When im­pov­er­ished Ja­maica wel­comed a fly­ing cler­gy­man

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Claire Ho­p­ley

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.

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