Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place

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Jamaica Kincaid grew up in black in Antigua and "A Small Place" is a lesson to everyone who didn't and even some who did: Antigua is a home to many. It's more than just a tourist stop, it's not just a piece of land made up of resources, humans included, and it's not a nation that can be exploited in the name of self-governance, at least, not without human consequence. The short book- treatise, polemic or autobiography- is a quick and devastating read.

Kincaid direct her book at white people and she's not shy about it. Written in second person, Kincaid describes the tourist experience: "You disembark from your plane. You go through customs. Since you are a tourist, a North American or European-to be frank, white- and not an Antiguan black returning to Antigua from Europe or North America with cardboard boxes of much needed cheap clothes and food for relatives, you move through customs swiftly, you move through customs with ease." In other words, you (the reader) are both privileged and other. This is genius: it centers and privileges black Antiguans while calling out white visitors for their very feelings of uniqueness: "immediately you feel blessed (which is to say special); you feel free."

Lucy Lippard and Dean MacCannell write about tourism and the realities and problems associated with it. Kincaid lived it- not as a tourist but as the bear in the pit who knew she was a bear. She writes about how tourists are people, too, and how, though they perceive themselves as ordinary, most of the time, when they're tourists, sometimes they get it: "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 you look); the physical sight of oyu does not please them;... They do not like you. The do not like me! That thought never actually occurs to you." Kincaid is just as unstinting when it comes to the British colonizers and the British who still remain on the island. She spares no words for the current Antiguan elected rulers. She's ruthless and she's amazing. It's uncomfortable and it's true. At 81 pages, you can't go wrong.

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