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A Small Place is Jamaica Kincaid's 1988 essay on the state of post-independence Antigua. The short, often bitter, essay is primarily concerned with the economic stagnation and governmental corruption of the island in the 1980's: Kincaid, born in Antigua but currently residing in Vermont, looks for explainations for the "underdevelopment" of her nation. The text is an outburst of frustration, beautifully written but often ranting; part of its value lies in the fact that Kincaid often does not try to lay specific blame. I'll comment a bit on the overall significance of the book below, but suffice to say that it's a seminal text in Caribbean post-colonial thought.

Note: Forgive this node for its quote-heavy nature. It attempts to be as value-added as possible, but I also want to show a bit of the beauty of Kincaid's writing.

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 seen a school in Antigua, you have not yet seen the hospital in Antigua, you have not yet seen a public monument in Antigua.

The piece opens in the second person, as Kincaid describes the beauty of the tourist's vision of the island, one gradually marred by the realities of poverty and state failure. Our tourist, from America ("or worse, Europe"), affects a sort of willful blindness; to him or her, the poverty is a surprise, a sort of curiousity:

You have brought your own books with you, and among them is one of those new books about economic history, one of those books explaining how the West (meaning Europe and North America after its conquest and settlement by Europeans) got rich: the West got rich not from the free (free--in this case meaning got-for-nothing) and then undervalued labour, for generations, of the people like me you see walking around you in Antigua but from the ingenuity of small shopkeepers in Sheffield and Yorkshire and Lancashire, or wherever ...

The next passage describes the "ugliness" of the tourist--"not an ugly person ordinarily," but ugly as a symbol of the inequities between the former metropoles and former colonies. For Kincaid, a tourist acts on an understandable, probably universal, urge (escape from boredom), turning the boring lives of others into a source of entertainment. The tourist is ugly to those who can't leave, who don't have the resources--in this case, the impoverished descendants of slaves. Kincaid recognizes that tourism isn't extractive in the same way as the colonial economy, but it retains the same sort of imbalances.

Kincaid does not lay such imbalances wholly at the door or Europe and America, but she does describe the skewed playing field of the global economy, in which multinationals employ state power while ordinary citizens are left without access to basic government services. She also describes the fundamental reticence of former slaves to participate in capitalism: For centuries, their ancestors were treated as capital.

The majority of the text, though, concerns itself with government corruption rather than economics. Kincaid claims that authoritarianism was originally a European import, in the patterns of rule aimed to keep the Caribbean profitable for the planter class. After independence, the population, trained into complacency by centuries of living under an unresponsive state, accepts and tolerates the one-man rule of Bird. His lower-level officials get new cars every year and go to New York for medical treatment; his subjects lack access to sewage treatment and health care.

... It was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty--a European disease. Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way ... Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master's yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just 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.

The text ends with a categorical rejection of essentialism. Antiguans aren't the "good" against a European or American "bad"; the "ugliness" of tourists and merchants is not a factor of individual morality but of systemic injustices. Post-colonial states fail because of a legacy of economic depravation and authoritarian rule, because of a present in which the wealthy nations and multinationals control the rules of global trade and governance, but also because the "noble and exalted" former slaves are as prone to greed as everyone else. Kincaid's text echoes a lot of the themes of major anti-colonial works, but resists the urge to oversimplify for a political purpose; A Small Place is an expression of frustration and sadness, not a piece of propaganda. But neither does Kincaid offer easy excuses for the failure of the wealthy nations to compensate for the legacies of colonial rule.

There is no doubt that Jamaica Kincaid has strong opinions. It is what makes her work attractive. “A Small Space” addresses the almost too-close-to-home repulsive nature of the tourist. It takes a few lines to realize but the intended audience (mainly white Americans and Europeans) is being criticized for their clueless, selfish nature. 

Kincaid goes through a travel log to Antigua, her homeland, from the perspective of you, the tourist, displaying her distaste for you through not-so-subtle contrasting phrases. For example, “You wonder why a Prime Minister would want an airport named after him--why not a school… you have not yet seen a school in Antigua.” There are several more examples of this same comparison throughout the writing. Kincaid tells the tourist what they are seeing from their perspective, how beautiful Antigua is, how it compares to their homes. Then you read lines alluding to what the life of a native is here. The best way to describe it is that reading this brings you shame. Shame for having most likely been a tourist once, with an experience very similar to what Kincaid depicts. That emotional connection to the writing, albeit negative, is what makes this essay powerful.

Kincaid's grip on her readers lets her really dig into that guilty feeling in our gut as she jumps from simpler issues like things like paved roads to slavery and murder. What does Kincaid want to tell us? It’s hard to know. Is she trying to train a new generation of apathetic travelers? Or is she content with simply degrading our self confidence and calling it a day?

It isn’t until the end of her essay that we see Kincaid's true feelings. Not exactly hate towards the tourist, but disappointment. Disappointment in a human world where people only focus on their differences and readily ignore the similarities which are much greater. Aren’t we all just people, traveling in strange lands?

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