A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Date Read: May 19th 2017

Published: 2000

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Pages: 81

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

Lyrical, sardonic, and forthright, A Small Place magnifies our vision of one small place with Swiftian wit and precision. Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay candidly appraises the ten-by-twelve-mile island in the British West Indies where she grew up, and makes palpable the impact of European colonization and tourism. The book is a missive to the traveler, whether American or European, who wants to escape the banality and corruption of some large place. Kincaid, eloquent and resolute, reminds us that the Antiguan people, formerly British subjects, are unable to escape the same drawbacks of their own tiny realm—that behind the benevolent Caribbean scenery are human lives, always complex and often fraught with injustice.

 

Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

Where do I even begin with this book? A Small Place is… brutal. It’s brutal for the reader (especially if you’re a white reader), for Antiguans, the Antiguan government and it’s tourism industry. A Small Place is a short book of 81 pages, full of vitriol, which is somewhat justified. Kincaid gives harsh criticisms on her native island’s dishonest and disappointing leadership and ultimately views the poor governing of Antigua as an extension of colonialism; neo-colonialism, if you will.

In A Small Place, Kincaid takes readers to Antigua in four chapters. In the first chapter, Kincaid describes the picture-perfect beauty of her country and juxtaposes the island’s beauty to the not-so-pretty issues everyday citizens endure. In subsequent chapters, Kincaid critiques the essence of travel, tourism and even tourists – who are mostly white. At some point, I began to wonder if Kincaid condoned xenophobia, because the way she describes how fellow Antiguans and other folks from the Caribbean dislike tourists (to the point where she actually insults imaginary white tourists), it could be seen as quite hateful –

An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an 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 (it is their custom to eat their food with their hands; you try eating their way, you look silly; you try eating the way you always eat, you look silly); they do not like the way you speak… (pg. 17)

Halfway through reading, I also began to wonder if this book was banned at some point – it had to be! The bold quote below explains my curiosity –

Is the Antigua I see before me, self-ruled, a worse place than what it was when it was dominated by the bad-minded English and all the bad-minded things they brought with them? How did Antigua get to such a state that I would have to ask myself this? For the answer on every Antiguan’s lips to the question ‘What is going on here now?’ is ‘The government is corrupt. Them are thief, them are big thief.’ Imagine, then, the bitterness and the shame in me as I tell you this. (pg. 42)

I’d fear for my life if I ever published anything like this! I doubt A Small Place is even sold in the Caribbean because Kincaid spews sharp, controversial opinions on (former) Prime Ministers of Antigua, Grenada and Haiti. She’s really a ball of fire, this Kincaid woman!

I think it’s important to read this book/memoir as a satire. If you take Kincaid’s frank critique to heart, you’ll be missing the point completely. Reading Kincaid lament over the corruption and misappropriation of Antiguan government funds felt all too familiar to me. A Small Place mimics the same issues Chinua Achebe had with Nigeria, as seen in The Trouble With Nigeria and mimics the SAME issues we face in Ghana as well. For example – for years, the Chinese have been mining gold in Ghana illegally (locally referred to as ‘Galamsey’) to the point where most of our water bodies (like River Pra & River Ankobra in the Western region, Enu River in the Ashanti Region, The Black Volta in the Upper West Region, River Densu in Accra, Birim River in the Eastern Region) within the country are contaminated with mercury and other toxic metals. While the current administration is trying to put a halt to the illegal mining, allegedly, previous administrations were benefitting from the illegal act. In A Small Place, Kincaid speaks on how ‘The government is for sale; anybody from anywhere can come to Antigua and for a sum of money can get what he wants. (pg. 47).’ Many citizens in Ghana feel the same way! Supermarkets, coffee shops/restaurants, various corporations and even land, are owned by foreigners. Government officials rarely have locals in mind and seem to be easily swayed by money-making foreigners who are slowly taking over our natural resources,

How does a food importer on a small island have enough money to lend to a government? Syrian and Lebanese nationals regularly lend the government money. Syrian and Lebanese nationals own large amounts of land in Antigua, and on the land they own in the countryside they build condominiums that they then sell (prices quoted in United States dollars) to North Americans and Europeans… (pg. 62)

A Small Place is an important book and a wake up call. It reveals a lot of truth, exposes the bad leadership of her native island (well, I don’t know if the government of Antigua has changed much today) and ties all the complex issues Antigua faces to our imperfect human nature. Kincaid’s writing style is direct yet lyrical in this brutally honest account of this small place. This book was originally published back in 1988, but sadly, it’s still relevant to several countries in Africa and the Caribbean today. When will the greed, lies, corruption and dishonesty from people in positions of power ever end? While this book reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble With Nigeria, Kincaid’s sour wit and sarcasm are 100 times more piercing than Achebe’s. Read A Small Place and marvel at this woman’s heroism.

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

[My Kincaid collection thus far. Image via the Instagram page]

Purchase A Small Place on Amazon

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35 thoughts on “A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

  1. Great review, Darkowaa!
    I tried reading Lucy when I was in high school, but couldn’t get into it. I’d love to return to Kincaid’s work and was thinking to try My Brother.
    A Small Place does sound good. The harsh truths Kincaid bitterly shares in the quotes above got me attention.
    Regarding the first quote above on tourism, I think Kincaid is critiquing tourists who briefly visit these countries to simply gawk at something exotic to them instead of genuinely trying to know the people and culture. And also showing that just as how tourists visit and gawk at us, we also gawk at them and find them weird. Many peeps don’t look at it that way. It’s like when I tell Americans that they have an accent and that we imitate it back home. They don’t believe me because they think they don’t have an accent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Anais! Totally agree with you, and I should have added that to the review! She does critique the way tourists sensationalize foreign cultures and the people. I really hope people don’t read A Small Place and hate Kincaid hahaa. This book is so much more than what’s on the surface. And its always hilarious when Americans think the way they speak is the standard and that they don’t have an accent. Hmm! But I’d love to hear your thoughts on Kincaid’s work whenever you get to it. I think Lucy is only truly appreciated if Annie John is read 1st. Because Lucy feels like the sequel to Annie John. Thanks for passing by, as always 🙂

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    2. I read Lucy just a few years ago and it jumped up the list past my previous Kincaid favourites Annie John (my first and still my favourite in a lot of ways) and My Brother (talking candidly about a very taboo subject); I mention that because I don’t think I would have appreciated Lucy in high school the way I did as a woman. So I hope you give it another go. I just finished See Now Then which, in typical Kincaid fashion, seems to be polarizing. I liked it as I blogged here https://jhohadli.wordpress.com/joannes-extra-ness/blogger-on-books-v The ones I have just not really been able to get in to of the ones I’ve read are The Autobiography of My Mother and Mr. Potter. And I agree with your interpretation of what she’s saying in the quote about tourism.

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      1. I really should give Lucy another read. I’m sure I’d interpret things differently than I did 3 years ago. I will read your thoughts on Kincaid’s ‘See Now Then’. I notice that people don’t seem to gravitate to that book as her other works. Thanks again, Joanne! When it comes to Carib literature, I truly value your insights 🙂

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      2. Cool. Yea, I think high school wasn’t the best time for me to read Lucy. I certainly wasn’t patient enough for the story. I guess now would be a better time to try it.

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  2. When I read this book 2 years ago I wasn’t sure what I was going to get. I remember being totally hooked but felt the anger and condemnation Kincaid makes on tourism and the government of Antigua. All merited if you ask me. Most readers will find the book too harsh but I tried to look at it from her point of view. This is the place where she grew up. I think we’d all be that judgmental if it was out hometown. I don’t think anybody really knows what it’s like to live on island until they actually have to. This was my 3rd read of Kincaid and I can’t wait to continue reading the rest of her works. Great review!

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    1. Thanks, Didi! I agree. People need to read this as a satire and realize there’s a lot of truth to all she’s exposed. I hope to eventually read the rest of her works as well! 🙂

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      1. Me too. Will definitely read more Kincaid. I’ve been slacking on my Caribbean challenge but I’ll surely be continuing it next year. There are so many excellent Caribbean writers.

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  3. If you think A Small Place is harsh, you need to hear some of our calypso. In all seriousness though, I read this back in my college years in Antigua, so it wasn’t banned per se but for a long time though I had an awareness that Jamaica K was considered persona non grata (for all intents and purposes) – though another of her books, Annie John, has been taught in school here. After 2004*, she did have more of a public presence in Antigua including a reading at the National Museum where I had the opportunity to introduce her (this was our first meeting)…and I remember she read from A Small Place… and she’s since received a national award…and remained as outspoken afterward as she was before… I know some Antiguans still have negative and/or mixed feelings about her (I’ve had debates with some of them over the years) but her talent and her international standing are not in doubt (and the latter perhaps insulates her from the blowback a locally based writer might receive). I do agree with you that the book must be read as satire. It’s been a while since I read it but is not entirely literal, in my view, though I know some read it as such and misinterpret the reality of our lives…which is the thing we always dread, isn’t it, not what we know about ourselves but what others who are not family assume about us. This is true especially if there is a single story about you out there.That said, within satire is truth that we must acknowledge about colonialism and its impact, about our selves and our failings, about the corruption that festers like a disease, about our conflicted feelings about the tourist dollar (etc.). *In 2004, there was a change of government for the first time in nearly three decades (and there’s been a switch back since); some things changed but like one calypso said, the more things change, the more they remain the same. We remain like many other places, a work in progress…and sometimes in stagnation. p.s. I blog about the Antiguan-Barbudan-Caribbean literary scene at wadadlipen.wordpress.com if you want to find out more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. THANK YOU so much, Joanne C. Hillhouse, for your insightful contribution to the discussion around ‘A Small Place’! Its incredibly interesting how Kincaid’s international acclaim insulates her from intense Antiguan ridicule. Makes me wonder if a local writer lacking the ‘protection’ of the West/international interest, is able to be true to his/her art by being completely honest, as Kincaid is. I knew you’d come through and shed more light on this book ❤

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      1. I think a lot of us try to do just that: write and speak our truth…or our characters’ truths as the case may be. The media and the literary climate continues to evolve, and I would’ve said it’s pretty much “talk as you like” (inside joke) these days but I’m reminded, in light of a recent issue involving a calypsonian* (calypsonians having been the ones who always called names and sang it as they saw it and were among the first to show me how writers can capture and speak the people’s truth) that that would be overstating it given certain realities on the ground, just as it would be overstating it to say that we’re stifled from writing our truth…truth is, it’s complicated. *the calypsonian issue is on my blog if you want to read more on that but I mention it as an example of the kind of ‘blowback’ a writer might receive if what she or he writes offends. Doesn’t stop us from writing though.

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  4. This sounds like a wonderful read. I am surprised that so short a book has so much impact. I love books like that. When each sentence is placed in it for the purpose of striking the right chord. I have not read this author previously. But I see that you have quite a collection of Kincaid’s works

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    1. Definitely try and get your hands on ‘A Small Place’, Resh Susan. Kincaid is a ball of fire! I’d like to hear your thoughts once you get to read her work. Thanks for passing by 🙂

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  5. The review made my imagination run wild. With just 81 pages, it is good to know an author can take one through the beautiful journey of a country and more…
    …..And unfortunately, greed, lies, corruption and dishonesty from people in positions of power in many African countries may never end. The leaders lead for self-gain and not for the people.
    Thanks for this awesome review.
    Hopefully I can read the books soon .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mojisola. *sigh* it’s so upsetting. And our generation might end up doing the same things smh. I hope you get a chance to read the book too. There’s a link to Amazon below the review; the kindle version is readily accessible. I’d like to know your thoughts after 🙂

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    1. Indeed! I highly recommend it. I only know of her poem entitled ‘Girl’… But then again, I didn’t know if that piece was a poem or shot story lol. I’m not familiar with Kincaid’s poetry at all.

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  6. After reading Annie John, Lucy, and Mr. Potter Jamaica Kincaid has officially become one of my favorite writers. Even when she is being lyrical she does not/ her characters do no bite dem tongue. I have yet to read any of her non-fiction works but I look forward to reading A Small Place at some point. It wasn’t until I read Mr. Potter that I became aware of the Syrian and Lebanese presence in Antigua….I know people can get tired of people come who come from other places, yet, who turn their noses up at the native Antiguans.

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    1. I’m happy to know Kincaid is one of your favorites as well! I look forward to your thoughts on ‘A Small Place’ when you get the chance to read it. Yeah, having lots of foreigners in your country can get disorienting, especially if they’re stealing natural resources and setting up businesses that don’t cater to the average citizen of the nation. Its bittersweet and almost straddles the line of xenophobia, which is extreme, but very real.
      Thanks for passing by, Leslie! xx

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      1. Yes, back in 2010. I read Lucy after (in 2014; its also been reviewed on this platform) and it felt like a sequel to Annie John! The books pictured = my Kincaid collection that I’m slowly trying to finish reading! Whats your favorite book by Kincaid?

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      2. Annie John is the only one I read from her. It was required reading in school. I always found the book a little confusing in how it handled the sexual tension between the 2 girls and then Annie’s lapse into depression.

        It took my own lapse into depression a year later to really appreciate what Annie went through in the regard. I should probably re-read it as an adult.

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      3. Yes, I think re-reading it as an adult will make you have a deeper appreciation of the book and your own experience. I definitely need to re-read it soon myself. Kincaid was pretty vague in portraying the relationship between the 2 girls. It was vague enough for you to assume they were lesbians, but maybe not. I liked that about the story. And with regards to Annie’s depression, that part of the storyline had me bawling! It elicited such a sadness in me, maybe I was letting out grief I didn’t know about, who knows LOL. But Annie’s mom’s and even her dad’s love were relentless. I prayed for her to pull though while reading, and thankfully she did. Depression is such a terrible burden *sigh*

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      4. I don’t think I understood depression then, so my whole thought process was, why doesn’t she just get out of bed?? Maybe, like you said, re-reading it as an adult will provide a better understanding. Our teachers never wanted to dwell too much on whether or not the girls were lesbians, and that was such a strong theme running through the book. They kept telling us not to jump to conclusions.

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  7. Wow hahaa! Telling you all not to jump to conclusions is funny and sad. Its like they didn’t want to even acknowledge the same-sex relationship- whether it was real or not. Siiigh. I’m surprised Annie John wasn’t even banned then. I know A Small Place was for a while.

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