The Last Warner Woman

Kei Miller.  The Last Warner Woman.  Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2012.          272 pages.

Note:  Contains some strong language and explicit sexual descriptions.

Having followed the Insatiable Booksluts reviews, I’d been wanting to read more indie/small-press literature, so I browsed through their publisher links.  On the Coffee House Press site, I found Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman — which, incidentally, IB’s GreenGeekGirl herself reviewed back in May (after I’d already ordered it for myself).  A fun Twilight Zone moment, that.

In terms of the EOTW count, I omitted the pages that are only section intros (“Part One: in which the story begins”) and the nearly-blank “testimony spoken to the wind” pages.

Ever since that undergrad course on Postmodern Brit Lit, I’ve had a thing for metafiction.  The Last Warner Woman is a story about the telling of the Last Warner Woman’s story, and about the two people most invested in the story — the mysterious Mr. Author Man and the Warner Woman herself — and why, and how, each thinks the story should be told.  Mr. Author Man writes it on paper, and starts it like a fairy tale:  “Once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica.”  The Warner Woman speaks the story (her story) into the night wind, which will carry it to me, the reader/listener.

She says Mr. Author Man has the facts wrong.  But maybe she doesn’t have them all right, either.  And meanwhile, the section intros suggest that the story is an independent, autonomous being — “Part Two: in which the story prepares to travel, and then begins again”… “Part Four: in which the story invents parables, and speaks a benediction, and then ends.”

I definitely had fun with this book, and would be interested in reading more from Kei Miller.  I loved the descriptions of Pearline Portious, a dreamy girl who wants to create things according to her own definition of beauty; and I love the description of her room, where her creations, individually considered ugly, are collectively beautiful — “it was as if the child lived inside a rainbow.” [1]

I loved the glimpses into Caribbean folklore — the references to Anansi the spider and River Mumma, for instance.  And then again, comments like this —

Whatever white man believe in with all his heart–that thing name religion; whatever black woman believe in, that name superstition.  What white man go to on Sunday, that thing name church; but what black woman go to name cult. [2]

— make me wonder about the way I define narratives (“folklore” or “myth” vs. “history” … “fiction” vs. “true story”).  I might call The Last Warner Woman magical realism, but then I’m labeling some of the characters’ experiences — the things I consider “magical” — as Not Real.  I’m saying: I don’t believe that these things really happened, or could happen.  I don’t believe that there are people who can see the future.  I don’t believe that a person can control how long she’s going to live.

And then I think about the main character in Scott O’Dell’s The Captive (see my previous post), for whom Christian beliefs are the truth, while Mayan beliefs are false.  His God is real, while the Mayans’ gods are not.  And yet, when he tries to explain the story of Jesus to a Mayan girl, he begins to see it from her perspective.  Maybe from her point of view, the story Julián is telling is just that — a story.  Likewise, we might call the story of Kukulcán a myth, but to the Mayans it was the truth.

Hooray for stretching my perspective!

[1] Pg 19

[2] Pgs 114 – 115


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