Kei Miller: daring to intrude

Kei Miller brings Jamaica’s religion, superstition, and magic alive in his stories and poems

Kei Miller. Photograph courtesy Kei Millar

Kei Miller’s stories and poems weave a tapestry of a Jamaica rich in religion, superstition, and magic. This twenty-eight-year-old largely forsakes his middle-class roots in Hope Pastures for the ghetto and the country, creating a self-admittedly folksy persona that’s tougher than the real Miller. “I say, ‘I come from the Papine area,’” Miller jokes, referring to a much tougher neighbourhood of Kingston than his native one.

He’s funny to talk to, often making wry remarks and self-deprecating comments with a bit of a nudge and a wink, but he has his dread side, too. His short story collection The Fear of Stones, recently published by Macmillan Caribbean, includes a title story that follows the life of a gay man in a country infamous for its homophobia, full of “men who go about fearing stones and being stoned,” as Miller himself put it in an interview at Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, in May. Miller was there for the Calabash International Literary Festival, an annual smorgasbord of regional writing. The story is “a way to stand in for an experience,” he said. “Language must account for experience we haven’t acknowledged.”

The Fear of Stones follows Kingdom of Empty Bellies, a collection of lyrical and moving poems in some similar settings, but with a more personal feel than the stories. “I started writing poetry to be a better [fiction] writer, but I fell in love with poetry,” he confessed. Kingdom, published by Heaventree Press, shows the love in such diverse strains as a series of poems named after alcoholic drinks, one addressed to fellow Jamaican poet Edward Baugh, and several addressed to his family members. A common theme in the collection is the “church woman”, a character whose fire and brimstone and warmth and light permeate the imagery of the poems and impart an authenticity of experience to the work. The poetry, Miller said, isn’t representative of what he’s writing now, having gone through at least one other publisher’s hands before seeing the light of publication.

While finishing editing an anthology of younger Caribbean poets, including Trinidadian Jennifer Rahim and Bahamian Christian Campbell, Miller’s working on a novel called The Same Earth. Expect it to be lighter than his poems and stories. “It’s about an old woman who loses three panties. All hell breaks loose in the village,” he said. He wrote it after completing the work in The Fear of Stones, a collection full of grief, sadness, and tragedies large and small. There was something “prophetic and big” about the voice of the collection; “by the time I came to the novel I just wanted to be funny.”

But light in tone doesn’t mean light in intention. “In a country divided like Jamaica —” he begins, then starts again. “All of them in the village live on the same earth and they have to find a way to make it work.”

Having written his first novel at age fourteen, Miller (who’s also known by the first name Andrew) feels he’s come a long way. “It was as awful as any novel by a fourteen-year-old,” he said. “You didn’t try for style or anything; it was just how far you could take this story.

“You don’t write what you know, you write what you like, and I liked Sidney Sheldon,” he said, implying a voice less literary in tone than his current register — which, though colloquial at times, is always polished and conscious of structure. Case in point: one of his favourite choices in The Fear of Stones is to have what he calls “authorial inclusion”, a.k.a. “authorial intrusion.” It’s when the narrator isn’t part of the story, but puts himself in anyway. Citing Shame by Salman Rushdie as a famous — and heavily criticised — example of the technique, he said, “I think it’s incredible what the narrator dares to do. People call it authorial intrusion, but how can he intrude upon himself?”

Miller teaches poetry and prose fiction courses at the University of the West Indies at Mona, though he himself dropped out before graduating. “My life would have been so safe. Having not had some options open for a while forced me to consider writing as a career. I box ’bout,” he said, grinning. “You get a fellowship here, you stay there for three months, you come back, you stay with your parents. If you don’t have a kid or a house or a job there certainly is a kind of freedom to pick up and go anywhere.”

Judging by his prolific year, Miller’s going up, up, up.