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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The sign on the old colonial library in Antigua’s capital reads, “THIS BUILDING WAS DAMAGED IN THE EARTHQUAKE OF 1974. REPAIRS ARE PENDING.” As Kincaid points out, both the sign and the damage to which it refers date back to the colonial period in Antigua. When Kincaid wrote A Small Place, the repairs had been “pending” for more than ten years. Clearly, says Kincaid, people who can wait for something that has been pending for so long must have an unusual sense of time. The library stands on both a literal and a metaphorical fault line: just as the earthquake shook the ground under the building, so did the shift from colonial- to self-rule cause a seismic disruption in the culture that the building was meant to serve. For Kincaid, the status of the library is emblematic of the status of the island as a whole: damaged remnants of a colonial structure remain, but the Antiguans are unable either to repair it or to move on to a new structure. The sign on the library becomes a sign of the stasis in which the Antiguans are trapped and of the inescapability of the colonial past.
The Japanese cars, ubiquitous on the island, are an example of the kind of detail a tourist might observe without truly understanding its significance. A tourist might assume that the Antiguans simply prefer Japanese cars, even though they seem oddly out of place amid the general poverty. Kincaid says that only a local would see the significance: the car dealerships are partly owned by government officials who have made sure that low-cost car loans are available to everyone. In other words, the popularity of Japanese cars on the island is part of a moneymaking scheme that has nothing to do with either the common good or the preferences of individual consumers. The unleaded gasoline required to run the cars properly is not even available, though the drivers seem unaware of this. For Kincaid, the Japanese cars throughout Antigua are a potent symbol both of the pervasive corruption endemic in even the most mundane exchanges on the island, and of the way in which the true significance of the details of daily life are invisible to the tourist’s oblivious eye.