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Kei Miller: Reading, Writing and the Pleasures of Exile

Kei Miller

For the past four years writer Kei Miller has been enjoying the pleasures of exile in Scotland where he lectures in English and Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Yet Miller, who is back home for a short vacation before jetting off on a series of readings that will take him to Trinidad, Barbados and South Africa, remains firmly rooted as a Jamaican/Caribbean writer.

With six books of poetry and prose to his credit, Kei Miller has quickly moved from an emerging writer to one of the established voices in contemporary Caribbean literature. Recently he has also assumed some new roles in the book world. One of these roles is as series editor the Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series.

Miller explains that his sojourn into teaching and publishing has impacted the way he views books, as they provide different perspectives.

“That way of pulling back, of not being a writer, but helping books to be birthed into the world, it affects your writing,” he says. “As a writer you think, I want this to be the best book ever, whereas as a publisher you think, I’m bored or I can’t imagine a reader putting up with this.”

He also explains that his attitude as an editor, which prioritizes commercial viability, seems to directly contrast with his attitude as a teacher, because while in the former you tend to explore the commercial viability of a work, as a teacher he tends to encourage his students to take risks and experiment with form.

As series editor for Heinemann, Miller is hoping to return the esteemed collection to a space where groundbreaking Caribbean voices can find a place. The Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series has published some of the iconic Caribbean literature including Samuel Selvon, Earl Lovelace, Olive Senior and V.S. Naipaul. He notes however that while the earlier books were groundbreaking works, the series had grown significantly more conservative.

“They’ve played it safe,” Miller says. “But that too can be limiting even though it makes good dollars and cents. So most of their recent work has been good but safe.”

The Same Earth by Kei MillerMiller’s second new role in the book world is as one of the panel of six judges for the re-vamped 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize. Miller explains that the Commonwealth Prize offers great potential for Caribbean writers. Miller’s own work has benefitted from association with the Commonwealth Book Prize.  His collection of short stories, Fear of Stones and Other Stories was shortlisted for the 2007 Commonwealth Best First Book Prize. He points out that even being shortlisted can be a great boost to a writer’s career as through the list they are often sharing the platform with with writers who have been listed on The Booker Prize or the The Orange Prize. “It takes the best of us and exposes it to the world.”

His roles as lecturer, judge and editor has not slowed his own writing. Though he describes himself as lazy, Miller continues to demonstrate the same prolific pen that allowed him to produce two novels (The Same Earth and The Last Warner Woman) and two collections of poetry (There is an Anger That Moves and Light Song in a Book of Light) as well as edit a poetry collection (New Caribbean Poetry: An Anthology) in three years.

Miller describes his writing as currently in a state of flux. He recently completed his PhD which explored West Indian letter writing. Additionally, he has an upcoming collection of essays Writing Down the Vision which will be published by Peepal Tree Press. Miller describes the collection as 17 essays and prophecies of varying length about writing and being Jamaican. He also explains that although the collection is non-fiction, they feel like his continued affair with short stories.

“It’s essays, but it feels like a collection of short stories,” he says. “I feel a direct movement from Fear of Stones.”

Miller confesses that it has been three years since he wrote a poem but his prose continues to flow. He is currently writing two novels. The first had originally gone by the intriguing working title The Rather Raunchy Obituary of Everton Campbell. In an anecdote which sounds as though it was culled from his own fiction, Miller describes the second novel describes as haunted by Native Baptist preacher Alexander Bedward. Miller explains that he began writing the piece when the voice of God, which came to him in the voice of poet Kamau Brathwaite, told him to write about Bedward in a dream.

Anyone familiar with Miller’s work, which often delves into the spiritual, should not be surprised by this. Of course, a very significant element of the Bedward narrative are issues of class and “downpression”. Miller reveals that in doing the research for the book it struck him that poor black Jamaicans needed Bedward to fly and “rise above” the system.  and how much the upper classes needed him to fail.

“As invested as poor people were in [Bedward’s] flying , rich people were invested in his not flying,” Miller says. Bedward’s flight and the act of rising above is the meeting point for the story of Bedward and Miller’s fiction, which is located in contemporary August Town and explores a young boy’s attempt to rise above Babylon  which in turn tries to pull him down.

The story therefore appears to be firmly grounded in Jamaica where as Miller’s previous two novels have in different ways dealt with Jamaicans in the metropole and the effect this has on them.

“I am still proud of being called a Caribbean Writer and will still aim to produce world class literature,” Miller says. He explains that while he recognizes writing from a small place for global space is challenging there is space for our stories amongst the mainstream. Miller says he believes publishers are looking for something different.

“If you can write with elegance and authority and beauty it is to your advantage not to be writing about white people in the metropolis,” he says.