AUGUSTOWN: LEARNING FROM KEI MILLER
Augustown came to me via a ‘Star Interview’ by Tina Jackson with the author Kei Miller in the August 2016 issue of Writing Magazine, which began as follows: ‘If you read only one new novel this summer, WM recommends the spell-binding Augustown …’ And having now read it, I agree whole-heartedly.
Given the nature of this blog, it’s not surprising that I would underline Kei Miller’s prime advice for writers, according to a column for Writing Magazine online:
Read read read… Part of being a writer is finding what energises you. What blows your own mind… find the book… that blows your mind, and then understand the magic.
Augustown is an unusual novel for me to enjoy for two reasons: it relies predominantly on telling rather than showing and it is not written in the third person limited point of view, which I tend to prefer because it pulls the reader directly into the protagonist’s or multiple characters’ experience. But nevertheless, like Rodney Hall’s novel Love Without Hope (see my blog post on Love Without Hope: Learning from Rodney Hall), Kei Miller’s novel Augustown did exactly what Miller is talking about: it energised me, it blew my mind. And in this blog post I’m seeking to help you to understand the magic, even though it is achieved in large part as a result of his upbringing in Jamaica, where the novel is set, and not many of you are likely to be able to draw upon such background. But wait, perhaps you can still achieve magic as per Kei Miller’s model!
Strangely exactly like I wrote about Love Without Hope, reading Augustown can teach you how to write well in similar, multiple respects, though Kei Miller is obviously a different writer from Rodney Hall:
- How to hook the reader from the very beginning
- Theme as a unifying force throughout the novel
- Creating a sense of place and community
- Creating poetry and rhythm through language
Here is a passage from the preface, in which Miller addresses the reader directly and which showcases his ability to create poetry and rhythm through language, filled with metaphor and vivid detail as he evokes his setting:
First you must imagine the sky… imagine yourself inside it… Down there is a dismal little valley on a dismal little island. 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 brush and the trees and left behind a white crater of marl… To the people who live in this valley, it feels as if they wear the scar on their own skin – as if a kind of ruin has befallen them. Seen from up here, the ramshackle valley looks like a pot of cornmeal porridge, rusting tin roofs stirred into its hot, bubbling vortex… Where there was once a perfect green hill, there is now a scar, and where there was once a river, there is now just a riverbed, little boys playing football among its vast sands. Where there once was beauty, now there is just ‘Augustown’…
Augustown, is based on August Town, Jamaica, and Miller told his interviewer that it wasn’t far from where he grew up.
The way Miller begins this novel already excited me; it is unusual and you can see a poet at work – his poetry collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion was shortlisted for the international Dylan Thomas Prize and won the Forward Prize for Poetry.
Theme as a unifying force throughout the novel
The reader gets a slight sense of theme already in the preface, as seen in the extract above, in the descriptions and metaphors Miller utilises to introduce the novel’s setting: there is a suggestion of oppression – the social injustice of the poor being at the mercy of those in power. The novel then builds on that theme, by introducing one character after another, most of whom are oppressed and subject to social injustice, due to their race, gender, poverty, religious beliefs, and in the context of the novel’s setting, as a result of colonialism.
In the interview with Writing Magazine Kei Miller says, ‘I use stories but there is always a point. Often I’m trying to disguise my anger, so I say, let me tell you a story to illuminate the point.’
And that is exactly what he does in Augustown. He tells the stories of a number of characters whose experiences illuminate his theme, and thereby he also creates the community of Augustown (see my recent blogpost on 10 great novels on community) and evokes a sense of place.
So perhaps you can achieve magic as per Kei Miller’s model of Augustown after all:
- Is there something that makes you angry that you can use as a theme? Can you find a story in that which ‘illuminates the point’?
- Is there a place you know well, near where you grew up, which excites you, raises love and/or anger inside you, which you can use as a setting?