Follow up: My April 24, 2018 Letter to Kei Miller

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Two years ago, on April 28, 2018, I posted to this blog an open letter to Kei Miller (it is linked here for easy reference). The letter was written as my critical response to an essay by Kei, “The White Women and the Language of Bees”, which had been published a few days earlier in the inaugural issue of the online Pree Lit Magazine. Kei Miller’s essay caused quite a furor on social media, with sometimes heated discussions in which Kei and myself both participated, and in various other forums (Bocas Lit Fest was in progress). The controversy reached the Guardian newspaper (linked here), in which my letter to him was referenced and quoted. The essay was withdrawn from Pree Lit, at Kei’s request, and subsequently republished but in a revised from (linked here). My response was to the original version. I understand that the essay will also be published in Kei Miller’s forthcoming book of essays, as he recently announced.

Yesterday morning, Kei Miller made a long post on Facebook (which is linked here) in which he reflects on the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations and their implications in Jamaica. He also comments on the lessons he claims he learnt from the debate about his “The White Women and the Language of Bees” essay. He itemizes those “lessons” in a list of ten points. My letter and I are the subject three of those ten points, point 3, 4 and 5. Although I am, curiously, not mentioned by name, most people who read his post would have known perfectly well that he was referring to me, given the public attention my letter had received.

Under point 3 of his list, Kei accuses me of not having published his response to my blog. He writes:

3) I learnt, fortunately or unfortunately, to be less trusting. When one particular white woman living in Jamaica wrote a public letter to me, I decided to engage. No – she wasn’t at all on my side, but I don’t expect everyone to be. That is arrogance. I still appreciated the attempt at some form of dialogue. I took the time to write out a response to that public letter, but she chose not to publish it. For weeks I checked and my response just withered there on her blog, hidden, ‘waiting approval’, even though she approved other supporting comments that came after. Eventually I just gave up and never even called her out on it. I learnt from that what every writer should learn: to be careful about whose hands we put our voices in. And I’m sure I’m mixing metaphors now – but the very hands that profess they are opening a door for you, would sometimes prefer, given half a chance, to put those hands over your mouth instead – to stifle you or just shut you up.

To be absolutely clear: I am the “white woman living in Jamaica” and I would have preferred to be referenced by name, instead of being alluded to, as I had also called for him to do with the white female writers he similarly alluded to in his “Bees” essay. And for the record, I did not personally know any of these women writers when I wrote my open letter to him, although two were distant acquaintances, and I was speaking solely on my own behalf.

Yesterday morning, when I became aware of Kei Miller’s Facebook post, I sent him the following note via FB Messenger, which speaks for itself (I have corrected one typo for the sake of clarity):

“Dear Kei,

I just read what you wrote about me on Facebook, without mentioning my name although my identity must be clear to a lot of your respondents, as they would have been aware of my letter. If I would have received the response to which you make reference, I would most certainly have published it, and if you were concerned that I was trying to suppress or ignore you in any way, you knew where to find me, on Facebook and via email. I am generally speaking very easy to reach and responsive. I did not in fact receive any comments to that post — what I published are links to other publications where my letter to you was referenced. It is unfortunate that you should represent me in this manner, two years later and without any verification with me, as this matter could have been easily have been cleared up and dealt with in its time.

Best regards,

Veerle”

I am aware that Kei saw my message fairly soon after it was sent, but he has not reacted or responded to date, at least not to me. I then decided to post an earlier version of this blog post to Facebook, in which Kei was tagged. To that, too, there has been no response.

Those who know me, and my written work, will know that I am not one to shy away from difficult discussions, including matters of race – that is regularly evident on this blog. My letter in effect contained an invitation to dialogue and I do not see what I could possibly have gained from not engaging with Kei, if I would have been aware that he wished to do so beyond what had already occurred on Facebook. All it would have taken was a simple “what’s up” on his part.

As for the content of my open letter to him, I stand by every word in it, also the very positive comments I made about his essay. In point 4 and 5 of his list on Facebook, Kei characterizes what I wrote in ways that are, in my estimation, not consistent with what I had actually written or intended. Let me present his words and mine in comparison.

Kei writes:

4) I learnt from that same public letter and other utterances from the writer that the great moral failing in that whole episode was not that a racist thing was said or done but rather that it was exposed. ‘Haven’t you ever said something in private that you regretted?’ she asked – as if racism was a thing so everyday, so permissible, that its casual occurrence should be simply absorbed by the black body as it always is – the black body whose greater moral duty is not to protect itself, but to protect the perpetrator from any possible embarrassment.

What I actually wrote in my letter:

And it struck me that some of your account pertained to things that the women in question said to you, or confided to you about, in what appear to have been very private conversations. Conversations they had with you because they trusted you, because they thought of you as their friend. Did they know at any point, then or now, that you were going to write about what they told you, about what happened in your presence? And if so, were they consulted about how they would be represented? If not, I’d have a bit of a problem with that. We all have our vulnerable moments, when we do unusual things and say things to friends that we do not expect them to share with others, let alone having to read about in published form. I’m sure you’ve had such moments too.

I am not sure what “other utterances” Kei is referring to, but the privately shared information I objected to included personal accounts and information which were not about race at all and completely unnecessary to what the essay was supposedly about. Objecting to such disclosures, which seemed personally cruel and needlessly embarrassing to the women who had shared this information with Kei Miller, hardly amounts to me trying to argue that casually shared acts or statements of racism should be kept confidential.

Kei writes:

5) I learnt, once again from the same letter writer, that when you try to articulate how racism works using contemporary paradigms like ‘white fragility’ or ‘micro-aggressions’ that they can be easily and mockingly dismissed as you just being influenced by the fad of the day – these clearly not being things that actually exist or operate let alone things that have real life consequences.

What I actually wrote in my letter:

I know that “white fragility” is a hot topic, and that may have seduced you a bit, but it strikes and bothers me that some of the women you are alluding to are presented in a way that suggests that they are unhinged, needy, overly dependent on the ways in which they are judged by others, unable to move productively beyond the relatively minor racial slights they have experienced. Why focus so much on these women’s perceived failings and vulnerabilities? Why focus on their bodies and on their weight, Kei? And yes, I am writing this as a white, overweight, foreign-born woman whose body has also been brought into the equation when her legitimacy in the Caribbean is questioned. Would you have brought any of this into the discussion if they were male? Does the way in which you paint them not conform to the most one-dimensional clichés about women, and specifically about white women?

What bothers me also is that you seem to focus on women who are willing to put up their race and origin for discussion, to make themselves vulnerable to exactly the sort of criticisms they have experienced, instead of doing what is the easiest thing to do for white people here, which is to retreat comfortably into the castle of their privilege and almost guaranteed position in the socio-racial pecking orders of the Caribbean. If they had done the latter, would they have been criticized in the way they were and discussed in this essay?

I fail to see how this could reasonably be characterized as a mocking dismissal of the “white female fragility” discussion, or why Kei could not have been questioned on the manner in which he mobilized this concept in his essay. It suggests that the present discussion about “white fragility” is deemed to be above critical scrutiny, which is not exactly a recipe for a nuanced, multi-perspective and productive discussion on race.

Finally, Kei Miller is one of the most powerful and visible personalities in the contemporary Caribbean cultural community, and he has far more power and reach than I will ever have, or wish to have. I do not see how, even if I would have been so inclined, I would have been in any position to silence him.

I remain open to mutually respectful dialogue.

[Update June 6, 2020: I have removed references to specific issues Kei Miller wrote about with regards to one of the unnamed women discussed in his original essay, as the woman writer in question expressed discomfort about it. The decision to revise the section was entirely mine and I was not asked to do so.]

3 thoughts on “Follow up: My April 24, 2018 Letter to Kei Miller

  1. A lot of writers settle into a looming emptiness choosing to bend the experiences of those around them into workable material for art. Racism doesn’t seem like it’s the issue, material does.

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  2. I think you could be on to something. John Updike talked about a shabby side to writing in which writers use others, stealing their words, experiences etc. The nearer and dearer, he said, the more mercilessly they get ‘served up.’ Could there be a touch of voyeurism, bragging, erotic satisfaction in describing women opening their hearts to him?

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    • Perhaps. And in such situations, the unacknowledged power dynamics and undisclosed back-stories and personal scores may also play a role. Writers, especially successful ones, have significant power over the people they represent but, as far as I am concerned, there should be self-reflexivity on that count and the agency of the subjects should be respected.

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