repair local Antiguan communities. She asserts that these families who possess the wealth to make any significant change to local communities are negligent to do anything, which is why the current economic state continues. Meanwhile, wealthy landowners and members of parliament continue to embezzle money hiding it away in Swedish bank accounts, and only investing in businesses which would generate more income for themselves. As more tourists flock to places like Antigua for its natural beauty, attractions and resorts, the money they spend there contributes to making the wealthy even richer and more powerful, with minimal contributions to the local economy and widespread poverty,  contradictory to popular western ideas about tourism building West Indian economies.
The marked disparity amongst the wealthy and poor in Antigua, is a direct correlation between colonialist rule and post colonialist damage which led to the the separation of classes and living standards contrasted between the average-income western tourist and the average-income of the local Antiguan. The local Antiguan has little chance to afford a plane ticket to go anywhere which further demonstrates a very low wealth distribution despite the amount of wealth that is generated from tourism. When tourist and other landowners alike contribute to this industry, they contribute to this massive wealth gap. Kincaid addresses her perception of the “typical tourist” which is described as white, middle-class possibly from the United States, Europe or Canada. Since tourists from those parts of the world do not have to endure or even acknowledge a massive inequality of wealth distribution while on vacation in Antigua, Kincaid works to belittle them in an attempt to educate them about this prevailing issue. Her anger is ever-present as she attacks these new economic colonists who are actively participating in this exploitative industry, but may not even be aware, while being consumed by their sense of entitlement.
Through the genre of realistic fiction, Kincaid creates a hypothetical situation which bases itself in reality. Through the  impersonal descriptions of the local Antiguan perceptions of tourism, and tourists themselves, the possibility of Kincaid’s assertion persists after reading this piece. While the reader has no certain way of knowing that all the locals share Kincaid’s perspective of tourism, this creates a reality without certainty or any solid proof of validity of Kincaid’s assertions about tourism and the local Antiguan hatred towards it. The reader cannot know for sure if every Antiguan fully understands that “only about .20 cents out of every dollar made by resorts make it into their economy totaling at about 14.2% of the region’s GDP.” (The Effects of Tourism in the Caribbean, 2016)

The place, theme and social situations described in A Small Place are all based on reality which portrays its theme of post-colonialism and the relationship between tourism, making this entire story very real and very plausible.  This literary piece is an excellent example of postcolonial literature and paints a vivid picture of the difficulties of post-colonial life. It is a foundational book in this canon of literature and the style and content has allowed it to endure as a classic in this cannon.  Kincaid strives to give the reader a behind-the-scenes look at Antiguan life, culture and economy, while outlying a historic timeline presenting the progress from slavery to modern class differences, and the establishment of the tourism industry as a replacement the plantations in order to keep generating revenue. Tourism plays a major role in maintaining corrupt government and imbalanced wealth distribution. Kincaid works to help educate the world, though bold explicit language, and direct reference to the reader directly.

 

Works Cited

Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988. Print.

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Challenging Stereotypes.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, 2008. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.

“The Effects of Tourism in the Caribbean.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.

 

 

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