Every spring semester that I teach English 203: Exploring the World, I look forward to the day when my students begin discussing Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. While not definitionally an essay, Kincaid’s slim 81-page memoir (or travelogue? or jeremiad?) is the shortest text I teach in a course using contemporary nonfiction travel writing to explore postcolonialism, social and environmental justice, and issues of gender in the global South.
My students arrive to class having been confronted—without warning from me—with Kincaid’s categorical rage and pinned under a relentless gaze constructed skillfully through her repetition of you. Kincaid lands my students in Antigua and regularly reminds them, “The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being.” We spend much of the first of two class days working through both Kincaid’s rage and my students’ deeply personal reactions to her castigation of Western tourists.
Of particular interest for me on our first day with A Small Place is the transition in class discussion from discounting Kincaid’s scathing observational claims about her readers to a conversation considering whether such anger can be productive. This conversation is bumpy with some students arguing her outrage does not merit her description of them as “incredibly unattractive, fat, pastry-like,” and others positing that Kincaid’s indignation grabs her readers’ faces and forces them to look at, to see, to witness the over 500-year history of Western barbarity on this twelve by nine-mile-wide island. These students—those arguing for the productivity of anger—begin to cite passages linking the slave trade to Antigua’s Hotel Training School and to the discourse of tourism, which positions us to discuss contemporary imperial discourses and institutions during the next class meeting.
We leave our first class devoted to A Small Place reflecting on Kincaid’s stark observation on the development of capitalism. She asks her readers, my students, “Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists? Well, it’s because we, for as long as we have known you, were capital, like bales of cotton and sacks of sugar, and you were the commanding, cruel capitalists.”
What I like most about A Small Place—in addition to her profound rage, despair, and unanticipated hope—is watching as Kincaid carefully maps historical and contemporary imperial discourses and institutions onto this small island. As she guides us through the streets of St. Johns, she catalogs institutions such as the bank that once traded in human capital and now lends the descendants of those slaves funds or the hospital that government ministers avoid. But the most striking example of Kincaid’s discursive cartography is her genealogy of the Hotel Training School.
We spend much of the first half of our second day explicating Kincaid’s claim that the Hotel Training School, which produces hospitality workers for the many hotels lining Antigua’s beaches, resulted from slavery and emancipation. She remarks, “In Antigua, people cannot see a relationship between their obsession with slavery and emancipation and their celebration of the Hotel Training School (graduation ceremonies are broadcast on radio and television).” This is a challenging discussion for my students. Initially, they seem to react with the same frustration they felt on the first day, but as we closely read the text, my students realize they’re collectively feeling despair with the systemic injustice built into this one industry in Antigua, which they realize can be translated onto other metonymically small places. This is why I love to teach A Small Place: it is in this moment when my students stop resisting Kincaid’s acerbity and begin to empathically engage with her humanity.
I devote the second half of our second day with A Small Place to explicating Kincaid’s conclusion—both as the moment we witness her rage and despair dissolve into cautious hope and as a model for my students’ conclusions in their own writing. Line by line we determine the purpose of each sentence and observe that Kincaid concisely contextualized and summarizes her thesis, makes a provocative insight, and concludes with the broader implications of her project:
Again, Antigua is a small place, a small island. It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty—a European disease. Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way. The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans (and the people who would immediately come to your mind when you think about what Antiguans might be like; I mean, supposing you were to think about it), are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves. Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.
If I’ve planned my course schedule correctly, the two days we dedicate to discussing A Small Place are sandwiched between Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes and spring break. My students leave for Gulf Shores, Cancún, or Saint Kitts having grappled with Kincaid’s justified rage, despair, and hope-filled plea, and having investigated a network of contemporary imperial discourses.
Creighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate and Emmy-winner at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he is working on his dissertation, which is titled (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. His research interests include contemporary literature of the global South, postcolonial theory, life writing, and ecocriticism. His most recent publications are “The Hunger: The Power and Politics of a (Post)Colonial Cannibal,” which appeared in Diasporic Identities and Empire: Cultural Contentions and Literary Landscapes, and “Dracula’s Colonized Tongue Speaks through Fanged Teeth.”