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Add to researchKei Miller blogs from FLUPP

Kei Miller writes about his trip to Brazil to attend FLUPP - a new literary festival taking place in a Rio de Janeiro favela.

Flupp took place between 7 and 11 November in Rio, at the Morro dos Prazeres community. The partnership with the British Council resulted in the participation of three authors - two British and one Jamaican - in the event: Yvvette Edwards, Kei Miller and Naomi Alderman. Here, Jamaican Kei Miller blogs about his experience.

In A Hot Country
Landing in a hot country, for me, brings with it a feeling of familiarity – almost like a homecoming. I know the tarmac and walls are always cracked in a similar way, and that the streets will carry a particular perfume – the faint rot of garbage. In a hot country I expect to see fruits so large they are considered dangerous; when Evette Edwards and I sit under a jackfruit tree, the locals look up on the fruits above us – some of them as large as stuffed garbage bags – and they tell us to be careful. I suspect this is a warning that comes from tragic experience, the knowledge of people who have been injured or maybe even died because they came into the way of a falling jackfruit. Such things seem only to happen in hot countries. In a hot country I also expect the mangos to taste like mangos because this is the only fruit that completely loses its taste when it is exported to places like the UK. I am happy to report that in Brazil the mangos really do taste like mangos, and they are as messy as mangos ought to be, dribbling down your mouth and unto your shirt before you can react quickly enough.

I am trying to say that I feel at home in a hot country, and I expect to understand the place even if its language is one I do not speak – Zulu, or Filipino, or Brazilian Portuguese. I have this faith – perhaps it is naïve – that hot countries are always populated by my people. In fact, I suspect I get invited for this reason, because festival organizers hope that being a citizen of a hot country myself, that little boys such as the ones I see on the steep streets of the favelas in Brazil, playing football in their slippers – that they might observe me on stage reading a poem or an excerpt from my novel, and think me an unusual looking author – unusual because I do not look so different from them. I suspect that it is the hope of festival organizers that when little boys such as these see me, that they might more easily imagine other kinds of future for themselves.

When I stand on stage in a hot country, the questions that come most often to me often come in the style of:  ‘as you’re black, you might understand this,’ or ‘as you write from the periphery, you might understand this…’ or ‘as you’re from Jamaica, you might understand this…’. And though I sometimes have a kneejerk resentment to the packaging of such question, I usually do understand precisely because I am black, or because I write from a sort of periphery, or because I did grow up in Jamaica listening to Bob Marley. After my session at FLUPP I find myself worried that my answers to questions such as these were ungracious – that I did not play the role I ought to play, because I insisted that for me rhythm was more important than race, that rhyme was more important than rights – that pace, and cadence, and the integrity of an image were the slightly more important issues that writers must always attend to. In this I pretended that a writer ought to be more concerned with language than with the speakers in whose mouth language resides. And when I give answers of that kind I worry that I speak as if I am from a cold country – or if not a cold country, then that such answers come from a cold place inside me.

In another session, a woman who cannot stop herself from crying because she loves the people of this favela so much, asks me – as I come from Jamaica, do I understand the structure of favelas?

I want to tell this woman about the Garrison Communities of Kingston that do in fact have very similar similar structures – communities of board houses and zinc roofs, communities of poor people but wealthy drug barons, communities where the skyline is a mess of black wires because electricity is being stolen by everyone, communities which from a far might look like squalor but the insides of each house sparkle with the kind of spotless clean only the poor can achieve having so much practice cleaning for other. Garrison communities in Kingston, and favelas in Rio de Janeiro are places that exist off the grid from the state and have formed instead their own systems, their own laws, their own ways of policing, their own ways of giving drug-sponsored scholarships to school children.

I want to tell this woman about Jamaica’s most famous ‘favela’ – Tivoli Gardens – controlled by the drug baron, Dudus, and of the civil war that broke out two years ago when America demanded Dudus’s extradition. One rumour (the kind of rumour which in hot countries is usually true) goes – Dudus upon hearing of the planned extradition storms into the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and instructs him firmly that he is not allowed to sign such an order. The minister, of course, obeys. When a long impasse between the Jamaican and the American government finally forces action to be taken, the police storm into Tivoli Gardens for the first time in years, their guns blazing, and when the smoke literally clears 70 men from the community are lying dead in the potholed lanes.

I want to tell it all to this woman who is wiping away her tears, this woman who is called ‘Tia’ (Auntie) by the children of the favela, but who is not fat and middleaged and wearing a long floral gown. Instead she is wearing her police uniform – a gun tucked into her holster. This woman has shown me something I have never seen in a hot country, a police officer so in love with the people she is serving that she sits to listen to their poems and cries because they make her proud.

Kei Miller, 2012

For more images from the event, check out our Facebook page.