Kei Miller maps the intersections of race, class and privilege in Jamaica
This interview originally aired on Sept. 17, 2017.
Jamaican writer Kei Miller is an original. A prolific poet, novelist and essayist, he won the prestigious Forward Prize for Poetry for his fourth collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, in 2014. The book imagines a conversation between a mapmaker — a rationalist, trying to impose order on an unknown land — and a Rastafarian who questions the authority of maps, offering a different way of seeing the world.
Miller draws on Jamaican history, religion and politics in his third novel, Augustown. The book revolves around the story of the real-life preacher Alexander Bedward — a largely mocked or forgotten figure — and features a cast of memorable characters, set in a fictionalized version of the real August Town, Jamaica.
Kei Miller was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1978. He has lived in Manchester, Glasgow, and now London, where he teaches creative writing at the University of London.
Miller spoke with Eleanor Wachtel at the CBC's London studio.
On the problematic nature of maps and cartography
"I was looking at some early maps of Jamaica, especially the 18th century documents that map out some of the plantations in the region. When I look at these maps, I see the things that aren't there, things that I know are there but were never represented. And I ask myself, why did the mapmaker not see those things? For example, it will be outlined where a great house was, and I know that three people lived in that great house. I know that 200 yards away is a village which had 300 people, but the village is not on the map. Why is the great house with three people more important than the village with 300 people?
"Maps are always interesting to me for what's left out of them — all those questions of power, how they play out on a map, how they create certain kinds of silences and how we tell these stories that aren't shown. The cartographer's science, ultimately, isn't the only way of knowing a place. My whole idea in my book The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion is not to say that the mapmaker's way of knowing is invalid, just that it misses things. There are absences."
Maps are always interesting to me for what's left out of them — all those questions of power, how they play out on a map, how they create certain kinds of silences and how we tell these stories that aren't shown.
On keeping class and privilege in check
"The hardest thing about privilege is that it never feels like we're privileged. It feels natural — it feels like the right that everyone should have. There are those dark moments when you realize that other people don't enjoy the ease of access that you enjoy. Probably that's easier for me, having moved from Jamaica where I did live in a fairly middle class environment — and I still do here in the United Kingdom. But [in Britain] that assumption isn't taken for granted. It's the obvious things, you know. It's me being on faculty at a university, yet going to use the washroom and the security guard telling me that it's for faculty only. Or it's the assumption that I must be a slam poet when I'm introduced as a poet."
On the power of language and religion
"Religion was very important to me. I picked up a lot of my values from the church. From listening to preachers, I was learning how to write, how to place and use a verb, and why the verb must enact something different in the noun. It must give the noun a possibility that the noun didn't have before. That's what made the congregation shiver and shout.
"I have a soft spot toward religion and how it shaped me as a writer. It gave me technical skills, skills that I would have picked up eventually, but the fact was that I picked them up in the church. [When I was giving sermons] People would tell me that God was moving through me. And I would think, no, those are the verbs. Verbs did that."
I have a soft spot toward religion and how it shaped me as a writer. It gave me technical skills, skills that I would have picked up eventually, but the fact was that I picked them up in the church.
On the nature of Jamaican society
"Jamaica is a very racist society. It is very racist, but we never use that word because our racism is so wonderfully sophisticated that we call it classism or shadeism or other things. We never get to what's at the heart of the kinds of discriminations we practice. It never appears to us as racism — racism for Jamaicans is something that we learn from history books, or from American television, and so we assume that's where those things operate."
Kei Miller's interview has been edited and condensed.
Music to close the broadcast interview: "Minuit" composed by Baaba Maal, performed by Ernest Ranglin.