Jamaica Kincaid’s Antigua

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A travel article by Monica Drake for The New York Times.

“An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist … a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness …” Jamaica Kincaid in “A Small Place”

The air was heavy with mist when the lights were finally trained on the stage, illuminating a set that looked as if it had been transported from a low-frills scuba diving resort. Dancers wearing short shorts — known locally as batty-riders — ground their hips with mechanical precision. Typical Carnival fare. Until Dennis Roberts entered stage right in a wet suit, jutting out his rotund belly to emphasize his seal-like silhouette.

Mr. Roberts, known as Menace, glanced at the crowd through a snorkel mask, mouthpiece in place. The mere sight of this character — the clueless tourist — brought out howls of laughter. Soon he broke into his monster hit “Sand to the Beach,” a song about people who are as clueless as many of the Americans and Europeans who come to this island every year. There was no better way to explain it than to evoke the type of supremely confident yet flawed interloper whom Jamaica Kincaid scolds in “A Small Place,” a slender work of nonfiction about her native country, Antigua and Barbuda.

The book, released in 1988, a mere seven years after the nation’s independence, positioned Antigua’s tourism industry as a vestige of colonial rule. The 100-square-mile island has seen waves of settlers, from the Arawaks to the Caribs to the English, who brought kidnapped Africans to work the sugar cane fields. In Ms. Kincaid’s book, the Lebanese and Syrians were moving in. Now a new wave is sweeping through: developers and hospitality companies from China, the United States and Canada.

I explored Antigua last summer with my husband, whose family roots lie there, and my daughter, curious to get a sense of the humanity in Ms. Kincaid’s books that is largely absent in Antigua’s tourism marketing.

When you arrive in Antigua, Ms. Kincaid wrote, “The road on which you are traveling is a very bad road … You are feeling wonderful, so you say, ‘Oh, what a marvelous change these bad roads are from the splendid highways I am used to in North America.’ (Or, worse, Europe.)”

But anyone traveling from New York City to St. John’s, Antigua, knows that some of the rutted roads to Kennedy Airport these days are worse than those in even the most sparsely populated corners of Antigua.

The first thing you’ll notice aren’t the roads, which are evenly paved, but the hulking cream stucco structure beyond the roundabout near the airport exit. This is the former headquarters of the Stanford International Bank, named for its American founder, R. Allen Stanford, who is serving time for running the bank as a Ponzi scheme. Just down the road, to use an Antiguan directional, is a cricket stadium also erected by Mr. Stanford that overlooks a dusty gray field that was empty each time we passed it.

The stadium stands like a great ruin on an island pock-marked with the detritus of abandoned dreams. There are crumbling sugar mills, rusted cars and buildings subsumed by growth that was lush even during a drought. I glimpsed one man who had transformed a piece of rolling luggage into a stroller that held a napping child, and motorcycle riders who had wrapped their heads in scarves, presumably as protection against the dust.

But there was also abundance. Mangoes too ripe for trees to hold rotted in the gutters near a village called John Hughes. (When my nephew Amir, an Antiguan expat, told a friend that we’d bought some from a market, she said it pained her that we’d actually paid for them and then presented him with two dozen.) And brightly painted homes of concrete — a material Ms. Kincaid associated with Lebanese and Syrian property owners — now outnumber the modest clapboard houses in many parts of the island.

Another round of change is on its way. The Yida International Investment Group, a Chinese company, plans to open a $740 million resort on the main island’s northeast corner and nearby islands. A $400 million Royalton property is slated to open in Deep Bay. And Robert De Niro and a partner are building a $250 million resort on Antigua’s sister island, Barbuda. Those projects will add 3,000 hotel rooms within the next five years, the government estimates.
Luxury, of course, is nothing new here. The moneyed set stays at places like the private Mill Reef Club. (In her book, she reserves a particularly sharp wrath for the place, which is effectively a stand-in for colonial rulers.) Mill Reef is so exclusive that its managers refused to give a tour during its off-season. So to sample the luxury on offer I went to Jumby Bay, A Rosewood Resort, known as much for its celebrity roster (Paul McCartney, Kevin Spacey and Hilary Swank) as its old-money clientele.

To get there, skip the road and land your private jet near Beachcomber Dock, where you can board a ferry to a private island off Antigua’s northeast coast.

Rather than taking a jet, I got a ride with Amir, who left for the United States two decades before our trip and had not returned until our visit. He dropped me off with his wife, Amma, and my sister-in-law, Katherine. After the brief ferry ride, we were greeted by a smiling, cat-eyed woman named Melanie Fletcher, the guest relations manager at the resort. As we walked toward the covered bar, I saw a flash of color: a lush green lawn beneath the spray of a sprinkler.

Jumby Bay, which started as a villa owners’ collective, takes up just over a quarter of the 300-acre Long Island. Though the capacity of the resort is about 400 guests and it was 98 percent full, according to Ms. Fletcher, all we felt was a stillness in the air. There are no cars, only bikes and golf carts, and villas with enough space between them that you could have a conversation without being overheard by your neighbors.

Its literature says that “jumby” means “playful spirit,” but some Antiguans say it really means an evil one. The sugar mill in the middle of the resort was a reminder that the inhabitants had once been slaves and left us wondering about the spirits who roamed there.

After lunch, we talked about family history and lost track of time and place. “What do you think about the history of this place?” Katherine asked, eyeing a beautiful tree whose limbs seemed sturdy enough to hold the weight borne by a noose. There is no record of lynchings on Long Island, and Jumby does not market itself as a plantation resort. Yet there was the inescapable fact that the staff was largely brown-skinned and the guests weren’t, a vestige of slavery throughout the Americas and a reminder of the system of apartheid that Ms. Kincaid derides in “A Small Place.” There, as elsewhere on the island, though, I saw something I hadn’t seen in “A Small Place”: upward mobility. Some of the 500 people who worked there had managed to trade up jobs. They seemed less interested in laughing at tourists than in simply having a stable means of supporting themselves and their families.

In the resort’s boutique we fingered pricey coverups. Somehow we managed to miss the ferry though we were a five-minute walk away. We settled in near the bar, staring at the water — “three shades of blue,” Ms. Kincaid writes in the novel “Lucy” — and nearly missed the next ferry. The tension that we’d accumulated in our daily lives seemed to float into the distance. We could have stayed forever.

Antigua can do that, Ms. Kincaid wrote. For all the drama of its history, she writes that the beauty of the place, the very thing that bewitches its tourists, renders it a time capsule to its residents. “They have nothing to compare this incredible constant with, no big historical moment to compare the way they are now to the way they used to be,” she wrote, and in a later passage: “The unreal way in which it is beautiful now is the unreal way in which it was always beautiful.”

Her characters often flee the idyll for places where seasons change and there is hope of transformation, following the path of Ms. Kincaid and countless other immigrants from the Caribbean.

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson in 1949 in St. John’s. Her novels detail her biography: that her mother is an Afro-Indian from Dominica (“The Autobiography of My Mother”); that her father, an Antiguan cabdriver, abandoned the family (“Mr. Potter”); that Ms. Kincaid left Antigua in 1965 to work as a nanny (“Annie John,”“Lucy”).

After establishing a successful literary career in the States, Ms. Kincaid returned home in 1986 for her first visit in two decades. But her tone in “A Small Place” led to the banning of the book there, and a self-exile as she feared for her safety.

Now, though, Ms. Kincaid is enough of an expat to long for her childhood home. She regularly took her two children, Annie and Harold, to Antigua — “I like them to see normal, boring black people going about their normal, boring lives,” she said in an interview with The New York Times in 1996 — and was there last summer for an academic conference that coincided with Carnival.

 She was part of what has become an exodus of Antiguans to the United States, Britain and Canada. Every summer, many return for Carnival. And that is where I caught my best glimpses of Ms. Kincaid’s Antigua.

A family friend had been enlisted to park his truck alongside the road where the procession would walk. We sat in back. Before the floats and dance troupes and steel-band drummers went through, yet another friend, parked nearby, mentioned that she’d known my husband’s paternal grandmother, affectionately called Aunt Vic. I peppered her with questions, and she smiled. This sort of thing wasn’t surprising to her. Meanwhile, my daughter spotted cousins dancing on the road, others marching and greeting friends of cousins, cousins of friends. It was a family reunion, made up of Antiguans and Antiguan expats returning for a dose of that small place. February is for tourists. Off-season is the time for the real Antigua.

One day, I finally found the potholed road to paradise. Rendezvous Bay was one of the closest beaches to our Airbnb in Falmouth. My husband, daughter and I set off in one car, and my nephew and his martial arts instructor in another. Our rented sedan couldn’t make it over the final hill, so we piled into the instructor’s truck. “Rendezvous is my favorite beach,” he said. We could see why. A pristine beach that sloped into a gentle crescent was all ours save for a single local family. We splashed in the turquoise water and considered a sign promising a resort on the site, which falls within a national park.

It seemed nonsensical. Until I realized that immigration to Antigua isn’t only for Antiguan retirees descended from the West Africans and Europeans who lived on the island for centuries. The country recently launched a program allowing people who buy properties of $400,000 or more to become citizens. It seems that Ms. Kincaid’s description of Antigua, of a nation run by foreign landed gentry, may not be so dated after all.

If you want to find her country, her vibrant characters, here is how you do it:

Book a trip for Carnival, in late July, hurricane season. Find a place that is not on a beach. Keep an eye out for holes in the yard where tarantulas burrow, and if you find them, close your windows when it rains. Rent a car, which you will quickly learn to drive on the wrong side of the road, and head to a little bakery for a bun-butter-and-cheese sandwich. Then drive to St. John’s during Carnival for a battle of the bands. Press to the front of the line. Don’t worry about anybody stealing your wallet; you left your credit cards and trappings of being a tourist back in that home that you (thank God) remembered to seal off from the spiders as rain begins to fall. You laugh when the emcee peppers her monologue with words like “stush” for “stuck-up” and when someone onstage apes a tourist, because that’s not you.

Look around — you won’t find many examples of Lucy or Annie John here because they weren’t allowed to come — they are at home sneaking a chance to read books after bedtime. But you will find the world that they, and Jamaica Kincaid’s characters, left, the one that keeps pulling her back to revisit in her elusive fictional universe.

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