What happens when one tries to answer Marley Dias call for 1000 black girl books? Watch below!
Publisher: (Farrar, Straus, and Grioux)
Synopsis: A Small Place is a part fictional and part autobiographical novel published in 1988 by Jamaica Kincaid. The work is an indictment of the Antiguan government, the tourist industry and Antigua’s British colonial legacy.
Review: “Antigua is beautiful. Antigua is too beautiful. Sometimes the beauty of it seems unreal,” says Kincaid in her 81-paged analysis of her homeland. A Small Place is the controversial book that resulted in Kincaid’s 5 year ban from Antigua, and serves as the basis for the documentary, Life and Debt. Kincaid does what she always does, brilliantly links the past to the present, something she laments as a difficult task for Antiguans who aren’t often privy to the bigger picture.
“Antigua is a small place. Antigua is a very small place. In Antigua, not only is the event turned into everyday but the everyday is turned into an event” – Jamaica Kincaid
Kincaid takes readers through some of the events in Antiguan history that have perpetuated corruption, poverty, and neo-colonialism. Of course, these are not topics that trouble the minds of (mainly white) tourists who flock to this Caribbean destination for a respite from their “amniotic sac of the modern experience.” Beautiful though Antigua may be, Kincaid makes no attempt to continue the idea of Island Paradise. Instead she takes tourism to task, confronting their voluntary ignorance and exoticism of a land where “there is no proper sewage-disposal system,” an indefinitely closed library, a hospital so run-down Westerners “would not feel confident leaving a domestic animal there,” and a corrupt system of importation of goods such as the food being served in the lavish hotels. Kincaid takes away the bliss of ignorance in her direct address to tourists. She informs that they too are natives of somewhere but, unlike them, the natives they exoticize on their vacations do not have the luxury to escape their own “banality and boredom”. The “source of pleasure” tourists are privileged to experience while visiting Antigua comes at the expense of those who cannot escape.
I am becoming an admirer of Kincaid. Her voice is often criticized for being angry and vengeful, but I find her words to always be breaths of fresh, honest, air. She does not shy away from the truth or make it palatable for readers; if you are going to pick up one of her books then you must be prepared for the mirror she holds up reflecting the atrocities colonialism has inflicted on the world, specifically the West Indies.
“Do you ever try to understand why people like me cannot get over the past, cannot forgive and cannot forget?” – Jamaica Kincaid
A Small Place is not a flowery tour-guide of Antigua, it is a beautifully written, starkly honest look into not only the events that shaped the ten-by-twelve-mile island, but into humanity and its willfully ignorant transgressions against those rendered “other.” It is worth the read and Kincaid’s voice is worth listening to.
*This novel completes the following reading challenge: Read One Book in a Day
I’m acquiring books at a much higher rate that I’m actually reading them, but that’s a good thing–you can never, EVER, have too many books! One thing for sure, my interest in Jamaica Kincaid’s work has developed into a full-blown obsession. And I finally found a Toni Cade Bambara book! All of my findings are below:
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun / The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. (Lorraine Hansberry)
Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. (Edited by Gerda Lerner)
Gorilla, My Love. (Toni Cade Bambara)
At the Bottom of the River. (Jamaica Kincaid)
A Small Place. (Jamaica Kincaid)
The Book of Night Women. (Marlon James)
2 Kincaid novels + 1 Toni Cade Bambara Novel + 1 Marlon James Novel = $20; the EXTREME HAPPINESS of finding them all in 1 place = priceless!
When Meursault learns of his mother’s death in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, he is apathetic to say the least. It is this strange detachment from emotion Camus explores in his existential search of meaning and existence. Fifty-four years later Jamaica Kincaid’s Xuela is also confronted with the loss of her mother and regards it with Mersault’s similar apathetic detachment as she states:
“My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind”
but unlike Meursault, Xuela does not get to attend her mother’s funeral as she is but a newborn when her mother dies. Much like Camus’ interrogation of the existential question of existence, Kincaid explores the affects of a severed bond between mother and child in a theme that stretches far beyond Xuela’s personal story.
Mother’s are always much more than the women who push us into the world and that is especially so in the works of Jamaica Kincaid. Like many of Kincaid’s female protagonists the quest, the desire, the desperation for self-identification is so intimately and intricately intertwined with their mother that only a violent break from one can grant autonomy to the other. This break is delivered early on for Xuela, the daughter of a half Scot, half African father and a Carib mother, which leaves her stumbling through turbulent relationships with older women who could easily be mistaken as substitute mother figures for the young girl if only they were not beating her, attempting to kill her, or prostituting her to their husbands. And yet, in spite of all of this chaotic mistreatment, Xuela learns how to defend herself with a myriad of weapons, one of them being Kincaid’s most famously given to her female protagonists–self-love.
Whatever about me caused offense, whatever was native to me, whatever I could not help and was not a moral failing–those things about me I loved with the fervor of the devoted.
This self-love is a visceral and intensely sexual awakening; it’s a foraging into a place many women–for reasons complex–cannot go and for that reason again she faces violent confrontations with those of whom look just like her.
that people who looked so very much like each other, who shared a common history of suffering and humiliation and enslavement, should be taught to mistrust each other, even as children, is no longer a mystery to me.
The act of self-love is also an act of defiance and rebellion against a history that teaches her that her skin and lineage makes her of the vanquished, the conquered, the defeated sect of people: African People who “had been defeated but had survived,” and the Carib people who “had been defeated and then exterminated.” Kincaid explores this history through the ways in which it still lived on in the firey red tendrils of her father’s hair and “the color of corruption,” that was his skin, she explores this history’s manifestation on her own body, the faces, the gestures, and the language(s) of all who live on the island in their ascribed roles. This a-chronological tale follows Xuela from her early childhood through her seventies. In these transitions are exertion of certainties that transform into stream of conscience questions about life, about love, about death. What you read is not simply an autobiography about Xuela’s mother, you read an autobiography of Xuela herself
In me is the voice I never heard, the face I never saw, the being I came from
The two women share more than a name, more than blood, but a historical connection as vanquished women, motherless women, forced to traverse the tiny island of Dominica and make sense of a world forced on to them by the victors, the colonizers who violently rewrote the history of the land and its human habitants. Xuela’s mother was a part of the almost extinct evidence of life pre-European-colonial-genocide and when she died she left Xuela half of that blood; her father’s racial and cultural tense mixture of African and Scottish make up her other half and through this creolized woman who refuses to adopt to one specific race or nation gives us the story of how she, and those who made her, came to be.
And so my mother and father then were a mystery to me: one through death, the other through the maze of living; one I had never seen, the other I saw constantly.
Reading Kincaid is imperative, intimate, and intense. She will take your senses, and sensibilities, on a journey through the Caribbean–a place deemed as paradise–and introduce to you the startling dark truth in a way that blends folk with fact, myth with logic. There’s no way you won’t re-read this novel.
According to the Greeks there are four types of love: Storge, Philia, Eros, and Agape, but the Greeks forgot to mention one more type and that is the love between a mother and daughter. It is an enduring love that withstands the initial mutual adoration, the misguided criticisms and accusations until the final arrival at respect. This is the type of love explored in Jamaica Kincaid’s semi-autobiographical novella, Lucy.
Lucy is a girl who, at nineteen, has had enough of her family, community, and west indian island. So she packs her bags and leaves to work as an au pair for a couple in New York while she studies to become a nurse—at least that what she leaves her mother to believe. In the span of 365 days Lucy’s personality and life direction does a complete 360 as she abandons her past in hopes of defining her own future. We arrive at her life in the middle of her existential crisis/transformation and Kincaid leads us on an emotional journey to discover the root of Lucy’s discomfort and incessant refusal to communicate with her past.
Kincaid delivers a stellar novella whose character and language is so captivating it will not allow you to put it down—I finished it in one sitting. In 165 pages the Antiguan author offers us one of the most idiosyncratic, cleverly angsty, fiercely independent female characters in Literature history. Lucy is a woman for whom convention and tradition holds no place, at least that’s what she is fighting so hard to convince herself to believe. She is in a constant battle with authentic reality and illusion and it is through this conflict that Kincaid delves into the most complex relationship of all—a mother and daughter. Her emotionally intense illustration of this relationship is so nuanced yet relatable you will remember the very moment at which the illusion of who you thought your mother was and the reality of who she is clashes so fiercely that you begin to unravel your own identity. And it is through that painful and confusing process that Lucy sets out on leaving us to root for her, to cry with her, to side-eye her, but most of all, to relate to her. She is one of the most endearing characters I have ever come across.
This sort of personal (re)development set against the backdrop of a white upper class family allows room for Kincaid’s stunning critiques of classicism, colonialism, gender roles, and white feminism. Her language is blunt, but beautiful. She weaves the straight-forward with the figurative in a way that will force you to to re-read sections not for clarity, but for adoration.
We have all had that moment where we despise where we’re from; the people, ideas, and culture is so confining that we believe if we just escape its borders we will find happiness. But it isn’t until we cross into new territory that we learn:
“Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
No piece of work captures that more brilliantly than Kincaid’s Lucy.
My local library was having an incredible book-sale–fill a bag of books for only $3!–so I had to check it out. Here are some books I picked up:
- My Education, Susan Choi
- My Jim, Nancy Rawles
- In The Woods, Tana French
- Rosa Parks: My Story, Rosa Parks
- See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid
- The First Bad Man, Miranda July
- The House Girl, Tara Conklin