When impoverished Jamaica welcomed a flying clergyman
AUGUSTOWN By Kei Miller Pantheon Books:, $24.95, 239 pages
Kei Miller’s “Augustown” describes what happens when an obnoxious and obtuse schoolmaster hacks off the dreadlocks of one of his little pupils Kaia. In tears Kaia runs to Ma Taffy, who is the matriarch of his family and a moral force in Augustown, an impoverished district of Kingston, Jamaica.
Ma Taffy is blind. “Blind people hear and taste and smell what other people cannot,” we are told, so she knows Kaia is on his way back home to her, and she knows that his coming spells trouble. “She smells it high and ripe and stink on the air.” To soothe the child and to stave of the trouble for just a little longer — that is, until his mother Gina returns from work — she says, “Kaia, I ever tell you the story of the flying preacherman?”
Of course, any tolerably wellread person is likely to diagnose magic realism when immersed in a novel about the flying clergy of an impoverished tropical community of people who speak a colorful patois. But before this idea can pop into anyone’s head, “Augustown”’s mysterious unnamed narrator warns, “Look this isn’t magic realism. This is not another story about superstitious island people and their primitive beliefs. No. You don’t get off that easy. This is a story about people as real as you are.”
That flying preacherman, for example. He was real. His name was Alexander Bedward. He was born in Jamaica in 1848 and became a charismatic Baptist preacher and healer, leading a revivalist movement that encouraged black Jamaicans to be self-sufficient and fight against what Ma Taffy describes as “Babylon system. . . all them things in this life that put a heavy stone on the heads of people like you and me — all them things that cause we not to rise.”
In 1920 Bedward told his followers he would fly back to Africa, and they could fly there too. Thousands assembled to watch him lift-off from a breadfruit tree. He fell and broke his legs. But Ma Taffy tells Kaia, “He really did begin to fly. I did see it for myself.” How do we interpret that? At the end of the novel, Gina reverts to Bedward, asking, “For what is more human than this desire to escape the troubled earth and its depressing gravity. What is more human than the desire to rise above it all and fly?”
One answer could be the human urge to remember, to tell a story. Kei Miller is great at story-telling. He moves the center of attention in “Augustown” back and forth between Bedward’s era and the 1980s, covering the founding of Augustown — named in honor of the month in 1838 when Jamaica’s slaves were freed — Bedward’s career, and the Rastafari religion that is partly rooted in his teachings. “Augustown” is, then, an historical novel — and a deeply interesting one, not least because it covers matters little-known beyond Jamaica.
Yet “Augustown” feels like more than an historical novel, partly because the narrative shifts its focus onto different generations. Ma Taffy is old enough to remember the early 20th century and Bedward’s era. She knows everyone in Augustown, including the women and their partners and babies as well as the rudeboys and others who have guns. She brought up Gina, Kaia’s mother, and through Gina we see a contemporary Jamaica: now postcolonial, but still divided by wealth and color.
Like Ma Taffy, Gina recalls her experience as stories. Together their stories often occupy the foreground of the book, breaking the tension that begins mounting when “that terrible thing” happened to Kaia, and ratcheting it up when memory gives way to the “autoclaps” that terrible thing has conjured.
Kei Miller’s considerable skills show vividly in his control of this back-and-forth narration, which powerfully exemplifies the dictum underpinning Gina’s final encounter with the teacher, “The past when it takes hold of you, does not let go easily.”
He is equally adept at characterization. Kaia is a lovely portrait of a little boy, and Ma Taffy is only the most important and lively of the people who seem to jump from his pages. Not least of the means used to power them is their Jamaican speech, sparkling with adjective and metaphor, inventive in syntax, studded with old words from England and Africa. Readers can almost see Kei Miller having fun writing this dialogue. Indeed, “Augustown” feels like a novel that its author enjoyed writing. It’s certainly a serious pleasure to read.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.