Kei Miller on Jamaica, History and Speaking in Tongues
Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 00:11
Memories of a Pentecostal childhood, Jamaican history and a sprinkling of magical realism are combined to enthralling effect in the works of Jamaican-born novelist and poet Kei Miller, who spoke at Kenyon on Monday, Oct. 8.
Miller’s lecture, “Riffing of Religion, Centering the Margins,” was sponsored by the religious studies department, the Kenyon Review, the English department, African diaspora studies and Faculty Lectureships.
Associate Professor of Religious Studies Ennis Edmonds opened the program, noting that Miller’s work was “about common people,” the kind one could easily meet while traveling.
Speaking with a soft Jamaican lilt to the half-full Brandi Recital Hall, Miller, a professor of creative writing at the University of Glasgow, began his talk with a disclaimer.
“In the different wardrobe of the world, there are many garments of religion,” Miller said, explaining that each person has to have and make his or her own experiences with faith, and that his — thus far — have largely been with Protestant Christianity in the Caribbean.
Miller, who considers himself a storyteller above all else, explained how he became a writer in a roundabout fashion, telling the audience the story of how “he went to church and left.”
As a child, Miller explained, he felt left out of the Pentecostal Charismatic Church (in which people spoke in tongues and “got slain in the spirit”) by virtue of his middle-class status. Traditionally, the Pentecostal Church in Jamaica is associated with a fringe black culture, while many middle-class black Jamaicans associate themselves with traditionally white Christian denominations and culture.
It was in this environment that Miller began to flourish as a writer; in this period he learned to “combine a dissident verb to an unlikely noun so the noun can do something it had never done before.”
Many of the images in Miller’s works, such as the striking scene of a woman tilting her head just so in sunlight, were mentally collected from this childhood in which he felt set apart.
“Writers are always on the outside looking in, to some extent,” Miller said.
Miller explained that he feels he has never left this in-between place, and that he still has the impulse to insist on both the integrity of religious life in academics and the moral value of secular life to religious people.
Miller’s poem “Speaking in Tongues,” which takes place in 1987, considers whether the utterances that are spoken in a moment of religious intensity are indeed language or mere gibberish.
“What is language but a sound we christen?” the poem asks.
Continuing on his entwined religious and literary saga, Miller told his audience about the period when he was asked to give sermons at a religious summer camp when he was 17 years old.
Although he spent hours writing these speeches and they were satisfactory to the point that individuals kept approaching Miller to inform him that “God really used [him]” that day. That phrase planted a seed of religious doubt in Miller’s mind; God was getting credit for Miller’s words.
“It is good to have a measure of respect for other ways of knowing the world,” Miller said about his then-burgeoning interest in other religions.
Miller read an emotional passage from his 2008 novel The Same Earth, in which a black woman is passionately discoursing on how white men’s beliefs are considered religion, but black women’s beliefs are relegated to mere superstition.
In a similar vein, Miller ended his program with an excerpt from the novel that he is currently working on. The book takes place in 1920s Jamaica and centers on the famous Jamaican priest Alexander Bedward, one of the most successful revivalist preachers, who prophesized that he was going to fly to heaven and come back down with lightning bolts to smite all white people. According to Miller, this was part of a peasant movement that preempted Rastafarianism and gave it many followers.
“I want to retell the story by someone who was there,” Miller said.
This particular story came in the form of “The Smell of Stew Peas and the Beginnings of Flight,” a chapter from his forthcoming novel, which takes place in August Town, Jamaica.
“It was a quiet afternoon, but it was a kind of quiet that was full of sound,” the narrative begins, jumping seamlessly from a grandmother comforting her sad grandson to the grandmother as a child 60 years prior, when she hears that the local preacher [Bedward] has begun to float uncontrollably.
Miller’s work is striking in its imagery, which comprises layers of enthralling words and colors — it was impossible to be anything but spellbound while listening, especially when these words were coupled with Miller’s pleasing cadence.
On his writing process, Miller noted, “there is none whatsoever. When I get stuck, I just don’t write.”
Miller is also the author of the novel The Last Warner Woman (2010) and the short fiction collection The Fear of Stones (2006), among other works. He has received several awards, including the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2007.