The texture of fiction

By Kei Miller

I would like to offer a rosary of stories in no particular order or scheme — all of them true — about the place where I am from. I am from the Caribbean, which is, incidentally, a much better thing to say than this other thing that has become popular: “I am from the islands.” “The islands” seems to me a phrase robbed of any geopolitical or historical substance, a shell of a term, so that the hearer, if not also from our quaint and nebulous island (whether it be St Kitts, one of the Philippines, or Hawaii) can throw imaginary garlands of hibiscuses around our necks, imbuing us with all kinds of exotic baggage, and license and forgiveness.

So, then, I am from the Caribbean, and if you are not from here also then the stories I tell you might not make immediate sense. Or you might think I’m lying, or perhaps exaggerating. Sometimes Caribbean logic is its own.

A few years ago there was a woman who was killed twice — the second time, at her own funeral. On the first occasion of her death, it had been of natural causes, so at her funeral the family gathered in large numbers, dressed in black or purple, with hymns in their mouths. But in the middle of tears and slow organ music, there was the sudden explosion of gunshots. Not a gun salute; a gang war had broken out in the community around them. And then a bullet entered the church. I narrate this slowly, as if the bullet had politely opened the church door, took off its hat, apologised for interrupting, and stated the nature of his visit. Obviously this was not the case. It rudely shattered through the stained-glass window, splintered through the closed coffin, and found its way into the heart of the dead woman, as if, being an agent of death, it was drawn immediately to the one life that wasn’t. Surprisingly, no one seemed thankful for the dead woman’s heroic act. She had pulled the bullet into herself, and had likely been someone’s salvation. Instead, the mourners complained at the injustice of the gang, their insensitivity towards the corpse, that being dead already there was no need for the bullet to make it unambiguous, and also, the handsome coffin they had spent good money on was now ruined!

Recently, in Jamaica, we had a plague of baby crabs. It happened in the parish of St Thomas, by a seaside community. Everyone had gone to bed as usual but woke up much later when they felt aggressive insects crawling onto their beds and over their feet, or dropping from the ceiling and into their open, snoring mouths. Imagine the spluttering and the flailing arms. Imagine the frantic lights being turned on everywhere, until they were discovered — the tiniest of crabs, thousands and thousands of them, coming in with the moon tide, scuttling into the houses, covering all the surfaces. Doors were flung open, and men, women, and children ran. That night the whole community huddled on the road, a little distance away from their homes, some of them crying, most of them praying, looking anxiously to the sky to see if God was coming. God did not come, but the sun did, and with its early morning beams all the baby crabs, still scurrying around, were smitten dead. Only then could people return to their houses, rake the remnants of the plague out of their yards and back into the Caribbean Sea which had sent them.

There is a haunted house in Guyana that has made me believe in the devil. In truth, I only saw the foundations of it, because when I got there it was a week too late. Despite earnest protestations from the community, the house had been demolished. This was a humble peasant’s house — not the sprawling gothic mansion of similar American folklore. The first occupants had been a rice farmer, his wife, and their three children. They lived, I imagine, in relative domestic happiness and turmoil. Then one night, you might say because of a massive psychological meltdown, the rice farmer decided it was a good idea to go to the room of his two older children and kill them. He went back to his own room and killed the baby, then his wife, and then himself.

In every world, in every language, this is a tragedy. So there was shock and there was mourning, and then a year had passed. The year passed and the house became simply what we call a dead-lef. An inheritance waiting to be claimed. Into it moved a cousin of the rice farmer with his own wife and two children. They lived in that house in relative domestic happiness and turmoil, until one night — will you insist this was another massive psychological breakdown? — the cousin went from room to room, killed his two children, then his wife, then himself.

There was shock, and there was mourning, and then a year had passed. Another relative moved into this tragic house, lived there for a year with his wife and three children. You know their destiny. One night the man grabbed his cutlass, and with much splashing of blood ended the lives of his three children and his wife and himself. In all, fourteen people were slaughtered in that house. Eleven murders and three suicides. And if you want to hold stubbornly to the epistemology that makes no allowance for spiritual dimensions, if you want to insist that this was merely a case of madness running in the family, then I might have asked you months ago to move into that house with your spouse and your two children. The community in Guyana knew better. They knew that this had something to do with evil, and with a world we cannot always see or smell or touch. I call it the devil, and the community knew he lived in that house, which is why they insisted it not be destroyed — not because they wanted evil as their neighbour, but because at least it was contained. To destroy the house was to send the devil back into the world, like a roaring lion, seeking out whom he might devour. When I got there it was too late. The devil had been released.

I remember a tree in Jamaica that bore as its fruit prophecies. That’s what it seemed like to me. The tree was in a dust bowl right outside my high school, and there must have been a man or woman who used charcoal to write words like “Repent” or “The prime minister must fall” or “Know ye this day who you shall serve” on squares of cardboard. These cardboard signs were hung up in the tree, and the branches had become overburdened with them, like a mango tree in season. Sometimes the wind would rattle these words, the cardboard squares would hit against each other, such a strange and terrible sound, as if angels were crowded together, back to back, and were beating their wings.

I should tell you about Queen Elizabeth II, who came to Jamaica recently. In preparing for her arrival, the government thought they should clean the city streets of litter and dog shit and dirt, and also of mad people. Maybe they thought they were being thorough, because mad people were a combination of litter and dog shit and dirt. They rounded them up from around the city, put them in a truck, and drove them miles and miles away, eventually dumping them by the edge of a poisonous lake, hoping, no doubt, that they would go for a swim and drown themselves. I do not know whether to prophesy with charcoal and cardboard the downfall of a government who could organise such a thing, or to praise the incredible distances that those women and men were able to walk, the clear and precise sanity of their radars, so that one by one they found their way back to Kingston, in grand evening gowns of filth, ready to curtsey for the queen. Her royal majesty’s arrival was occasioned by another small scandal — a power-cut at the house of the governor general. It was not so much the power-cut that was scandalous, as it was the back-up generators that failed to chip in. Still, many thought this was fair, because that night the queen, like everyone else in Jamaica, had to eat her rice and peas in darkness.

I will end with a story that makes me sad even now. Earlier this year, I saw a friend who seemed almost unreasonably happy. I commented on his joy, his buoyancy, and he said it was true — he was putting himself in a good mood because he had to — because the day had been such a horrible one. He told me he knew it would be horrible because he woke to the news, broadcast over the radio, of a family from an inner-city community who had been burned out of their house. My friend works with an agency that lends support to families who, by some misfortune, are suddenly without homes — so, hearing the news that morning, he was prepared for a hard day ahead. And yet, he wasn’t. The news he heard when he entered his office, I will tell you now, and I will also tell you that this slight correction has not been broadcast on any radio station in Jamaica, has not been written in any newspaper, because this story is not newsworthy:

The family was not exactly a family. It was a house of four young men who the community suddenly suspected were gay. They gave them only an hour to leave — to grab whatever they could and then turn their backs on what had been their home. There interposes this sad and simple law of physics: they could only take what they could carry. In sixty minutes how can anyone possibly take complete stock, how can anyone consider rationally the inventory of his life? An important certificate will be left hanging on the wall; a crucial receipt will be forgotten in a pants pocket; a fat envelope of money and a passport still in a drawer; incriminating evidence embarrassingly left under a mattress; life-saving tablets and a prescription still sitting on the nightstand; a book of phone numbers on a table. How overwhelming it must be, the impulse to turn around, even to turn ourselves into salt.

Something that was left behind did bring one of the men back, and the community was waiting. They held him. They placed long rods of iron into the bonfire that had only recently been the house he lived in, and then pressed these sizzling pieces of metal into his dark skin, burning through to pink soft mush, burning him until he collapsed. And though in this branding there were no actual words left on his ruined skin, every scar he now wears says: Faggot. Battyman. Sodomite. Leave!

If you asked me why I write stories, or novels, or poems, I would tell you it is because things that are real in my country, things that are factual, things that have happened and that continue to happen, have always had, for me, the quality of the unreal — the texture of fiction. This is what happens when you live in a country that is not the centre of the world; you become blessed with a kind of double vision. You see your life from the inside, and also from the outside — both locally and globally. You are conscious always of the reality of what you are living, and also the strange narrative of it. You become conscious of how this might be observed — sometimes unlovingly and without empathy, if you do not find a way to tell it right.

In a way, this is how every writer the world over lives — this quality of being inside and outside at the same time — of living a life while floating above it, observing, taking notes. Oftentimes I find there is no need to invent or to create. There is only the need to see, and then to tell.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2008

Kei Miller is a Jamaican poet and novelist. He lectures in creative writing at the University of Glasgow. His most recent book is the novel The Same Earth (2008).