It takes a village
By Lisa Allen-Agostini
The Same Earth, by Kei Miller
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, ISBN 9780297844792, 230 pp
Kei Miller. Photo by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Radio
Kei Miller’s debut novel The Same Earth is destined to be studied in Caribbean literature courses very shortly, you can be sure. The book is magisterially structured, colourfully written, wonderfully told — and, alongside two other books I will shortly mention, allows for a great analysis of the form of the Jamaican novel.
Miller burst onto the international literary scene in 2006, with the publication of his first book of poems, Kingdom of Empty Bellies. This was soon followed by a collection of short stories, The Fear of Stones, which was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and another book of poems, There Is an Anger That Moves. He has also edited an anthology, New Caribbean Poetry. All of that makes him a prodigy, as he is just thirty. His new novel will only add to his reputation as a lyrical and graceful writer with a strong, sure voice. His poetry greatly enhances his prose, and the gift for characterisation demonstrated in his previous work blooms again in The Same Earth.
The novel explores themes already raised in Miller’s poetry and short fiction, including homophobia and spirituality, but is chiefly about one’s ability to claim a space as one’s own. At its core is the character Imelda Agnes Richardson and her journey towards becoming not just a resident but a citizen of the earth. Her navel-string is buried nowhere — bad for one who wants to settle, according to West Indian lore. She suffers homelessness and, worse, rootlessness, and her search for a place is the central story of the novel, which literally begins and ends with her. It starts with Imelda’s return home from Manchester, England, where she lived with a rude brown Jamaican woman named Purletta, and where she learned to stand up for herself. But going home always brings out the child in you, so when she comes back to rural Jamaica some of that definition is lost amid the shouting of the village and the echoes of her family history.
Hers is not, however, the novel’s only story. Imelda’s neighbours in the village of Watersgate are also important characters, and though Imelda’s story is the most muscular one, theirs are also sturdily built. There is, for instance, the story of Harry and Tessa: he forever leaving her in Watersgate to pursue his other passion, she left to raise their children alone until his next return. Another character is Miss Jennifer, who beats her adopted son mercilessly day after day, while being so pious and proud of her virginity that she feels she is the only good woman in Watersgate. Miller does a good job of shaping his characters, giving them entertaining dialogue and quirks. Take, for example, Purletta, who is described as one of the “Jamaican bourgeoisie” with her light skin, light eyes, and BBC accent. Once in England, however, Purletta ditches all that to reinvent herself as a rootsical ghetto woman.
Away from Jamaica, she learned to talk Jamaican. She braided her hair close to her scalp and thereafter gave in to every possible stereotype, whether negative or positive. She became loud and colourful. Learned how to laugh from her gut, clapping her hands, leaning over and placing her hands on her thighs, shouting woooooooooiiii . . .
Purletta began to grow ganja on her balcony . . .
“Police? You think me ’fraid of police? Think say big woman like me ’fraid of police?”
One of the best and worst features of The Same Earth is its rhythmical use of repetition and motif. Water is one such motif: in the river that flows through the community as a source of life and livelihood, but which can unleash destruction with equanimity. The title phrase is used several times in the book, with different meanings, by different characters. “The same earth” can stand for universality, or it can be a frustrating lack of mobility. The danger of using the phrase over and over is that it eventually gets worn out, becomes trivial. Perhaps Miller should have tempered its use to rescue it from sentimentalism — something that the novel on the whole tends towards in its palpable nostalgia for the good old days when villages such as Watersgate were like extended families, before the megalopolis of Kingston swallowed them up.
Though Miller pokes fun at the church that is the heart of the village — the “Hark of the Valley Apastalic Baptis” — he does so from a position that the leadership of the church has an awesome responsibility in which it must not fail: the job of leading the sheep-like congregation on the path to right thinking. When the leadership fails, the village fails. This is presented without rancour, even when the leadership is shown to be weak, self-righteous, or selfish. Most of the villagers themselves are, as individuals, kind, human. With good leadership they are good. With bad leadership they become monstrous.
Which brings me to compare The Same Earth to two other Jamaican novels, Roger Mais’s Brother Man (1954) and Marlon James’s John Crow’s Devil (2005). I want to suggest that the three books share certain characteristics while telling very different tales. They are all novels of redemption, all feature lead characters who have lost their faith, all heavily rely on Biblical references and quotations throughout the text, and all come to catastrophic or apocalyptic climaxes. Brother Man climaxes in the savage beating of the protagonist by an angry mob; John Crow’s Devil ends in the facing-off of good and evil, embodied in two preachers, in a supernatural fight to the death for the soul of a village. In the case of The Same Earth, the catastrophe is hinted at but not seen at its finale. These are all very public, large events; not intimate denouements, but conclusions wrought by villages or neighbourhoods. The novels themselves show movement from love to hate back to love, as each community embraces, rejects, and then finally embraces the protagonist. (Again, in The Same Earth this is hinted at, not shown.) These are not novels about individuals in private battles, but about individuals taking on the battles of the community, sacrificial figures taking on the burdens of all their neighbours to bring to resolution some communal crisis.
Subplots intertwine to bring the crisis about, and for this reason deep characterisation is not limited to the main characters, but extends to many members of the community. These books — whether an urban novel of the “yard,” like Brother Man, or in a more rural setting, like John Crow’s Devil and The Same Earth — tell stories of the community as one organism, its families dwelling in each others’ laps, tendrils of interaction wrapping around each character and drawing them into one large story. Thus the denouement of The Same Earth can begin with a drum beaten in Watersgate but felt by Imelda miles away, the same urgent rhythm that compels the climactic movement of villagers towards their own misguided and nefarious goal. It is as if they share one pulse.
It will be interesting to see what scholars make of The Same Earth in relation to its forbears, especially Mais’s work (not only Brother Man, but his other novels). Certainly Miller draws on the tradition of the novel of the yard, though his setting is rural, not urban, and there is something of Brother Man, Mais’s prophetic Rastafarian protagonist, in Joseph, the Rastafarian drummer who calls Imelda home. James and Miller are contemporaries sipping from the same cup of Jamaican cultural influences, so there is perhaps a natural reflection of this in their novels. We can hope to see many more novels from both James and Miller in the future, and much more fodder for debates such as this.
Lisa Allen-Agostini is a Trinidadian writer of poetry, fiction, and drama. She recently co-edited the fiction anthology Trinidad Noir, and she writes a weekly column for the Trinidad Guardian.