Some say that “overnight” success takes five years. If that is the case with Kei Miller, then he has been working hard at it for most of the new millennium, even if it has been only in the past five years that his work has come to the surface of the literary establishment. Once it did make it to the main stage, however, it did so with a bang, as his first book, a collection of short stories by the name of Fear of Stones and Other Stories, (Macmillan Caribbean, 2006), was shortlisted to the Commonwealth Writer’s Award in 2007 (Canada and the Caribbean, First Book Category).
Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1978, Miller studied English at the University of the West Indies before setting off to complete an MA in Creative Writing at the Manchester Metropolitan University (2004), a platform that helped him to come in contact with some leading figures in the publishing world in England. Two years later Fear of Stones… would hit the bookshops, and from that point forward Miller would publish three more books in the following two years – a staggering output by any rate.
His impressive first effort at full-length fiction was The Same Earth (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008), which features the rural town of Watersgate, Jamaica as its main protagonist. Incisively sketching the profile of some twenty characters, all inhabitants of Watersgate, Miller sets off at a torrid pace, painting a beautiful picture of the idiosyncrasy that governs country life in Jamaica, escaping the cliché with witty, authentic and insightful anecdotes that often provide a world of information in a single paragraph.
Unfortunately, however, The Same Earth goes on to follow Imelda Richardson, a citizen of Watersgate through and through, in her journey to England and back to Watersgate, in her second estrangement from her hometown, her relocation to Kingston and her final reconciliation with the place from where she comes. As Imelda gains prominence and Watersgate fades in the background, The Same Earth loses in intensity and suddenly the pages that were flying by become heavily morose. Imelda’s relationship with Ozzie, a character built on the mold of Lovelace’s Alford George in Salt, fails to engage the reader, and the pains of Imelda’s life as an immigrant leave a far less vivid impression than the lively collection of interconnected stories from Watersgate at the beginning of the book.
When I met Miller, at the now sadly defunct Calabash literary festival in Jamaica in 2008, his first novel, The Same Earth had just been published. We spoke at large about it, and about his second collection of poems There Is an Anger That Moves (Carcanet Press, 2007) and he confessed to feeling somewhat distanced from his “new” work, because, although it had only been published recently, it had been largely produced years earlier, therefore relating to circumstances and feelings that no longer felt so urgent to him. At 30 years of age, and having published a collection of short stories, two collections of poems and a novel, as well as an anthology of Caribbean poetry, which he edited in 2007, Kei Miller was telling me he hadn’t yet started to tell how he really felt right now.
I guess that is as good an explanation to the two-year-gap that followed in Miller’s literary production as any. In 2010, however, he came back with the vigor of old, publishing a poetry collection titled A Light Song of Light, presently longlisted to the Bocas Prize of Caribbean Literature, and his second novel, The Last Warner Woman.
Ostensibly about an orphan woman with an otherworldly knack to communicate with the Gods, The Last Warner Woman moves in many different directions at the same time – perhaps, even, too many for its own good. Pearline Portious, aka Adamine Bustamante, loses her mother at birth; she is raised by an ancient nun in a leper colony in Jamaica; her coming of age happens during her fifteenth birthday, when she is again orphaned; but she finds herself in the balmyard of a Revivalist sect that comes to worship her as their “seer”, before being shipped to England as a prize-wife; there, in the clutches of Babylon, she reaches rock-bottom when she is discarded as a lunatic and forced to go through the living hell of the asylum. An enthralling script by any standards: however, the problem is that Miller doesn’t seem to be able to decide which story he wants to tell in full and therefore tries to tell all of them at once.
Indeed, for large portions of the novel, it seems as if the tale focuses on the obscure and surprising fact that there once was a leper colony in Spanish Town, Jamaica. This is the first part of the book, devoted to Adamine Bustamante’s mother, the Original Pearline Portious, whose mission at age 16 is to show her mother that she can sell her colorful knittings to the public at large. In her effort, she reaches the depths of the leper colony, where, fortunately, she is engaged to knit as much as she can. Thus far, The Last Warner Woman is sagacious, engaging and altogether beautiful. However, it looks as though Miller is wary of falling into an old folktale of a bygone era and therefore seeks to bring his story into a more relevant setting for the contemporary British reader. This is where the voice of the profetess, Adamine Bustamante, quite literally comes to life, rebelling, as it were, against the “Writer Man” and telling the story as it is.
This gimmick brings the reader back to the future, to the present time, when the warner woman tells the writer her story and the writer in turn tells the reader about the rise and fall of his protagonist. A rise and fall that is very much marked by Adamine’s journey and the reception she gets in England. Which takes us to Birmingham circa 1970, to social issues relevant to all then as now and to the second great subject Kei Miller wants to tack in The Last Warner Woman: not only the Jamaican diaspora in general (Adamine, like Imelda Richardson in The Same Earth, emigrates to England simply because everyone else was leaving, too), but the alarming fact that in England at the time a great proportion of the people locked away in lunatic asylums was West Indian. While Miller makes certain remarks, he is not terribly accusative in this respect and seems happy merely to pose the question and to let his readers form their own judgment. Where Miller is explicit and accusative is in the description of the conditions and, plainly, the atrocities “patients” in these institutions had to withstand.
Ironically, the weight of an important issue such as this becomes a burden in the structure and the overall feel of The Last Warner Woman, to the point where the reader ends up re-evaluating the seemingly candid material narrated in the first portion of the novel. A telling example of this, in my view, comes in the shape of the question of fatherhood to the children of both the Original Pearline Portious and her daughter, Adamine Bustamante. The first one is said to have come home from town one Sunday night, like every other Sunday, except this time “she must have taken a long way, cause she come back pregnant.” Pearline lives in a leper colony where there is a beautiful garden – as beautiful as the one in the asylum where, years later, Adamine is interned and raped: by the gardener. Miller never says so much, and perhaps it is not even his intention, but the parallel lines he draws between the two main axes of The Last Warner Woman ultimately lead to one, the darker one, destroying the beauty of the other.
Both of Miller’s novels start substantially better than they end. Both of them are clearly and (most likely) consciously influenced by contemporary Caribbean writing (“a leper colony with a beautiful garden where the satanic gardener takes advantage of the main characters” could be the tagline of Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez). Both of them offer extraordinary passages of narrative concision where Miller dexterously makes the uncanny seem quotidian through his beautiful prose. Ultimately, however, he fails in his effort to blend too many elements that, perhaps, cannot be integrated into a single plot. And yet, almost every line of Miller’s fiction displays an acute sensibility and a sharp intellect that reassures us with a promise: so far, Kei Miller has been experimenting, pushing the boundaries, testing the limits – and he has pushed too hard, he has reached too far. But one day he is sure to get it right, and that day we will be graced with a masterpiece. Until then, I’ll keep you posted.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, MARCH 19, 2011.