Above: Bees on honeycells. Photo by Irochka/DepositPhotos.
A consideration of Kei Miller’s recent essay for Pree, by Mark Lyndersay.
It seems like overkill to consider writing an essay about an essay. It’s the sort of thing literary folk do, not journalists, but Kei Miller’s essay for Pree, a new online website, struck me in that troublesome way that irritating truths bring – like a pebble in the shoe that’s small enough to ignore – the sharp pain of discovery.
Writing elegantly and expansively under the headline The White Women and The Language of the Bees, Miller considers, argues and yes, vivisects his engagements with unnamed white female writers of Caribbean literature with whom he is acquainted along with his own position and license to write about our archipelago of islands.
The first publication of the essay online led to a contretemps that played out at the Bocas Literary Festival, where all the protagonists were scheduled to appear. The resulting brinksmanship led Miller to withdraw the post, though it actually had nothing to do with the festival.
The UK Guardian reported on the issue, and T&T writer Lisa Allen-Agostini wrote from a deeply personal perspective on the matter. Miller reposted the story after the conclusion of the popular literary festival. The drama of the situation invoked The Streisand Effect, drawing attention to the essay that it might not otherwise have enjoyed and firmly placing Pree in many reader’s bookmarks. People were reading it from Google’s cache of the page after it was first removed.
So what’s in this essay that proved so offensive and divisive?
Miller writes with a languid reserve and determined opaqueness about the characters in the essay, often obfuscating character with leapfrogging references that are probably much clearer to the real world players than they are to the casual reader existing outside the region’s fraternity of authors and poets.
And even when the words are most incisive, when they seem to betray private confidences and reveal intimate moments, I am moved to wonder, is this not what writers do? Do they not scrape away at the scabs of their lives, exhume their deepest buried grief, tear down walls around humiliations and embarrassments that a normal person would simply inter under tons of fast-setting forget?
I am a journalist, much of that time, a columnist, and even more specifically, a columnist writing about technology and when I faced my most personal loss, I wrote this.
Miller’s writing is both allusive and specific, delivering cuts with the elliptical surprise of a razor sharp boomerang that whips back dangerously after an apparently innocuous miss.
He is, by his own admission, in much the same position as the writer he devotes the most words to skewering, writing about ‘these rocks’ as he refers to them, from memory and experience at a distance.
Is that distance necessary, I wondered? Must we all leave in order to return here with better words and insight, with greater savvy at navigating the treacherous rapids of modern literary publication?
I’ve considered that on occasion when it comes to my own craft. When I photograph stories for a local audience, I approach the coverage quite differently from when I photograph the same subjects for an international publication.
There are things I can assume that a local audience knows and understands in seeing photographs taken here, context, reference, the expected arc of narrative and physicality before and after the moment of the photograph.
For foreign publications, I work to address a single vantage point as comprehensively as possible, giving editors, and ultimately their audiences, entry points for the visual narrative that will resonate with their preconceptions and capacity to understand the unfamiliar.
With words, that balance is even more precarious.
In his essay, Miller considers the use of the words sidewalk and pavement.
A small difference, but one that I found compelling.
I’ve visited metropoles, walking on sidewalks that are the width of minor roads in Trinidad and Tobago and there is, in those countries, the implication of an order in planning and placement of infrastructure that’s expected, even taken for granted.
On this pair of rocks, a road isn’t always guaranteed to be paved, nor is a path for walking alongside it guaranteed. That such accessways should be paved in anticipation of foot traffic isn’t a marvel, but it isn’t so commonplace that the word pavement – which implies the enforcement of a pedestrian space with tons of concrete, providing a paved surface for walking – seems not just natural, but necessary in the language of local literature.
A book written for a local audience targets a tiny profile of the public and success in such circumstances is far from guaranteed.
My wife, who has published several local and regional books, will make the first 500 sales easily. The next 500 are challenging and time-consuming. After that, the gradient inclines sharply to the sisyphean.
A book written for international consumption faces far greater competition for attention , but also engages greater possibility.
Also arising quite clearly from the fuss raised by Miller’s essay is the clarity that those who think that race isn’t an issue are themselves likely to be in a personal place where race doesn’t affect their daily lives. It’s something he has also published an essay about here.
This is a country where being “red,” as I am described, demarcates in equal measure how unblack as well as how unwhite I am.
Where one’s gender identity and sexual preferences can shift mercurially from powerful asset to deadly liability by walking a few streets in the wrong direction.
So this isn’t an essay, but an acknowledgement of the value of Kei Miller’s argument that his essay is that start of conversations, and they are not unique to the pursuit of literary works. These challenges are true for all creative endeavors that seek to interrogate Caribbean reality.
The Caribbean people replaced slavery with another accomodation, an equally oppressive and regressive gentleman’s and ladies’ politeness for those who aspired, a noblesse oblige for the masses that came with a responsibility for propriety without any accompanying privilege.
To break that mould, which shaped generations of proper brown people in this country and the wider region demands some rudeness, and perhaps some impropriety, before we can speak freely about difficult subjects made even more problematic by generations of genteel silence.
From that, perhaps, will come a new civility, one enjoyed by equals in understanding, if nothing else.
Mark Lyndersay is a photographer and writer living and working in Trinidad and Tobago. His writing about technology is found at TechNewsTT and his photography is here. A long running series of photo essays, Local Lives, considers T&T culture and its Carnival. He has covered Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival celebrations for the last four decades. He writes a weekly column for NewsdayTT and contributes to Caribbean Beat.