by Rae Parnell
Reading Augustown by Jamaican writer Kei Miller can at times be sensory decadence. This is not an action-packed novel, but is instead a profession of love and dedication to the history and legacy of a real town in Jamaica ‘coincidentally’ called “August Town.” Miller unfolds complex racial, generational, and cultural dynamics of his Augustown, and anchors his book with one simple question: why is young child Kaia running home from school crying, and who has cut off his dreadlocks?
This question brings forward the many characters that make up Augustown. Kaia’s immediate family is rooted by his great aunt Ma Taffy, who’s blindness has made her aware that something, although she does not understand what, is coming to the town. Although this is a tired stereotype, it is forgiven as Ma Taffy’s character is given a complexity and honestly that is rarely seen with older characters. Kaia also has his mother Gina, a brilliant young woman who is still coming to terms with her own past. Even though she is rarely seen in the beginning, her narrative arrives center stage as she grapples with issues of education, love, and community responsibility.
The rest of Augustown unfolds around this core family, each one offering central issues. The weasel-like schoolteacher Mr. Saint James brings forward questions of colorism, self hatred, and desire. The principal of Kaia’s school Mrs. G. moves issues of classism within Jamaica. And the larger character of “Babylon” (how the characters refer to the police that harass the citizens of Augustown), is a vessel for conversations around surveillance, racism, and resistance.
Miller also places these lives within the many generations that have lived in Augustown. When Ma Taffy wants to distract a mournful, dread-free Kaia, she tells the story of the grandfather of Rastafariani Alexander Bedward, who flew into the sky when she was just a little girl. And later, when Gina seeks justice for cultural violence inflicted on Kaia, the imagery of Bedward is called upon as she seems to carry the weight and pain of her community and history. In these moments, Miller seems to wonder if anyone can really move outside of their history.
The intricacies of Augustown are brought together with Kei Miller’s phenomenal writing style. Each chapter has poetic meditation on a situation or place. In the beginning of the book, the narrator describes Augustown: “notice the hills, how one of them carries on its face a scar – a section where bulldozers and tractors have sunk their rusty talons into its cheeks, scraped away the bush and the trees and left behind a white crater scar.” (p. 3). Miller consistently incorporates a descriptive style that masters the combining of poetry and narrative. And in a book that has so many different narratives, this becomes the glue that keeps it together.
While the writing style does help maintain the many stories in the book, the downside of Augustown is the many stories. If you decide to read Augustown (and you should!), I would suggest reading it over a few days. Because of the many narratives, it becomes difficult to keep up with the time period, who’s connected to who, and what has happened in the past. However, if read in a short period of time, the book becomes a living map, tracing a community that continues to resist and support each other.
There is a paragraph nestled in the middle of the book that captures the essence of Augustown. Miller says:
The great philosophical question goes: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound? But this is a troubling question, exalting one kind of being above all others. What then of the ears of the snakes, or wood frogs, or mice, or bugs? Do they not count? What then of the grass, of stone, of earth? Does their witness not matter? If a man flies in Jamaica, and only the poor will admit to seeing it, has he flown? (p. 144).
Who then will bares witness to the stories of Augustown? Who believes their pain is real, their community is strong, and their sense of justice is true? With questions like these, Miller’s work is an invitation for all of us to hear the history and lives of Augustown.