A glimpse into Jamaican life
IN THE third part of Kei Miller’s Augustown an etymological aside explains the Jamaican dialect word ‘autoclaps’. At the end of this gentle lesson, the narrator says: “it’s funny, isn’t it, this whole process – how various dialects bleed into each other; how every language is a graveyard of languages, how every language is a storehouse of history”. Like Miller’s 2014 Forward Prize-winning poetry collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map his Way to Zion, this tragi-comic third novel explores how history is composed of different stories wrestling for legitimacy. But more than that, it shows the importance of who tells these stories and how they are told.
Augustown is based on a place of the same name in the hills of St Andrew, Jamaica. The novel begins in the “blue and cloudless” Caribbean sky. The narrator is looking down at the town on the 11th April 1982. A tough old blind grandmother called Ma Taffy is sitting on her verandah. She has lived through enough turmoil to know how to separate the trivial from the serious. So when she hears her grandson, Kaia, sobbing as he gets home from school she senses that his tears are not of the crocodile type. But instead of asking what is wrong, she asks him if he knows about the ‘flying preacherman’. When he says no, she is ashamed of herself: “Every lickle yute from Augustown ought to know the story of the flying preacherman.”
The life of Alexander Bedward underpins the emotional and political struggles in the novel. In the early 20th century this “cowherder, former gambler and adulterer” gave himself over to fasting and praying. After years of repentance he became the “greatest preacherman in Jamaica. Bedwardism became one of the most important religion across the island.” His preaching was the foundation of The Promised Key, “widely regarded as the first book of Rastafari…when these dreadlocked men and women, when these children of Zion, when these smokers of weed and these singers of reggae, when they chant songs such as, ‘If I had the wings of a dove’, or ‘I’ll fly away to Zion’, these songs hold within them the memory of Bedward.”
Bedward’s liberation theology gave hope to the oppressed black folk on the island. Ma Taffy recalls that in 1920, literally moved by the power of the spirit, Bedward started to levitate. The white upper-classes seized their opportunity. They denounced him as mentally unstable and crushed the new spirit of freedom he helped to foster.
In 1982, Ma Taffy fears a similar cataclysm, or ‘autoclaps’, is about to erupt when she discovers that Kaia’s dreadlocks have been cut off by his school teacher, Mr Saint-Josephs. The Nazirite vow ‘no blade shall ever touch my head’ rings out in her mind and history comes storming back in to the present.
Augustown is a ragbag of lives remembered and told for the first time. Before the ‘autoclaps’ arrives, we are given a grand tour, from the schoolteacher to Kaia’s mother, Gina, and her strange relationship with a white upper-class head teacher, Mrs Garrick. These lives dovetail, and the different racial and class divisions become porous. Early on in the novel Miller doesn’t quite strike the right chord with his prose, and occasionally the satiric tone seems wooden and forced. But in the last third he really hits his stride. The prose bounces along with the rhythms of the everyday life in Augustown and the pleasing sound of Jamaican patois.
The novel self-consciously runs in a tradition of narratives that highlight the stories of black oppression familiar to readers of Toni Morrison or Ralph Ellison. Miller is an intelligent humorist. He excels at using novelistic form to imbue his work with an emotional weight. Whilst reading, I spent a good while trying to understand who was telling the story of Augustown and its inhabitants. The narrator has such a unique voice, personal yet playfully omniscient. When I realised who was telling the tale, it emerged as a great and poignant narrative trick. Augustown is a book of many voices. But some of the most interesting are the voices of those storytellers who speak to the imagination of the Rastafarian people.
The novel runs in the tradition of Toni Morrison