September 19, 2007

In My Own Words: Anthony C. Winkler

Anthony WinklerWhy I Write

I write for the same reason I breathe—because I have to. As a son of Jamaica, I never wanted to do anything else but write. Yet the strange wasteland of retail dry goods stores and mercantile practicality in which I was raised was horrendously unforgiving of any of its wayward children whose ambitions were regarded as peculiar or different. Arrayed against my expressed ambition to write was a brace of uncles on my mother’s side of the family who regarded me as presumptuous or deranged. Many took me aside and flailed me with stern avuncular lectures on the need to renounce literature and embrace, instead, gabardine, calico and tweed. My only ally was an elderly frail uncle, the husband of my father's only sister, who stood doggedly at my side against this horde of Mongolian naysayers.

I have read some critics who lament the barren culture of the West Indies in which literary talent is planted and often malnourished. But I think this misses an important point, namely, that a strong literary tradition can actually bully and dwarf fledgling talent. Where there is little or no tradition to stunt the beginner's growth, there's a liberating magnification of even small gifts along with the exhilarating opportunity for experimentation. Fireflies—what Jamaicans call “peenie wallies”—burn brighter in a dark night than they do in brilliant sunshine. The absence of tradition or the sparseness of it is good for young West Indian writers and saves them from being traumatically diminished by the hulking presence of a Shakespeare or Charles Dickens peeping captiously over their shoulders. In my case, this was certainly true. When I look back at my adolescent work, I'm amazed that it was greeted with such enthusiasm and encouragement. Had there been higher standards from an established literary tradition my road would have been steeper and harder. One can only imagine the dismay of young George Bernard Shaw—the aspiring playwright—upon discovering that he was walking in the footsteps of a dramatist named Shakespeare. Personally, I think our triumph in having produced two Nobel laureates in literature owes something to the barrenness of our literary tradition.

There's an old saying among teachers of rhetoric, "there's no writing, there's only rewriting." Without question, this adage informs every inch of my work. I rewrite everything I write, and everything I write that I do not rewrite always seems to turn out badly. The extent to which I rewrite, particularly long material, would stun most people. I reread and rewrote every page of The Painted Canoe at least 100 times. I go over my work obsessively, making changes large, small and infinitesimal. If I'm on page 300 and think the is narrative sagging, I sometimes go back even to the very beginning to find where I might have made a misstep that brought the story to this sorry pass. I wrote one book, The Duppy, twice—in the omniscient point of view, and then in the first-person point of view after I decided that it required the limitation, and biased expressiveness, of a personal narrator.

I also write in the darkness. Until I’m finished, I almost never know what the work I’m writing is about. Or if I know, it's with the cursory vagueness of Calvin Coolidge who, upon being asked by his wife what a certain preacher had said in his sermon about sin, offhandedly replied, "He was against it." When I wrote my most popular book, The Lunatic, I hadn't the foggiest idea what it would be about. I knew only that I wanted to draw a sympathetic portrait of the itinerant mad commonly found roaming the back lanes and byways of the countryside. All my life I had felt a deep sympathy for these outcasts and the way they were mistreated by the government and society—either warehoused in a filthy institution unfit even for habitation by wild dogs or driven away into the deep bush of the countryside by constables or by local vigilantes armed with stones or machetes. But like every book I write, I began The Lunatic in the darkness and worked my way, by fits and starts, towards the light. It is only when I had finished the book that I could answer that fatuous, but endlessly asked, question, "What is it about?"

I have written five novels about Jamaica: The Painted Canoe, The Lunatic, The Great Yacht Race, The Duppy, and Dog War; an autobiographical memoir, Going Home to Teach; and a collection of short stories, The Annihilation of Fish and Other Stories, all of which have been published by Macmillan. In production is my autobiography tentatively titled Trust the Darkness: A Writer's Journey. Next to come is a novel titled Crocodile.

I'm occasionally asked why I write so much about Jamaica. It is not a complex question. After all, I have lived longer in America than in Jamaica. But Agatha Christie, another writer whose work I admire, answered for me when she was asked why she wrote only crime stories. “One writes what one can,” she said simply, “not what one can’t.”

That is also the case with me. And, I suspect with you or any other writer.

Anthony C. Winkler was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1942. His first novel, The Painted Canoe, was published in 1984 to critical acclaim. This was followed by The Lunatic (1987), The Great Yacht Race (1992), Going Home to Teach (1995) and The Duppy (1997, Akashic 2008). A short story collection, The Annihilation of Fish and Other Stories, was published in 2004, and his latest novel, Dog War, was published by Akashic in June 2007. He has also written two movies, The Lunatic (1991) and The Annihilation of Fish (1999). The Burglary, a play, was produced in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1993 and in Toronto in 2005. Another play, The Hippopotamus Card, was produced in 2005 by the German radio station WDR under the title Das Rhinozerossystem. Winkler lives with his wife in Atlanta, Georgia.


Anthony Winkler will be appearing at the Miami Book Fair International (November 4-11, 2007) at the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College.


FSJL said...

That's a wonderful account, Tony.

Fuzz said...

Thanks Geoffrey and Anthony for this revealing post. I loved "Going Home to Teach" because I could relate to it in some degree with my experience teaching in Jamaica with the Peace Corps. Glad to know more about the author to appreciate the stories. Too bad I can't hop on a jet to visit at the book fair:(

Geoffrey Philp said...

I am so happy Mr Winkler is coming. He is one of my favorite novelists.