Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman is a story about a black woman with the gift of warning: she foresees destruction and warns those who may fall victim. This is her story, but it’s also other people’s story. The narrative shows the masterful ways multiple voices and perspectives can be used to give a fuller picture of a story. Most importantly, even though this story is told from multiple perspectives, the black woman’s story remains her own and is not co-opted by other voices in the narrative.
The first narrator is Mr. Writer Man, who tells us how to get to Jamaica’s leper colony, should we want to find it. The next voice we hear is that of Adamine Bustamante, the Warner Woman, protagonist of both stories. Ada’s life moves from the leper colony where she was born, to a Revivalist church, then from Jamaica to England, where her marriage is arranged and she later ends up in St. Osmund’s Mental Hospital for her ability to warn.
In their narratives, both Ada and Mr. Writer Man address the reader directly, conjuring intimacy that makes the reader feel like a participant in a one-sided conversation. Reading The Last Warner Woman feels like being told a story, rather than simply overhearing one. The reader has very little difficulty seeing herself in the story, while still being able to respect the fact that the story is not directly hers. The narrators’ sections are distinguished in language: where Ada speaks in patois, Mr. Writer Man speaks in standard English. The Last Warner Woman coalesces both narratives in a way that gives a fuller picture of the setting and occasion for the telling of this story.
Although the story begins as if it belongs to Mr. Writer Man, Ada reclaims the reader’s attention and stakes her claim in telling her story. She interrupts Mr. Writer Man (a name she assigns) and points the reader to skewed details and missteps in chronology in Mr. Writer Man’s story. Their point of view and purpose for telling the story make each of their narratives different: while Adamine speaks to be heard, Mr. Writer Man seems to be searching for himself in her narrative.
Towards the end, Ada remarks:
Maybe sometimes you have to tell a story cross-ways, because to tell it straight would ongly mean that it go straight by the person’s ears who it intend for. …And maybe is afterwards, when you gather all of these crossway stories, and you put them together, that you finally see a line had been running through all of them.
Multiple voices allow for a more complete, though sometimes messier, picture. In some ways, both Ada and Mr. Writer Man fill in the gaps of each others’ stories. Although several voices circulate in and around the non-linear narrative, Ada’s is strong and clear, and she gives voice to her experiences, rather than having it told for her. Both narrators welcome the cross-pollination of their stories.
Most stories intersect in some way, in the same way that most of our lives intersect. This is the core principle of Intersectionality, the term coined by Kimberley Crenshaw in 1990. When we recognize that multiple people with different backgrounds can have a similar experience (or experience a situation in different ways because of where they come from), the stories we tell become richer and fuller, and more people can see themselves in the stories. This becomes even more powerful when these voices don’t attempt to dominate each other, but rather work in tandem and respect the story’s source. Mr. Writer Man’s voice was not “the center” of the story, though his was the first we heard in the book. And though his narrative is key to understanding a bigger picture, it makes space for Ada’s narrative and keeps her at the helm of her own story.
Mr. Writer Man’s narrative could easily co-opt Ada’s story as his own, an occurrence not unheard of in this age of cultural appropriation and voiceless minorities. But regardless of the diverse voices in the story, a black woman’s experiences remained her own and were told from her perspective. Ada was able to keep her voice. In a time where black women and other minorities aren’t heard and our stories are skewed and told for us, this is an important work. The reader navigates the different perspectives, and ultimately develops a stake in the narrative, despite the distinct positionalities of the speakers.