- Purchase/rental options available:
Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 910-919
[Access article in PDF]
A Small Place
Some Perspectives on the Ordinary
To read Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place is to be required to constantly shift "your" gaze and the manner in which "you" look. Neither quite travel narrative nor theory, Kincaid's essay is a journey through a present and past Antigua led by an Antiguan expatriate narrator. This narrator's return to her native land takes the form of a guided tour that focuses not only on the island of Antigua and its people, but also on perceptions of them held by the reader, by Antiguans, and by the narrator herself. In addition, Kincaid's exposure of the blindspots promoted by travel agencies reverses the gaze, showing tourist-readers the spectacle they make of themselves in the eyes of Antiguans. As she articulates these views, Kincaid reveals Antigua as a place—no matter how small—in its own right. What occurs in the apparently simple but forceful gesture of telling readers all they do not see is a restructuring of space into place, where space is defined "as territory which is mappable, explorable" (in the sense of colonizable) and place as "occupation, dwelling, being lived in." 1 Kincaid's essay, then, transforms the Antigua perceived as an extension of English and American space into a place that is occupied, lived and dwelt in. Yet hers is not a postcolonial project in the sense that postcolonial criticism concerns itself with the constitution of and relation between selves and others, with how such distinctions shore up global networks of power that it, postcolonial criticism, seeks to expose, subvert and/or disrupt. No, rather than challenging the normative rule of big places, A Small Place addresses otherness by rejecting it in favor of ordinariness, an ordinariness that levels many of the distinctions upon which self and other are predicated.
A glance at the work of another Caribbean writer and theorist who concerns himself with the relation of an island to the big places that claim universality for themselves immediately reveals the distinctiveness of Kincaid's approach. Martinican writer and theorist Edouard Glissant opens his Caribbean Discourse with the following anecdotes concerning Martinique's status in the global economy, present and past:
Martinique is not a Polynesian island. This is, however, the belief of so many people who, given its reputation, would love to go there for pleasure. I know someone who has always been dedicated to the Caribbean cause, who would jokingly assert that the West Indies (he meant the French-speaking West Indies) have achieved the ultimate in subhumanity. A Martinican political figure imagined as a bitter joke that in the year 2100, tourists [End Page 910] would be invited by satellite advertisement to visit this island and gain first-hand knowledge of "what a colony was like in past centuries." (1)
Like Glissant, Kincaid immediately addresses the question of tourism; at the outset of A Small Place, the narrator declares: "If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see" (3). Yet Glissant proceeds from his anecdotal remarks to a wide-ranging analysis of the history of Martinique and the surrounding islands and their social, economic and cultural structures, calling for an awareness and valorization of Antillean identity. Kincaid's narrator, meanwhile, focuses on the disparities between the tourist's and Antiguan's vision not in order to reveal how each overlooks the island's potential reality, thus weaving it into a "web of nothingness," but instead to steadily draw out the needs and desires that inform the tourist's—and Antiguans'—perceptions.
Many of Glissant's points with regard to the economic dominance of Europe and North America and the oppressiveness of their universalizing discourses can also be found in Kincaid's narrative. What distinguishes their approaches, however, is the ultimate refusal of Kincaid's narrator to elaborate an Antiguan identity for the reader. Instead, the tourist and the native are united in their boredom and in the manner in which they experience their respective environments as oppressive. Of the tourists, the...