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Things I Have Withheld: Essays by Kei Miller (Canongate Press)

Things I Have Withheld: Essays by Kei Miller (Canongate Press)

This is a stirring and insightful collection of essays that often reads like a travelogue or reportage; that is that its prerogatives are not speculative or theoretical. Kei Miller from Jamaica, who studied and has taught in Britain, has been lauded for his poetry, especially The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014). 

I was a little reminded of Martin Amis Visiting Mrs Nabokov, which similarly is in a kind of reporter’s prose conveying and getting back about places he’s visited, people seen. Miller’s essays cover a lot of ground, from Jamaica to Trinidad to Kenya to Ghana. 

Reflecting I’d say the main points coming through are to get a bit of local colour, sometimes not without its hazards, in some of these places; and to take measure of Miller’s insistence on his embodiment, no ivory tower here, and the culture and politics of racial or ethnic identification. Miller seems to suggest that he can no more get out of his body than change or forget his skin colour. Identity figures too in Miller’s gay identification. Among topics covered are the circumstances of battyboys in Jamaica through to Trinidad and Jamaica carnival on to corrupt police in Ghana. 

The book is framed with imaginary letters directed to the esteemed James Baldwin, who becomes Miller’s muse for a time, both opening and closing the book. Baldwin, of course, struggled hard for his art, frequently feeling unsafe, and speaking with a rare reach of eloquence.

Miller seems to be following a theme, if you like, of where you belong. That being so, of course there was black livelihood before Jamaica, presumably prompting the trip to Kenya and Ethiopia. But no Roots excavation here. It is also inescapable that skin colour betrays something about roots, be it tanned, mulatto, deep brown and so on. Miller links his skin tone to his body consciousness, something that no amount of cerebralness can countervene. 

Chapter 9 is called ‘There are Truths Hidden in Our Bodies’, and in that sense this can account for Miller’s body consciousness, a means to arrive at the truth if not quite to some sort of felicity. He does sympathise with the battyboys, who will play up the pride and camp at carnival, and how that experience is seen as a time to expunge our ‘worst’ behaviour, albeit I assume harmlessly. It cannot go unremarked that Miller has a short account of the recent police death incident, rendered anonymously, repeating the fatal expression ‘Please, I can’t breathe’ (p197) twenty two times.

Miller says to Baldwin actually, ‘I resent your dying’ (p16) about the same place he concludes that ‘there are histories that haunt our bodies’.

But of course irrespective of that body awareness Miller is able to bring us a persuasive, writerly account of what is going on in some of these places he inhabits. A strong attachment to Jamaica comes through well, of the shoreline, waves lapping on rocks, of the hillside houses, of the different seasons. Miller says he regards the book as ‘an act of faith, an attempt to put my trust in words again,,,to offer, at long last, a clearer vocabulary’. (pxv) While this is a book with an eye to the future, I like to think that it is well on the way to espousing that enhanced clarity. 

Clark Allison   30th May 2021

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