Kei Miller: Sound that we christen

In his writing, Kei Miller seeks new layers of language, writes Harry Garuba in a review for Times Live.

Having acquired a measure of recognition as poet and short-story writer, Kei Miller has turned to the extended form of the novel.

The publication of the Fear of Stones and Other Stories (2006), three volumes of poetry and an anthology, New Caribbean Poetry (2007), marked Miller’s entry into the literary landscape of modern West Indian/diasporic writers.

The author, 32, has said in an interview that he “started drumming to become a better poet” and then “started writing poetry to become a better fiction writer”. It is therefore no surprise that he has turned his attention to fiction and thus has so far published two novels: The Same Earth (2008) and The Last Warner Woman (2010).

Miller’s novels explore a similar terrain to that of his poems and short stories – the social terrain of revivalist Christianity, the everyday lives of small-town characters in their enclosed social world, where every deed and misdeed is mediated by religion and rumour; a world where humour, compassion, envy and gossip rule, and word-of-mouth information possesses a stigmatising efficacy far more powerful than any prison.

In these novels, the geographical terrain may move between a small town in Jamaica, at the edge of the city, and the metropolitan centres of London and Manchester, but the social lives of the characters remain governed and over-determined by the mores and ethos of the small towns they left behind.

The books take what used to be called “local colour” in novels, rich in dialect and set in rural environments or foreign climes, to new heights; they depict this locality with an unwavering, realistic eye, but also show the perils to which misrecognition of its normal practices can lead, in places wired to a different ethic and rationality.

In the poem Speaking in Tongues, which appears in the volume There is an Anger that Moves, Miller gives us an indication of this kind of misrecognition as well as providing us with an opening into the nature of his artistic preoccupations. In this poem, the speaker paints a portrait of his grandmother, the dutiful woman who sets the table on Sundays and easily balances a container of water on her head as she walk backs from the river.

This ordinary woman, perfectly adjusted to her everyday chores, takes her grandson to a revivalist service “to meet the Lord” on an ordinary day in 1987. Here, she is suddenly transformed, becomes all grunt and rumble, like an earthquake; shoes off, spinning on the ground, full of Pentecostal fire, speaking in tongues. This alternation between the everyday and the transcendental is the norm for this boy, growing up in a small religious town in which speaking in tongues is normative.

In fact, he traces his heritage to the beliefs and practices of women at worship, ordinary women who, in prayer, in public gatherings, easily shed their social selves and give themselves over completely to a strange language and a stranger self.

Years later, narrating this incident to a friend, the latter responds that speaking in tongues is gibberish. The poet’s reaction is one that sums up his conception of the nature of poetry, and of art in general. First, he asks: “What is language but a sound that we christen?” And he says of the incident of speaking in mysterious tongues: “The poem always,/ would like to do this, always wants to break/ from its lines and let a strange language rise up./ Each poem is waiting on its own Day of Pentecost/ to thrash, to robosei and yashundai …/ hoping that this finally is the language of God/ that he might hear it and respond.”

These lines, I believe, sum up the focus and aspiration of Miller’s writing better than any appraisal can: the focus on the minutiae of everyday life and those moments of epiphany when the ordinary is uplifted by the magic of words to the realm of transcendence.

The Last Warner Woman, Miller’s latest novel, tells the story of Adamine Bustamante (aka Pearline Portius) who is sent by the leader of her revivalist church, the Band of the Seventh Fire, to England to be married to a man she has never met but who, before emigrating, had been a member of the congregation. Pearline is a “warner woman”, a woman with a gift for “‘warning” – for prophesy. When she “falls to the spirit”, she sees visions and issues warnings – of earthquakes and floods and fires.

In the Jamaica of her birth, as in many black communities in the New World, there is a long tradition of ordinary women with a gift for healing or prophesy. The “warner woman” is a recogisable social category in these places. But not in England. When the spirit catches her and she bursts into prophesy in a public place in England, she ends up in a mental institution.

Humour and comedy are never far from the surface in this story. Enter the character “Mr Writer Man”, who is interviewing this woman to write her story. As he searches for the language and idiom in which to tell it, she struggles with him for ownership of the narrative. But, as she realises soon enough, the story is not hers alone: she discovers that a story can belong to several people at the same time, that her personal story is also personal to Mr Writer Man. (Echoes here, I hear, of Sebastian Barry’s use of a similar technique in the novel The Secret Scripture.)

The novel begins with the classic fairy-tale formula “Once upon a time”, but is firmly emplaced “in a leper colony in Jamaica” and the time, we know is 1941, when the original Pearline Portius turns up at the gates.

Fragments and sections of the novel begin and end with “Shhhhhhhh”. Is this a sound we can christen?

Mr Writer Man’s quest for a language to represent possession and prophecy, the tongue of the unknown, in this novel may well be Miller’s as well.

For the original report go to

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