Global Nativism In Jamaica Kincaid’a A Small Place (1988)
Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, published in 1988, offers a novelistic essay on the history and present of the Caribbean island of Antigua. What I find most pertinent about the book is the way in which Kincaid, or the text’s narrator, navigates the relationship between Antigua and the world, between island and mainland, between “small place” and big place; or, more generally, between place as such and the comprehensive frames of modernity, postmodernity, and globalization. For, it would seem, in that respect, that the book’s narrator shows considerable ambivalence, alternating between two perspectives that appear contradictory, if not incommensurable. The contradiction hinges on whether or not Antigua would indeed be “a small place,” a backwater separate or different from larger contexts.
For, on the one hand, the narrator criticizes the perception of Antigua as an exceptional place as little more than a convenient tourist projection, which requires the studied ignorance of the island’s present reality as well as history. The natural “harmony” and exotic “quaintness” the modern tourist comes to enjoy are merely repackaged products of colonialism, all but synonymous with an assumed backwardness (16). But, on the other hand, the narrator comes preciously close to sharing that view when she claims the island’s inhabitants would lack the awareness of their insertion in a larger world. “[T]he people in a small place,” she writes, “cannot see themselves in a larger picture, they cannot see that they might be part of a chain of something, anything” (52). The ignorance of tourists and inhabitants alike pertains to the relationship between the small place and “a larger picture.” But while the narrator sarcastically corrects the insular perception of the tourist as the effect of neo-colonial marketing, she simultaneously appears to indulge the common Eurocentric view of islanders as, well, insular, that is to say, small-minded and parochial . Hence, the islanders somehow both are, and are not, “premodern,” backward; Antigua is both parts of, and not quite part of, the modern world.
The contradiction poignantly illustrates Kincaid’s recalcitrance, her customary unwillingness to come up with politically opportune truths and I do not wish to push this point to blame either Kincaid or A Small Place for complicity or hypocrisy. Rather, what I hope to demonstrate is that this very ambivalence pinpoints a peculiar and provocative way of dealing with what might be called the place of place in a globalizing world. In what follows, I first try to historicize the common perception of islands as “small places.” Subsequently, I consider Kincaid’s topical island story in relation to two influential conceptualizations of place: Michel Foucault’s heterotopia and Mikhail Bakhtin’s chronotope. And finally, I attempt to account for A Small Place’s particular strategy of localization in a nominally postcolonial, globalizing world.
Islands Are Not Insular
The title of Kincaid’s book sets up Antigua as “a small place” – which may seem readily obvious considering the fact that Antigua is an island of 281 square kilometres. However, the perspective in which “island” and “small place” are near-synonyms is the product of a specific imaginary rather than astute geographical observation. Islands are not necessarily small but vary wildly in size; neither are they commonly isolated, as most are part of sprawling archipelagos, such as the Caribbean in the case of Antigua.
Paul Rainbird argues that islands attain their special relevance in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. The discovery (or perhaps rediscovery) of the Atlantic islands broke up the classical view, in which the known Mediterranean was encircled by Oceanus, prompting the imagination of new and different worlds. Godfrey Baldacchino adds that the view of islands as invariably small, round or semi-round, and finite answers an apparent need for totalisable space, an environment that can be fully described and controlled, which he associates with the historical emergence of self-contained and territorial nation-states, in sharp contrast to the sprawling, territorially opportunistic empires of the past (247) . Both Rainbird and Baldacchino adduce a specifically Western and modern context for the geographically faulty imaginary of the island as “a small place.”
That imaginary, moreover, is inherently anachronistic. The Canary, Cape Verde, and Caribbean islands quickly became integral stopovers for the developing mercantile capitalism of the intercontinental, or triangular, trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas that ushered in the modern era. Modernity is not so much European or Western as it is Atlantic, as Paul Gilroy has convincingly argued. In other words, the literary and cultural imagination of the island as semi-round, small, and closed in on itself takes shape precisely when the Atlantic islands increasingly function as hyper-connected commercial and cultural hubs. Arguably, then, Kincaid’s characterization of Antigua as “a small place” participates in the modern imaginary that divorces the island from the larger historical and economic contexts that produces it, thereby making it small and marginal.
At the same time, Kincaid moves beyond that imaginary by demonstrating that this island is all but totalisable, fully knowable. In contrast to the indigenous inhabitant who may not be able to see the big picture, but who can be assumed to know her or his “small place” exceedingly well, the narrator offers little nativist knowledge or experience of what life on Antigua is really like. Instead, the text offers three divergent perspectives on the place, alternating between disparate time layers and points of view. Each time, the narrator speaks about Antigua with a fierce commitment, yet never from a position of unequivocal native or experiential authority. The first chapter sketches a tourist’s experience of the island – but the narrator is not a tourist; with a poignant mixture of outrage and nostalgia, chapter two deals with the colonial Antigua of the narrator’s childhood – but that place no longer exists; and the third and final part details present-day, postcolonial life on the island – which the narrator, an expatriate, does not share.
It is in this insistence that the small place may be small but not therefore also readily assimilable that one might see the beginning of the particular understanding of the place of place in the world that Kincaid’s book advances . It participates in what James Clifford has described as the endeavour of “unmaking the exoticist or colonialist concept of the homebody native, always firmly at home, in his or her place” (477). Premodern and postmodern ways of living, Clifford continues, have in common dispersed patterns of dwelling. As the result, modernity becomes the temporary exception rather than the norm. Today’s expat or migrant does not so much depart from an indigenous existence as reinstate it.
A small place, then, does not necessarily offer a fixed or snug form of emplacement; on the contrary, it may consist of a dizzying overlay of scales and frames. According to the narrator, Antigua’s native inhabitant struggles to get the big picture. Meanwhile, however, the narrator herself struggles to get the small picture fully into view. It may not so much be the big picture that is particularly hard to see or get after all, couched as it is in the familiarizing narratives of modernity, postcolonialism, and globalization, but rather the small place that falls within, while yet somehow simultaneously exceeding, those very frames. This island, it appears, is far from insular. How does this peculiar vision of location fit or modify influential conceptualizations of place?
The so-called “spatial turn” in the humanities and the social sciences has provoked variegated responses. Roughly, postmodernists have welcomed it as the ultimate victory over modernity and historicism, while Marxists repudiate it as the ultimate victory of capital, symptomatic of the encroachment of a socioeconomic order that no longer sees the need to historicize its genesis, nor to factor in the possibility of qualitative change. As Michel Foucault wrote in an influential essay as early as 1967, “One could perhaps say that certain ideological conflicts animating present-day polemics oppose the pious descendants of time and the determined inhabitants of space” (22).
Despite the faint irony of that phrasing, which seems to extend equally to both parties, Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces” is routinely cited in support of the postmodernist or globalist reification of space. “We are,” Foucault writes, “in the epoch of simultaneity; we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed” (22). A further repudiation of historicism can be found in the essay by Foucault’s pithy repudiation of utopias, so central for both liberal and Marxist accounts of modernity, as “fundamentally unreal spaces” (24). Instead of unreal modernist utopias, Foucault champions postmodernist heterotopias, existing pockets or enclaves that are part of the spatially integrated world, while yet remaining qualitatively different, somehow off. The heterogeneous is no longer situated faraway, somewhere across the border of known space, but is now included in and distributed through the world that we know, or at least assume we do. Nonetheless, heterotopias are not situated altogether outside time; on the contrary, they remain tied to “slices in time” (26). Hence, heterotopias are not so much atemporal but differently temporal, heterochronic; they are not so much unhistorical but differently historical. In a final twist, Foucault’s argument itself depends on a rough historical timeline that moves from the spatial hierarchies of the Middle Ages via Nineteenth-Century historicism to arrive at the present epoch of the network (22-3).
What I find productive about Foucault’s essay is, to begin, its effective implication that no one can be understood to occupy a larger, cosmopolitan, let alone global condition. We all inhabit a particular, hence limited, if not small, place. “We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light,” Foucault argues, “we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another” (23). In that sense, the phrase “a small place” is, in fact, redundant: lived, inhabited space is always, necessarily, small in relation to the enveloping frames of postmodernity and globalization. In addition, postmodern or global space is not so much smooth or open, as is often averred, but rather intricately textured by manifold pockets or sites that remain spatiotemporally heterogeneous. Finally, while the sites we inhabit are singular and irreducible, a tight and volatile relationship holds between normal and different places, between homotopical and heterotopical spaces. For, heterotopias both divert from other places, possibly converting their logic, while yet also representing them in some or other way. By “exert[ing] a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy,” Foucault suggests, heterotopias not just reverse and displace but also reflect something of where I am. In other words, heterotopias are not just about different places over there, but also about the supposedly normal places over here, enabling us to see them again, but differently. This weird logic can only be described oxymoronically as that of a paradigmatic exception: the exception does not so much prove the rule as instantiating it, demonstrate it. The heterotopic place shows something general about the world in its very difference.
If Foucault’s notion of heterotopia seems equivocally postmodern, Bakthin’s concept of the chronotope is decidedly a-modern or non-modern. It does not affirm the watershed between the traditional and the new but insists instead on longer continuities. Portions of history, Bakthin argues, are erratically and unpredictably assimilated into literature in the shape of generic settings that endure. Thus, a culture may retain and combine chronotopes from wildly different, incommensurable historical periods. Those settings form the “primary point[s],” Bakthin continues, from which narrative events unfold, effectively unseating the primacy of the temporal and causal relations of the plot (22). Narratives usher in particular “time-places,” in which events happen to occur; stories are first about places, only secondly about plots. Finally, the chronotope repudiates the split between time and space that “abstract thought” establishes as it conceives of “time and space as separate entities and conceives them as things apart” (16). The assertion becomes poignant as soon as we take into account that the split between the modern and the archaic, the West and the rest, also cleaves apart time and space, discriminating between a placeless, because universalized, Time on the one hand and an atemporal, static place on the other . The modern or global is a specific time-place like any other. In this sense, too, Bakhtin’s conceptualization of the chronotope undercuts the privilege of Western modernity.
Put Foucault and Bakthin together and we can begin to appreciate the island as the condensation of an aesthetic setting we inherit from the past, and an existing place that may epitomize as well as off-set the contemporary world: a heterochronotope . A current chronotope in literature, film, and popular culture, the island is simultaneous and on a par with a number of other generic settings, such as, for example, the castle, the big city, the boudoir, the suburb, and the road. At the same time, it assimilates an extensive array of historical layers, ranging from the classical commonplace of the “blessed” or “fortunate isles,” Plato’s Atlantis, and the modern utopia (or dystopia) inaugurated by Thomas More in 1516. As heterotopia, furthermore, the island marks the demise of the utopian promise of Western modernity, out of place and out of date within Foucault’s spatialised world. At the same time, it supplies a heuristically privileged setting that may both reveal and contest aspects of the larger world. The specific aspect Kincaid’s text brings out, I wish to argue, is the island’s potential to contest the insularity of the supposed margin while demonstrating the insularity of the (post)modern subject, whether at home or abroad. Indeed, A Small Place advances what may be described as a generalized insularity or nativism in a world that fancies itself “global.”
In a passage intermixing narration, address, and free indirect speech, the narrator of A Small Place voices the desire of the tourist in the following way:
But one day, when you are sitting somewhere, alone in that crowd, and that awful feeling of displacedness comes over you, and really, as an ordinary person you are not well equipped to look too far inward and set yourself aright, because being ordinary is already so taxing, and being ordinary takes all you have out of you, and though the words “I must get away” do not actually pass across your lips, you make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it (16).
Modern individuality, the fragment implies, precisely consists of the misrecognition or ignorance of the larger context of modernity. The cliché of “being alone in a crowd” shifts the prized attainment of autonomous individuality, an individuality that is supposed to transcend its context or background, to a condition of pathetic isolation. While Descartes could still assert, with a sense of accomplishment, that “among the crowd of large and active people … I have been able to live as solitary and retired as in the remotest desert,” this subject suffers only from displacement and disconnection (qtd. in Damrosch, 378). The modern experience is twice described as “sitting” (“sitting somewhere,” “just sitting like a boob”), suggesting an anchored emplacement, a containment so constraining and regressive it can be adequately compared to the life of the foetus inside the amniotic sac.
Place does not get much smaller than this! The modern subject does not inhabit Time, nor “big space,” but partakes of an entirely “nativist” and “insular” form of dwelling.
Once the subject makes the leap from his or her blob-like existence, he or she can only “get away” by admiring “heaps of death and ruin” somewhere else, coming away feeling refreshed. Those “heaps” are of course the remainders of the history that connected the West and Antigua in the first place: “monuments to rottenness” turned into tourist sights, as the text later describes them (69). The big getaway turns out to be a roundabout return, a new enclosure. The enjoyed feelings of aliveness and inspiration do not quite suggest that the tourist recognizes the historical continuity between those ruins, monuments, and sights and his own displaced and isolated experience. In other words, not just the Antiguans live in a small place, so do Western subjects with disposable income; not just the Antiguans fail to see the Big Picture, so do the supposedly cosmopolitan travellers. A Small Place suggests a kind of generalized nativism within the touristic, globalized world.
The generalized nativism that Kincaid’s text develops puts the difference between the modern individual “self” and his requisite “other” on a different footing. “Every native everywhere,” Kincaid writes, “lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good or 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” (18-19). The charged oppositions between self and other, between Westerner and non-Westerner, between big city-dweller and islander, are all replaced by the one between “tourist-native” and “native-native.” And that opposition is boiled down to the question whether or not one has disposable income at hand; a perspective that surely amounts to a severe rejoinder to the current generalization, conceptualization, and idealization of mobility and migration .
Nonetheless, A Small Place appears to ascribe to the Antiguans a special talent to deal with, even enjoy, their lives in a small place, which the tourist lacks, or is perhaps never forced to develop. While the tourist only comes alive at the ruinous sights of a history that also made him possible, the Antiguans are characterized as “children, eternal innocents, or artists who have not yet found eminence in a world too stupid to understand, or lunatics who have made their own lunatic asylum, or an exquisite combination of all three” (57). Nevertheless, this intriguing description may allude to the ways of dealing with one’s place in the world we all share to some extent, modalities necessary to both know and yet “unknow” the terrible continuities between the big picture and the small places where we feel so at home, and so bored: studied ignorance, creative imagination, and a type of madness. In that sense too, then, the Antiguans in their small place and we in ours may not be all that different.
The realization informs the stunning re-appreciation of the island that closes the book. After having worked her way through the overlapping contexts of colonial, postcolonial, and touristic Antigua with a mixture of sarcasm, outrage, nostalgia, indignation, passion, and sadness, the narrator observes the island anew: “Antigua is beautiful. Antigua is too beautiful. Sometimes the beauty of it seems unreal” (77). For a moment, it seems we are back at the glossy, commodified, and exotic aesthetic of the island paradise that the Western tourist comes to enjoy. This time around, however, the ontological suspension of the place, its unreal aspect, does not suggest a (premodern) otherworldliness, a place away from it all, but on the contrary, an ordinariness that resists perception. Antigua was outrageously beautiful when it was inhabited by slaves; it is as beautiful now that it is inhabited by “just human beings.” “[J]ust human beings,” who are like children, artists, and lunatics in that they are able to summon up the talent, madness, as well as innocence to live their lives in an impossible, yet perfectly everyday, place. What A Small Place dares to imagine, Suzanne Gauch aptly states, is an oxymoronic “spectacle of ordinariness” (911). When the pathos and hurt of the colonial, postcolonial, and global contextualizations of Antigua drop away for a moment, the island reveals itself in a shocking everydayness that is too beautiful to apprehend. Thus, Kincaid moves the imagination of the island from the small place we know all too well in its predictable exceptionality (insular, parochial, backward, exotic, quaint, etcetera) to a place we struggle to take in aesthetically and epistemologically in its everyday existence. The discovery of Kincaid’s A Small Place may be that the island, the place of such insistent imaginings and urgent European projections, may ultimately be just a place, inhabited by “just human beings”.
Bal, M. (2008) “Heterochronotopia”, in: Aydemir, M., Rotas, A. (eds.) Migratory Settings: Transnational Perspectives on Place, Amsterdam-New York, 35-56
Bakthin, M.M. (2002) “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes towards a Historical Poetics”, in B. Richardson (ed.) Narrative Dynamics: Essays on Time, Plot, Closure, and Frames, Columbus
Baldacchino, G. (2004) “Islands: Objects of Representation”, Geografiska Annaler 78 B, 247-251
Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity, Cambridge
Boletsi, M. (2008) “A Place of Her Own: Negotiating Boundaries in Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place and My Garden (Book)”, in: Aydemir, M., Rotas, A. (eds.), Migratory Settings: Transnational Perspectives on Place, Amsterdam-New York, 229-246
Chrisman, L. (1990) “The Imperial Unconscious? Representations of Imperial Discourse”, Critical Quarterly 32.3, 38-58
Clifford, J. (2001) “Indigenous Articulations”, The Contemporary Pacific 13.2, 468-490
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Gauch, S. (2002) “A Small Place: Some Perspectives on the Ordinary”, Callaloo 25.3, 910-119
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Hoving, I. (2001) In Praise of New Travelers: Reading Caribbean Migrant Women’s Writing, Stanford
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Kincaid, J. (1988) A Small Place, New York
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1. Hoving characterizes the narrator’s voice as a mixture of anticolonial outrage and colonial mimicry, enacting an “angry exercise in identification” that nevertheless “stays unsettlingly close to colonial discourse” (2001: 192-4).
2. Marin’s classic study on More’s Utopia analyzes the totalizing strategies of the modern society it projects in detail. The island is a circle, “a line closed off to itself” (1984: 103), in which oppositions are neutralized (1984:109). Utopia’s society is fully transparent and knowable (1984: 99). Jameson describes Utopia as “entirely totalized and closed-off … selfenclosed and autonomous” (2005: 39).
3. Comparing A Small Place with My Garden (Book), Murray argues that Kincaid resists an “isolated aesthetic” in both cases. Both island and private garden are revealed as “cultural and historical formation” (2001: 116). Boletsi also compares the two books, concluding that the later text offers a more productive way of dealing with boundaries.
4. “Modernity starts when space and time are separated from living practice and from each other and so become ready to be theorized as distinct and mutually independent categories of strategy and action, when they cease to be, as they used to be in long premodern centuries, the intertwined and so barely distinguishable aspects of living experience, locked in a stable and apparently invulnerable one-to-one correspondence,” Bauman writes (2000: 8-9).
6. Chrisman faults the allegorisation of (post)colonialism into the fated encounter between Western self and non-Western other for ignoring the historical network of practices, including those of capitalism and political economy, that have produced that opposition to begin with (1980: 38-41). Gauch argues, “A Small Place addresses otherness by rejecting it in favor of ordinariness, an ordinariness that levels many of the distinctions upon which self and other are predicated” (2002: 910).