He’s a Jamaican writer. No, he's not Marlon James. But those who saw them together at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year know that Kei Miller is a poet, novelist, short-story writer and essayist whom they will certainly be reading.
Miller burst into the British poetry scene after winning the prestigious Forward Prize in 2014 for his collection of poems The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. Although this may be his most well-known achievement, it is by no means the only one.
At 36, Miller already has nine published works to his credit, including the novel The Last Warner Woman, the collection of short stories Fear of Stones and Other Stories, and the poetry collection A Light Song of Light. He is a prolific essayist, and an incandescent performer of his work. Excerpts from a conversation.
Was there a specific moment when you realised you wanted to be a writer?
An old teacher came into class said, “Listen, take this with all the insult you want, but a career in the arts is something you should do only if you can’t do anything else”. It was the most uplifting thing I’d ever heard, because then I knew I was going to be a writer. This is not because of some innate ability, which I’m sure is partly there, but because I realised that I couldn’t do anything else. I was incapable of it.
I do have friends who have other professions and write on the side – people do that, but I am not one of them. So thank god, when I had this realisation, I was already writing seriously. But the fact that I was writing seriously didn’t always make what I produced serious literature. When I did, it was only because I had been serious about writing for so long.
How has winning the Forward Prize changed your life? Has it changed your writing in any way?
It was a big change. Certainly, my presence in the poetry world in Britain is a much bigger thing than it was before. Has it impacted my writing? I don’t know. It has made me feel more responsible for things. I haven’t started writing my next collection, perhaps that is part of the impact.
Part of what I do after I write one book is to switch to another form, because I need a break. I have a book coming out in August which is a novel, and I already know the book coming after that is non-fiction, an extended rumination on my family, but also race. Only after that will I go back to poetry. I know that what I started thinking about in The Cartographer… isn’t finished, so the next poetry book will be a sequel.
You’ve pointed out the hypocrisy of privileged, middle-class Jamaicans writing poetry about oppression in a way that is not self-aware. How do you think writers can confront their privilege?
I don’t think there’s any way to avoid that trap. In the US there’s a popular phrase now, “check your privilege”, and I come to that a lot. If I am going to talk about how the world is unfair, I first have to think about how I am involved in this. I have to think about how I participate as an agent reinscribing oppression, how my everyday actions do it. There are so many ways I’m still unaware of this, so many little biases I still have, which is probably why my books turn out the way they do.
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion is me targeting myself. The cartographer with all his colonial ideas, his privileging of rationality and western education is me. The rastafari is more separate from me. It’s the cartographer I’ve invented to interrogate myself. I don’t know if you ever escape it. We won’t ever become completely wonderful people with no bad aspects to ourselves, but I believe in honesty.
If one is going to write literature that is basically going to accuse people of being bad stewards of their privilege, then one has to turn the spotlight on oneself.
You started writing poetry to improve your fiction. Is there any one form that takes precedence now?
Yes, poetry gained an equal footing with fiction. But if I was hard pressed, I would identify foremost as an essayist. I know how to use all the tools of poetry, which is liberating. It is wonderful to have a thought, and to package it in a way that people might not expect. But essentially, I have a thesis – an idea that I have about the world that I want to share – so fundamentally, what I’m always doing is writing an essay.
There are four key ideas in my new novel, and they blossom out of the story, but they are essentially ideas. If I think about it now – and I’ve never articulated this before this moment – an essayist is what I am.
Tell us about the time you won the Manchester slam championship as a student. The UK Press quoted you as saying, “...I am also ashamed that I am ashamed [of winning the competition].”
That comment has been overstated a little bit by the Press. When I was 24, I went to the University of Manchester to study. In my very first week there, I had absolutely no money. I saw that a slam competition was being held, and on the absolute basis of needing money, I put my name in. I won the competition.
Although I’ve never identified as a slam artist, I’ve always been conscious of how words sound, not just in poetry, but also fiction. What is a word? Is it an inscription or is it a sound? Depending on your idea of these things, it changes how you write. I do believe I am putting sounds on the page, so how it sounds is important to me. People tell me I’m a good performer for my work.
I said in an interview once that I was ashamed of winning that competition, and that I was ashamed of being ashamed. It’s just that weird duality that happens in myself all the time. I was ashamed because I didn’t see myself as a slam poet. I was ashamed of how slam poetry is viewed in the world.
But then naturally, I thought, why do these biases exist? And the slam community, which I’d never identified with, was always a community that was embracing me. It was always a black community, it was a black aesthetic, a black idea of being careful about sound. So why was I ashamed of their welcoming embrace? This is too crass a way to put it: but in a certain way, I was saying, “No, I don’t belong to a black aesthetic, I belong to a white aesthetic.” As soon as I saw that questions of race are at the root of that shame, then I became ashamed of my shame.
As an extension of that thought, does this shame also govern how one speaks? Is it reflected in attitudes towards patois?
Ideas of speaking well, speaking properly, speaking in a good accent, the idea of patois being absolutely the language of the slaves, and “good” English being the language of the master – where do these ideas come from?
A different kind of modernity is invented with slavery in the 17th, 18th century. It is England that invents it. It is this modernity in which the African becomes a site through which we can define Otherness. Certain ideas of civility, good manners, decorum, taste, all of these get profoundly invented at this time, and the African becomes the opposite of Culture.
I don’t think we’re fully aware of how those aesthetics come into our appreciation of poetry right now. One British newspaper said about me, “He’s the most subtle poet of his generation,” and I accept the praise, but do you recognise that by praising subtlety you’re almost saying, “He’s black but he’s not writing black.” Quiet, subtle, elegant – where does the idea come from that these qualities are worthy of praise?
A profound part of my craft is now to introduce volume, to say that I can speak loudly, and I can resist subtlety, and I can resist irony and I can resist all the things that have become hallmarks of good craft in Britain. I can house intelligence in a louder sound, in a more aggressive poetry. My poems can be nuanced and complex, but not in the vehicle that you expected these qualities in before. That’s a huge part of what I want to do. If there’s a legacy I wanted to have, that would be it: that I made poetry louder.