Many thanks to Peter Jordens for gathering articles that speak to and about Kei Miller’s recent essay, “The White Women and the Language of Bees” (originally published in the first issue of PREE) about writing, national identity, race and (narrative) privilege. Here is an article by Joshua Surtees and Alison Flood (The Guardian, 2 May 2018). The article’s full title is “Kei Miller essay about white women sparks tensions among Caribbean writers.” [As of today, May 4, 2018, a revised version of Miller’s essay is back online: https://preelit.com/2018/04/13/the-white-women-and-the-language-of-bees/.] See related links below the post. Surtees and Flood write:
An incendiary essay by the award-winning Jamaican poet Kei Miller that probed at white women writers’ authority to speak for the Caribbean has been pulled from a new magazine after laying bare a long-festering anger in the islands’ literary community.
Miller’s essay, The White Women and the Language of Bees, was published last week in Pree, a new magazine highlighting writers from the Caribbean. Asking “how many years and decades must pass before we can belong to a place and to its words? How much time before we can write it?”, the essay saw the Forward prize-winning author discuss his interactions with four white women writers from the region, evaluating their books, and the way they have interacted with the local literary community.
“Was she really afraid? Was she nervous about people like me reading her book and throwing words like ‘appropriation’ about? Am I a part of her anxiety?” he wrote of one. In another scene, he imagines one of the women telling another: “You can’t be writing this place and putting the wrong words in people’s mouths. This rock is not made of granite or limestone, but with words. You must be given the right words. And these, my dear sister, are things you have yet to learn.”
The essay drew both praise and condemnation from writers. Rhoda Bharath called it “a necessary addition to the global cultural conversations around identity, appropriation and privilege”, while Veerle Poupeye wrote, in an open letter to Miller, that “parts of the essay are indeed breathtaking, because of the writing and because of the sublime insights you offer”, but took issue with Miller’s publication of private conversations, his focus on white women and not white men, and his representation of the women in the essay.
Judy Raymond said: “Almost everything that has happened since Kei’s essay has been based on emotion. It’s clear we need to have urgent conversations about race, racism, gender and privilege. Instead, careers and friendships are being broken and those conversations are being replaced by the verbal equivalent of hurricanes.”
One well-known British writer who chose to remain anonymous told the Guardian that at least two of the white women in the essay were clearly identifiable. “I think it’s a matter of ethics more than anything else. The issue of race, of who is allowed to write from what perspective, and his position as a black man from a Caribbean country, that’s one thing. But for me the problem was he identified the writers very clearly,” she said. “The Caribbean writing community is very small and very tight and it can be very incestuous and problematic.”
Three writers – Monique Roffey, Sharon Millar and Keith Jardim – withdrew from some events at the Bocas literary festival in Trinidad last week after the essay was published, though each cited different reasons for pulling out.
Roffey, author of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, identified herself as one of the women in the essay and described it as unethical and divisive: “Kei Miller’s essay attempts to rate white women and rank us all, and even police us, and this is divisive and unhelpful: it sets a male writer against female writers, men against women, a big-name writer against smaller writers and of course black against white. Writing about race, sure, write about whiteness too, sure, but why make this all about white women? Will Kei Miller write a follow up essay called, White Men and the Language of Wasps? I think not. Why are white men left out of his discourse? Nobody has ever attacked white male Caribbean writers, even if they boast ‘born on a plantation’ on the jacket cover.”
Miller, who was also at the Bocas festival, subsequently asked for his piece to be removed from Pree’s website following what editors described as “a negative reaction”.
“We remain deeply grateful to Kei for allowing Pree to publish an essay that has generated an intersecting set of debates very much in the spirit of what the magazine sees as its project,” said Pree in a statement. “We regret that he was forced to withdraw it because of shared concerns about the effect the responses were having on the Bocas literary festival.”
Pree’s publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove said that one Pree editor recognised herself as one of the women Miller was writing about, but did not share this information with colleagues as she had felt the piece needed to be published, while other editors did not identify any of the individuals in Miller’s essay.
She said that the sensitivity around the essay stemmed from the anger that writers in the Caribbean felt at not having the same platform as white authors writing about their culture.
“People are scrambling to be heard and that’s what the industry, with all of its diversity panels and all of its talk of inclusivity, is absolutely missing: the actual writers. There is this bubbling, simmering of Commonwealth writers across the world who are basically really angry with each other, and it’s the festivals and the publications who are trying to help the writers who are caught in the middle of it. Whereas if we were more curious, as we keep pertaining to be, as an industry, I just think they would all have a more level playing field,” she said.
“All of this is about if people get to write because they’re white. Do white women get to be published as the voice of the Caribbean because they’re seen as easier to deal with? Do black men only get to be published when they’re writing on really contentious issues? What is considered a valid story from the Commonwealth? The ignorance around African and Caribbean writing means people are really hurt and angry at being ignored.”
Miller’s essay has reinvigorated an ongoing debate. In his 1974 essay Contradictory Omens, Kamau Braithwaite indirectly critiqued Jean Rhys’ writing about the non-white experience in novels like Wide Sargasso Sea, published eight years before. In 2014, Roffey was criticised by several Caribbean writers after she wrote an article praising the region’s literature that some perceived as having the airs of having “discovered” it; Vladimir Lucien described multiple authors calling her “a latter day Columbus”.
Speaking to the Guardian in Port of Spain, Miller said he intends to republish the essay, which he said was based on real conversations but written as allegory.
“It’s part of a wider project. I’ve been writing this book of essays called The Most Important Things. What are the important things we can’t say? Why can’t we say them? What do we risk? How does race get in the way? All those things that cause us to be polite and withdrawn. What is the discomfort we’re so afraid of putting out there that might be a useful and productive discomfort but we’re so afraid that we’re always silent? Black bodies in particular are often silent in the moment of their discomfort,” he said.
He said he was making the “exact point critics are accusing me of”. “Much of the essay argues against a writer like me using what in this space can be black privilege, the privilege that everyone is going to see me as a Caribbean writer, no one is going to challenge that. I am absolutely upset about how in other circumstances the black writer has used that position of privilege to disenfranchise the white female writer of her own place … We ought to make space for everyone in this Caribbean. White women do have space to write and the black writer must be very conscious of that privilege and not use it to unfairly rob someone else. We’re all trying to write, to draw inspiration from this place, and to do it with as much integrity as possible. That doesn’t mean we can’t ask hard questions.”
The show must go on, Newsday, April 28, 2018
The Editors, Pree, April 27, 2018
Letter to Kei Miller
Veerle Poupeye, Perspectives (blog), April 24, 2018