A Small Place, A Big Paradox

English 399

Spring 2004

Jamaica Kincaid eloquently illustrates the beauty of Antigua and subjugation of its inhabitants in A Small Place. I do not doubt that Antigua is beautiful or that at times, its beauty may seem unreal. Colonized by Europeans and exploited by tourists, Antiguans are often viewed by these entities as simply an aspect of the island scenery; to tourists, another thing to photograph. Kincaid addresses in no uncertain terms the plight of the Antiguan. Simultaneously exposed to poverty and wealth on a daily basis, Antiguans are forced to live in scarcity as they watch travelers revel in surplus. A Small Place gives voice to the exploited Antiguan, all the while addressing the big paradox.

Hailing from Montserrat, an island located approximately twenty‑seven miles off the coast of Antigua, Gershon Irish is all too familiar with the contradictions of despising the tourists which ultimately comprise the majority of the island revenue. I interviewed the Montserrat native and asked him what it was like to grow up in a small place and if there was ever any contempt towards tourists, the people needed to help the island thrive.

At eight years of age, Irishís father began the long process of submitting the paperwork necessary to leave Montserrat. The applications, which must be filed with the Embassy, take years to complete and Irish was not given clearance to leave the island for ten years. This is a stark contrast to government officials who often, like those attacked by Kincaid, will not so much as visit a doctor on the island. The need for Irish to leave the island became one of urgency when the Soufriere Hills Volcano erupted on July 18, 1995. Marked by "ash fall, rumbles, and a sulfuric smell," Irish reports that many of the islandís inhabitants were forced to run in order to save their lives. The beaches of Montserrat, covered with black sands as a result of the eruption, are now a huge tourist attraction.

Leaving much of the island uninhabitable and covered with volcanic debris, most of the islandís natives were forced to move to the north side of Montserrat. Destroying hotels, homes, and historic sites, the eruption of Soufriere Hills devastated the economy of Montserrat; the lack of tourism delivered a sharp blow to the financial system of Montserrat. Tourists have no desire to visit destitution. This is what they desire to escape. The desire, as Kincaid states, is to feel "cleansed... blessed... special... free" (Kincaid, 5) and after all, "being ordinary is already so taxing" (Kincaid, 16).

Tourism puts historical culture on display while simultaneously working to commercialize and exploit it. To Irish, Soufriere Hills is a landmark that nearly cost him his life. To tourists, it is a photo opportunity. The fact that former historical sites, which are now only remains, have become another tourist attraction is a sore spot for Irish. Visitors who frequent carnival, a Christmas celebration in Montserrat, often times "have no idea what it is that they are celebrating," according to Irish. He reports that ancient burial grounds recently discovered have now become a new hot spot for visitors to the island. Irish makes clear in no uncertain terms his contempt for tourists. "They come to my island, they use it up, and then they go back home."

Boasting seventeen hotels, quite an impressive number given Montserratís diminutive size, and innumerous bed and breakfasts, there is no questioning that it is tourism that supplements Montserratí s economy. Irish echoes Kincaidís resentment towards tourists visiting Montserrat; "I was like a piece of scenery to them. A tree, an ocean, a native. Itís all the same to them. The issue though, seems to be more of one in accordance with the paradoxical relationship Kincaid cites between the tourist and the native. Although, as she says, "every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere" (Kincaid, 18), the reality is, "most natives in the world are too poor to go anywhere" (Kincaid, 18‑19). Irish revealed that the first "vacation" he took was at seventeen years of age. The vacation was to the neighboring island of Antigua.

Perhaps the aspect of Englandís parentage that makes it so reprehensible is