Kei Miller’s new collection of essays, Things I Have Withheld, is out, but very few reviews are in. This is disappointing. I need to talk to someone about the book. You see, this is a book about saying and not saying. It’s about silences and utterances and secret languages.
So I want to talk about it so I can figure out if I’m really reading what I think I’m reading. Or decide if – as readers and particularly Caribbean readers – we are equipped to read it. If we’re ready.
This is a rare thing: a book ostensibly about one person with his specific trials and joys, and yet it is a significant to us because we are all, each of us, only one person with our specific trials and joys.
Things I Have Withheld is a survival guide to being human. Miller’s own body – black, male, six feet tall, roughly 200 pounds – is the space on which everything is written, read, viewed, interpreted, questioned and categorised. And, ultimately, inevitably, misunderstood.
His body is a consistently misapprehended threat. It is the body the policeman will always point to as that of a likely criminal. It is not the body of a peaceable scholar. It is a body that will be viewed as dangerous. But, as a gay Jamaican man, who is more likely to be in greater danger than he?
It’s as if his corporeal dimensions make it impossible for the viewer to see his reality. Writer-professors from families of privilege in the Caribbean do not come in tall-by-broad-shouldered-by-dark-brown packages.
No experimental artist claiming their body as a canvas could make better use of size and shape, light and shade, or the nuances of hair and accents than Miller does of his in his narrative.
Women writers have been talking about their bodies as sites of controversy, misrepresentation, objectification and marginalisation for a long time now. What is remarkable about this collection is in part that it is written by a man. About his own body. Not in a convoluted, socio-political way. Just as a body that people look at and respond to.
Miller talks about the things we don’t talk about that we have been talking about forever. Silences, spaces and separations have their own languages. In the Caribbean, in communities of ethnic minorities, in spheres of queerness, in as many tiny slices as you can cut the world so we all feel suitably unbelonging, we learn the words we are allowed to use.
Like how racism in Jamaica must be referred to as classism. Like how family secrets can flow through generations via eloquent elisions. Like the way we struggle with the clumsiest of expressions for colour because we know – we must know – how small and gross it makes us sound, yet it’s all we see.
Here is where his lean and easy prose starts to nudge towards the feel of Marquez or the even more accessible Isabelle Allende: family secrets, the secrets of colour and race, the secrets of history. If he does it with fewer potted ferns and walled gardens and fluttering of petticoats and shorter names, so much the better.
The style of a survival guide should be clean and true. Like a good shot.
Miller gives a poetry reading in northern England. The way he describes the house and its situation, it is a place that sounds like old money and good wine. After the reading, his host asks him, “What was it like, having a talent like that and growing up in a place like Jamaica?”
There it is. No fuss. That’s the honest clarity you need for these situations. Because the question really has no answer and the question really is: How did you become you (nice) in a place like that (vile)?
Precision is arguably the most undervalued of all the virtues, but this collection goes a long way to improve our education. In ordinary (or normalised) situations, especially those in which the presence of a sizeable black Jamaican man threatens to unhinge people and moods, Miller’s ability to see the exact moment of hysteria is what makes him the best adviser for this kind of social survival.
He knows when police are going to turn on a group; when one woman is going to have a fit of the vapours at the sight of him; when one group is going to turn against the world.
Across essays, poems and prose at various lengths, Miller has been scraping away at two things throughout his career: extra words and Caribbean exoticism. Trimming the text is hard, it takes discipline and patience. It also requires a level of clarity most writers will never achieve.
Turfing out the impulse to explain and footnote the Caribbean is even harder. This too demands clarity.
When you can stand in your own skin, at your own height, with your own accent and gestures and proceed to tell your stories and those of people like you with absolutely no reference to the world beyond us or any feeling that the way foreigners hear these stories is relevant to the way you tell them, well – well, then you reach. Kei reach.
Kei Miller's Things I Have Withheld is published by Canongate and is available locally at Paper Based bookstore, Hotel Normandie, St Ann's.