How do we read about characters so radically different from ourselves without bringing our own assumptions into the story? It’s the same challenge we face walking down any street and encountering someone who appears to be from a different class, race, gender, sexual orientation, social group or religion. It’s something I loved about reading Petina Gappah’s novel “The Book of Memory” earlier this year. In this book she challenges the lazy way we divide people up into categories as if they must inevitably be one particular thing. It’s these very categories which reinforce structures of imbalance in our society and prevent us from seeing people as infinitely more complex than any one aspect of their identity.
In his novel “Augustown” Kei Miller also asks us to question the assumptions we make about people. Central to this book is the story of an over-zealous teacher who cuts off a boy’s dreadlocks in his classroom. This is in a poor neighbourhood school in the fictional city of Augustown in Jamaica and this incident sparks off a dramatic event that gets the whole town marching. Built around this story are stories characters tell each other. These tales span back many years and involve a range of dynamic and vividly-realized characters from a cleaner prone to delusions to a pot-bellied Governor to a down-and-out man locked up in a madhouse who goes on to lead a revolt as a flying holy man. Using poetic language and a rigorous intelligence, Miller builds layered, intriguing, interweaving tales of the people from Augustown showing how the past is linked with the present. The effect is utterly absorbing for the secrets that are revealed and fascinating for the way his ideas make you stop and think.
The novel shows how highly politicised gradations of skin colour are in Jamaica. Some people attempt to attach themselves to individuals of a higher class and/or lighter skin colour to elevate themselves out of a perceived lower class skin colour. One man reasons “Marriage to her would be an exaltation at last out of the blackness to which some unobservant people thought he belonged.” The story also shows how Rastafarians rebelled against this and the character of Alexander Bedward initiates a movement to fight against connections between class/social status and skin colour. The popular Bedwardism mantra is “there is a white wall and a black wall, but the black wall is growing bigger and will crush the white wall.” The stories show how the external and internalized racism becomes untenable at certain points of history causing emotional acts of rebellion.
Although there are many characters and stories being told, the overarching story is always tightly controlled by a narrator who guides the reader through this community and its history. It’s only near the end of the novel that the narrator’s identity is revealed. At some points through the story the narrator’s voice comes to the forefront actively commenting upon how the reader might interpret the story. One of the most memorable instances is when the narrator references times where characters in the story fly and it’s stated: “Look, this isn’t ‘magic realism’. This is not another story about superstitious island people and their primitive beliefs. NO. You won’t get off so easy. This is a story about people as real as you are, and as real as I once was before I became a bodiless thing floating up here in the sky. You may as well stop to consider a more urgent question, not whether you believe in this story or not, but if this story is about the kinds of people you have never taken the time to believe in.” It’s true that the literary style of magical realism has become entwined with notions of folklore and underdeveloped nations. Reading certain stories and branding them with this classification can dilute the power literature has to connect us with other people’s real experiences.
Later this notion is reiterated when commenting upon the storytellers of a community: “The great philosophical questions goes: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound?... If a man flies in Jamaica, and only the poor will admit to seeing it, has he still flown?... Always – always – there are witnesses.” There are aspects of history we remain wilfully deaf to because they occur outside of our own socio-economic circle. Stories that come from people within other circles might be dismissed because the teller can be discounted as invalid or irrelevant. This novel encourages us to really listen to and respect the testimonies of individuals whose stories we are prone to dismissing because of difference.
It’s artful the way Miller balances his powerful ideas with a plethora vibrant storytelling. “Augustown” is an elegantly written and engrossing book.