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Re-mapping a Small Place: Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘A Small Place’

By Arundhati Sethi

At first sight, A Small Place, written by Antiguan-American writer, Jamaica Kincaid, appears to be a mere sliver of a book containing an ordinary portrait of a tiny and obscure Caribbean island that the writer belongs to. However, as one enters the text, one realizes that it has in fact, packed within it, a powerful and almost breathless critique of a debilitating colonial enterprise as well as an equally oppressive neo-imperial world-politic and the inevitable linkages between them.

Even more interestingly, Kincaid makes use of “tourism as the template” to carry this critique.[1] This book then in a sense addresses, in varying degrees of sarcasm, irony, and even blunt reproach, both travel and travellers and their unique relationship with their exotic tourist destination – in this case, her native island Antigua. Thus, right from the beginning, the narrator primarily addresses the figure of the modern tourist, who is just about to descend onto the island of Antigua. She seems to take the tourist/reader by the arm, on a guided tour per se. However, it is to be a tour of her island and on her terms.

An important feature of the narrator’s tour of Antigua is that while she certainly illuminates the tourist/reader about the nuances of the island, a parallel object of the narrator’s gaze is the tourist himself. Thus, while in most travel narratives, the traveller is the one possessing the power to see, while his presence escapes all scrutiny, in A Small Place, this gaze is inverted and makes visible the tourist and his gaze. Thus, the narrator simultaneously presents the psyche of a typical First World white male tourist as he explores the new space of Antigua, as well as her narrative, which constantly combats the tourist’s superficial gaze. The two accounts, thus, seem to co-exist. Initially, the narrator’s voice is muttered almost as asides, but gradually it begins to spill onto the centre-stage and takes over the text.

As she constructs the particular gaze of the modern tourist, this figure also begins to embody an uncanny spectre of a much older and seemingly disconnected historical pathology. To understand this overlap, one must note, “Tourism, like postcolonialism, has its roots in colonialism, both as theoretical construct and as a perceptual mechanism” (qtd in D’Hauteserre 237).[2] Thus, what becomes clear is that though the text is written in the last leg of the 20th century and is addressed to a tourist of a globalized, transnational, and free economy, about a decolonized and independent Antigua, the text is not merely putting to question the post-colonial malady of neo-imperialism but is “also exposing (its) nefarious, centuries-old point of origin” in colonialism (Ferguson 79). So when the narrator marvels at the unique Antiguan quality of not possessing a usual sense of time, it is not actually in a berating tone. Their refusal to comprehend and accept an artificially truncated categorization of “Time into the Past, the Present, and the Future” reflects in fact a far more insightful understanding of history (A Small Place 54).[3] Kincaid uses this Antiguan consciousness to reveal the inerasable tie between the colonial past and the post-colonial present.

Thus, the tourist then is a sort of a modified extension of the early colonial traveller and his imperial gaze. One of the crucial effects of this gaze, according to Ashcroft et al, has been that “landscapes of the colonized world have been used as cultural manuscripts on which meanings have been inscribed, erased, and overwritten in the broad geopolitics of Western superiority” (qtd in D’Hauteserre 237). It is important then, to trace in what way does the tourist’s gaze affect the natural and social landscape of Antigua.

Firstly, it seems to be a rather superfluous and fleeting gaze in the form of mere glimpses through his car window. There is an obvious distance and detachment between his privileged and exclusive positioning vis-a-vis the community at large. Thus, a possibility of a real engagement with the land and its people to allow an in-depth understanding of the place is rendered almost impossible. Secondly, the island, a fairly habituated, living and throbbing social entity is emptied out by the tourist and viewed as a mere geographical space where “the sun always shines” and the climate is “deliciously hot and dry”(4). His description of the island for most part with its tropical air and blank blue sea without any acknowledgement of the people inhabiting those conditions seems to be like that of a “terra nullius, an open and inviting (virginal) space into which the European [or North American, in this case] imagination can project itself and into which the European (usually male) explorer must penetrate” (Ashcroft et al 32)[4]. Thus, the landscape is rendered as a space rather than a place, “where space is defined as territory which is mappable, explorable” as opposed to place as “occupation, dwelling, being lived in” (Gauch 910).

Moreover, this mapping of the alien land is ultimately centered on his own self. Thus, the scorching sun is not understood in relation to the island and its inhabitants, but as a sunny change from his dull and rainy homeland. Similarly, the colour of the sea to him is likened by his mind to the colour of “the North American sky” (ASP 13). The bad roads too offer the tourist a safe amount of otherness that he rather enjoys as a change from his usual streets. The narrator further voices the tourist’s imagination, pressing the self-centered vision of his exploration. She writes, “you see yourself lying on the beach… taking a walk on that beach, you see yourself meeting new people (only they are new in a very limited kind of way, for they are people like you)…you see yourself, you see yourself…” (13).

Another crucial aspect of this gaze is a process of de-historicizing and de-contextualizing. Thus, the incongruity of the bad roads and the expensive Japanese car, or the latrine like school and hospital, at no point, urge the traveller to uncover their context. Moreover, the discourse about history he does possess in the form of a book on economic history is revealed to be a piece of twisted misinformation, full of self-glorification of the West and a complete blotting out of the colonial narrative of oppression.

Given this scenario, the narrator, identified by many critics as Kincaid herself, being an expatriate and therefore possessing a diasporic insider-outsider perspective, is able to then reveal not just the way things are, as seen by the eye, but the way things came to be this way. Therefore, to combat this reductive and distorted mapping, she offers a powerful counter-mapping of this very space. She engages in a detailed re-inscription of her landscape with the uncomfortable narratives of both the present and the past.

One of the most prominent examples of such a re-mapping that we encounter is with regard to the ever present sea, outlining the island. The tourist’s sense of rapture towards this vast expanse of pristine beauty is shattered by the narrator. He views the sea as a beautiful yet empty canvas, holding only a godlike boy on a windsurfer, much like him, on its surface. The narrator sullies this very image of the sea by infusing both the rubbish of the present as well as the tragedy of the past beneath its glittering surface.

The rather disgusting scatological imagery used to unsettle the previous vision of beauty is a rude reminder of a country quite in shambles, yet desperately trying to keep up appearances for the moneyed outsider, the White tourist. Moreover, without a moment’s pause, she dives into the even older depths of the sea, to reveal the long ago swallowed up bodies of her slave ancestors. Thus, almost suddenly, the picturesque sea that we beheld through the eyes of the tourist is transformed into a horrifying palimpsest carrying multiple narratives of its own land.

Moving on from sea to the land, while the narrator has already taken the tourist across the pitiable and unpaved roads, she also traces the few roads that are impeccable in their upkeep. This random and haphazard infrastructural phenomenon is once again given meaning by the narrator through the two figures of power in the Antiguan cosmos – an immensely wealthy, contemporary drug smuggler, and the other the Queen – a clear representative of their erstwhile colonial master. She also dwells on the names of many of the streets taken after a number of Englishmen that she refers to as maritime criminals, who were in fact valourized for their naval ‘victories’ by the Empire. Even the electric and telephone poles lining these roads and the very cars running on these roads marked by power politics are shown to be manifestations of corrupt post-colonial eco-political alliances. Like the image of the sea, here too, there is an incongruity between the overt glamour of the expensive Japanese car model, and the noisy leaded gasoline that clamors from within it, creating “an awful sound, like an old car – a very, old, dilapidated car” (6).  Moreover, while the government encourages banks to give out loans for cars to drive around tourists like him, a decent house is still a dream for the common Antiguan. We must note, therefore, that while the narrator is exposing the colonial traces embedded in the present day Antiguan scape, she is also constantly implicating the tourist/reader in the workings of this distant island.

Next the narrator/guide and the tourist/reader pass by a constellation of colonial monuments. The tourist attempts to satisfy his conscience by regarding these leftover relics as empty architectural marvels or symbols of modernity and civilization that the West offered to this place. However, the narrator, by weaving in her memories of the past, goes on to reveal them as essentially monuments of an oppressive colonial control and endows them with a political charge. For starters, we see the power of the State embodied in the Government House, which used to be replete with its foreign Governors, and visiting Princesses – a dominating structure, separated from the Antiguan community by a “high white wall” (25).

There is also the library (quite run-down by now and a store room for costumes of a carnival troupe), which in a way stands as a commanding manifestation of the ideological state-apparatus of the colonial enterprise. It fed the natives “fairy tales” about their encounter with the colonizer “in all their greatness”, the “right to do things [they] you did, how beautiful [they] you were, are, and always will be…” (42). Simultaneously, it also systematically “distorted and erased my [the narrator’s] history” (36). Thus, it was essentially a parasitic structure engaged in discursive and cultural imperialism. The famous Mill Reef Club is another such cultural monument housing ghosts of North American and European racism, exclusivity, and hypocritical philanthropy.

The Barclays Bank becomes the economic pillar of this constellation. The transition for the Barclay brothers from slave trade to post-emancipation banking was a smooth one, maintaining their profits all through. This transition between two distinct and monumental phases of history, without much change in the essential effect of power (except its overt guise) adds to Kincaid’s argument of an underlying link between colonialism and modern world politics.

Moreover, towards the end of the book, the more modern, post-independent buildings like the Hotel Training School and the “ugly” condominiums owned by “foreigners” from Syria and Lebanon and meant for another set of foreigners, begin to merge with the older monuments. The tragedy is that a kind of servitude to corrupt masters, who are disconnected from the people, seems to have been drilled into the Antiguans over the centuries and has now settled into a voiceless acceptance of power. Therefore, the place that takes shape before our eyes is one still entangled in the crisscross of corrupt governance and dishonest business, of the native’s “pauperedness” and the prosperity of notorious foreigners. Thus, it still appears to be an island whose destiny is not really its own.

By the end of the book, Kincaid seems to have re-inscribed her island’s scape with history, depth, and a great deal of complexity. And yet, in her last intense chapter, she offers a desire for her home, to not be an “unreal” exoticized, intensified, and otherized spectacle for the outsider’s gaze but recognized and understood as “simply a place” inhabited by a human ordinariness (Gauch 918).[5]

[1] Ferguson, Moira. 1994. “A Small Place: Counter Knowledge with a Vengeance”. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. University of Virginia Press, p.79

[2] D’Hauteserre, Anne-Marie. 2008. “Post Colonialism, Colonialism and Tourism”. A Companion to Tourism. Ed. Alan A. Lew, C. Michael Hall, Allan M. Williams. John Wiley and Sons.

[3] Kincaid, Jamaica. 1988. A Small Place (ASP). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York.

[4] Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. 2001. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. Routledge. Taylor and Francis E-Library.

[5]Gauch, Suzanne. 2002. “A Small Place: Some Perspectives on the Ordinary”. Callaloo. Vol. 25, No. 3. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 910-919.

Arundhati Sethi has completed her Masters in English Literature (Honors with Research) from Mumbai University in 2016. Her Master’s thesis focused on the twin Partition films by the diasporic film-maker, Anup Singh. Her research interests include Postcolonial and Diaspora studies. She has briefly flirted with middle school English teaching and is also pursuing the classical dance of Odissi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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