Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, published in 1988, is a wonderfully ebullient and multi-layered piece of writing that condenses a searing and deep critique of colonialism with a call for tourists to visiting the Caribbean island of her birth, Antigua, to re-examine themselves and their relations to histories of inequalities.
Destroying the myth of a paradise island designed for tourist pleasure, Kincaid points out how the global asymmetries of a postcolonial world order underpin the impossibility of shared experience for those who visit and those who reside.
“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—.”
While the force of Kincaid’s critique may land most squarely and obviously on the willfully blind tourist, she is also concerned to explore the challenges that exist for those who call the island home. As she states in a later commentary on A Small Place, ‘One of the things that we never do in the landscape I’m from, is relax on it. No one I know growing up, ever goes to the beach for a holiday. It’s a landscape that has horrible memories for us’.
More than this, Kincaid shows how both the colonial past of plantation slavery and the postcolonial present of tourist ‘development’ have created a long cycle of exploitation in which the powerful –both abroad and at home – remain impervious to the lives of the powerless.
“Have you ever wondered to yourself why it is that all people like me seem to have learned from you is how to imprison and murder each other, how to govern badly, and how to take the wealth of our country and place it in Swiss bank accounts?”
Possibly Kincaid’s most powerful achievement in this book is to speak directly across all protected categories of privilege, both revealing and eroding the grounds of social injustice, in a gesture that Carolyn Pedwell calls ‘confrontational empathy’ (See ‘Affect at the margins: Alternative empathies in A Small Place’ Emotion, Space and Society xxx (2012): 1-9).
Esther Figueroa and Diana McCaulay’s documentary film Jamaica for Sale is an equally scorching critique of the environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of unsustainable tourism developments, this time in Jamaica. Another powerful piece of work focused on the exploitative economies and ecologies of tourism in the Caribbean, the filmmakers observe the consequences of the fact that
Jamaica, one of the most indebted countries in the world, is undergoing unprecedented large-scale, mass market, all-inclusive hotel development, as well as the construction of exclusive gated residential schemes and luxury condominiums for non-residents.
The film explores the chronic negative impacts of tourism on the lives of local Jamaicans who are coerced to labour in unsafe conditions, earning less than a living wage, and witnessing the destruction of their alternative livelihoods, such as fishing, as the natural environment of the island is degraded and willfully destroyed.
Watching Jamaica for Sale and reading A Small Place is a powerful combination that sensitizes us to the almost inevitably toxic consequences of tourism and its political, economic and psychological legacies in a Caribbean region made politically precarious by its long history of exploitation.
You can watch a recent interview with Kincaid here: