By Laurian B. For many years, Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place was a staple text for my introductory course in cultural anthropology. A fast, and unsettling read for anyone who has traveled to the Caribbean with a beach vacation forefront on their minds, Kincaid peels the beauty of Antigua to deliver prescient critiques of the privatization-of-everything that continues to devour the few remaining public-enterprises in the world. Kincaid gut punches both natives and tourists with varying measure and I appreciate how Kincaid’s work sparked classroom discussions about the global economy, tourism, race, and traveling. Offering a brutal indictment of global excesses in “a small place;” one that earned her a five-year ban from her home country when published in 1988, Kincaid uses A Small Place to smack against popular images of Caribbean islands as idyllic paradises that, unburdened from colonialism, triumph as capitalist democracies with tourism as their blueprints for success. In a particularly striking passage, which also narrates the documentary Life and Debt, about the impact of structural adjustment on the Jamaican economy, Kincaid warns,
For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and 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. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go.
As I read Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: A Ghost Story, the narrative aches with the sentiments of Kincaid’s commentary from nearly 30 years ago. The metaphor of Roy’s subtitle feels like a thread between the two works– if Kincaid foretells the minds of “natives” in light of tourists, Roy crafts capitalism in India as a duppy that kills its own kind. Just as Kincaid scoffs the irony of the Barclay Brothers (Alexander and David), creditors whose lending practices during the TransAtlantic Slave Trade gave rise to Barclay’s Bank, so too does Roy’s serve a polemic against India’s plutocrat lineage in corporate philanthropy. Both authors needle how democracy conflates capitalism with dangerous result.
There is no gap between the rich and the poor; it is a chasm fueled by unfettered excess for the few, while the rest, writes Roy, experience their “lungs being slowly depleted of oxygen”. Frequent and familiar corruption scandals draw our attention away from the poisoning of our water, air and food. Colonialism has officially ended and Roy asks, “With massive resources and an almost unlimited brief – wholly unaccountable, wholly non-transparent – what better way to parlay economic wealth into political, social, and cultural capital, to turn money into power?” Like an apparition from 1988, Kincaid answers that, “No action in the present is an action planned with a view of its effect on the future. When the future, bearing its own events, arrives, its ancestry is then traced in a trancelike retrospect”.
Right now, I am in Cape Coast, Ghana, a languorous place compared to the frenetic capital, but the town feels no more shielded from the traumas described by Kincaid and Roy. In May, I strolled Kotokuraba Market for the first time and saw aluminum walls surrounding a construction site that was incongruent with the street vendors who lined the makeshift wall to hawk produce and fish. Asking taxi drivers and other local residents about the building yet to come, they explained that the government razed the original market in 2014 in order to build a “state of the art” market. As I gazed at the spiraled entrance of the completed parking deck and blue tint glass windows installed to keep rooms cooled against the sun, I questioned how what was being described as a market bore striking architectural resemblance to a half dozen shopping centers that have popped up around Accra in the last decade.
Since early 2015, Cape Coast residents have complained that the new market rising from the demolished ashes look more like a place to buy foreign clothes and pizza and rather than the go-to place to buy ingredients to prepare an evening meal. Perhaps, as Roy explains of the drive to “beautify Delhi…the poor vanish, like laundry stains”. Perhaps, it rings true for the Ghanaian traders moved to temporary stalls who secure half of their previous earnings. Perhaps the concrete pouring the new building looks to test Roy’s admonishments that, “The two old tricks that dug it [capitalism] out its past crises—War and Shopping—simply will not work”.
India has the world’s fastest growing economy (for now). Antigua has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world (for now). Both Kincaid and Roy lay bare the human costs of the “brightly lit world of global corporate government”.
Kotokuraba appears yet another brash attempt to prove them right.