A Small Place (Antigua)

by Jamaica Kincaid

SmallPlaceSetting: A 10 mile by 12 mile island in the British West Indies

Writing: Clear, clean, beautiful.

Narrator: Pissed off.

Since this book was referred to me by my friend Murphy, I was not expecting to violently dislike it. It was beautifully written. But I disliked it on at least two different levels.

1) The exploitation of the indigenous people by the British, followed by the exploitation of the poor indigenous people by the rich indigenous people, which Kincaid says is cause and effect and I tend to believe her.

2) The author’s tone for the first half of the book.

The book is written in the second person, which makes it both immediately accessible, but also intensely personal. It’s hard to understand in the abstract, even for English majors, so here’s an example:

“If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see…the road on which you are travelling is a very bad road, very much in need of repair. You are feeling wonderful, so you say, ‘Oh, what a marvelous change these bad roads are from the splendid highways I am used to in North America.’ (Or worse, Europe.)…”

THE ISLANDS

Antigua the country is made up of:

  • Antigua island
  • Barbuda island, where an English family named Condrington bred special groups of black slaves
  • Redonda island, where only booby birds live

Redonda, Kincaid tells us, is actually closer to the islands of Montserrat and Nevis than to Antigua, but the English person who drew the maps made it part of Antigua. Why? (It makes about as much sense as the Middle East. What I particularly hate about the way the maps were drawn is how different ethnic groups weren’t grouped together into countries. Wouldn’t that have been logical?)

When I read about the Redonda stamp scandal, and how a lot of money was made on those stamps but no one seems to know who got the money or where the stamps actually ended up, I was pretty mad. How I feel when I find out our government is paying $25 for a nail to a private contractor in Iraq.

And also, why are there so many Syrians in Antigua?

SASSY

One thing I admire about women of non WASP-cultures is how fierce some of these “shes” are. Jamaica Kincaid is sassy. And so, apparently, is her mother. This woman once put the Minister of Culture in his place over the Redonda stamp scandal. She refused to be intimidated. That was awesome.

RANT

Ok. I understand that Kincaid is angry about colonization. She has every right to be. That’s her point of view and she has earned it through her life experiences. However, her life experiences do not invalidate my life experiences.

I am not the type of tourist she describes, and her assumptions about who I am and how I behave are offensive. Just as offensive as people in Tokyo telling me that all Westerners look alike because we have big noses (or worse, think alike). I don’t go to other countries and gawk at the locals as if they were monkeys in a cage. I don’t stay at the Marriot in Seoul and eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Bangkok. I interact with people, exchange stories with them, treat them as friends and neighbors. I didn’t vote for James Monroe. Give me a chance, ok?

Yes, the British Empire did awful things. But the British she is taking aim at are not the British who owned slaves or perpetuated atrocities. In fact, I learned how to be a “traveler-not-a-tourist” from 2 Brits.

If relations between people whose ancestors were colonized and people whose ancestors were colonizers are ever to advance, you can’t make assumptions about people. Are Robert Lee Yate’s children serial killers? No. But look at what their father did. Are they responsible? I have German friends. Should I assume they will behave a certain way because their grandparents were Nazis?

Did you ever wonder why it took 100 years from the end of the Civil War to Martin Luther King Jr. and then another 50 or so until Obama and Oprah? It’s because the old generations with their old prejudices and wrong thinking have to die off, and less prejudiced generations have to be born and teach the kids.

I’ve seen this in my own lifetime with anti-gay sentiment. Statistics show that young people support marriage equality in increasingly larger numbers than older people.

This Is Just My Opinion

So, my honest reaction to this book was that her attitude toward me, a reader she has never met, was off-putting. Do I get to say how she should feel or write? No. But with some minority writers, you feel that no matter how much you are horrified by their ordeal, and would genuinely like to become friends, they will never trust you or like you simply because of the color of your skin. I can’t say they should. But if Nelson Mandela had taken that attitude, where would South Africa be today? If the Dalai Llama hadn’t adopted an attitude of forgiveness toward the Chinese-who-tried-very-hard-to-wipe-out-Tibetan-culture, then his people would still have been mired in bitterness and the past. How is that helpful?

FINAL THOUGHTS

There are terrible human rights abuses going on in Antigua today. Powerful people in government who shouldn’t be running a country. People who are supposed to help the poor and who take the money for themselves instead. It makes you sick. Hopefully this book will be a catalyst for change.

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