Who is speaking in this book? There are several voices here and while their utterances may readily be described as heartfelt or brutally honest, they also feel slightly contrived. It is as if A Small Place is an exercise in invective rather than an expression of it.
I was prompted to re-read A Small Place after being introduced to Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. These letters from defiant young revolutionaries addressed to North American readers were actually written by a US sociologist. C Wright Mills begins and ends the book with reflections of his own, but the narrator in the main body of the text is a composite persona he created on the basis of extensive interviews during his visit to the island in 1960.
Kincaid grew up in Antigua so she is not an outsider like Mills. But she left the island at an early age and by the time she came to write A Small Place she had lived in the United States for nearly thirty years, and so to begin her essay as a native (who gives no indication of ever having been abroad) addressing the reader as a hypothetical tourist arriving in her country is to adopt an identity almost as fictional as Mills’.
And the point of view is equally heterogeneous. If the first part offers a sarcastic assault on the ignorance of the tourist (the most striking, most enjoyable part of the book, the one that most readers remember), the second turns on the white settler elite of colonial Antigua (flavoured with childhood reminiscences), and the target of the third is the corrupt alliance of big business and government that replaced it following independence. Gradually the voice shifts from that of a local who can do nothing but pour scorn on the wealthy visitor to that of an educated outsider who despairs that ordinary Antiguans seem to acquiesce in this new state of affairs, and are unwilling to take responsibility for themselves. By the end the narrator has shed all traces of solidarity with her fellow-islanders, referring to them in the third person: ‘Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.’
There is a hint of an alternative future for the Caribbean, one that builds on the dream of democracy represented by the founding of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union in 1939 and Maurice Bishop’s revolution in Grenada. But characteristically it is Bishop’s fate – ‘at the hands of the Americans’ – that closes off these reflections rather than the uprising against the Duvalier dictatorship two years before the book was published (at the end of the essay Baby Doc still seems to be in power). And so A Small Place ends, calling for Antiguans to develop ‘a different relationship with the world, a more demanding relationship, a relationship in which they are not victims’, but giving little sign that this is likely to happen.
The passion of the book is superficial, for this cynicism empties its passion of any force. ‘And so look at this prolonged visit to the bile duct that I am making, look at how bitter, how dyspeptic just to sit and think about these things makes me,’ she writes. Is there not something unreliable about a narrator who is so archly self-conscious about her own moves? Kincaid declines and conjugates rage in a way that leaves me rather cold.