As a child, Kincaid is a close, critical observer of the behavior of the adults around her. Her attitude toward the visiting Princess Margaret is reminiscent of the child in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes: while everyone else is happy—even excited—to stand around for hours in the sun to catch a glimpse of the royal guest, the seven-year-old Kincaid is unimpressed. A voracious reader, the young Kincaid exhausted the children’s books in the library, and Kincaid explains that reading was a kind of escape from the frustration and boredom of her daily life. So passionate is the young Kincaid about reading that she steals books from the library.
As an adult, the same critical eye with which Kincaid saw through the pomp of the royal visit is turned on the island at large. She speaks bitterly of the corruption of the government and the passivity of the people, but the main force of her anger is directed toward the English who colonized Antigua. Kincaid lays the present predicament of the Antiguans at the feet of the English, for populating the island with their slaves in the first place and for educating descendents of those slaves to admire the country that enslaved them. Kincaid describes herself as so angry about England’s crimes that she cannot bear to hear England praised—she even speaks about her resentment at dinner parties. Her anger toward tourists is slightly less intense and is focused on the willful ignorance required of people to enjoy themselves in a desperately poor place. Unlike the average Antiguans she describes, Kincaid cannot resign herself to the past oppression and present corruption. She is mystified that more Antiguans don’t share her outrage, and is frustrated by their apparent acceptance of their status as bit players in the vacation videos of others. As the anger of the adult Kincaid reveals, she remains deeply attached to her home and to her people. However, Kincaid has no illusions about the future of the island and seems glad to have made her partial escape.
Although A Small Place is not a conventional memoir, Kincaid is very present in her memories and perceptions. It is important to remember that even in a memoir or nonfiction essay, the voice in the work who speaks to the reader as “I” is first and foremost a literary creation—a representation of the author within the work, rather than the author herself. In other words, the “Jamaica Kincaid” who appears in A Small Place is a character—a highly edited version of the real Jamaica Kincaid—created by Kincaid to speak to the reader on her behalf. Kincaid appears in the essay both in memory as a child, and in the present day as a grown-up who is trying to assess Antigua’s history and current situation, and to explain it all.
Kincaid address the reader, “you,” throughout A Small Place, especially in the opening section, in which she describes the vacation experience that a “typical” tourist would have in Antigua as well as what this person doesn’t understand about this place. Kincaid’s “typical” tourist is a white, middle-class person from Europe, the United States, or Canada, with the attitudes and assumptions Kincaid thinks are common to those with this background. The details of Antigua that Kincaid chooses to describe or emphasize are those that, to her, would be most striking to a comfortable, bourgeois, Western tourist. Kincaid characterizes “you” as basically well-meaning but ignorant and somewhat callous. “You” have an ordinary life at home, with people who love you. Your travels are motivated by boredom, and you want to observe the lives of others in a beautiful place.
For “you,” everything about the lives of the Antiguans, from their clothes to their personal habits, seems interesting and picturesque. What Kincaid wants to emphasize is that the lives of these others will always be opaque to an outsider, for whom they are part of the scenery of the “small place” they have chosen to visit. “You” are bound to miss the significance of such things as the noisy Japanese cars and the giant mansions. “You” are pleased that “your” trip is unlikely to be ruined by rain—but don’t understand the difficulties caused for the residents by a lack of fresh water. For Kincaid, however nice “you” may be at home, “you” are ugly as long as “you” are a tourist—someone for whom the poverty and labor of others are merely distractions from the boredom and emptiness of “your” own existence.