Book Column: A Small Place

A Small Place, written by Jamaica Kincaid, is reflective and analytical as Kincaid details her experiences as an Antiguan immigrant in America while focusing on how her home country tries to repair the wounds of British colonialism. Throughout her book, she addresses the reader as “you” to rope them into her narrative. While “you” specifically refers to English colonists and tourists, it’s an effective literary instrument that makes the reader, regardless of their identity, question their perspective on colonialism and other forms of oppression. Compact, yet poignant, A Small Place strikes the perfect balance between being a memoir and a critique of colonial and post-colonial Antigua.

Kincaid starts off the novel by satirizing the romanticized process that European and North American travelers go through as they fly to Caribbean islands, like Antigua, for vacation. She speaks of Antigua as a magical place that is diametrically opposed to America in its size and culture. For Western travelers trying to escape the banality of their home countries, Antigua is the perfect playground. There, they are able to relax on the beach and indulge in countless luxuries while being blithely unaware of the harsh realities that come with being an average Antiguan citizen. Kincaid states that this ignorance is inseparable from being a tourist as tourism necessitates the tourist lacking the self-awareness to realize that purchasing an idealized experience of people in the Global South is exploitative.

Despite Antigua having a majority black population, Kincaid is no stranger to anti-black racism in her homeland. She recalls her experiences at the Mill Reef Club, a group of private residences for Westerners to spend their Antiguan vacations at, where her doctor required that his wife inspect Kincaid with the presumption that she would be unhygienic simply because she was black. When she was in primary school, the headmistress, a Northern Irish woman, routinely vilified her and other black girls by calling them monkeys. 

Despite the blatant racism she faced as a child, she was reluctant to use the word racism to characterize her experiences with British people in Antigua. To a young Kincaid, British people were supposed to exemplify intelligence, civility and humanity. However, her experiences with British Antiguans shatter this perception, so she begins to see them as a separate entity from the British people in the metropole. 

As Kincaid dissects colonialism and its effects on Antiguan, she shows how it’s both an economic and cultural practice. Because Antigua is such a small country, it generates most of its revenue through the tourism industry. While foreigners engage with this exploitative mechanism, wealthy Antiguans use their money to buy and develop real estate that is not accessible for most black Antiguan citizens. For instance, a disproportionate amount of Syrian and Lebanese investors control the real estate market and build luxury condominiums that are sold in American dollars to Europeans and Americans. 

Because of Antigua’s laissez-faire government, the country rarely invests in creating new housing that is accessible to working-class Antiguans. As a result, the quality of life for black Antiguans decreases while the quality of life for American and European tourists does not. Although Syrian and Lebanese people have a significant stake in the real estate market, they do not have the same cultural hegemony that the British do. 

It’s important to remember that Antigua did not become independent from the United Kingdom until Kincaid was 32 years old, so in her most developmental years, Anglophonic culture was inseparable from Antiguan culture. As a young woman, she remembers being forced to celebrate the late Queen Victoria’s birthday because it was a national holiday. Apathetic and disdainful, Kincaid expresses her disgust at how Antiguans, and colonized people at large, were forced to glorify the culture of their colonizers as if they deserved to be revered and not detested. This enforced celebration of the British monarchy is representative of colonization as something that is not only material but psychological. As Kincaid concludes A Small Place, she is keen on reminding the reader of just how invasive colonization is. Not only does it destabilize the economy of a country, but it strips the agency away from the people of that country. Without that agency, you are vulnerable and incapable of resisting forms of domination, such as the tourism industry, which obfuscate your reality for the entertainment and pleasures of others that are not aware of your suffering.