An interview with Antonia Charlesworth for The Big Issue North.
Forward Prize winner Kei Miller’s third novel, Augustown (Orion, £12,99), tells the story of the birth of the Rastafari movement and the underbelly of Jamaica in a modern fable that spans from 1920 to 1982. The novel addresses poverty, oppression, love and death and corrects the myth surrounding Alexander Bedward – one of the most successful preachers of Jamaican Revivalism.
What’s your relationship with real August Town?
I didn’t live there but it’s about a mile or two from where I grew up in Jamaica. I lived in one of the houses on the hill that looked down over August Town. I think August Town is a very inspiring place. It’s recently become one of the very violent places in Jamaica so it’s always a place of tension. Growing up it was a dangerous place to go and yet it was a place full of amazing history, in particular the story I tell in the book about Bedward. That is what August Town is most famous for. Bedward was hugely important for lots of things; in particular Rastafari is impossible without Bedward but how we tell his story now is just as this idiot, this lunatic who decided he could fly.
What is it about Jamaican politics in the 1980s that gave it such a violent twist?
That was a very stressful period in Jamaica. I guess I was only about one year old so lots of the stories are felt rather than experienced, but still the Jamaica I grew up in was full of violence. At the time it was political tension – the prime minister in the seventies coming up to the eighties was Michael Manley, who had very close alliances with Fidel Castro. There was a lot of fear that Jamaica would be a communist country as well, as it was very socialist and there was a huge international interference in Jamaican politics, but also what had happened was how lots of the political parties gained power was by having these garrison communities within forces who they would patronise, and lots of these community leaders became rich off drugs and suddenly they realised that they’d been enabled by the politicians. But by the eighties they were becoming powerful enough that they didn’t need politicians anymore and they outgrew them, so the texture of violence changed a lot and there was this perfect storm with these gangsters coming of age and no longer needing the politicians, the politicians not being able to keep them in check anymore and international interference. Lots of things combined to make the eighties an incredibly violent time.
Jamaica’s relationship has always been with Britain and not necessarily Europe and we’ve had to untether ourselves from that in a way
Have ordinary people been able to transcend that?
I think Jamaica continues to be a very violent place but every country feels completely banal and normal to the people who live in it and so Jamaica’s never felt extraordinarily violent to me. You read the newspapers about the communities where violence is centred, like August Town, Kingston, but the middle class Jamaica feels like the middle class in every country so you will experience violence not first hand, but just by mourning over these communities that are always wrapped up in various troubles. That’s not to say that the violence there isn’t spectacular or more pronounced than in other countries, but it feels banal and normal. I would say that lots of Jamaicans feel they have transcended that violence because it doesn’t touch them on a day-to-day basis, but at the same time Jamaica is several Jamaicas at once and that’s what the book is really about.
How will Jamaica’s view of Britain change post-Brexit?
I have no idea. I think the whole world is tense about what happened. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently and I just don’t know. Jamaica is tuned in and listening but it’s completed in all kinds of ways. Given the rhetoric of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – both of them kept talking about how this will be our independence day but how does that rhetoric play in a country that needed independence from Britain? But Jamaica’s relationship has always been with Britain and not necessarily Europe and we’ve had to untether ourselves from that in a way, but I don’t know if we understand the broader relationship that Britain has had with Europe. It’s very much watching from a distance and trying to understand how it will affect their day-to-day lives, which it absolutely will but no one knows what that effect will be.
The backdrop of 1980s Jamaica is marked by economic downturn, social inequality and austerity – when you were writing that and living in London were you aware you were living in similar times?
The book was something that drew on all of my knowledge of living in Jamaica until I was 28 or 29 and then I moved to the UK about eight years ago. The University of the West Indies was in August Town so I went to school there – although it’s right on the edge – but when I was writing the book I went back to Jamaica to live for another seven months and lived on the campus, and even when living in England I’m in Jamaica at least three times a year so I wasn’t thinking about England at all, but about the economic realities in Jamaica. But also, because I’m so middle class, I think there’s a way in which the Jamaican middle class looks down on inner city communities and one of the things that we dismiss is stories that come from other people. That’s why Jamaicans have always dismissed the story of Bedward as this idiot and so a big part of telling that story was telling it from a perspective you haven’t heard before – someone who lived in August Town and knew Bedward and who tells it in a different way from how a middle class unsympathetic person would tell it.
Kaia’s name is similar to yours – is there any autobiography in him?
No, I don’t know how that happened. But it happened in my last book – you don’t know if the Rastaman is me or not. I think I naturally play those games and I don’t know why. I can’t even remember when I came up with the name Kaia except I do know that the name was more important because of the hair, because Kaia in Jamaica can often mean dreadlocks, or African textured hair. You have kaia hair and Bob Marley sings about how “I gotta have kaia now”. Kaia can actually mean marijuana or black pride, so it had a kind of resonance and it happened to play with my own name. But I do have a really good friend – the Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson – and he did tell me a story once of being a kid in St Thomas and going to school as a Rastafari child and one day the teacher cut off his hair. It’s a weird story because he was very emotional, but it wasn’t so much about the day the teacher cut off his hair as the day his mother got so upset that she went to the school and punched the teacher in the face. It was his mother who went to jail for two weeks and nothing happened to the teacher. These stories of how people face all kinds of injustice happen all the time but there is a very true story, or two true stories at the centre of Augustown – one the story of Bedward and the other is my friend.
University-educated people in Jamaica now would give a lot more credit to Rastafari than they did 30-40 years ago
Is Rastafarianism as important a way of expressing identity today as it was in the 1980s?
Yes. But a weird correction on behalf of my Rastafari friends: Rastafari will never say “ism”. They say “Rastafari don’t believe in ism or schism” and by putting “ism” on it attaches it to a white or Anglo-American concept. But the weird thing about Rastafari has always been – from the 1930s to the 1980s to right now – Rastafari has always been a fringe religion and it’s interesting how the power of Rastafari has always seemed bigger outside of Jamaica than inside. In Jamaica it is very much a minority religion that doesn’t get enough credit – although more these days. It’s kind of come of age when enough intellectuals and philosophers have come together. You can wrap all this discourse in the dangers of hegemonies and post-colonialism and deconstructionist discourse, or you can look at what Rastafari has been saying all along – it has been extremely sharply critiquing injustices in the world and unfairness and the effects of colonialism on language and everything, and it’s been doing it in its own indigenous language and extremely intelligently, but not in language that academics might use. And I think a lot of people are aware of that now. Certainly university-educated people in Jamaica now would give a lot more credit to Rastafari than they did 30-40 years ago.
Why does religion play such an important part in people’s lives in Jamaica?
I would not be able to answer that question. I’ve been thinking about that and how Rastafari started in Jamaica and lots of people credit it to Marcus Garvey, but really what happened was at some point Marcus Garvey’s philosophy met Alexander Bedward’s and the two streams had to meet up for Rastafari to form. The thing about Marcus Garvey was he was talking about black empowerment and being very influential but he was an atheist, and atheism just doesn’t catch on in Jamaica, so everything he was saying was right but didn’t have the broader appeal until it got channelled into a spiritual religious discourse. Even though Garvey was right, it couldn’t capture the imagination of Jamaicans until it was put into a religious passage and they got it, it caught fire and they said: “Down with Babylon.”
Is it lazy to look at the Caribbean as a unified whole rather than individual states?
I think it’s lazy to look at a country as a unified whole. But there are resonances and reasons why I think of myself as writing Caribbean literature more profoundly than Jamaican literature. The Caribbean isn’t a whole but there are aspects of unity and Jamaica isn’t a whole either, which is what this book is trying to say.
Marlon James won the Booker Prize recently. Do the two of you represent a rise in Jamaican literature or do you just happen to be two writers from the same country?
It would be dangerous for me to say we represent a rise. Obviously Marlon and I are good friends and it’s definitely exciting to be writing at the same time that he is writing literature. He won the Booker prize, which is a huge thing, and the year before I won the Forward Prize for poetry. Does that represent a new era? I don’t know. I’m probably too close to it to comment on it fairly but it’s felt to me that there are so many writers from the Caribbean and I keep on thinking one day I will write as good as them. And I know that they have never gotten the kind of attention that is due to them. There’s this horrible/wonderful joke by Chris Rock who said he gets really upset when people talk about Obama representing black progress, which suggests there’s no black person ever before to have been qualified to be president, and he says no, it’s not black progress, it’s white progress. I say that because right after I won the Forward Prize I had people asking what it meant to be the first person of colour to ever win it and they were wrapping it in that same language. I mean, come on, Derek Walcott never won the Forward Prize and there are so many black writers at the top of their game, writing much better than I have gotten to the stage of writing, and they were never awarded it. That’s not black progress – that’s the progress of people finally looking onto a literature that’s always been there – but no one ever paid sufficient attention to it before. I’m excited that Marlon and I are writing at a time when people are paying attention but because I am embedded in that literature I know that it’s always been interesting and always good. Many writers have never got the due attention they should have.