The Cartographer and the Rastaman
An introduction to Kei Miller
By Jacob Silkstone
"draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?"
Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion
Where is “arguably the most vigorous and exciting body of poetry in our time” being written? According to Stewart Brown and Mark McWatt, the answer is the Caribbean.
At the forefront is Kei Miller: poet, novelist, essayist, and lecturer. After a brief period at the University of the West Indies, Miller went on to complete an MA in Manchester and a PhD in Glasgow. His work slips between genres, and he writes under multiple flags.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise to discover that, as both a poet and a novelist, Miller’s best work is dialectical: its aim is to find the common ground (or, sometimes, the lack of common ground) between opposing views of the world. His Forward Prize-winning poetry collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014) is a kind of post-Socratic discussion between two allegorical figures, the cartographer and the rastaman.
Most readers would initially assume that the cartographer is rooted in the academic world, a world of science and certainties, whereas the rastaman is associated more naturally with religion and spirituality. Miller deliberately subverts those expectations: it’s quickly established that the rastaman has a PhD (from Miller’s alma mater, the University of Glasgow), while the cartographer integrates into the spiritual community and begins a doomed quest in search of Zion (and, by association, religious belief).
Eventually, the characters begin to merge, to slip into one another’s modes of speech and patterns of thought. Miller has said that Jamaican audiences often assume he’s the cartographer, whereas European audiences see him as the rastaman. Simultaneously playful and profound, his writing asks every reader to re-examine their initial assumptions.
Miller’s third and most recent novel, Augustown (2016), is similarly at odds with received ideas about the world. The novel is centred around Jamaican healer Alexander Bedward’s promised “ascension to heaven” on New Year’s Eve, 1920. Bedward’s followers had been assured that his ascent would mark the beginning of the Rapture, and some accounts suggest a crowd of thousands gathered in August Town to watch. Bedward, sat on a wooden throne and dressed in long white robes, didn’t ascend. The following day, The Gleaner led with the headline, ‘Bedward Stick to the Earth.’ Barely half a year later, Bedward was incarcerated in the Jamaican Lunatic Asylum, where he lived out his final nine years. On the surface, Bedward’s story is a tale of ignominious failure. But Miller’s writing takes nothing at face value.
In the fictional version of Augustown, Bedward really can fly. Miller’s narrator, Ma Taffy, swears to her grandnephew that she witnessed Bedward floating into his church “bobbing like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon.” Flight in (and from) Augustown can be metaphorical as well as literal, of course, and the novel’s true heroic figures are Augustown’s citizens, all too often tied down by the weight of history.
A willingness to confront concealed or uncomfortable truths is a feature of all Miller’s writing, across books and across genres. Although he’d almost certainly reject the label, his work as an activist and an advocate for human rights can be seen as equally important to his work in either poetry or prose.
In the year The Cartographer… was published (2014), Miller wrote powerfully about ‘the anxieties of being a black poet in Britain.’ Within the narrow world of poetry, writers of colour who dare to present their own experiences face the “constant risk… of being nervously applauded but silently dismissed.” Writing as a black poet in Britain still feels almost akin to an act of translation: “Blackness itself is still seen to exist in a place outside of language, or at least outside the refined language of poetry… We are required to translate blackness – to make it palatable. But, of course, so many of my experiences are not palatable.”
Writing as a Jamaican is no more straightforward. Miller has been courageously vocal about homophobia with Jamaican society, but also insists on recognising that “Jamaica is a very racist society… We never ever use that word in Jamaica. We pat ourselves on the back and applaud ourselves for being essentially a non-racist society where race doesn’t matter at all, which in my mind is absolutely not true.”
“Every language,” says Miller’s cartographer, “even yours,/ is a partial map of the world.”
Perhaps that’s how best to interpret the various maps offered to us in Miller’s writing. Each is a partial representation of the world: each is a crucial part of the whole, but loses meaning when read in isolation. To read Miller, you need to read both Britain and Jamaica; both poetry and prose; you need to read in both the rastaman’s Creole and the cartographer’s Queen’s English, and give equal weight to the spiritual and the secular. One thing Miller’s writing teaches its readers is that impossible journeys, even when doomed to failure, can be well worth taking.