Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

As an undergraduate, I had to read Jamaica Kincaid's novel Annie John for my Postmodern Literature class. It's a super short novel, but I remember how the story struck me, and its themes of the African diaspora across the Caribbean. The story of the little girl Annie has always stuck with me. Having said that, several years ago I picked up Kincaid's book A Small Place, and while in Hawaii started reading it. Amazing, and haunting.

Synopsis: This short 84 page, non-fiction writing about Kincaid's home island of Antigua, is written in short chapters that could be individual essays. She opens the book with a poignant piece on the view of the native Antiguan to the tourist, or what I think Kincaid is saying is the view of any native peoples to their modern invaders:
An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, and ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness (you do not look the way they look); the physical sight of you does not please them; you have bad manners...; they do not like the way you speak ( you have an accent); they collapse helpless from laughter, mimicking the way they imagine you must look as you carry out some everyday bodily function. They do not like you. They do not like me! That thought never actually occurs to you.
She then chronicles not only the irony of all the beauty the tourist sees as compared to the poverty of those that live there & work for these industries, but then also discusses the dilapidation of their cities and infrastructure after gaining their independence back from their colonizer. Here we have a classic tale of postcolonialism, and the struggle of a nation and its people to be independent and free from those who held them captive as slaves, yet managed to maintain their island in ways they now find that they cannot.

Review: I really loved reading Kincaid's take on postcolonial Antiguan society, on the role of tourism on her country, and on the corruption of big business that prevents "culture" from flourishing on its own. Maybe it was just that this small book filled my fuel tank for deep thinking, or maybe it was that this book pointed out some of the cultural questions I've asked myself every time I visit Hawaii, but I found myself really examining tourist culture, and the way we commodify any place of beauty and forget those that are from there. It doesn't take long to see and feel the differences in Hawaii once you step away from the resorts and nice hotels along Waikiki, or any of those scattered around the islands, and go to any of the small communities that live on the island 24/7. These communities and people really are different, and way more complex than you had even considered. That is actually what I love most about travel to begin with...NOT being a tourist so much as being a cultural observer. Does that mean that packing around a camera and being a toursit is so wrong? No, I don't believe so, but Kincaid reminds us of what we should remember and be aware of; that behind the photo ops, there are people who gain from your presence, and just might resent the dependence that comes from you being there!

In short, I loved Kincaid's pointed words. While the book does seem more about awareness, and not one of ready solutions, I still found that the education from it was priceless. Honestly, I always think about this very subject when I travel, but will consider even more the kind of sensitivity, respect, and awareness I should have for those I might "invade" while there.


  1. This is the first thing I read by Kincaid. I read it in college in a seminar on Travel and Tourism Literature and I loved it too.

    Your review reminded me of why the book had moved me so much - thank you!

  2. I've never read Kincaid but your review makes it sound like a wonderfully written story that should be picked up sometime in my book reading travels!!

  3. This sounds amazing. Jamaica Kincaid is an author I've been meaning to read. I've been told that she can sound quite aggressive, and the passage you shared shows it, but some things just need to be said.

  4. I've never read Jamaica Kincaid, but you've convinced me that I really must!

  5. I am taking a Caribbean History class @ Elon University in North Carolina and we are writing a review essay on this book. A question that the teacher raised that I thought was interesting was "Does what is currently happening in the Caribbean simply a new colonialism or is it slavery?" And one might automatically think that it is not slavery, but look who owns these tourist businesses (ie: hotels, shopping outlets, etc); not the native islanders--AMERICANS AND EUROPEANS. When we land on these islands we land in the tourist sites and our money is simply passing through, but it is not really penetrating the island itself and therefore they stay poor. The natives are almost forced to focus on a specific trade because artisanship alone will not provide sufficiently from themselves or their families. Also, these countries are granted subsidies with loads of interest that leave them in more debt than before. They are trapped. Is it safe to say that this could be considered enslavement?
    Please watch the documentary "Life and Debt" (a spinoff of this book/focuses on Jamaica in relation to colonialism).