Sunday, December 3, 2017

Augustown by Kei Miller

Pub May 1st 2017 by Pantheon Books (first pub Aug 11th 2016) ISBN13: 9781101871621 Awards: Nominated 2016 Green Carnation Prize, Nominated 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal, Nominated 2017 Shortlist RSL Ondaatje Prize, Nominated 2017 Shortlist HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown

An inverted gold crown on a jet background graces my cover of Kei Miller’s 2016 novel Augustown and the fiction points to the couple of days in the 20th C when the power structure inverted in a small town in Jamaica. A flying preacher, Alexander Bedward, is instrumental in inspiring the beginnings of the Rastafarian movement in 1920’s Jamaica. That story is wrapped around a more current parallel story of Gina, the clever girl some thought would also fly. Power and powerlessness entwine in this novel.

A town is populated with memorable figures like blind Ma Taffy, gun- and drug-runner Marlon, the dread-headed part-white child Kaia born out of wedlock, the childless spinster Sister Gilzene who could sing an operatic soprano, Rastafarian fruit peddler Clarky, the uptight upright teacher Mr. Saint-Josephs whom we suspect is insane, and a white family: a corporate father with ugly values, his wife learning to ignore him, and a boy who was selfish in the way white people are when they ‘do not see color.’

A bit of a thriller, this novel, because we scent blood early on, with the guns Marlon stashes under Ma Taffy’s house, Clarky dying, and crazy old Bedward rising up like some kind of lunatic second coming going. Oppression surrounds and weighs on us like humidity.
“The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be the bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?”
—from Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion
Only after I looked for interviews with Miller did I realize he is considered a poet first, though in descriptions of his education he says he started with prose stories. He is lavishly talented, and writes with an enlightened sexual awareness. This novel has a strong set of female characters and in his 2010 collection of poems called A Light Song of Light, we also get that sense of even ground, and more:
Every bed was made illegal by the brush
of chest against chest, and by our sweat.
--from A Short History of Beds We Have Slept in Together
Miller saves his challenges for colonialists and by his words we recognize Miller understands rage and sorrow.
" they have forced us to live in a world lacking in mermaids--mermaids who understood that they simply were, and did not need permission to exist or to be beautiful. The law concerning mermaids only caused mermaids to pass a law concerning man: that they would never again cross our boundaries of sand; never lift their torsos up from the surf; never again wave at sailors, salt dripping from their curls; would never again enter our dry and stifling world."
--from The Law Concerning Mermaids
Historical figures feature in this poetry collection, including Alexander Bedward again, Singerman (Marley?), Nathaniel Morgan, Coolie Duppy, etc. and there is a strong scent of homesickness. Miller has lived in Great Britain for some years now and perhaps is telling the same story over and over, in a new way each time, pruning and training the branches until they remind him of home.

In the poetry collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion published in 2014, Miller’s language is English but there appear so many words we have never seen that we are unsteady, unsure, very nearly undone.

So consider an unsettled island
Inside—the unflattened and unsugared

fields; inside—a tegareg
sprawl of roots and canopies,

inside—the tall sentries of blondwood
and yoke-wood and sweet-wood,

of dog-wood, of bullet trees so hard
they will one day splinter cutlasses,

will one day swing low the carcasses
of slaves; inside—a crawling

brawl of vines, unseemly
flowers that blossom from their spines;

inside—the leh-guh orchids and labrishing
hibiscuses that throw raucous

syllables at crows whose heads are red as annattos; inside—malarial mosquitoes

that rise from stagnant ponds;
inside—a green humidity thick as mud;

inside—the stinging spurge, the nightshades,
the Madame Fates;

inside—spiders, gnats and bees,
wasps and lice and fleas; inside—

the dengue, the hookworm, the heat
and botheration; unchecked macka

sharp as crucifixion. This is no paradise—
not yet—not this unfriendly, untamed island—

this unsanitised, unstructured island—
this unmannered, unmeasured island;

this island: unwritten, unsettled, unmapped.
—from Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion
The unsettlement one feels when reading the poem is curiously the way Miller makes us feel in his novel, though he does not use such words. We retain a kind of distance. Just as well. There is danger everywhere. The only other place that ever gave me this sense of familiarity and menace was another island with a bloody colonial history, Tasmania.

This is a new cultural sphere; it takes some time to accustom to this point-of-view. The language which is at once foreign and familiar, continental and island, melodic and profane, knowing and naive. Hope is not an obvious choice when one is the underclass. Rastafarians have a mighty sense of their closeness to god and ghost. White folk don’t offer the same opportunities. This truth is such a relief after centuries of colonial cant.

We can feel the tide, the sun, the heat; we smell the flowers, the sea, the mangoes. Miller’s language in Augustown is easily poetic, not caught in it but casual and natural. The story, Gina’s growing up and standing up, is where we’re focused. And yet…and yet the bleaching light on the sunbaked road and the overhanging flowers thrust their way into the story, embellishing it, making us a little homesick, too.

The chapter on autoclaps squeezed the heart and was almost pure poetry. This chapter made the book Kei Miller’s. Any other author may have left that chapter out, and they would have been utterly wrong.

We, humans in the world, for centuries in every country, have put men in charge of…everything…our well-being, our safety, our protection. Since barely cognizant, I have always thought that was a lot to lay on one half of the human race. Kei Miller seems to understand this.

And finally, the place, Jamaica, is clearly what Miller is about. He is centered on this and staking out this territory as his own.

The extraordinary talent is evident in Miller’s Youtube video, him talking about his new book of poetry

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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