A predominant thread running through much of the literature of Jamaica Kincaid – an Antiguan-American novelist, essayist and poet – is her vivid exploration of feelings of admiration and longing for the richness and vibrancy of her Caribbean homeland, alongside powerful expressions of anger and resentment; this outpouring of rage is usually directed toward colonialist endeavours to erode the history of her motherland and her own personal history. Kincaid’s often experimental works centre on these conflicting emotions, which the writer explores as a circumstance of her ventures from the West Indies to America.
Kincaid regularly toys with the central motif of not quite knowing where one belongs in the world, and she meditates upon feeling split between her Caribbean homeland and the Western customs which have become part of her life for much of her upbringing under British colonial rule of Antigua (Antigua only gained full independence from Britain in 1981). Here, we take a look at just a small selection of Kincaid’s highly thought-provoking writings, which illustrate in nuanced ways this striking sense of cultural disconnection that Kincaid critiques as being a product of colonial history.
Jamaica Kincaid’s postcolonial novel, Lucy, demonstrates the complex journey of a protagonist who seeks to resist the sense of colonial domination which has been imposed upon her personal history. Enter the novel’s teenage protagonist, Lucy, who adopts a fierce and critical gaze onto the West when she moves from her native Antigua to New York to work as an au-pair for a wealthy, white, middle-class family.
Lucy rebuts the role of naïve, passive, subject upon which a powerful country will dazzle her, and the reader cannot help but be enthralled by her tenacity and sharp-wittedness. Lucy refuses to perceive her host family as the pinnacle of perfection and happiness, as she soon begins to notice this veneer of pleasantry is a mere façade, when she learns that beneath the surface the family has many problems of their own. Kincaid’s illustration of the host family is perhaps a metaphor for white privilege as just that—an empty façade. With Lucy, Kincaid fiercely questions “white privilege” at its very core.
The story of Lucy is a lively and engaging account of one Caribbean woman’s fight for resistance against her colonial past, and this very resistance ultimately paves the way for the protagonist’s growing desire for self-invention and ultimate control over her life. As is the case with much of Kincaid’s writing, the novel is also thought to be a thinly veiled autobiography of the writer’s adolescent life.
A Small Place (1988)
With Kincaid’s book-length non-fiction essay, we are introduced to a very different engagement with the central themes of her work. A Small Place is a sharp-tongued polemic which critiques the damaging impact of mindless tourism upon the Caribbean.
Kincaid’s sardonic, poetic, and highly emotive writing brings to light the problematic idea that holidaymakers do not have to concern themselves with colonial history, and of how the past affects the present, when enjoying themselves abroad in Antigua. Kincaid forcefully interrogates the tourist that is encouraged to come to the Caribbean to get away from the complexity of modern life, without having to bear any understanding of the complex history of the country that they are visiting. As the reader, we are placed in an uncomfortable position, as we reflect upon our own motivation for an escape from the monotony of ordinary life when choosing to holiday abroad; Kincaid powerfully evokes shame as a prompt to move one into action.
A Small Place is a punchy indictment against the corruptive influences of colonialism. The text is a must-read in order to gain an appreciation of the way in which tourism can be perceived by the country’s natives as potentially insensitive. Kincaid reminds us that tourists in countries, such as Antigua, may be dismissive of the complications of history and, instead, are encouraged to visit such a place with the desire to merely see an array of aesthetically pleasing scenery. Kincaid is not afraid to interrogate the status quo, and this is why her works are often so politically powerful, informative, and engaging.
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