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Kincaid’s A Small Place

by Anthony Bongiorni

For any Caribbean tourist who has wondered how the natives really feel about visitors from behind the wall of their coral curtain, Jamaica Kincaid in A Small Place has an answer:

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. [17]

This hatred of the visitor stems not from any personality conflict or xenophobia but because:

Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives — most natives in the world — cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go — so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself. [18-19]
Kincaid makes a point that resonates with all of us. We can all understand and empathize with the envy and depression that happens when the glow of other’s wealth highlights our own poverty. Yet, what is harder to understand is how she assigns blame for Antigua’s colonial past and its present corruption. Kincaid says of the English:

They [the English] don’t seem to know that this empire business was all wrong and they should, at least, be wearing sackcloth and ashes in token penance of the wrongs committed, the irrevocableness of their bad deeds, for no natural disaster imaginable could equal the harm they did. Actual death might have been better. And so all this fuss over empire — what went wrong here, what went wrong there — always makes me quite crazy, for I can say to them what went wrong: they should never have left their home, their precious England, a place they loved so much, a place they had to leave but could never forget. And so everywhere they went they turned it into England; and everybody they met they turned English . But no place could ever really be England, and nobody who did not look exactly like them would ever be English, so that you can imagine the destruction of people and land that came from that. [23-24]

Kincaid says that it was this colonialism that led to a master/slave system of government and civic life on her island. The corrupt ministers on Antiuga learned how to govern from the “Ill-mannered” British who preceded them (34). Thus the drug dealing, prostitution, and wholesale selling of the island’s land to Middle Eastern foreigners, is a relic of Antigua’s British ruling class who then transferred their knowledge to the Antiguan politicians that followed them.

As Kincaid says, “all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; eventually the slaves [of] Antigua were freed, in a kind of wayŠOf course, the whole thing is, once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings” (81). The ex-slaves have become normal people influenced, of course, by the British. Once they aren’t slaves they loose their innocence and take up the ways of ill-mannered Europeans.
The problem with this argument then is that given the corruption of Europeans that Kincaid cites, why are their governments so much less corrupt than Antigua’s? Kincaid slides around the question by saying that “There must have been some good people among you, but they stayed home. And that is the point. That is why they are good. They stayed home” (35). Here Kincaid argues that only the “bad” Britons came and taught their corrupt ways to the Antiguan people, while the “good” ones never touched the beaches of Antigua.
The problem with this argument is that it ignores the possibility that there are good people in Antigua. Does Kincaid accuse herself of being a bad person, who supports a corrupt government at home? Ostensibly, the British have a less corrupt government than Antigua because there are more good people there than bad ones. Given this logic, Kincaid says that there are more bad people in Antigua than good. Yet, if the only ones who adopted Britain’s corrupt colonial ways were the few government ministers on the island, wouldn’t the vast majority of good people kick them out and create a better, cleaner government?

At the same time as Kincaid passes the blame for corruption from Antiguans to the British, she adopts a confrontational second person style. This style leads to condemnations of “you” for colonialism, boredom, and hegemony over innocent Antiguans. Why am I responsible for anything? Well,” you will forget your part in the whole setup, that bureaucracy is one of your inventions, that Gross National Product is one of your inventions, and all the laws that you know mysteriously favor you” (36). Kincaid’s approach to rhetorically focusing all of her society’s problems on one person is yet another attempt to shift the blame. To Kincaid, the buck mysteriously stops with the reader. Given that the reader has the time to read the book, is likely literate and probably lives in North American or Europe, he or she represents the corruptor of the Antiguan people. However, how can an American reader (quite possibly from the Caribbean himself or herself), take responsibility for the actions of a British person hundreds of years ago? Trying to make someone feel guilty just for the sake of it is not only wrong but if anything turns the reader away from Kincaid’s cause rather than pushing him or her towards it.

There are certainly many postcolonial problems that Kincaid has every right to be upset about. However, choosing to shift the blame to her own readers as well as to unduly place the blame for present ills on the British is wrong. Her readers are no more responsible for Antigua’s problems than she herself is. Britain cannot be whipped in perpetuity for the mistakes of colonialism. No one in Britain caused an Antiguan government official take millions in bribes for an industrial plant (66). No one made the confidants of the Prime Minister run a brothel (59). These people did what they did because they wanted the enrichment crime brings without having to suffer any penalties. Antigua’s lax system of government oversight has made the cost of criminality so low, that almost anyone can make a profit on it. For this the British can only be blamed for not ensuring that Antigua’s government was full and fair before they left.

Anthony Bongiorni, Brown University
[from Literature of the Caribbean]

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