Jamaica Kincaid

A Small Place

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A Small Place Summary

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A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid is a creative essay that details present-day and historical Antigua via an unspoken conversation between a native Antiguan and a tourist (or “you”). The piece criticizes the corrupt Antiguan government, British colonization, and slavery. Collins Publishers published the book in 1988.

The essay opens with the narrator telling the reader what he, as a tourist, would see when visiting Antigua. The tourist goes through customs with no trouble. He might wonder why the airport, instead of schools or hospitals, is named after the Prime Minister.  The narrator goes on describing the beauty of the Caribbean island that the tourist sees and some things he doesn’t see.

The tourist goes on a wild ride in a cab and notices that everything is in US currency. Brand new, Japanese-made cars are everywhere, but they run like old cars because in Antigua they use leaded gasoline. The new vehicles are parked in front of old houses because ministers own many car dealerships, so car loans are easy to come by. House loans, however, are not.

There are bedraggled schools and hospitals. When the ministers of Antigua get sick, they take the first plane to New York. An earthquake destroyed the library in 1974, and no one has gotten around to repairing it for over a decade.

Soon after the earthquake, Antigua was declared independent from Britain. The Antiguans praise a “British God” for this. One of the books the tourist brought is on the topic of how the West got rich from small shopkeepers and the invention of wristwatches, not the slave labor of Antiguan ancestors.

The tourist passes some mansions. One belongs to a Middle Eastern family that became rich selling dry goods door to door, and now builds ugly buildings rented out to the rich. Another mansion belongs to a drug smuggler and another to a beautiful young girlfriend of a government official.

Finally, at the hotel, the tourist sees other tourists milling about on the beach, two of which are fat and pastry-like. The tourist imagines himself laying on the beach, meeting other tourists and eating local foods.

The narrator points out that the tourist doesn’t consider where his waste goes when he flushes the toilet, nor where his bath water goes when he empties the tub. As Antigua has no proper sewage disposal system, the tourist might feel the contents of his toilet grazing his ankle when he wades into the Caribbean Sea. But then, the narrator concedes, the Sea is big. In fact, the number of slaves it swallowed would surprise the tourist.

The tourist realizes that tourists are ugly human beings. As he looks around at what the locals do with a cheap cloth and how they squat over a hole, he thinks of how much smarter his ancestors were and how much more ruthless. Had the Europeans been less cruel, the position of the tourist and the locals would be switched.

The native Antiguans hate the tourists and make fun of them behind closed doors. The truth is, the natives would like a holiday just like the tourist is taking, but they are too poor.
The narrator says that Antigua is different from how it was in her childhood, mostly because it’s no longer a British colony. As a child, she lived on a street named after an English maritime criminal. There was a library, a Government House surrounded by a white wall, a post office, a courthouse, and a bank named after slave traders.

The narrator tells the story of a Czechoslovakian who arrived at the island having fled from Hitler. The man was trained as a dentist but set himself up as a pediatrician. When the narrator got whooping cough, her mother brought her to the dentist, and the man checked her cleanliness. There was also a headmistress working at a school that hadn’t previously allowed illegitimate children (in an attempt to segregate the students). She referred to black children as monkeys.

The narrator is infuriated that the English indoctrinated her. She says, “…for isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?”

The narrator describes how the Antiguans were murdered and robbed by the English and then when the bodies of the Englishman and his family were found mutilated in a bungalow, the English washed their hands of the island and left. The Antiguans now terrorize themselves the same way the English terrorized them with capitalist behaviors and a corrupt government.

The narrator gives a short history of Antigua. Christopher Columbus discovered the 9×12 mile island, and the “human rubbish Europeans settled it along with their African slaves. The Europeans left, and the slaves became the natives of Antigua.

A Small Place had a mixed reception. One critic, Susan Sontag, hailed Kincaid for her “emotional truthfulness…” and stated that Kincaid doesn’t “treat these things in a sentimental or facile way.” In contrast, the editor of the New Yorker, Robert Gottlieb, saw the essay as an attack on the people of Antigua and refused to publish it. Kincaid was unofficially banned from her country for five years and believed that if she were to return, she might have been killed.

Jane King wrote an essay in response to A Small Place called A Small Place Writes Back in which she accuses Kincaid of finding the Caribbean boring and that she has no reason to tear down the island. Likewise, academic Moira Ferguson argued that Kincaid has become “an increasingly mainstream American writer.”