Book Review: Insider Out: Tourism & Cultural Identity

By Sharla.

“If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see.” So starts this epic political essay, “A Small Place” by Antiguan born author, Jamaica Kincaid. The poetic introduction to post colonial Antigua is punctuated by lyrical tangents, saturated in rage. Kincaid encourages literal and metaphorical speculation on the physical appearance, and economic characteristics of Antigua. She draws attention to certain oddities that are pesky residuals of British colonialism, which is blamed for the overwhelming majority of all things wrong in Antiguan society. It is somewhat poetic, cryptically suggesting that Antigua’s tourist perception is narrow, from the outside looking in.

Throughout this book, Kincaid (unwittingly) draws a harrowing parallel between post colonial Antigua and modern day Bermuda with strong themes of identity, culture, colonization and corruption of government. “A Small Place” is the perspective of a citizen jaded by the local reality of her homeland juxtaposed with the tourist’s reality; it is a critique of governmental corruption and inefficiency and an admonishment of a complacent people, “willfully ignorant” to their own contribution to the conditions in which they are forced to live.

With no surprise, it is challenging to do justice to the complex implications presented in “A Small Place” published in 1988. Kincaid takes us through varying perspectives of Antigua with focus on colonization and its effects. As a narrator addressing a tourist about to land at the airport, Kincaid gives a visual description of what is seen, from the assumed perspective of the tourist; one gets a sense of the obliviousness of the typical tourist that visits the Caribbean.

A familiar sense of the people that are typically encountered during the tourist season really contributed to the effectiveness of the sense of annoyance with the condescension of the people. In the midst of a people left colonized in their mentalities, the happy tourist uncaringly becomes a component in a vicious cycle of the breakdown of pride and empowerment. Bermudian tourism must have been very similar some time ago. The caricature of the happy island people as portrayed by the tourist trade that Kincaid poignantly describes as ‘ugly’ identifies a distinct symptom of other islands once colonized by European oppressors. Kincaid illustrates the very real polarization between what reality is for Antigua’s people and what reality is for Antigua’s tourists. On one hand, a morally deficient, damaged, infrastructural nightmare which plagues its complacent people is overlooked by the tourist. In a decidedly mocking tone, Kincaid condemns the incognizant tourist for their use of the people to their advantage and their blatant ignorance of the issues plaguing the people. The romanticisation of a place makes visitors easily block out the negative aspects of a country and see only idyllic beauty (i.e. Bermuda is another world), an easily recognizable problem that occurs when a wealthy first world citizen decides to visit any Caribbean island. Tourists are ignorant to the ills of the society because they are not affected; they ignore it because it is not their problem. Interestingly enough, similar issues still linger in this Bermudian society, no doubt plagued like Antigua by colonialism. Perhaps this issue is even more insidious in Bermuda, still colonized, by a people who previously enslaved the ancestors of the majority of its population. Kincaid’s disgust of the people’s attitude toward the people of Antigua is somewhat similar to feelings expressed about Bermudian people (by Bermudian people) in recent times.

I enjoy Kincaid’s attention and focus on slavery, especially as an important factor in the development of social dynamics in the country. Quite controversially, Kincaid suggests that once the people of Antigua were freed from slavery, they lost their nobility and became “regular people” tainted by the behaviours of their oppressors and willfully ignorant to the injustices against them. This is particularly hard hitting when we consider Bermudian culture today, in relation to colonialism and slavery. Distinctly opinionated, Kincaid admonishes the people for their willful participation in their own oppression by mirroring those behaviours of their oppressors. That same can be said of Bermuda, easily so, a society of people who claim that “our slavery” was not as bad as the slavery in other parts of the Caribbean, thus disconnecting ourselves from the identity of our ancestors to take an apologist stance toward our “mother country” Britain.

Kincaid’s wonderfully emotive narration coupled with a deeply moving account of politics and society in ‘her Antigua’ makes this book a classic contribution that offers such valuable insight. As we are able to uncover the vast similarities between these two “Small Places” we see that we are not so unique as a people, our culture, our heritage and traditions are drawn from a vast stew of history spread throughout the islands and tainted by British colonial rule – a legacy which (to an extent) dictates our attitudes and by extension, our culture, our perception and Bermuda’s present and future.

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