A Small Place | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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A Small Place | Section 1 | Summary

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A Small Place is divided into four sections that are not given numbers or titles. In this study guide each of those sections is discussed separately.

Summary

Using the second-person perspective, Kincaid describes a typical tourist's arrival in Antigua: "If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see." The tourist, arriving by plane, wonders why the prime minister Vere Cornwall "V.C." Bird would have an airport named after him rather than a school or a monument. The tourist finds Antigua beautiful and is glad to see sunshine and no sign of rainfall. Antigua is suffering from drought, but the tourist doesn't notice.

The tourist, a white North American or European, moves easily through customs and finds a taxi. The taxi driver quotes a high price in U.S. currency, and then apologizes after the tourist asks for a formal price list that shows a lower charge. The driver, in a new Japanese vehicle, moves recklessly on unpaved Antiguan roads. The tourist notices most vehicles on the road are new and Japanese. Despite the cars' fancy appearance, they make loud noises from using the wrong type of gasoline. The taxi driver's car, too nice for the tourist to afford, is affordable to the driver because the Antiguan government owns the car dealership and provides attractive loans for vehicles (homes are much pricier). Drivers' licenses are also available for sale, leading to untrained drivers on the road.

A building the tourist thinks is "some latrines" or toilets is actually Pigott's School. The tourist passes the hospital, which is staffed with doctors so incompetent the minister of government flies to New York for medical care. The library is still closed after an earthquake destroyed the building in 1974, over a decade ago. A sign reading "Repairs Are Pending" hangs on the library, which is "a splendid old [building] from colonial times." Antigua became independent from Britain not long after the earthquake. Antiguans still thank "a British God" for their independence.

The tourist is reading a book about economic history, hoping to learn more about the region. The book explains how Westerners, meaning white North Americans and Europeans, got rich not from "undervalued labor" of people like Antiguans but from their own intelligence. The tourist might feel guilt over "exploitation, oppression, domination" but shouldn't let guilt ruin their vacation. Instead the tourist notices Westerners have provided Antiguans fancy buildings like the Parliament Building and the American Embassy.

The tourist passes three mansions. One is owned by an influential Middle Eastern family whom Antiguans hate. Another mansion belongs to a notorious drug smuggler. The third belongs to a government minister's girlfriend, a woman called "Evita."

The tired tourist arrives at their hotel room and goes to the beach. They are amazed at how beautiful the Antiguan water is. They meet other tourists, eat local food, and bask in the sun. The tourist shouldn't think about what happens after they flush the toilet since Antigua lacks a good sewage-disposal system. Nor should they think about "the number of black slaves this ocean has swallowed up" or the fact most of the food they'll eat was flown in from Miami.

In his ordinary life the tourist is a good person who sometimes feels lonely and alienated in the crowds of their city or town. But they have friends and people who like them. Despite some "dismay and puzzlement" they feel at home in their body, their house, and their community. Still, sometimes they feel so displaced and alone they need to get away for a while. So they visit other countries and marvel at the "heaps of death and ruin" they visit, and at the lifestyle of the "other people" in foreign countries. The tourist feels superior to the people in the countries they visit, despite their admiration for the "harmony with nature." What the tourist has always suspected is true: "A tourist is an ugly human being." The tourist never realizes the people in the countries they visit dislike them, mocking the different way they look, eat, and speak. Feeling "out of place" on vacation is stressful enough.

Kincaid explains "every native of every place is a potential tourist" seeking relief from the crushing boredom of their lives. But natives of some places, like Antigua, are too poor to travel or even live well at home. So they envy the white tourist who turns their "banality and boredom" into selfish pleasure.

Analysis

Kincaid grabs the reader's attention immediately with the confrontational use of the second-person point of view. "You" refers to a specific character: the white North American or European tourist. But the identifying details are vague enough for the tourist to resemble many people, especially potential readers. Not only does the reader feel the narrator is addressing them directly, they are invited to see themselves in the tourist—or perhaps not allowed to not see themselves in the tourist.

Kincaid slyly introduces the reader to the global economics of oppression through the small details in Antigua, such as the tourist's surprise at the new Japanese cars on the road and the nonlocal origin of the food. By analyzing other details—the reason cars are so comparatively cheap—and pointing out various landmarks that represent social and political institutions (government buildings, the library, the school), Kincaid opens a space for discussion of how government corruption pervades everything in Antigua.

The airport's name, after Prime Minister Vere Cornwall (V.C.) Bird, reflects Antiguan priorities. Airports are important because they keep the tourist economy moving. Schools, hospitals, and monuments, which take care of native residents and give them a sense of civic pride, are not prioritized in Antigua. Their names and physical conditions reflect this neglect.

The tourist sees Antigua very differently than native Antiguans do. The tourist's vision is one of freedom and relief. They feel "cleansed" and "blessed" on the island, not working "hard and cold and dark and long days" in the West. Sensory images pull the reader into the tourist experience and tap into the universal desire to escape a mundane life for a beautiful, faraway place. Kincaid explains how this escape is also a privilege.

Her lengthy sentences keep the reader's eye moving from clause to clause. Many long sentences handle just one topic, such as the reason why poor Antiguans drive fancy cars. Just as each section of the sentence is connected, each event is connected to the larger whole. Kincaid has a keen sense of the situational ironies of life in Antigua, such as the drought and lack of fresh drinking water despite the water surrounding the island.

By explaining the motives behind the tourist's behavior, Kincaid shows how tourism can act as a form of colonialism without a tourist even knowing it. When the tourist requests a price sheet in the taxi, the action shows how they prioritize the value of their money. Like the "criminals" Kincaid describes in Section 2, the tourist doesn't want to get swindled. Their desire to look out the car window "because you want to get your money's worth" displays the tourist's view of the trip as a transaction. They expect to receive what they paid for.

The tourist is portrayed as someone who sees the world through the lens of Western capitalism and doesn't know any other way. They're proud of their integration into capitalism, proud of how hard they work and how well they manage their money. This value of labor, and of status earned through labor and money, is a mindset Kincaid wants the reader to be aware of in the next section.

The cabdriver knows the tourist has authority and power as the consumer. When he "apologizes for the incredible mistake" he seems to be showing deference to the white tourist, but the apology is insincere, and his actions demonstrate the extent to which Western corruption has permeated the Antiguan way of life.

Meanwhile the tourist is used to seeing their own life as valuable. They feel "special" when they leave the plane. They're concerned for their safety on the unpaved roads. Kincaid's description of the hospital has a tone of menace and threat, since even tourists might get sick: "What if a blood vessel in your neck should break?" The hospital's condition shows how little Antiguan lives are valued even in their own country, and even, Kincaid believes, by Antiguans themselves.

The school and the library show the lack of value placed on education. Kincaid imagines the tourist comparing the dusty school building to a toilet facility, and she mentions the earthquake's destruction of the library. Images of poverty and ruin are placed in the reader's mind as they pass institutions of learning and consider their own Western education. This foreshadows Section 3, where Kincaid explores the consequences of neglecting education in Antigua.

By sharp contrast, the homes of government officials and drug dealers are large and well kept. The influence of other nations on Antigua—not just England, but Japan, Syria, and Lebanon—is portrayed as a negative, exploitative one. No one has the best interests of the Antiguan people in mind. The tourist confuses exploitation with benevolence, pointing out buildings like "Government House" and "Parliament Building" as names implying security and financial contribution, when the leaders' real influence is the exact opposite. Kincaid shows how surprising contrasts and situational ironies reflect the real situation in Antigua. For instance, in a visual paradox, a grand mansion is "painted the color of old cow dung."

Kincaid begins to introduce some of the historical figures and personalities who have affected Antigua. English royalty, like Queen Victoria, require a version of Antigua the residents don't get, complete with paved roads. The notorious "Evita" is Cutie Francis, a girlfriend of Prime Minister V.C. Bird.

The reference to the earthquake introduces readers to Antiguans' "strange, unusual perception of time." The drama of small events and the comparative ignorance of large events are Antiguan characteristics Kincaid will analyze in Section 3. Antiguans also don't connect time to money as the tourist and other Westerners do. For example, a symbol such as a wristwatch is important because it compresses time, turning time into money and money into labor.

The tourist perspective shows the dangerous condescension Westerners have toward Caribbean nations. The tourist's admiration for Antiguan "quaintness" is mentioned in the same sentence as "people descended from slaves." Kincaid wants to make sure the reader doesn't forget the influence of slavery. The library is a "splendid old [building] from colonial times," which may seem charming and authentic to a tourist, but for Antigua "colonial times" mean destruction and death.

Kincaid is frank about discussing race as it is tied to nationality. The tourist moves easily through customs not only because they're Western but also because they're white. The "fat, pastrylike-fleshed" beach patrons are white tourists, described in unflattering terms as people who don't belong. Even the sun serves as a "personal friend" and protection to the tourist, while for Antiguans the sun means inescapable heat.

The narrative contrasts images of an ideal vacation—walking on the beach, eating local food—with the interruption of reality. Global trade, slavery, and lack of sewage all lurk in the background. The tourist doesn't think about the cost of their vacation in these broad terms, only in the terms of spending money they've earned. Although Antigua is heavily influenced by the outside world, the surreal beauty of the beach implies an imaginary, unreal place. In Kincaid's description of Antigua in Section 4, she expands on this idea of an island existing outside of time and space.

The second part of Section 1 describes the tourist before they took on their position of destructive power, as someone alienated and even vulnerable. Kincaid doesn't have much sympathy for the wealthy Western tourist, but she does sympathize with the loneliness of the human condition. The feelings of alienation, despair, and boredom she describes are universal. People in Antigua have them too. The only difference is who's able to escape for a while.

Kincaid had lived in both New York and Antigua when she wrote A Small Place, and she understands Western and Caribbean mentalities. Section 1 discusses the Western perspective of seeing one's way of life as the default around the world, "ordinary" and "so taxing." Despite the typical Westerner's insight into their own self-doubt (the "dismay and puzzlement" they feel defines them), Westerners aren't usually critical and reflective enough to see themselves the way the world sees them. Kincaid's tourist is well intentioned but ultimately destructive and not as unique as they think: "Only a cliché can explain you."

Even though the tourist isn't personally guilty of enslaving other human beings, Kincaid wants them to see how racism is a collective guilt they share with others like them. When they travel to a different place, they step into different interpersonal dynamics. They're described with vivid and paradoxical images as "stinking and glistening" in the sand. They have an innate sense of superiority, even if they don't realize it's there. When Kincaid describes the tourist as "a piece of rubbish," she uses the same word she'll use to describe the slave masters ("rubbish") in Section 4. The tourist takes on the role of colonizer and slave master. They are a viewer of spectacle, and the native Antiguans are on display as "a source of pleasure."

While the tourist puts the native Antiguan in the position of the "other," using words like backwardness and vulgarly colored, they're shocked when natives do the same to them. Everyone, Kincaid emphasizes, can be the "other," or a strange foreigner. And "every native everywhere" feels boredom and pain. But some have methods of escape—a position of privilege and power and a place to call home. In the next section Kincaid explores the complexity and unique hurt behind her homeland of Antigua.

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