A servant of his pen: Dr Kei Miller - From UWI dropout to Rex Nettleford Fellowship awardee
Daviot Kelly, Staff Reporter
Jamaican Dr Kei Miller is the 2013 recipient of the Rex Nettleford Fellowship in Cultural Studies.
The fellowship was established in 2004 by the Rhodes Trust to mark the centenary of the Rhodes Scholarships in the Caribbean. The award is offered annually to Caribbean residents under 35. All areas of scholarship in the field of cultural studies, including the creative arts, may be pursued.
Miller acknowledged a writing influence from early in life, but admitted he really focused on writing after he flunked out of the University of the West Indies, Mona.
"When everyone left and they were officially doctors and lawyers and I had no profession to claim, I claimed writing," he said. Ironically, he was studying literature.
"I don't think if I dropped out I would have pursued writing, and so, in the long run, it turned out to be a really good twist of fate," he said with a laugh.
Various jobs kept him afloat, but he started writing seriously and penned two books: The Fear of Stones and Other Stories; and a poetry collection, Kingdom of Hungry Bellies.
Before that success, Macmillan Caribbean, which had seen some of the material he had submitted to newspapers, had been actively looking for young writers and asked if he had a novel. He didn't, but offered his collection of short stories instead. The book did well, and with increased confidence, Miller began negotiating to publish novels.
He credits the "stars being aligned" with getting the opportunities to showcase his work, including his poetry. But the work still had to be good.
"I say to my students now: 'Doors will be open to you, and you have to have the work to seize the opportunity'," he said.
With the offers coming in, he then applied to universities in England to do his master's. But he had no first degree.
"But I said 'I have these two books, so would you consider them the equivalent'?" he said.
He did his degree at Manchester Metropolitan University. With other books coming out, he eventually got the chance to teach at Scotland's University of Glasgow, where he still lectures. He did his PhD in Caribbean literature.
Miller has received numerous awards, including the International Writer's Fellowship at the University of Iowa in 2007. He said this award and others, including the Institute of Jamaica Silver Musgrave Medal (2009), give him a special vibe.
"There's always something special to me about being recognised by your own country," he said, revealing he grew up in a household where "giving to country" was perennially taught.
"Especially for the kind of work that I want to do for this fellowship. It's so specific to the Caribbean and Jamaica."
Miller is working on triple projects during the award tenure.
A novel, Augustown, and a poetry collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, are under way. But his third and most daring project is The Zinc Sermon, where he plans to produce a series of new work exclusively on sheets of zinc.
He credits Professor Mervyn Morris for his teachings and is inspired by Caribbean writers such as Earl Lovelace and Lorna Goodison, but he also credits Australian writers like David Malouf and non-literary influences like preachers.
"On a bus from Half-Way Tree to Papine listening to a man preaching, that influence is clear," he said. "Or listening to a 'warner woman' giving a prophecy in downtown [Kingston], that's a clear influence on how I write and the kind of sounds that I'm trying to capture."
Apart from these projects, Miller is also trying to wrap up another book of essays. He's also hoping to be able to teach and work more in Jamaica. But like the waves that drove him to this point, he will roll with the tide.
"I kinda humbly follow where it (writing) leads me," he said.