Anthony C Winkler: A playful pirate of the Caribbean

Boyd Tonkin is blown away by Anthony C Winkler, and asks the Jamaican writer about the roots of his literary rebellion
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The Independent Culture

If your own festive season failed to thrill, consider the Jamaican version evoked by Anthony C Winkler in his debut novel, The Painted Canoe. On Christmas Eve, the mysterious "John Canoe" dancers thread their way, house by house, through the village of Charity Bay, as "fishermen masquerading as animals and duppies [ghosts], acting out the movements of the mongoose, the donkey, the green ground lizard... whirled and howled to the thumping rhythms of the music." But they pass by the shack of the cancer-stricken Zachariah, fearing the contagion of bad luck. In church, the pompous parson brags about "how many blizzards he had lived through during his schooling at the American university." ("Dat man mouth bigger than goat's," is his parishioners' unimpressed response).

Meanwhile, a boorishly tipsy English doctor talks dirty in a bar with a shocked Jamaican constable, who later prays by himself in the deserted church, pacified by "the quiet and beauty of the night". The doctor, a hard-working idealist as well as a foul-mouthed drunk, collapses in a post-coital stupor on his black lover's body as, "staring gloomily out of the burglar-barred windows, she listened to the singing of the crickets." The stalwart hero Zachariah, by the way, recovers after he rises from his deathbed for a final canoe trip to sea. Remission, or miracle?

Until a couple of months ago, I had scarcely heard of Winkler or his books. Then, with the minimum of fuss, Macmillan Caribbean published a uniform edition. A new novel, Dog War (£10), arrived accompanied by a backlist that consists of The Painted Canoe from 1984 (£5.95), his later fiction The Duppy, The Great Yacht Race and The Lunatic (£5.50 each), and an extraordinary memoir, Going Home to Teach (£5.95). Together, they conjure up a unique Jamaican scene, at once ribaldly realistic and pastorally remote. Their sparkling clarity, and charity, of vision offers a reviving antidote to midwinter gloom. On Winkler's island, satire, sex and sentiment blend with comic fantasy and linguistic playfulness.

He never glosses over Jamaican deprivation, prejudice and violence, yet the love of language - and the language of love - somehow conquers all. It's almost as if PG Wodehouse had strolled into the world of Bob Marley. (Winkler, in fact, ghosted the autobiography of Marley's mother Cedella Booker, and joined her on a London tour where "everywhere we went the acclaim for Mother Booker was ecstatic, and bordering on worship".) Or as if a more salacious Alexander McCall Smith tangled with the younger, funnier VS Naipaul. But, truth be told, Winkler sounds like no one but himself.

The writer, based in Atlanta, Georgia, for nearly three decades, mentions Vic Reid, John Hearne and Derek Walcott among his West Indian peers in a gracious reply to my e-mail bombardment. Yet he feels he shares no particular tradition. "History has a way not only of instructing us, but of cowing us with its superlatives and leaving us feeling dwarfed and inadequate," he explains. Indeed, resistance to the dead weight of an imposed culture underpins his mischief and mockery. This professional writer of college-English textbooks thinks that "contempt for the language is the healthiest attitude for the writer to hold. This is a lesson that the colonial English unwittingly taught me with their mumbo-jumbo 'received pronunciation' and their hoity-toity manners."

Tony Winkler was born 64 years ago in Kingston. On his mother's side, his family was Lebanese - tightwad merchants who detested their adopted home. On his father's, it was Hungarian, music-lovers who adored Jamaica. So he ranks as a white Jamaican, privileged by ancestry but penurious by birth. Going Home to Teach, prompted by a year spent training teachers in a country college under Michael Manley's ineptly idealistic socialist regime in the mid-1970s, delves into the confusions of his younger self. He felt that he had "internalised" a black identity just as many of his upwardly mobile black peers were ingesting a white one.

All his work fizzes with an exuberant delight in the speech, manners and customs of the island underclass. And the books tangle frankly - and uproariously - with the taboos of race, colour and class among a people branded to the heart by slavery and colonialism - "mixed and hybridised in every conceivable way". Or, as a barrister says in The Duppy, "God make man in at least thirty forty colour, and here in Jamaica we see dem all."

Much of the edgy comedy in Winkler's work stems from the ways in which race and rank interact, and contradict. Language itself becomes a minefield strewn with colonial-era bomblets, all waiting to detonate. "Without any outward act of aggression," he writes, "the Englishman achieved a bloodless coup" in the Jamaican mind, "using as his storm troopers an endless succession of stupid rules about grammar, pronunciation, ceremony, politeness, and manners." He tells me that, "as a child and young man, I often felt the tyranny of standard English hanging over my every utterance." So in his fiction, verbal and cultural rule-breaking liberates Jamaicans from the burdens of a colonised soul. Being "out of order" - "a brazen violation of manners and expected behaviour", as he defines this crucial phrase - shatters the crust of deference left by the Englishman's insistence that islanders could rise in status only by mimicking their masters.

Following school and college in Kingston and Montego Bay, and stints as "a terrible drygoods clerk", Winkler tried to revive the family fortunes via a classic migrant move, to California. After a brace of degrees and a teaching job in the land where he lives, thrives and yet finds hard to love, he joined an educational publisher and began to write the tertiary textbooks of grammar and composition that supply the bulk of his income.

He and his wife Cathy have lived in suburban Atlanta for 28 years; their two grown children remain nearby. But America, that "wonderful ideal", can be "vulgar and petty". The new novel, Dog War, shifts its prime target from the stultifying English-colonial legacy to the "gleaming and shining" delusions of American affluence that the heroine Precious discovers as a maid in Miami. Still, Winkler concludes that: "I have more or less reached a plateau of compromise and reconciliation with my adopted country."

The ambivalent immigrant tries to return home every year, although "the diaspora has been ruinous to my family... I now have more immediate family living in Las Vegas - a mother, three sisters, and a niece - than I have in Jamaica." Back on the island, he finds the reaction to his work "unfailingly polite and friendly". After the social upheavals of recent decades, he detects "greater public civility between the races and the classes".

If Going Home to Teach grapples eloquently with the troubled real history of Jamaica, Winkler's fiction magics the island into a place of rough-edged enchantment. It strikes me as a body of work to treasure and to trumpet, yet publishing has - until now - managed to keep it pretty secret. Perhaps it's a Jamaican thing. "Americans are showy about their achievements," Winkler suggests, "while Jamaicans are mainly modest... Often, it is difficult to tell a Jamaican doctor from a truck-driver. We do not become what we do; we do what we do and are what we are." And what Winkler does so well deserves to make a rather bigger splash.

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