“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.
A run down of exciting new developments in Jamaica’s literary and art worlds.
As a new year hurtles towards us, the worlds of writing and visual art in Jamaica are poised to come into their own once again what with stars like Marlon James and Ebony G. Patterson blazing their way to global attention in 2015. You might say a strong current is buoying Jamaica right now and those equipped to swim with it are bound to soar. Can aquatic creatures soar? are we mashing metaphors here? No doubt…but methinks the situation warrants it.
James’s Booker win with his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has set off a maelstrom of praise and adulation but also concern from some Caribbean literary critics who maintain the work is needlessly violent. How to represent the internecine violence we live with in a seemly manner is a moot subject that will fuel many a literary conference to come; in the meantime Marlon James has adroitly dismantled the thatch ceiling that seems to veil the work of Caribbean writers from international visibility.
Kei Miller, James’s counterpart in the literary world, known more for his Forward Prize-winning poetry than his prose has just signed a six-figure deal with Knopf for a fictional work. Indeed his manuscript Augustown was the subject of a bidding war between publishing giants Penguin, Random House and Knopf, all offering six-figure deals. Miller’s agent chose Knopf, whose editor also works with Toni Morrison.
This is what I call the Marlon James effect. Doors have been flung open! as Kevin Jones remarked on Facebook. The success of Brief History has made publishers sit up and take notice of a culturally rich region they had somehow managed to overlook all these years.
To give some perspective–not even the much lauded Booker winner Marlon James himself was offered six figures by his publisher, River Head–but that was before the stir that his ambitious novel subsequently created. The bidding on his next novel will likely hit seven figures. Move over 7-Star General LA Lewis!
It must be added that Kei Miller’s Augustown was an excellent manuscript, and any really good writing coming out of the Caribbean in the next year or two is likely to arouse the interest of all major publishers. “Roland need to send out something,” remarked Marlon James colloquially, referring to Roland Watson-Grant, a third Jamaican writer whose brilliant novels have yet to get the attention they deserve.
_Space Jamaica and The Current
Meanwhile over in visual art the thatch ceiling is about to be blown away by a very ambitious project called _Space Jamaica, the brainchild of Sotheby-trained Rachael Barrett, who has recently returned to Jamaica with visions of starting an international museum of contemporary art in Kingston and other points in the region.
Located at premises owned by the Henzell family and run as a cultural space for many years _Space Jamaica will hold two shows a year, one in December timed to take advantage of traffic to Art Basel Miami and the other in June to coincide with Kingston on the Edge, a small but exciting series of activities curated by young Jamaican ‘creatives’ and led by Enola Williams. June 2016 will see _Space Jamaica launching its inaugural exhibition with a solo show of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, curated by Rachael Barrett. Titled I FEEL LIKE a CITIZEN, Barrett “will take a new approach to Basquiat’s oeuvre, examining his life, work and cultural legacy from the perspective of his Caribbean heritage.”
In early December Barrett held a preview of what’s in store for the museum with an ambitious programme of activities, some of which fell through, due to funding and other delays. The highlight was a lunch for diplomats and others held at the Old Railway Station in downtown Kingston. The station is in disuse since the trains stopped running more than a decade ago.
This was followed by the welcome announcement on December 16 by mega-collector Francesca von Habsburg, founder of Thyssen–BornemiszaArtContemporary (TBA21) that TBA21 would be giving _Space Jamaica a significant US dollar contribution to be matched, she hoped, by local contributions.
In addition TBA21’s ground-breaking (or perhaps ocean-breaking would be a better term) The Current International Research Programme will hold its first ever ‘Convening’ (an inter-disciplinary conference) at _Space Jamaica from March 16-20, 2016. The Current which was launched at COP 21 in Paris instead of Art Basel Miami reflects von Habsburg and her partner Markus Reymann’s shift from pure art (for want of a better expression) to art that engages with environmental problems. According to Reymann the Foundation is interested in knowledge production, not just art production.
Thus The Current, “a three-year exploratory fellowship program taking place in the Pacific, will offer artists, curators, scientists, marine biologists, anthropologists, and other cultural producers a platform to generate interdisciplinary thought and knowledge.”
The curator leading the inaugural voyage is Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the recently opened Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, who curated the US entry to the Venice Biennale this year; she was also part of the curatorial team of Documenta 11. It will be exciting to see what she comes up with for the Current Convening in March.
As von Habsburg says:
In spite of the unprecedented wealth of scientific information available, global environmental woes are still largely underestimated and poorly communicated. Art can be a powerful weapon if used well, by challenging us to reconsider the way we think, feel, and live instead of just conforming to the rules of the growing art market. After all, the next 10 years are going to be the most important in the next 10,000.
At the dinner in Kingston celebrating the successful unfurling of The Current von Habsburg announced TBA21’s support of _Space Jamaica and explained why she was shifting her attention “to the environment, to climate change, to preserving our oceans”:
They are my priority for a very special reason–mainly because of Jamaica–because i came here as a baby. I learnt to swim here, i learnt to snorkel here, i learnt to dive here. I taught my children–my beautiful daughter Eleonore who just came in today–i taught her to swim here and to snorkel here and to dive here. So I’ve been on these reefs for over 55 years and I’ve seen a colossal difference and I’ve seen what has been happening to the oceans, not just the oceans here, but to oceans all around the world. So for me Portland is a big accent on my attention, and as a result of that I created a foundation called the Alligator Head Foundation, which will be registered shortly, because it takes a while to get things registered in Jamaica as you know. The Foundation is to follow a very important establishment of a fish sanctuary which will be called the East Portland Fish Sanctuary. It is two hectares in size and it’ll be the biggest fish sanctuary in Jamaica. I’m meeting with the Minister tomorrow and I hope to be able to establish the sanctuary by the end of the year, if not the very beginning of next year. And these two things come together, I’ve started to talk about it to many artists and musicians that i know and there’s a whole movement of the creative industries that are backing me up on this programme so much to say about that in the future. But when I got together with Rachel this week to talk about her project _Space that she has here in Kingston–she’s been working with a great architect I’ve known for many years called David Adjaye but in particular this design was done by Vidal Dowding, an architect who I have a lot of time for and a lot of admiration–and I thought this idea of taking over a previous cultural space and reactivating it is something that’s really caught my attention. And the contemporary art scene in Jamaica could do with this incredible boost and I think probably the best way to address it is to actually do that in an independent space. I think the National Gallery of Jamaica is of course very much focused on moving into the contemporary art scene and I understand that, but I thought it was time for Rachael to get some real support so, today I’m announcing a gift to the _Space of US$150,000.
These are exciting developments for the local art scene which has been far too insular for far too long. May local donors match Francesca von Habsburg’s generous injection of resources into local art and science in the way the University of the West Indies has collaborated with TBA21 on founding the Alligator Head Marine Laboratory, seconding Dr. Dane Buddo to oversea (a Freudian slip which i shall leave alone) it. May young Jamaicans finally get a chance to experience the best in art and science without having to leave these shores and may it galvanize the country into leaping forward this coming new year.
Some thoughts on Marlon James copping the Man Booker 2015…
Holy shit! was Marlon James’s reaction on Facebook to winning the 2015 Man Booker prize in mid-October. With those two words he summed up the prevailing zeitgeist of his novels which fluidly run the gamut from the sacred to the profane. In Jamaica the literati exhaled in relief as the Man Booker judge laughingly produced A Brief History of Seven Killings saying “It’s MARLON JAMES!”
Most of Jamaica remained unaware but only till news time when all or most of the island’s radio stations and news websites carried the news. Nationwide radio actually led with the story and hte next day’s Gleaner had it on the front page. I felt it should have headlined every single newscast here but Justine Henzell, one of the founders of the Calabash Literary Festival, the gamechanger that gave James his springboard, pointed out that this was actually real progress, that 10 years ago the Booker victory might scarcely have been mentioned on the news in Jamaica let alone headlined it.
Justine is right of course. RJR radio’s Dionne Jackson-Miller held a 40 minute discussion on Marlon and the Booker and I was part of a shorter one on Nationwide News with noted columnist and academic Carolyn Cooper and Ingrid Riley, Marlon’s best friend. You can listen to the audio of the latter below.
I still found it bothersome that both TV stations buried James’s victory way down in their newscasts as if this wasn’t as incredible and joyous an achievement as any of Usain Bolt’s electrifying runs. On a TV newscast I watched on the evening of the literary coup, Marlon’s Booker was considered less important than a story about Mexican investors–Charisma–investing in the Jamaican hotel industry; a run-of-the-mill story about politics in Portland; a protest by the supporters of Member of Parliament Patrick Atkinson and a story about tertiary education and how it should be free according to the Leader of the Opposition Andrew Holness. Clearly the news in Jamaica is dominated by politics and business, two of the worst performing sectors in the country. Go figure, as the Americans say.
It is sad and telling that even once in a blue moon Jamaica’s two premier TV stations couldn’t bear to put the astonishing story of a local writer winning the most important literary prize in the English-speaking world front and centre. How often has a Caribbean person won the Booker? The only other writer to have done so is VS Naipaul. And we boast of being a cultural superpower? There needs to be a sea change in the way news is conceptualized and produced in Jamaica. Why is there so much focus on the inane trivia that politicians inflict on us? And hit or miss business ventures that never seem to improve financial conditions in the country?
It is widely believed that the muted response to James’s win may also have to do with something as immaterial as his sexuality. Marlon James is the first prominent Jamaican to have openly ‘come out’ as gay and this may have put a spanner in the works for some people. The tweet below is typical of the prevailing sentiment of some:
Im A Big Deal @NigelBigMeech
The man all gay to mek it worse suck unnu mumma and stop tweet bout him pon me TL yere.
On the other hand Head of the University of the West Indies’s Economics Department Damien King tweeted that James’s Booker win was hardly something for homophobic Jamaica to celebrate:
Considering [that] our shameful intolerance drove Marlon James from Jamaica, his winning the Man Booker prize is hardly a proud moment for us.
James’s sexuality wasn’t the only thing that some Jamaicans found irksome. The fact of Marlon James’s location in the diaspora and what this implies is an irritant for many. The Jamaica Observer penned a somewhat querulous editorial praising James for winning the Booker while at the same time taking issue with the proposition his success has raised–that most good writers are forced to flee the rather limited literary provinces of the Caribbean if they want to fully develop their literary talent. Asking “Is exile really a necessity for Jamaican writers?” the editorial stated:
…being in exile abroad situates writers far from their subject matter, their home, their friends and creative compatriots of their own nationality and culture. Given the perceived advantages of exile and the downside of self-imposed exile, the question is: Are Jamaican writers choosing exile or are circumstances here forcing them into exile?
On Facebook Darryn Dinesh Boodin offered a cogent answer:
Writers have always traveled and worked from foreign countries Joyce lived in Italy..Conrad moved to England..Hemingway lived in Cuba. this romantic idea of ‘exile” seems kind of silly in an Internet world…when Marlon James learned he got nominated for the booker he posted it on Facebook…the internet is the new Paris in the 20’s…in his article for the times Marlon James wasn’t talking about leaving Jamaica to become a writer..he was taking abut leaving Jamaica in order to be happy..
It wouldn’t be the first time the vexed question of ‘offshore’ Caribbean writers has come up. In 2000 another writer from the Jamaican diaspora, Colin Channer, took issue with the idea that he was in ‘exile’, a word frequently used to describe Caribbean writers based in the UK and the US. According to Channer the physical distance of diaspora-based writers from the country they were writing about in no way vitiated their ability to represent it convincingly; moreover he charged, locally based writers had been negligent in plumbing native terrain for the untold stories that littered it. In a combative speech at CARIFESTA 2000, in St Kitts Channer addressed his literary ‘elders’ saying:
I understand why you would feel that our work would be enhanced if we were able to write while looking out the window on the landscape whose mud was used to make us… But elders I must remind you of something. I was there in Jamaica in the seventies…Where were all our novelists then, the big men, with the big names, and the big positions when the gunmen burned down the Eventide Home, and bun up the old lady them? Where were they when the army murdered some ghetto yute at the Green Bay firing range after enticing them with offers of guns?…where were they when dem shoot Bob Marley?
Uncannily, a whole 15 years before James’s Brief History Channer had identified Marley’s shooting as a story worth retailing but in the year 2000, at the turn of the century, Marlon James wasn’t yet on the horizon to prove Channer’s point, spectacularly illustrating that you didn’t have to reside at Ground Zero to evoke it or channel it. His ability to work Jamaica’s tortuous history and wring from it a story so vividly capturing the terror and permanent state of emergency many Jamaicans inhabit, once again highlights the issue Channer had raised, of what academics call ‘the politics of location.’ These are questions that also haunt two other young giants of Caribbean writing, the Dominican Republic’s Junot Diaz and Haiti’s Edwidge Danticat, both resident in and writing from locations in the United States.
Curiously, exile and location were also central to a Facebook spat generated by an article James published earlier this year in the New York Times magazine titled “From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself” in which he described the stifling sense of illegitimacy he felt as a young gay man growing up and living in Jamaica. The subhead of the article, “I knew I had to leave my home country — whether in a coffin or on a plane,” provoked Trinidad-based gay activist Colin Robinson to comment on Facebook that he was exhausted and enraged by the ‘reductionism of the exile narrative.’ “I’m sorry, but we need other narratives of the queer Caribbean than die or leave,” he fulminated. “What about those who stayed and struggled?”
In a similar vein the Observer editorial interpreted James’s statement about needing to leave Jamaica as somehow reflecting a slight on locally-based writers. Jamaica’s homegrown writers are just as good the editorial seemed to imply. The kneejerk tendency to defend the ‘local’ or ‘fi wi’ writers and intellectuals in this manner is a misguided impulse and is precisely one of the reasons why serious writers are forced to migrate.
This tendency also fails to recognize the glaring similarity to Jamaica’s great athletic tradition which depended for many years on local athletes going abroad to train and prepare to compete at the global level. For a long time Jamaica did not have the infrastructure locally to produce the world-beaters you see today, which took time and resources and a lot of help from home and abroad to develop. The talent was there but it had to go elsewhere for its maximum potential to be extracted.
Had the local powers-that-be grudgingly insisted that home-grown talent was just as good as those who left and shone on the global stage, instead of systematically putting in place the necessary coaching and training facilities required, there would not be a Shelly-Ann Pryce or an Usain Bolt today or there may have been, but they wouldn’t be home-grown. Just because there are one or two exceptions in the Caribbean, and Martin Carter of Guyana is an outstanding example of this, it doesn’t mean that a Marlon James could have just as well stayed in Jamaica and won the Booker. To argue that is to fail to recognize the difference in scale between the achievements of a Kei Miller or a Marlon James and the far more modest achievements of writers, artists and intellectuals whose ambitions were local or regional rather than global (and by this i mean writers who assume their audience is local or regional and therefore au fait with Caribbean culture and language whereas one with a more global orientation might cover exactly the same ground but in such a way that outsiders or newcomers are not excluded. And while doing this they’re aiming to compete with the world’s best, not merely the island’s best, or the region’s). As James himself said in a 2006 interview I did with him: “If you’re not competing against Norman Mailer, why bother?…I’m not one of these I-write-for-my-people-first-and-everybody-else-later thing.”
It is incredibly difficult to write a story that rings true at home while at the same time making itself eloquently understood to readers outside the culture. This has been James’s big achievement and one of the reasons he won the Man Booker. In the same interview we also discussed the question of language and how to be true to Jamaican Patwa without compromising meaning and interpretation. Keep in mind that this is from a 2006 interview recorded while James was writing his second novel, The Book of Night Women:
Maybe I should put it in the context of all the stuff we were talking [at the “Writing Life” conference] about dialect and Creole, and there’s a slight objection to standard-englishising the B-word — but in the book I’m writing now, a character says “bloodclaat,” which is a Jamaican bad word. And if I spelled it “bloodclaat,” non-Jamaicans would get a sense that this is an expletive, and Jamaicans would go, yeah, that’s the word. But I changed it to “bloodcloth,” and a friend who’s Irish read it and said, what’s up with all these expletives tied to menstruation? Why is a female bodily function a bad thing? So she nailed it, which she wouldn’t have gotten had I said, let me play — let me just go — let me spell phonetically and write “bloodclaat.”
The finest editorial on Marlon James’s Man Booker came from the Stabroek News in Guyana and reminds us that his win was not just a Jamaican achievement but a coup for the whole region. Titled Jamaica’s Booker the editorial said:
A Brief History of Seven Killings, James’ complex, humorous, uneven foray into politics in the Manley years, is entirely Jamaican, but its success ought to be celebrated throughout the Caribbean. James’ exuberance, his confident yielding to the temptations of what another James famously called the “loose, baggy monster” of a large novel, is suggestive of how far West Indian fiction has advanced in recent years, not least in its use of literary registers and devices that used to belong, almost exclusively, to writers serving large, foreign (predominantly American and European) audiences.
Speaking at the Bocas literary festival in 2012, James lamented the musty notion of a Jamaican or West Indian novel (villages, religion, stock characters) and said that younger writers, like himself, ought to tackle contemporary life and wrestle, unashamedly, with the region’s racial, sexual, and political questions. Then, having warmed up with two historical novels, he delivered.
This brings us back to the critique leveled by Channer that local writers seem unable or unwilling to plumb the hardcore realpolitik of the ground they write from in bold and innovative ways focusing instead on easier material and conventional forms unlikely to make an impact outside the local arena.
The question of why the writers or activists who ‘stayed and struggled’ aren’t leveraging their own stories, narratives embedded in local history and culture, to international attention remains a moot one ripe for analysis. They are certainly beginning to do so although it remains difficult to attract mainstream attention while based in the Caribbean. For Marlon it was reading Shame by Salman Rushdie during the years in Jamaica when he belonged to a charismatic church that made him realize that the present was something he could “write his way out of.” This son of parents who were both officers of the Jamaica Constabulary Force promptly set about doing so and the rest is history.
As in the case of Marlon James and his Brief History of Seven Killings there were writers and books in India before diaspora-based Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children but their scope and ambition was slimmer and much too conventional to make any impact internationally. Midnight’s Children broke the mould of the kind of novel that was possible in and about the subcontinent and Indian writing was never the same post-Rushdie, his success and example opening the floodgates to decades of Indian dominance in English-language writing. This will likely be the case in the Caribbean as well. For this James’s vaulting ambition and example must be celebrated and imitated rather than grudgingly disparaged or undervalued.
In which Kei Miller eloquently details the problem with long-distance activism and boycotts organized by outsiders who refuse to engage with activists on the ground, or even inform themselves adequately before taking drastic action:
“It is very obvious that several well-meaning white North Americans would like (ever so earnestly) to bear witness to the suffering that LGBT people experience in the Caribbean. They would like to amplify these hurts – to give an international sound to these poor, hapless trees and saplings falling about in the Caribbean with ‘no one’ at all to hear them. And this kind of advocacy is deeply problematic.
“But let us use an actual example to talk this through. Between 2008 and 2009 a campaign called Boycott Jamaica was started in San Francisco by a man called Michael Petrelis. The launch of the campaign saw people gathered in Stonewall New York to throw bottles of Redstripe Beer and rum down into the sewers. The symbolism could not be lost anyone – Jamaica was such a repulsive place that anything coming out of it rightfully belonged in the sewers. The campaign created the unfortunate image of mostly white Americans who had possibly never been to Jamaica pretending to know and understand what was happening there.”
You know of course the philosophical question I am punning on – the tree that falls in the forest. If no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Apparently if we take the question outside of the discipline of philosophy and place it, instead, within the discipline of Physics, then the answer is possibly No — It does not make a sound. The scientific community is now split on this, but one argument as proffered by the journal Scientific American, goes: sound is what happens when various stimuli and vibrations reach to the ear. The ear translates these things into sound. But if there is no ear to receive such stimuli and vibration, then the sound, technically, isn’t made. The same might be said of an image: if someone wears a bright red shirt, and no one opens their eyes…
Peepal Tree Press Ltd
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
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.
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.
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.
In which Kei Miller decisively dismantles Mel Cooke’s presumptuous point of view on homosexuals, published in the Gleaner a few days ago. A masterful takedown…read it…
One of the most important points he makes is worth calling out: “To publicly challenge things that are said publicly is not the same as being censorious. To point out (sometimes with vehemence and rigour) how some things can cause offense, or how they might be homophobic or racist or whatever, is not the same as saying that thing should never have been said. That is reductive thinking. Of course I affirm Mel’s right to say what he wants to say, to share *his* point of view if not the assumed Point of View of the Other. But I also affirm everyone else’s right to contend, to debate, to come with new arguments and counter arguments. Isn’t that what discourse is?”
Nuanced discourse is too often missing in Jamaica…certainly you rarely find it in the newspapers…hallelujah for blogs where some of the best critical writing can be had at a moment’s notice.
There is a saying in Jamaica – mi throw mi corn, mi nuh call nuh fowl. (I threw my corn, I didn’t call any fowl). And another one – ‘throw stone inna hog pen, him who squeal a him it lick’. (when you throw a stone into a pig’s pen, the one who squeals is the one who was hit). Both sayings are about words that are aimed and yet pretend disingenuously to have no directions – words that hit targets but then shrug. ‘Oh? Did I hit you? I am so sorry!’
Mel Cooke’s recent article in the Jamaica Gleaner, ‘Bye-Bye, Boom-Bye-Bye’ did a lot of throwing. He was throwing corn, throwing stones, and throwing word. His target? Oh – the usual of course. Every Jamaican DJ who wants the crowd to go wild, every Jamaican pastor who wants a louder Amen, and every Jamaican newspaper writer who…
A conversation with Forward Prize Winner Kei Miller of Jamaica
Kei Miller was born in Jamaica in 1978. Kei writes across a range of genres: novels, books of short stories, essays and poetry. His poetry has been shortlisted for awards such as the Jonathan Llewelyn Ryhs Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Scottish Book of the Year. His fiction has been shortlisted for the Phyllis Wheatley Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First book and has won the Una Marson Prize. His recent book of essays won the 2014 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (non-fiction). In 2010, the Institute of Jamaica awarded him the Silver Musgrave medal for his contributions to Literature. Kei has an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Glasgow. In 2013 the Caribbean Rhodes Trust named him the Rex Nettleford Fellow in Cultural Studies. His 2014 collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, has just won the Forward Prize for Best Collection. (Adapted from note on Carcanet website–Carcanet Press being the main publisher of Kei’s poetry)
Kei it was in Treasure Beach during the Calabash Literary Festival in June this year that you found out you had been shortlisted for Britain’s top poetry award, the Forward Prize, right? I remember your telling me about the controversy aroused by Chief Judge Jeremy Paxman’s draconian pronouncements on the state of contemporary poetry (“with bloggers ranting and poets unfriending each other on facebook “ as you said on Facebook) and his virtually calling for an inquisition of poets. At the time you were pleased just to be on the shortlist but now it turns out you’re the sole survivor–the champion–of that figurative Inquisition. Do you feel as if the moon just fell into your lap? Describe what winning the Forward Prize feels like and means to you please…
Well, it was while we were in Treasure Beach that the news became public. I had known a little bit before, and yes, I was simply pleased to be shortlisted. I actually wasn’t looking forward to the award ceremony because before that there was simply the possibility I could win, and I thought after I’d go back to simply being the person who was shortlisted. I seem to get shortlisted for things but hardly ever win, so it has come as a huge surprise and as you put it, a little like the moon has landed in my lap. I knew I had written my best poetry collection to date, but I also knew there were other really good books out there, and I didn’t know if a collection so steeped in a Jamaican soundscape could be fully heard by British ears. So it all feels like an incredible validation that if we write well enough our voices can be heard.
I have to say I completely agree with Paxman about poets needing to connect with ‘ordinary people’ more. As a youngster I loved reading poetry but gradually became alienated by the gnomic, elliptical utterances I was increasingly being offered in its name. Your A Light Song of Light was the first book of poetry that made me realize I didn’t really dislike poetry as I had started thinking, that I could and did still appreciate really good poetry I could connect with. What was your reaction when Paxman said he thought poets had more or less made themselves irrelevant? I feel the same way about much contemporary art that I see today by the way–too tight-lipped if you know what I mean–oh, you don’t wish to communicate with me? Let me not be detained any further by you then is my response. I know you disagree about communication–strictly for ad agencies and PR folk you’ve said in the past but it IS something you do well. There’s a profound empathy in your poems that pulls you in and an effortless virtuousity that detains you, enraptured. So you’ve won it already and don’t have to worry about offending anyone, tell us what you really think of Paxman’s position on poetry.
Well I always kind of agreed with Paxman and I think many poets, not only today but as far back as Wordsworth, have been saying the same thing. There was an unfortunate backlash that seemed to me to say, how dare a non-poet talk about our world and our craft, which pretty much proved his point. I think each poem ought to consider very deeply its reader and what it is offering that reader. Too many poems, I think, seem to be more conscious about what they withhold rather than what they reveal. The thing about communication is probably just semantics, because I think we’re saying almost the same thing. I don’t like the word ‘communicate’ because it’s too wrapped up in the idea of a simple and reducible message, and I think what a poem transmits is a lot more than that, a lot more complex. But that the poem ought to be generous, that it ought to consider and give to its reader – these are things I’m fully on board with.
When did you first start writing and did you start with poetry? A lot of people think that you came out of the Wayne Brown writing workshops in Kingston but you didn’t did you? Was there a literary community that nurtured your interest in writing or was it something you just developed on your own?
I don’t know if it’s possible to develop on your own, but those communities were quite various. No, I didn’t attend Wayne Brown’s workshops regularly though I dropped into a couple of their end of year sessions. But the space that Wayne created in the Observer Arts supplement was one of the most important spaces in which I was allowed to develop as a writer. So Wayne was massively important – not as a tutor but as an editor who created space for writers. Mervyn Morris was much more important to my beginnings as a poet. I did his poetry workshop as an undergraduate student at UWI and at a time when I only saw myself as a prose writer. But there were online communities as well – place at Alsop Review called the Gazebo that had both the kindest and the most vicious critics I’ve ever encountered. It was nurturing and rigorous and I grew a lot there – my standards became much higher.
One of the remarkable things about you is that you’re a multigenre writer, if that’s the right term. You’ve written novels, poetry and most recently a book of essays. I remember a conversation in which you said you thought you were increasingly finding non-fiction a more interesting medium than any other, am i remembering correctly? You also write about art, don’t you? Could you talk more about your forays into non-fiction? Did this develop out of your blog Under the Saltire Flag?
The blog is certainly a space where I try out a lot of my ideas and sometimes develop them, but I’m not sure where my interest in non-fiction came from or how it grew. I know that it’s a genre that seems incredibly full of possibilities – a place where I can use all my skills as a poet and a fiction writer at the same time. But also, where a good poem might impress you most deeply for its lyricism and a good story might impress you most by its narrative, a good essay always impresses me most for its intelligence. I leave a good essay thinking, what an incredible mind this writer has! And to be able to think that clearly, with that much sophistication, and to be able to allow others to think through things like that – it seems to me an especially high calling, something I always want to aspire to. But something about the sensibilities of these various genres keep on spilling over into each other. I think it used to be obvious in my fiction that I wrote poetry as well, and in this new collection of poems it’s probably quite obvious that I’ve been writing essays.
Did you follow the recent fuss about Shonda Rhimes, the woman behind a string of US TV success stories such as Scandal and Gray’s Anatomy, who was described as ‘an angry black woman’ by a New York Times writer despite the fact that she chooses not to view herself or race in such polarized terms? That whole controversy reminded me so much of your encounter with some postcolonial African academics who tried to interview you a few years ago but assumed you shared their sentiments and worldview. “I’m sorry I cannot be your angry black poet” was what you wished you had replied, apologizing for the fact that you were comfortable in your own black skin. Can you talk a little more about this refusal of an all too familiar role? It’s not unlike Jamaican poet Mervyn Morris’s refusal to be a cookie cutter ‘revolutionary’ or leftwing poet several decades ago.
I wonder if that’s natural, I mean – for an artist to resist the boxes we try to peg them in. It’s an occupational tick to live in fear of clichés, and also I live in fear of a kind of self-indulgent earnestness. Maybe that’s because, deep down, I think I’m susceptible to that sort of thing, so I have to resist it. But I’ve never felt like a particularly angry writer, which obviously doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot that doesn’t concern me, and neither does it mean that I’m not a deeply political writer. But there are other tools I think we can use to explore and unpick the many things that are so wrong about the world we live in today – humour for instance. Humour is always there in anything I write and we discredit humour too easily as not having heft, as being trivial, but I don’t think it is at all.
This is such an incredible moment for writing in Jamaica what with you winning the Forward Prize, and back in the US Marlon James meteoric streak across the literary firmament with his new novel A Brief History of 7 Killings. How does this make you feel? How long have you known Marlon? When did you first become aware of each other? You seem to enjoy a friendly rivalry with him–I’m remembering your Facebook jousts about being invited to an event in Switzerland because Marlon the original invitee had dropped out and you joked that the organizers turned to you “to fill their quota of One youngish dreadlocked Jamaican writer”; then there’s your defence of ‘Maas Joe’, the rural caricature whom Marlon dismissed in his keynote address at the 2013 Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference. I agreed completely with Marlon by the way, what he was criticizing was the stock rural Caribbean character often found populating mediocre stories and not a particular individual who may happen to live in the country and ride a donkey. It was the hackneyed representation of such individuals he was deriding. It’s not just about cosmopolitanism versus local or ‘fi wi maas joe’ but about a romanticization of rural poverty over urban blight–a kind of simple-minded belief that the ‘folk’ are not to be found in urban ghettoes, only in verdant pastoral villages.
If what I have with Marlon is a rivalry, then I wish all rivalries would be like that. We obviously like each other. We’re friends. It’s true that not all my interaction or relationships with Caribbean writers in my generation feel as healthy. Some of them – the things people say – are downright petty and vindictive. But in that I have a Caribbean Granny’s approach: I leave them to god. But with Marlon, you know, I think it’s just exciting to be writing at the same time that he’s writing. Probably in both of us is this excitement that we want to do something in literature that hasn’t been done yet. I don’t know if you know this, but our backgrounds are scarily similar – we went to the same high school (not at the same time), then we went to UWI to study literature and were both influenced by similar books; we both went into advertising; we were both part of the same charismatic Christian circles which we eventually stepped away from. Perhaps the profound difference is that Marlon’s instinct is to transform the material he gets into a kind of darkness, and my instinct is to transform it into a kind of light.
You mentioned our Maas Joe argument, and maybe that’s something that I will continue to disagree with both you and Marlon about. I used to feel the way you do, but the more I think about it is the more I simply don’t know the books you’re talking about. I’m not saying people don’t probably write such books, but when has such a book ever been valorized or held up as great Caribbean Literature? I don’t know any such examples. It seems like a myth to me. Look – literature is something that is created twice. It’s created when the writer writes it, but more profoundly it’s created when the reader reads it, and perhaps we have to ask – how are Caribbean novels being taught? How are they being read? Because I suspect the folk romanticization you’re talking about happens then. I think of a writer like Olive Senior whose settings are as idyllic and rural as you can get – but in Summer Lightning, a little boy is raped by a man who visits the village; in Claude McKay’s books, goats are raped; in Erna Brodber characters migrate and return and have huge psychotic breakdowns, and in the novels of Orlando Patterson or Roger Mais, the folk are very much in the heart of urban blight where the most violent things happen to them. So where is this romantic treatment we love to criticize. When I actually think about Caribbean literature the folk presented are always wrestling with a violent and complicated modernity that is thrust on them. Even in the poetry of Louise Bennett (which is where my argument with Marlon began long before – he tends to dismiss her), if you don’t read the sometimes brutal critique that she levies against the folk, then you’re simply misreading her.
So to repeat the easy argument that the folk has been romanticised in Caribbean Literature seems simply wrong to me, and represents a kind of anxiety to appear sophisticated, savvy, and yes – cosmopolitan, but it reinscribes a terrible, terrible misreading of the literature. There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll stop there.
Finally, you recently moved from Glasgow where you taught for several years to London. How are you finding the shift? What are your writing plans for the coming year or two?
Moving from Glasgow to London feels a little bit like moving back to the Caribbean. My first morning here I woke up to two voices arguing under the window and all manner of ‘clawt’ was traded in this verbal altercation. And those sounds for me are a kind of healing. I’m enjoying it so far. As you know, I’m always writing something, and there are several ideas (non-fiction and fiction) percolating in my head, and I’ll write them as they come, but I don’t want to say too much and jinx myself.