Doesn't a tropical vacation sound great right about now? Warm breezes, sand between your toes, lots of time to nap…
Not to rain on your daydream parade, but we have bad news for you: Sometimes the very places we fantasize about escaping to for a week or so are inhabited by people who are systematically oppressed. So what might be a nice place to visit can actually be a pretty terrible place to live. Enter A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid.
Published in 1988, A Small Place takes the genres of autobiography, fiction, and travel guide, tosses them into the brutal blender of history, and presents a no-holds-barred portrait of Antigua, the small island nation she was born and raised in. And while the island may be naturally beautiful, what emerges is a grim picture, riddled with racism, drought, wealth inequities, and callous disregard for the people who truly call Antigua their home.
Born Elaine Potter Richardson, Kincaid came to New York City in 1966 because her mother wanted her to work as a maid and send her wages back home to Antigua—but Kincaid had no interest in this arrangement and cut off contact with her family as soon as she arrived. Crazy story, right? It gets crazier: She went on to publish her first piece in 1973 and was writing for The New Yorker by 1976. You go, girl.
But Kincaid had other things on her mind. After hundreds of years of British rule, her home country of Antigua finally became an independent nation in 1981. Should be cause for celebration, right? But even with the Britain gone, Antigua still has a lot to deal with, like the tourism industry, the rise of corrupt politicians, and growing poverty. A Small Place is Kincaid's attempt to push back against these things and preserve some tiny piece of the Antigua she loved.
She ran into a few roadblocks along the way to the printing press, however. First, The New Yorker refused to publish the book, saying that it was too critical. And then—once it finally reached bookshelves—it earned her a five-year ban from the country of her birth. Oops. Insofar as the book is Kincaid pushing back, we'd wager this is a sign of her success in doing so.
Utilizing the rare second-person perspective, A Small Place is a travel guide with a chip on its shoulder. At times, it's an indictment of the modern tourism industry, at others, it's a retelling of Antiguan history, and at others still, it's a personal account of life in Antigua. But the specifics don't matter: It's always an engaging journey, no matter where you end up.
Every clique has that one friend who can't help but be completely honest at all times, no matter the social cost. Here at Shmoop, we like to call that friend the Truthsayer.
As the name implies, the Truthsayer values honesty above all else. Usually, this works out great—they'll totally tell you if you have something stuck in your teeth—but sometimes, it leads to awkward situations (they'll also totally tell your mom her breath stinks). In other words, it's a mixed bag, and you never know whether you're going to thank them or cringe when they open their mouth.
In A Small Place, Kincaid acts a lot like a Truthsayer. Sometimes the things she says will make you laugh out loud, but other times, they'll make you feel uncomfortable—and then there are the times they'll make you do both at the same time. But importantly, it's always worth it to hear her out in the end. She is, after all, speaking the truth as she knows it.
See, it's easy to run away when confronted with brutal honesty—no one likes their flaws pointed out, no matter how fleeting they may be (grab a toothpick, and your smile will be glowing again in no time). But if you want our opinion, you'll get a lot more out of life if you open yourself up to a little brutal honesty now and then.
And please, always have a mint handy.
This website provides information about Antigua to potential tourists. It sure paints a different picture than A Small Place, doesn't it?
Life and Debt
Although this documentary on globalization in Jamaica isn't based on A Small Place, it uses a series of excerpts from the novel to bring its points home.
Does Truth Have a Tone?
In this interview, Kincaid goes in-depth about her writing process, the critical reaction to A Small Place, and her response to those who consider her "angry."
Kincaid Hates Happy Endings
Check out this interview, in which Kincaid discusses her feelings on the modern political climate, among many other issues—including her distaste for happy endings.
Corruption in Antigua (News Article)
This 1994 article lends a lot of credence to Kincaid's accounts of corruption in Antigua, mentioning corrupt officials, smugglers, and the specific crimes of the Bird regime.
Ten Questions for Jamaica Kincaid
We're sure you'd be fine with five questions for Jamaica Kincaid. Seven questions would be a dream. But ten? Mind. Blown.
Why Did Jamaica Kincaid Change Her Name?
Well, do you know? No? Well then, you better get clicking.
Jamaica Kincaid on Studio 360
This 2013 interview provides a lot of insight into Kincaid's life story—not to mention her thoughts on the one and only Lil' Kim.
Jamaica Kincaid on the Moth
Kincaid joins The Moth to tell a story about her childhood in front of a live audience.
The Old Antigua Library
This is the old library building Kincaid describes in A Small Place. The building was torn down in the years following A Small Place's publication.
Map of Antigua
Now that's what you call a small place.