Kei Miller's Glaswegian Adventure

Ahead of his appearance at the John Hewitt International Summer School, the Jamaican author on plantains and poetry

It’s 2006. Italy have just won the World Cup and the latest installment in the Lebanese conflict is about to break out. In Northern Ireland, the Stormont assembly is in what feels like a permanent state of suspended animation. Thousands of miles away, in suburban Kingston, one of Jamaica’s most celebrated young writers is restless and dissatisfied.

‘Five years ago I was living in my parent’s house. I was about to have my fourth book published but I was poor and broke,’ explains Kei Miller over a glass of white wine in his local bistro in the west end of Glasgow. ‘I thought I’d probably be qualified to teach creative writing so I googled “creative writing”, “teaching” and “apply” and that’s how I ended up here!’

Miller has warmed to life in Scotland’s largest city, even if there are some aspects he still struggles with. 'I have to walk two miles to buy my plantains. No Caribbean boy should be forced to do that,' he proclaims with faux-horror when we walk past an African-Caribbean shop that recently went out of business.

Glasgow has been good to Miller too. Taking a full-time post teaching creative writing at the University of Glasgow has done little to blunt the vertiginous productivity of the tall, garrulous Jamaican with short black dreadlocks, who is set to appear at the John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh's Marketplace Theatre next week.

Not yet 33, in the last three years alone Miller has published two novels (The Same Earth and The Last Warner Woman) and a collection of poetry (A Light Song of Light), written and submitted a PhD in literary criticism and appeared at literary festivals and gatherings all over the world.

‘I’ve travelled more this year than at any other time in my life,’ the author says in his soft, lyrical Caribbean accent. He has recently read in South Africa, visited the Deep South, and is about to travel to Moscow. But not before a brief sojourn in Armagh.

It won’t be Miller’s first visit to Northern Ireland, but he’s hoping this trip will be a more bit relaxing than his last, when he recently travelled through Belfast on his way to a reading in Dublin. ‘I didn’t realise that Take That were playing that night [in Dublin]. The train I got was called the “Take That Sing Along” train – which was exactly what it was.’ Did you know many Take That songs, I ask, wondering if the popsters had a big Jamaican presence? ‘I do now!’ Miller laughs heartily.

'If This Short Poem Stretches' by Kei Miller by CultureNI

Miller’s work, which deals almost singularly with rural life in Jamaica, is renowned for its lyricism, lightness of touch and easy wit – qualities the author shares with his work. But, like many writers, Miller has struggled with the darker aspects of life, too.

‘Depression is always on the side, there somewhere,’ he says, his piercing brown eyes staring out the window, where cars whirr along Dumbarton Road’s Robert Moses-inspired 1960s overpass and the omnipresent Glaswegian rain falls steadily into the River Clyde. But while a sense of mourning and loss permeates, Miller’s writing is anything but morbid or lachrymose.

‘You have to make grief light, you have to be able to smile at it, laugh at it. To me, grief and laughter aren’t necessarily different things.’

Miller describes his literary ambition as being ‘to write a large literature from a small place’. He attributes such aspirations to William Faulkner and it’s a goal plenty of Northern Irish writers, both in poetry and prose, share. ‘People say to me “You’ve written five books about Jamaica, aren’t you going to write about something else?” Well no, I’m not. Why should I? Is there only five books allotted to Jamaica?’

For Miller it is language, as much as geographical space, that truly inspires. ‘Writing for me is all about what language I can manipulate, how can I create magic with it, how can I write it as beautifully as possible. At the moment I feel I can only do that with the Caribbean language.’

Just as it is for great contemporary Glaswegian writers such as James Kelman and Tom Leonard, for Miller writing in the vernacular is never an end in itself. ‘Just the fact that you use dialect doesn’t make you a good writer.

‘It’s interesting being in Glasgow, which has a similar obsession with language, but I’m at the point now where I want to take [writing in dialect] and the politics that goes with that for granted. Now I want to move beyond that.’

Kei Miller is certainly going beyond traditional mediums, evinced by his recent conversion to blogging. On Under the Saltire Flag – named after the St Andrew’s cross that appears on the flags of both his home and his adopted land – Miller applies his analytical mind and sharp wit to everything from reggae to quotidian experiences of living in the UK.

‘I don’t write for myself. If nobody read my work I wouldn’t write. I’m interested in any space where I can put my work and people can read,’ Miller says of his experiments in blogging.

He has come a long way – both geographically and creatively – in five years. So does the soi-disant Jamaican ex-pat see himself in Scotland in 2016? He is uncharacteristically circumspect. ‘I enjoy Glasgow because I think of it as temporary. But if I thought it was permanent… well that might be a different story!’

Kei Miller reads from his poetry at the John Hewitt International Summer School at 11.15 on Thursday, July 28. Browse What's On for other JHISS events.