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Island in the Dark : A SMALL PLACE by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $13.95; 96 pp.)

July 17, 1988|Caryl Phillips | Phillips was born in St. Kitts. His latest book is "The European Tribe" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

In her two autobiographical novels, "Down by the River" and "Annie John," Jamaica Kincaid succeeded where few Caribbean novelists, and certainly no women from that part of the world, have succeeded in capturing the languid rhythms of tropical life in a rich and evocative prose that is also both urgent and poetic.

"A Small World" is a departure, not so much of style but of content. Kincaid has chosen to write a powerful nonfiction essay which, like her novels, centers on her native Antigua, but unlike her novels spills over into an assault of great saeva indignatio toward not only the English who colonized Antigua, but also toward the local natives who "liberated" and now rule this small independent country.

The essay begins with an account of how it feels to arrive as a tourist in a country such as Antigua.

"You disembark from your plane. You go through customs. Since you are a tourist, a North American or European--to be frank, white--and not an Antiguan black returning to Antigua from Europe or North America with cardboard boxes of much needed cheap clothes and food for relatives, you move through customs swiftly, you move through customs with ease."

The author is aware of the physical and psychological discomfort of being a tourist, and she moves from the familiar guilt induced by hassle-free immigration channels and luxury hotels to more particular but nonetheless important problems.

"You have bad manners (it is their custom to eat their food with their hands; you try eating their way, you look silly); they do not like the way you speak (you have an accent); they collapse helpless from laughter, mimicking the way they imagine you must look as you carry out some everyday bodily function."

The power-play between those who gawk and those who suffer the stares is brilliantly captured by a writer who, having divided her life between Antigua and the United States, possesses enough understanding of both worlds to be able to draw a convincing picture of their coming together. It is a tension that is felt in many parts of the world, from Africa to India to Latin America, places where the affluent use the "underdeveloped" world as a beach on which to lie.

It is only when the author steps beyond her preoccupation with the "tourist" that the essay begins to develop a flavor that marks it out as not only original in tone but historically important as a document that throws light on Caribbean history past and present.

Kincaid reminisces about her childhood in "English" (colonized) Antigua. As she castigates the English for their behavior and attitudes in the "old" Antigua, we are led to assume that the newly independent Antigua will be for her a place of spiritual rebirth. But when she returns to her island, she finds the place darker. Her disappointment fuels the essay, and it soars with the passion of Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" as she exposes the corruption and double-dealing that exists in all areas of modern Antiguan life. The St. Lucian Derek Walcott and the Trinidadian V. S. Naipaul have launched similar attacks against the parochialism of their home countries, and it is into this tradition of West Indian literary exiles looking back with a sense of loss compounded by disappointment that this book falls.

The essay begs one question. Why does somebody who lives so comfortably outside think she has the right to criticize those who have to live inside? After all, it is easy to arrive with a return air ticket, make sweeping judgments, and depart. Baldwin, a longtime French resident, was often accused by his peers of a lack of "commitment" to America, but his answer is to be found in the same place that we find Kincaid's riposte to those who might castigate; in the passion of the writing. Kincaid may reside in America but only somebody with her heart in Antigua could have written with such ferocity of purpose and self-revelatory hurt. Quite simply, she has a right to criticize because, irrespective of residence or nationality, she belongs.

Once or twice, the author allows her chastisement of England to become a little cynical:

"But the English have become such a pitiful lot these days, with hardly any idea what to do with themselves now that they no longer have one quarter of the Earth's human population bowing and scraping before them."

At other times, her anti-English line is historically questionable. Was Nelson a "criminal"? If so, the onus is upon the author to explain to us, however briefly, the nature of his criminality. But these are small points.

A generation ago, the Martinique poet, Aime Cesaire, wrote "A Return to My Native Land," an epic poem on the same theme, in which he found much more cause for optimism on his return to Martinique from Metropolitan France. Kincaid's pessimism reflects the changing Caribbean, a small but increasingly complex part of the world, burdened with cable television, Japanese cars, the evils of American materialistic splendor, and now veterans of an actual American invasion. This new Caribbean stands at a political and moral crossroads, and Kincaid is a witness to what is happening in our West Indian back yards. And I trust her.

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