THE show must go on. That was the attitude of organisers of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest after a falling-out between some of the regional writers attending the festival. One of those invited was prominent Jamaican-born, UK-based poet, novelist and essayist Kei Miller, whose latest work focuses on race in the region.
An essay by Miller entitled The White Women and the Language of Bees appeared last week in the first issue of PREE magazine, a Jamaican-based online publication originally scheduled to be launched in June. In it Miller – who is black – discussed four white women writers, including two Trinidadians, and was critical of some of them and their work.
Though they were unnamed, many fellow writers recognised the women concerned, and some of the subjects were angry and distressed by his piece, describing it as misogynist. There were long and sometimes heated exchanges on both Miller’s Facebook page and that of UK-based, Trinidad-born novelist Monique Roffey.
Roffey, who won the US$10,000 OCM Bocas Prize in 2013 for her book Archipelago, is also in Trinidad for the festival. She led the charge against Miller, saying there was a history in the region of black male academics attacking white women, and citing Kamau Brathwaite and Jean Rhys.
“Today,” she said, “at least a dozen white women are writing in and about the Caribbean with some authority. We write from the region and we write from the diaspora…there are nuanced complexities and relationships between us. Kei Miller’s essay was wrong for many reasons.” Describing Miller as having “massive status in the region,” she said as a result he felt entitled to “divide” and “rate” these writers.
Miller said yesterday morning that he had asked for his essay to be taken down from PREE, as he did not want to put undue pressure on the editors. It will reappear in print with his other essays on the topic, and in the interim may be posted on his blog. Roffey commented, “I’m very pleased he’s shown some humility and taken his poorly-thought-through essay down.”
A note subsequently posted on PREE’s website at the link where Miller’s essay had been read, in part: “There has been unduly negative reaction to The White Women and the Language of Bees, which has, regrettably, resulted in the author, Kei Miller, withdrawing it from PREE.
“The editors would like to say a few words on the subject of disruption. PREE is committed to pushing boundaries of what and who is read as Caribbean. We have gathered the voices and literary talents of writers from within the region and in the diaspora, writers who are well-known and new writers whose works deserve to be known. The newness of fresh perspectives on and from the Caribbean is the disruption that PREE seeks to inject into the global literary community.”
Trinidadian writer Sharon Millar did not appear at an NGC Bocas Lit Fest event on Thursday in which she was scheduled to take part with Miller, and she and fellow Trinidadian Keith Jardim also withdrew from a tribute to Wayne Brown yesterday morning which included Miller.
Festival founder and director Marina Salandy-Brown was unfazed, commenting, “We are keeping the show on the road as always, because there always are last-minute crises and no-shows.”