The history books tell us that Jamaican preacher Alexander Bedward once prophesized black insurrection against “Babylon” – the white world oppressing his black Jamaican brethren – before ending his life in an asylum after trying to fly and breaking his legs.
But as the narrator of Kei Miller’s “Augustown” points out, history comes in many forms, just as stories are divided between those that are written, which “smelt of snow and faraway places,” and stories “that had the smell of their own breath.”
Miller’s novel exhales the breathy immediacy of the here and now, even as it ranges back toward Bedward – proving the claim staked in this story’s first pages, in which we’re told that “it would be no exaggeration to say that every day contains all of history.”
On the 1982 day being remembered here, a 6-year-old boy from a Rastafarian family goes to school in Augustown, the Kingston slum where he lives. His tightly wound teacher, believing himself mocked, takes a pair of rusty scissors and cuts off little Kaia’s dreadlocks.
As the outraged community moves toward an ensuing “autoclaps” – Jamaican dialect, we’re told, meaning “impending disaster,” or “calamity,” or “trouble on top of trouble” – Miller repeatedly digresses from this main story, giving us the backstories of various people gathered in Augustown on that fateful day.
Ma Taffy, Kaia’s blind great-aunt, recalls Bedward’s heyday, back when she was a little girl; she also insists she really did see him fly. For her, Bedward embodies “the everyday story of this goddamn island – just another striving man that this blasted country decide to pull down.”
Gina, Ma Taffy’s niece and Kaia’s mother, holds forth the promise that someone as bright as she is might someday…