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A Small Place

Jamaica Kincaid

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Themes

Themes

The Ugliness of Tourism

For Kincaid, tourists are morally ugly, though in her description of fat, “pastrylike-fleshed” people on the beach, she shows that physical ugliness is part of tourism as well. The moral ugliness of tourism is inherent in the way tourists make use of other, usually much poorer, people for their pleasure. Kincaid is not referring to direct exploitation of others (though she does mention one government minister who runs a brothel); rather, she refers to a more spiritual form of exploitation. According to Kincaid, a tourist travels to escape the boredom of ordinary life—they want to see new things and people in a lovely setting. Kincaid points out that the loveliness of the places that tend to attract tourists is often a source of difficulty for those who live there. For example, the sunny, clear sky of Antigua, which indicates a lack of rainfall, makes fresh water a scarce and precious commodity. For tourists, however, the beauty is all that matters—the drought is someone else’s problem.

Others’ problems can even add to the attraction of a place for tourists. Kincaid notes that tourists tend to romanticize poverty. The locals’ humble homes and clothing seem picturesque, and even open latrines can seem pleasingly “close to nature,” unlike the modern plumbing at home. Kincaid believes that this attitude is the essence of tourism. The lives of others, no matter how poor and sad, are part of the scenery tourists have come to enjoy, a perspective that negatively affects both tourists and locals. The exotic and often absurd misunderstanding that tourists have of a strange culture ultimately prevents them from really knowing the place they have come to see.

Admiration vs. Resentment of the Colonizer

Kincaid observes the quality of education on Antigua, as well as the minds of its inhabitants, and remains deeply ambivalent about both. She herself is the product of a colonial education, and she believes that Antiguan young people today are not as well-educated as they were in her day. Kincaid was raised on the classics of English literature, and she thinks today’s young Antiguans are poorly spoken, ignorant, and devoted to American pop culture. However, one of the things Kincaid despises most about the old Antigua was its cultural subservience to England. If young Antiguans today are obsessed with American trash, in the old days they were obsessed with British trash. One of the insidious effects of Antiguans being schooled in the British system is that all of their models of excellence in literature and history are British. In other words, Antiguans have been taught to admire the very people who once enslaved them. Kincaid is horrified by the genuine excitement the Antiguans have regarding royal visits to the island: the living embodiment of British imperialism is joyously greeted by the former victims of that imperialism.

Antiguans’ minds have been shaped from the bottom up by the experience of being enslaved and, later, colonized. This intimate shaping determines the contours of daily life and even private thoughts. For example, the young Kincaid’s greatest pleasure is in reading, but everything she reads is tainted by bitterness, since she is learning the dominant culture from the position of a dominated people. English is her first language, and Kincaid complains that even her critique of colonialism must be expressed in the words she learned from the colonialists themselves. Kincaid doesn’t feel at home in either world. She will never be truly English because of race and history, yet her intimacy with English culture expands her horizons far beyond the small boundaries of Antigua. Thanks to slavery and to being ruled from afar for so long, the Antiguans have become accustomed to being passive objects of history, rather than active makers of it. The experiences of the colonized are therefore always secondary in some sense; it is the people from the “large places” who determine events, control history, and even control language.

The Prevalence of Corruption

For Kincaid, corruption is related to colonization in that it is a continuation of the oppression of colonialism—except that corruption turns the once-colonized people against themselves. Kincaid insists that corruption pervades every aspect of public life in Antigua, that everyone knows about it, and that no one seems to know what to do about it. Government ministers run brothels, steal public funds, and broker shady deals, but there is a conspicuous lack of outrage on the part of the public. Kincaid attributes this lack of anger to the Antiguans’ general passivity, but she also sees their attitude as a logical reaction to the “lessons” of Antiguan history. The British claimed to be bringing civilization to the colonized territories while actually exploiting them and taking from them as much as they could. Naturally, when the Antiguans themselves came to power, they followed the example they had been given: under the motto “A People to Mold, A Nation to Build,” their ministers claim to be working for the greater good while lining their own pockets.

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