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Things I Have Withheld

Kei Miller

(Canongate, 2021)

Review by John Siddique


‘If I am peaceful in this discomfort, is not peace, 

is getting used to harm’

– Dionne Brand


Things I Have Withheld by poet Kei Miller is a stunning, beautiful, silence-causing, and, in some ways, troubling new collection of essays. Miller’s full ability and bravery as a writer is given in service here to a genuinely profound thread that holds this book together, namely, the things that he, as the man he is, and we as people of the global majority (PGM) withhold, because of the way the conditional world is held in thrall to the white gaze, supremacy, narcissism and violence, and other forms of colour-on-colour racism, sexual hatred and inter-generational family secrets.

Bookending the collection with two beautiful epistles to James Baldwin, Miller both sets out and takes his place at the table. Directly speaking to Baldwin is a lovely way to begin, opening these secret doors of things that we have withheld, and discussing the things withheld from us, such as love, dignity, sexuality, the right to life and those other rights – to be, and a place at the table. But perhaps the most affecting essay in the whole book is ‘The Crimes That Haunt the Body’:

There are crimes that haunt the body, and specific crimes that haunt specific bodies. This haunting is not a memory. It hardly matters if the crime has happened or not – just the fear of it, the knowledge of its possibility causes us to walk the long way home, an extra mile, to avoid the dark corners.

The essay speaks into that place in all of us who know the automatic nature of hyper-vigilance on entering every space, to the effect on the body of knowing the long and secret, and hopefully safer, routes home, or between places, which still often fails us. He explores this from the views of both male and female bodies in the most moving and loving way that left your reviewer in stunned silence.

Things I have Withheld is a book that needs to exist and is to be met with gratitude for what is seen, held, opened, and loved in these essays. Where I feel the book is troubling is that for a person of the global majority reading this, the writing will make us feel thankful at being seen, yet still repeat a trauma in reading of the violence against his body, our bodies, and our souls. Some may find these pieces very triggering. While it is a genuinely essential book, and as necessary, I would say, as Primo Levi’s If This is A Man in revealing difficult things that are unseen, the collection brings with it the question of global majority writers still having to write the pain-body-trauma of our lives in order to get published and be part of a literary world in which drivel and mediocrity are always given more room than writers of colour.

Should you read this book? – Yes.

Is it good? – It’s bloody marvellous, and Miller can really write and speak to what is inside of us. 

But look after your heart as you read. There is a strong message and saving grace of being seen and heard and the necessity of love in this book that inhabits the words and the voice, the stories, and spaces between the words.