art in all its forms

art in all its forms


'My role as a writer'

The University of the West Indies last week convened an unprecedented three-day academic conference aimed at exploring the ways in which Jamaican sexualities, gender identities and queer practices are expressed and experienced beyond the discourse of violence. The following is an address at the conference delivered by novelist, poet and essayist Kei Miller. 

Novelist, poet and essayist Kei Miller at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, on Saturday.
Photo by Andre Bagoo.

Let me start by just saying how pleased I am to be at this conference. I just want to support the idea behind it; the necessity to talk about LGBT lives in the Caribbean outside the discourse of oppression and victimisation, especially where that narrative is so easily consumed by sometimes well-meaning outsiders and insiders who then, unwittingly perhaps, refuse to acknowledge any other possible narrative, who roll their eyes or who dismiss as naïve and overly romantic any counter-story, any counter-narrative that points to ways in which LGBT people in the region experience hope, belonging, comfort, community, or even joy in the Caribbean.

I know, for instance, several Caribbean writers and scholars make it a point, for instance, to refer to our African ancestors as “the enslaved people” and not as “slaves”; the importance, more than just semantics, is to give agency, to acknowledge the ways in which black people did not participate in their own oppression. It is similarly important, I think, to do the same for queer lives in the Caribbean – people who sometimes and on some days live loved and wonderful lives.

And none of this reduces the absolute urgency to talk about and to tackle homophobia when and where it exists. These narratives must happen concurrently: a discourse about homophobia and what happens beyond it.

I have not titled this paper but I have tried to think through the brief for this panel, of the role of art, the role of the artist, the role of the writer to community—even risking all the preciousness that we call upon ourselves when we begin to think about our functions or our roles. So in this paper – and at some risk to myself because Jamaica is a small place – I want to return to a public conversation that I had with a Jamaican journalist and poet Mel Cooke.

On the face of it, it may seem that I was picking an argument with Cooke because of his homophobia. And that is pretty much true. Cooke’s homophobia is demonstrated in the article we will talk about. It was all the more dangerous because it was the kind that would not acknowledge itself. It was genuinely not aware of itself as homophobia. His discrimination was a close cousin to much of the racial tensions in America today, which is to say it was a series of micro-aggressions. His homophobia was casual homophobia. And when confronted, he eagerly pointed to the ways in which he had been an ally; in which he had openly condemned the more obvious and violent forms of homophobia in Jamaica.

Mel Cooke’s article, ‘Bye Bye, Boom Bye Bye’, published on 4th June, 2015, recounts a disturbance. The disturbance, though happening very clearly in Cooke’s own psyche, he locates instead in the body of a man he encountered at a furniture store in Jamaica. His problem with the man, according to the article, was not that the man was very possibly gay. His problem was a kind of gender performance that he found so outlandish, so preposterous that it reduced the man into being a jackass and a caricature of his own self. This is how Cooke’s article begins:
I was in Courts on Constant Spring Road, St Andrew, in December when I saw it. There were two of the things, but one was especially itty. It wiggled up the steps to the store's upper level behind a store employee. It wiggled, it simpered, it held its handbag in the crook of an arm with the wrist especially limp. It preened and smoothed down its hair and reveled in an oddly bronze complexion and surreptitiously glanced around to see the effect on those who were around. 
It was disappointed. No one batted (and that is a pun, in case you missed it) an eyelid.
There is much irony that is lost on Cooke. He says no one batted an eyelid. This pleases him. Everyone simply went about their shopping refusing to be drawn into the intended raucous that Cooke assumes this man, this person was trying to create. And yet Cooke is writing an article in a national newspaper about the incident. Sir, someone did bat an eyelid. But more than that Mel continues.
What did I do? What anyone interested in observing human behaviour would, naturally. I followed back a it. And upstairs I saw a person reclined in one of the chairs on display, pouting as he looked at his telephone, which he was suddenly very interested in now that there was no potential audience for the it which he had projected.
The ironies pile up one atop the other. There was no potential audience for this man’s performance of gender and yet Mel follows him through the store. Sir, there was an audience.

Like so many of us who sit easily in our privilege, it does not occur to Mel that following a man through a store to gawk at him is an act of aggression. His article goes to some length to rob this man of personhood; of his humanity. Yet, the writer allows himself to follow because it is what “anyone interested in observing human behaviour” would do, naturally. There is not time enough here to talk about what is meant by that word naturally; what behaviors are credited or discredited as being natural or unnatural in this scenario.

Mel’s position is a popular if not profoundly un-thought position in Jamaica. It announces itself in several ways: me nah have problem with battyman so long as them don't come to me with itme no care what people want do in their bedroom so long as they don’t push it in my face; as long as they don’t brazen with it — as long as they act natural, heteronormative — man must act like man, woman must act like woman. It should be acknowledged that this particular strain of homophobia is just as present in gay people. “Straight-acting” is used as a strange compliment. Does “white-acting” serve as a similar compliment? “No fats”, “no fems” etc. etc.

When the man gets bored of his own flamboyance, according to Mel, he resumes his personhood. Mel writes:
The costume was the same, but the persona totally different—deflated and different. Simply a person, different from me but certainly not intent on and failing to disrupt sensibilities.
But I want to suggest here that my argument was certainly about a sort of homophobia but it went beyond that. And at its heart I think this was one Jamaican writer talking to another and at stake was the role of the artist, of the writer, who writes out of and back to that community. I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last few years. What is the role of the Caribbean writer? And trying not to fall into a kind of silence because of this fear again of the earnestness that the answer to such questions might provoke. I’ve been thinking about this particularly because I’ve been challenged to think about it in a series of  conversations I’ve been having in different countries in different times but always with a particular writer I very much look up to: the Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace.

Most recently this conversation happened about four weeks ago in Haiti. Lovelace always calls me to account for my generation of writers. Writers who he thinks lack the cause and the urgency that his generation of writers had. Earl will tell you that he had independence, nationalism, black power to fight for. And what do you have?

I try to tell him that if we seem cynical about these things it is not because we don’t believe in the fight but we now know who are excluded from these projects, who were left outside of nation and black power, including LGBT people, and we try to think of a Caribbean that might include more.

I am appreciating these conversations with Earl because … it was one of his novels that made me certain about what the role of the writer was. It was his novel The Wine of Astonishment, which tells a story about a community in Trinidad under threat—their way of life, their traditions, even their mannerisms are under threat by authorities who would have them act differently, behave more normally. To be themselves they have to meet in secret. And the law is now against them as well. This is a Spiritual Baptist community and a racist law was introduced to silence them. The leader of the church sees the damage the law has done to his flock. He knows that sometimes, when laws are so profoundly unjust, they must be broken.

In the chapter when he does this, when he breaks the law, he gives one of the most amazing sermons I’ve read in literature. He comes to his congregation in a state of repentance saying the problem was not just the law but him as well. He had failed because he had failed to tell them who they were. And in drawing out this sermon from him, the congregation shouts, “Tell us preacher! Tell us who is we!”

That to me was a community calling to its writers. Tell us writer, tell us who is we.


I know that is a high and holy presumption: of telling people who they are, offering them both a plodding banality and the incredible magic of themselves, of their personhood. But if we cannot offer them personhood, then at the very least we should do no harm. We should not take personhood from someone.

So for Mel Cooke to reduce this person to an it that was, for me, the most profound betrayal of one’s role as a writer, the greatest evil one could do on the page. Not only did he not tell this man who he was, but he would tell him that he was not.

Cooke’s failure was a failure of imagination: that this man who appeared as a story existed only as a spectacle. Performing only under his gaze, this man had no agency, no history, no ambition, he was nothing.

I think my job as a writer and pseudo-academic would be to remind this man of another unjust law in Jamaica that had to be repealed as well. In 1859, the poor people of Jamaica could take no more of the unfair toll that they had to pay on the main thoroughfare. For three nights they rioted, destroying the toll-keeper’s house and the tollgates at Savanna-la-Mar . The Falmouth Post described the rioters as, “ruffians, some dressed in female attire”. The Rebecca Riots of 1859—men dressed as women, fighting for justice.

My role as a writer is to tell the man at Courts that he belongs to that tradition. That even here he is rooted in a history of resistance and triumph. That he is a warrior. That in every nuance of the word, he is fierce. That he belongs. That he is beautiful. That he is a person.


Miller spoke on the panel, 'Coming Out, Coming Home', alongside artist Simone Harris, festival director of Belfast's Outburst Queer Arts Festival Ruth McCarthy and yours truly. The panel was put on with the support of the British Council and was chaired by artist Annalee Davis, Caribbean arts manager of the Council. You can watch the full panel at J-Flag's Facebook page here.

You can read more about the Beyond Homophobia conference here.


Supporting the art of art criticism

A moment from the recently-concluded Bocas Lit Fest/British Council art criticism workshop at the UWI, Mona. 

THE JOB of the artist is to see. And the job of the critic is to do exactly the same.

That was one of the key principles underlined at the recently concluded Bocas Lit Fest/British Council Caribbean workshop held at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica.

The workshop, held from January 8 to January 14, was a rare opportunity for participants to view the practice of art writing through the eyes of Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s books editor. Journalists and writers from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Bahamas and  Dominica were given practical examples of how visual art criticism can be approached; examined how literary texts can be analyzed; saw how formats can be adapted to suit the rapidly evolving landscape; and discussed challenges common to all critics whether they write for small journals or big-circulation newspapers.

There were field trips to the National Gallery of Jamaica and the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts; panel features with publishers and editors; lunches during which we mingled with islanders; and intense workshop exercises. In one instance, writers were given free rein to pluck an artwork from the National Gallery’s impressive collection and to write on it. Then, back at our base at the beautiful UWI campus at Mona, our writing was subject to an extensive surgery.

“A lot of criticism is re-assessment,” Armitstead said, “bringing in new intelligence as it comes in.”

“The goal of art-writing is to see more,” added Gean Moreno, curator of programs at ICA Miami, who led the visual arts component of the workshop.

I was one of the participants. Not only did I get new insight into craft matters, I also gained a renewed appreciation of criticism and its role: its power to provoke opinions and, thereby, enhance our democratic freedoms. This is an art that ties us all, whether we come from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Bahamas or Dominica. To nurture art, the art of criticism itself has to reach new levels.


Get more information on the Bocas Lit Fest and the British Council Caribbean.


BOOK REVIEW: Morning, Paramin

At the book launch of Morning, Paramin last December at the Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille. Photo: Andre Bagoo

A POEM contains time. Its effects rely entirely on a progression through words, lines, stanzas, developments, regressions, erasures—whatever materials are deemed fit.

A poem also contains time because it can look to the past. And it sometimes looks back in order to bring news to the present. Implicitly, the entire project of poetry looks to a future, in the same way all action assumes some kind of tomorrow.

Yet, sometimes it feels like time has paused in a poem: as though what is being presented is a fine photograph or painting. For a moment, WH Auden’s clock stops. A poem can be timeless, even if every fiber of its being is made of time.

In Morning, Paramin Derek Walcott confronts this vortex head-on. The book is an extended sequence of ekphrastic poems done in response to the paintings of Peter Doig. You might think the idea of a poet having to respond to a set image is limiting, but in fact such a stricture can give the poet more freedom. The result, in this case, is an ease and fluidity in Walcott’s lines. While the poems are sometimes mindful of process, they feel fresh and free even when deploying formal conventions. Famously, a book closes at the end of White Egrets. This new book triumphantly defies that.

In the new work, which was launched last week Wednesday at Doig’s studio space at Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille, the paintings are not illustrations. Nor are the poems slavish replications of every stroke of the painter. In fact, sometimes Walcott takes the poems to unexpected places given the images. For example, in ‘Metropolitain’, the poet finds a tone that seems counter to the darkness of Doig’s painting ‘Stag’.

“Drunk is drunk anywhere,” Walcott memorably states. The Nobel Laureate gives us one of the greatest tributes to booze in poetry, calling Stag, “the loveliest of beers”. (Carib appears in another poem, but only as a symbol of tabanca.) There is a prose poem (the outstanding ‘100 Years Ago (Carrera)’), and poems that seem somewhere between rondels and sonnets contemplating another line but not needing one. Two poems are four lines long. Brevity is required for vastness.

Gradually, the book reveals its true subject matter: love and loss. Walcott once again looks to the past: dealing with a figure named Margaret, a likely reference to the poet’s second wife. The pair divorced, she died in 2014. The most fevered poems deal with her, such as ‘In the Heart of Old San Juan’, ‘Santa Cruz III’, and ‘Paramin’ where the poet declares, “when I join her it will be Paramin / for both us and the children.”

Yet these tender moments are offset by other tones. In ‘Man Dressed as Bat’ Walcott finds exhilaration and comedy at one moment, but then states, “What a sad thing a man dress like a bat. / Crip, cripple it!” The violent intolerance to the bat is not adequately accounted for in the poem. In ‘Mal d’Estomac’ and ‘Abstraction’ Walcott, the author of Tiepolo’s Hound and himself a painter, enters the guise of critic, analyzing modern art and Doig’s style.

If Walcott looks to the past, he also looks to a present with Doig. In ‘Grand Riviere I’ Walcott remarks of the landscape, “This lowering green emptiness is what you love / as hard as Peter Doig”. The poem ‘In the Arena’ casually describes Doig as, “a good fella”, adding, “You can tell a / good painter by how much he loves a place.” In ‘Peter, I’m Glad You Asked Me Along’, Walcott states, “Everywhere is wrong / as all forms miss perfection, hence the mask / in which the whole society is based.” He adds, “this craziness is just where we belong.” The effect is similar to what occurs in Catullus’s love poems to Lesbia, where anyone who acts as a portal to the object of the poet’s love is also loved. In ‘Lapeyrouse Umbrella’ Walcott writes, “What she has forgotten you learn every day, Peter.… / She sleeps in that country where there is no time, / as my pen and your brushstroke blend in the one metre.”

Readers will come away with a newfound appreciation of both artists. Walcott’s astonishing poems underline the complex power of Doig’s paintings which have a limitless range in terms of subject matter and technique. One minute we are down the islands at Carrera, the next we are skiing on a mountainside. At times the colours are as bright and vivid as a sign by Bruce Cayonne, at others, muted, oozing dark chemistries.

Doig’s best work finds de Chirico-like surrealism in the everyday. Examples include a heart-sign in a basketball court, a man walking with a pink umbrella next to the Lapeyrouse Cemetery, odd-looking boom boxes casually arranged at the side of the road, and, more recently, the yellow and green structures at the Port-of-Spain Jail, where the painter has utilized Rastafarian iconography in an audacious series of oil paintings.

But it is the sense of Walcott’s gaze – at the paintings, at his life, at his friend – that comes over most powerfully in this book. In the most haunting poem of the sequence, ‘Window Pane’, the poet looks to the future and writes, “all that lies ahead is the blank page / of winter no matter how well I write.”

Morning, Paramin, 
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374213428, 120pp)
Available at PaperBased Bookshop

- from Newsday, December 28, Section B, page 1