Rebooting the Past: The Flying Preacherman’s Story

Augustown

“Augustown’s elevation from village to inner-city community had to do with urban sprawl. As Jamaica settled itself into the 20th century, Kingston began to spread out from its harbour, rippling out into the dormitory parish of St. Andrew that surrounded it. The ebbless wave of the city frothed its way up towards Half Way Tree, then further up Hope Road towards Liguanea, Mona, Papine and inevitably, Augustown. To its own surprise, the village found that it was no longer five miles away from the city, but on its edge and then comfortably inside it. Kingston flooded in. Houses were connected to the water main of the NWC and to the electric grid of JPS. The residents of Augustown, new urbanites as they were, no longer tolerated the countrified designation of ‘village’. Instead they spoke of themselves as living in a Kingston community. But no sooner had the village graduated itself to ‘community’ than its middle-class neighbours made sure to distinguish themselves with the prefix ‘suburban’ and Augustown with the prefix, ‘inner-city’. Like dark magic, that phrase seemed to draw into Augustown a heaviness and a heat and a rot. Rusting zinc fences now line the streets, and ratchet knives and machine guns have appeared in the hands of young men. A scar is now on the face of the overlooking hillside.”

On the eve of the launch of Kei Miller’s new novel Augustown in the UK where it’s being published it seems appropriate to pause and consider his huge achievement. The sale of the American rights to Augustown in the USA shortly after Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize last year set off a bidding war that earned him a six-figure advance. In the wake of James’s phenomenally successful A Brief History of Seven Killings Jamaican authors are hot properties and Miller was the first beneficiary.

As you can tell from the passage quoted at the top, Miller’s prose is commandingly deft and lyrical, capable of capturing the massive shifts in Kingston’s social and physical topography in a few fluidly rendered sentences. The Augustown he describes is a fictional valley in Jamaica bearing a marked resemblance to August Town, situated just below the University of the West Indies, Mona.

In this novel, that revolves around the figure of Alexander Bedward—the flying Preacherman—Miller performs a gallant act of literary reclamation. Most of us know of Bedward as a figure of ridicule, a ‘lunatic’ who claimed he could fly. When he failed to do so he was carted off to an asylum, discrediting his Church and breaking the hearts of his followers. So we’ve been told and with our pragmatic, rational, utilitarian worldviews we shake our heads and move on.

But as historians such as Kamau Brathwaite, Veront Satchell and others have told us, there is far more to the story of Bedward. In fact his ministry was so successful, his charisma so compelling, that the Jamaica Native Free Baptist Church he founded became a mass movement, a subaltern anti-colonial awakening that demanded the immediate overthrow of the white overlords and the barriers of race, class and religion experienced under colonial rule. So alarmed were colonial governors by the Preacher’s popularity that they embarked on an active campaign to discredit him, one which has proven remarkably successful, judging by the decimation of the Bedwardite movement, Church and all, and the fact that today this extraordinary preacher is viewed as a faintly comic figure.

As anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse has tried to do with Haiti (Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle), Miller has done with August Town and Bedward, retrieving their story from the dustbin of history and providing them with a new narrative. And the story he has supplied is one that is ingenious, intricately wrought, powerful and moving enough to recuperate Bedward from his ill-deserved ignominy once and for all. In doing so he also illuminates the power of belief, its sanctity, and the ‘autoclaps’ that is bound to follow when you violate and belittle a people’s belief.

With Augustown Miller breaches the gap he himself notes at one point in the novel between “the stories that were written and stories that were spoken—stories that smelt of snow and faraway places, and stories that had the smell of their own breaths.” In his book Silencing the Past acclaimed Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses in detail how history is produced by the powerful, how certain historical facts are privileged while others are pushed into the shadows.

With this novel Miller has ruptured the silence shrouding a very important history, dragging out of the shadows the refusal of a people to submit quietly to persistent inequality and injustice, people who tried to use their faith and their belief to rise above the abjectness of their lives and fly away home to Zion.

Published in the Gleaner 6/7/17

The Strange Years of My Life by Nicholas Laughlin: A Review by Anu Lakhan

the strange years of my life front covernicholas-laughlin-manaus

Peepal Tree Press Ltd
ISBN: 9781845232924
Pages: 86
Published: 06 April 2015

And now for something completely different. This is a guest post by Anu Lakhan, a poet and writer from Trinidad and Tobago. She’s reviewing a volume of poetry by her friend of many years standing, fellow Trinidadian Nicholas Laughlin. Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of the Caribbean Review of Books and the culture and travel magazine Caribbean Beat. He is the program director of the Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s annual literary festival, and a co-director of Alice Yard, a nonprofit contemporary art space in Port of Spain.

That was the bare bones bio, it describes some of the things Nicholas does without conveying a sense of the man. To remedy this I borrow a Facebook status update by Jamaican poet Kei Miller which deftly places Laughlin as the multi-tasking, multi-faceted literary dynamo he actually is:

In this life that I live there are often two groups: people who mostly write literature and others who mostly make space for literature – editors, agents, festival organizers. But sometimes there is a crossing – someone who has mostly made space becomes someone who mostly writes. And it can be embarassing that crossover – when the writing is servicable but not amazing. Still, occasionally there is a person who makes the transition brilliantly. Toni Morrison comes to mind. She lived an entire life as an editor, working on other people’s writing – and only began to write when she retired from that. In the Caribbean, we now have Nicholas Laughlin. I’ve spent yesterday and today reading his first collection of poems – ‘The Strange Years of My Life.’ It is astoundingly good. I can only hope that we make a space for this book as large and as generous as the space Nicholas has made for all of us.

A review with as many stops as starts

by Anu Lakhan

Start 1
If you find yourself short on wrens, fur, twigs, teeth, bones and maps, fret not: I know where they are. Nicholas Laughlin has appropriated them and found precise and usually very complex homes for them. If a thing be friable, fragile, concealed or rather like a brand new razor blade hidden just where it can do the most damage to something like a heart or a secret, they are in this first collection from the poet.

Stop 1
That is not at all what I mean. That all sounds very much like no matter how hard you try to break into the text everything will be hidden from you. And that’s not true. In their way, these poems are no more complicated than the average person (or poem); no more inscrutable than he (or another poem). Each poem has a personality and so it is easier to think of them as people than as something as still and set as a piece of writing. Everything vibrates.

Start 2
Nicholas Laughlin’s first solo flight with The Strange Years of My Life is a nice bit of work in all the real meanings of the word “nice” except the one with which commonplace conversation has abused us. It is fine, sensitive, fastidious, and if you have something in the way of a good dictionary you can work out the rest. I can think of no poet writing now (a Laughlin poem would want a better sense of the “now” of which I speak) or here (as in the world of poetry available to me; that is to say, that written in English) who has more respect for the form. And if you respect the form, you respect the subject and in doing so, as often as not, you end up respecting the reader. Some pieces are spare and surgical. Some initiate conversations that would be better finished off-page and in the company of friends and a lot of wine.

Stop 2: It is difficult not to enter the spaces filled with French cinema and Borges and mirrors but once you get there it’s a question of what to do. You can simply love them. But you will have to work for it.

Stop 2.1: Did Wilson Harris or Eliot or Zeus ever set so many traps? What is it with gods and writers and all these traps?

Start 3: #alreadynooneremembersyouathome. The first poem is called “Everything Went Wrong”.
Don’t trust the maps; they are fictions.
Don’t trust the guides; they drink.
In this country there’s no such thing as “true north.”
Don’t trust natives. Don’t trust fellow travellers.
Better no one knows you sleep alone.
Already no one remembers you at home.

The last line seems destined to be the most quoted of all the lines in all the pieces. That is a shame. It’s a worthy line but if you allow yourself the false security of such neat endings you will miss equally—or exceeding—flecks of the gorgeous, the alchemical, the blood rush beauty.

Stop 3: “It took longer to read about those months than to live them.” Above all else, this is the thing that must be believed. The more-than-a-decade’s worth of work that is here must certainly have been lived faster than the business of parsing and aggregating their details.

This is a story about a traveller. This is about escape and frailty. Mostly, this is a story about undying hunger and the kind of thirst that makes you drink seawater or sand or poison because the need is beyond reason.

Start 4: Remember, these are poems and therefore allowed to tell such stories without being relegated to the worlds of insanity or juvenilia. Be careful with them—the poems are in ongoing dialogue with each other—you may be tempted to feel left out. Don’t. You’re not. The secrets are ready to be let out.

Extra! Extra! Bocas Lit Fest Part 2

A little more about Trinidad’s Bocas Lit Fest via Earl Lovelace’s reading from his new novel Is Just a Movie, Peter Sellers, Gunga Din and Peter Abrahams.

Peter Abrahams, May 14, 2011

“I never go to literary festivals,” declared the 93-year old South African writer, Peter Abrahams, when i told him that i had recently attended the inaugural Bocas Lit Fest in Port-of-Spain. I had just finished interviewing Abrahams for Chimurenga, a first class magazine that comes out of Capetown. Abrahams who moved to Jamaica more than 55 years ago had been a much celebrated writer long before he came here.

“Abrahams is an African writer, a writer of the world, who opened up in his natal country, South Africa, a path of exploration for us, the writers who have followed the trail he bravely blazed.” The words of Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize winning writer also from South Africa form the epigraph to Abrahams’s memoir The Coyaba Chronicles: Reflections on the Black Experience in the 20th Century.

The View From Coyaba
Peter and Daphne Abrahams at their home, Coyaba

I had despaired of ever meeting Abrahams, he had become impatient of interviews in recent years I was told, yet here I was at Coyaba, his hilltop Irie and refuge, after spending three hours with Peter and his wife Daphne. It was a very special experience, being able to ask this man in his ninth decade all sorts of questions, to have his ear, to witness the affectionate back and forth between husband and wife, and to feel the fierce independence of spirit still emanating from this remarkable writer.

Back to Bocas now…I hadn’t finished saying all i wanted in my last blogpost. It was a multifaceted festival, culminating in the award of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. There were 60 entries and three were shortlisted in each category: poetry, fiction and literary non-fiction. Derek Walcott took the prize for his White Egrets. I felt divided about younger, writers having to compete with the likes of Walcott and Naipaul, both of whom were contenders along with Kamau Brathwaite, Kei Miller, Edwidge Danticat, Tiphanie Yanique, Myriam Chancy, Karen Lord, Rabindranath Maharaj and Andre Alexis. I would have liked to see someone like Kei Miller win the award for his sublime A Light Song of Light or at least win AN award for it because it truly deserves one.

I missed a lot of the readings but one I didn’t miss was Earl Lovelace reading from his new novel Is Just a Movie. The part he read was about Kangkala, a Calypsonian who wins a bit part in a ‘foreign movie’ being shot in Trinidad.

“The role they give me, the same one they give the locals is a role to die. Local talent. Our role is to die. The rest of the people, they bring from America. They is the stars, the ones that have lines to speak, lives to live…”

Kangkala’s role is heralded in the local papers as if he had top billing, and people ask him for his autograph.

“So I get this job to die. Is a kind of jungle picture, with a river in it and a trail and a rope bridge and a love story and natives with headdresses of coloured feathers, their splendid bodies bare except for grass skirts, carrying bwana packs over the mountains.”

Needless to say Kangkala balks at the insignificance of the role he is given. “Even in a movie, I don’t want to die on a rope bridge with bwana pack on my back. But this is the script. They shoot you, you have to die. That is what they paying me to do. To die.”

Kangkala explains why this is so difficult for him to do.

“Even when I was a kid playing stick-em-up and i get shot, i composed my dying like a poem. There was poetry in my dying. When I get shot and i start to die, i hear the theme music of the movie, i turn to the bite of the bullets, my knees buckle, my hands reach out and i hold on for the last, a little piece of the world–the sky, the air, my eyes open and i fill them with the wonder of trees, singing birds in the verandahs of their branches, the roar of women in the market place, the noise of children at the playground, people quarrelling, lovers undressing each other, I move into a dance, feeling the blood of life leaving my head, I breathe in, the fragrance of ripe guavas turning to the smell of crushed corraili leaves, hearing the last drum roll, cymbals crashing, seeing the lights growing dim, waves beating onto the shore, fish leaping silver. That was when I was a little boy playing. Dying was a performance. I was at the centre of my own dying.”

Inspired by “the exquisite choreography of Sonnyboy’s dying”, Kangkala attempts to die extravagantly, magnificently–but “Cut!” says the director. The scene ends with Sonnyboy and Kangkala stripping themselves of feathered headdresses and grass skirts and walking off the sets after numerous attempts by them to die ‘in style’ are systematically squelched by the foreign director.

Earl had us laughing at the poignancy of a scene most of us who come from the darker nations, the periphery, the so-called third world could easily empathize with. The irony was that Lovelace had nearly been upstaged by moderator Gordon Rohlehr, who like Kangkala, tried to turn what should have been a brief introduction into a Midnight Robber’s speech which threatened to turn the acclaimed author into a supporting act.

Kangkala’s plight reminded me of a film by Trinidad-born Richard Fung called Islands inspired by his uncle, Clive, who was hired to act the part of an extra in a Hollywood film shot in Tobago in the fifties.

“Fung deconstructs the 1956 John Huston film Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, a story of the unrequited love of a shipwrecked American marine (Robert Mitchum) for an Irish nun (Deborah Kerr), to comment on the Caribbean’s relationship to the cinematic image. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is set in 1944 in the Pacific but was shot in 1956 in Tobago using Trinidadian Chinese extras to portray Japanese soldiers. The artist’s Uncle Clive was one such extra, and Fung searches the film for traces of his presence.”

When I told Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier, from whom i had first heard of Fung’s film, about Earl’s new novel he pointed out another, even more hilarious and direct reference. The opening scenes of the Peter Sellers movie The Party depict a Hollywood team in India filming Gunga Din, the story of a ‘native water bearer’ and three British soldiers fighting thugs. Sellers plays the part of a soldier with a trumpet who is supposed to fall and die on being shot; instead he refuses to die, continuing to stagger about blowing the trumpet much to the frustration of the film director and his crew who finally order him to leave the sets banning him from acting in another film again…

The footage is side-splittingly funny, watch the video below and enjoy;