Anthony Winkler is one of Jamaica’s funniest and most gifted writers. Two of his stories have been made into films: His original screenplay The Annihilation of Fish was filmed in 1999, starring James Earl Jones, Lynn Redgrave, and Margot Kidder. The Lunatic (1987), a satirical novel many consider his most famous work, was also made into a film (1991). Its main character is Aloysius, a mad man from the country who speaks to trees and animals. His life takes a dramatic turn when he meets Inga, a sex-crazed German tourist.
Winkler’s first novel, The Painted Canoe (1984), took several years to complete, and it was more than ten years before he found a publisher. His other works include Going Home to Teach (1995), an autobiographical account of his experiences during the 1970s at a school in Moneague, a rural Jamaican town; The Annihilation of Fish and Other Stories (2004); and the novels The Great Yacht Race (1992), The Duppy (1997), Dog War (2006), and, most recently, Crocodile (2009). He lives in Atlanta, and this interview took place for a delightful couple of hours by telephone in April of this year.
Barrington Salmon: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Anthony Winkler: I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was born. I wrote my first short story for Wednesday Magazine in 1958. It was a compulsion. I had to write and I wanted to leave a legacy. I had a cousin, Eddie Zaidie, who gave me a ride and reminded me that I had told him that one of these days he’d read my books, and it happened. It took a long time to get there. Things would happen to put me on the right path.
BS: Tell me a bit more about that path, starting with your early life.
AW: I was born in Kingston, at Jubilee Hospital in Kingston. All of us were born there. Many of us from those days have a Jubilee connection. I lived in Kingston and moved to Montego Bay. I went to Excelsior High School and Mt. Alvernia High School then Cornwall College.
My father sold tires for John Cook and Company. He was one of those indispensible characters. Car, radio, bulldozer: if they weren’t working, he could fix them. He was a man who could do it all. Yet it was difficult being around my father because he got drunk and violent. My mother was a breeder—she had eight children. My mom, who was from the Zaidie family, was one of fourteen children.
Jamaican boys [that] I went to school with talk with nostalgia. I don’t look back with nostalgia. Nostalgia, my ass! Nowadays you dare put your hands on someone else’s pickney, you might get shot. I got the crap beaten out of me by cane; and commonly at Cornwall, headmasters and house masters could cane us. Mr. Miller was one of the most sadistic teachers I know.
And when I was fifteen, I was expelled from Cornwall.
BS: How did that happen?
AW: I was a disaffected young man. I would go down to Mountain View Avenue and fool around with the whores. They knew me and we would talk shop on a long concrete wall. I was coming home when an Englishman asked what time it was. Even as a boy of fifteen, I hated the English. They acted like God Almighty and we were peons. I told him, “Yu bomboclaart, go back to your rassclaart England.” That pushed me more and more into the Cornwall College mire.
It sounds like a plot from a movie, but the same guy I cussed out turned out to be my teacher. He turned on the pressure, asked me questions and made fun of me. The headmaster kept getting bad notes about me and I was sent to his office. He reached for his cane and I told him, “Me and you are going to fight like hell on the verandah.” Now he was much bigger than me and probably would have handled me. He told me to leave the premises.
My mom was heartbroken; she saw a lot of potential unfulfilled. My classmates didn’t understand, because I had done well in school. I came first in my class. I was trying to impress my dad, which was the reason why I worked so hard. Staying at home was horrible. The maids take over when the master and kids are away. I didn’t belong there.
BS: How did you deal with it?
AW: I begged my mom to try and find me something. I got a job at Vaughan Travel Agency. I made five shillings a day as a messenger boy. Jamaica is still very small geographically. In those days, if you were expelled from one school, you were expelled from all. You quickly became envious of those in school.
I was sent a letter from the school administration after six months. They said I won a prize and told me to come to the prize giving [event] for coming first the previous two years. None of my family attended; there was nothing to be proud of. I received the book Black Beauty. Never in my life have I been more embarrassed. It was the most humiliating experience of my life. No one knows why they did that.
Painted Canoe was my first novel and it got rave reviews. I went to see Mr. Bay, the headmaster in Montego Bay, to let him know I hadn’t entered the gallows. He was old and didn’t remember me at all, which kind of spoiled my intentions.
BS: Where did you go to college?
AW: I was twenty-one when I went to America. I realized I was going nowhere, had nothing to do and had no special talents. I was a lame duck. Mom was a pushy woman, though, and she decided I needed to get out of Jamaica. She went to her family and collected five pounds, five pounds, five pounds . . .
She paid my way to America. She made contact with a quantity surveyor for an oil refinery. I think [they were fooling around]. He agreed to put me up for a week in California but I walked into an ambush. The man’s wife set on me. She asked who my mother was and her relationship with her husband. It was a rough life. You had a schizophrenic daughter, a madcap mother and a hen-pecked husband. I was kicked out after three weeks.
People felt sorry for me. For six months, I lived at a boarding house paying two pounds, three and six for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I worked as a dishwasher. I look back and wonder how I managed. I wanted to go to school badly. A friend told me about a junior college and Mr. Smythe accepted me with no visa, no means of support, and no relatives to fall back on. He looked at me and the floor and said yes. That was Citrus Community College and I spent two and a half years there. To this day, it is a mystery to me. It was utterly unexpected. There are days in our lives that turn us in a way that changes our life. This put me on the track. I worked like a dog and ended up being the main scholar of my graduating year.
I got a scholarship to UCLA and turned it down because the president said they never give anyone an “A.” He said Einstein would get a “B” like everybody else. I spent four years at California State University where I got a BA and an MA in English. It was tough. Citrus was better than CSU. There was better treatment and they dealt with people better. I remember going to school and working on the side. Nobody could be around me. All I ate was beans.
BS: Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite?
AW: Painted Canoe, my first novel, is the one I love the best.
[When I was growing up,] there was a guy named Baba, and he went to sea every night. He was the ugliest man I’d ever met. I asked him to take me fishing. He said I was too young. The last sound I would hear at night before I fell asleep was the groaning made by the rope oarlocks of Baba’s canoe as he put out to sea right across the street from a small strand of beach known locally as Lady’s Rock. I would be drifting off into the sea of dreams just as he would be setting out into the dark mouth of the night sea. Sometimes he would be coming in just as I was trudging to school, and we would wave to each other.
One morning he didn’t return. His empty, overturned canoe was found floating over the fishing reef, and he was presumed drowned. A few days later a man appeared who identified himself as Baba’s cousin and asked permission to clear out the cave of the fishing equipment that Baba had left behind. My father gave it, and the fisherman stripped the cave clean and left, taking Baba’s canoe and fishing gear with him. I was aghast. I begged my father not to allow the man to leave with all of Baba’s worldly goods, but he told me to mind my own business. What appalled me was how Baba had simply disappeared, wiped off the face of the earth as if he’d never been here. I remember walking down to the beach with the fisherman who was taking Baba’s stuff and asking him questions about who he was and being gruffly told by him to mind my own business and leave him alone.
Baba was a black man with no past. He had nothing ahead of him; he had nothing behind him. I think of Baba, who was here one minute and the next minute was gone, un-mourned and unremembered, the few trinkets he’d left behind after a long lifetime as a fisherman swept up by a supposed cousin, until nothing was left behind to mark his presence, not even a footprint. The speculation was that he’d fallen asleep and overturned the canoe. Some said that his canoe was attacked by a shark or hit by a rogue wave. We don’t know. But what I do know was that he was always kind and patient with the pesky little white boy who was always nagging him about going fishing.
Baba became Zachariah, my protagonist in The Painted Canoe, my first novel, which I began in 1975 when I had come back home to teach at Moneague Teachers College in Saint Ann’s. I was very proud I had given him a face. I don’t know what it is, but when you’re a kid, you get attached to older role models; [he] mesmerized me.
BS: Talk about Jamaica and what it means to be Jamaican
AW: I am very conscious of the fact that Jamaicans are proud and have every opportunity to be proud. . . . I’ve learned a lot over the years about my Jamaicanness and what it has given me and how it has informed my worldview. Race in Jamaica is not merely a matter of white and black. That is the American view of race. Ours is a more slippery concept. When it comes to race, we Jamaicans are hopelessly composite. Race has unknown effects on us, most of it bad but some of it unexpectedly benign.
The only people who had ever kicked my butt in sports, scholastically, or any other way were brown or black. So when I looked at America and the prospect of competing there, I had this naïve feeling that I was better. The Jamaican was a more formidable adversary than the American. This is, I know, one of those stereotypes that impregnate our being. And you know what? It turned out to be true. The Jamaican was better and is better. That is part of the paradox of what it means to be a Jamaican. We’re strong and capable and good-looking because the stewpot we come from is a blend of black, Indian, Chinese, and white, and seasoned with the pepper of ole negar.
A lot of people have a chance of freedom and dignity. That is very important, especially for Jamaicans. Jamaicans have a resilience and a core of bounce-back-ability not found anywhere. We will make it. God made us, this little island. We grow and we change and hopefully get better.
BS: People make a big deal that you are a white Jamaican. What is your reaction to this?
AW: You see, I am neither a black nor a brown man, but a white one. Yet, in the mornings when I first get up, I don’t go to the mirror, look at my reflection, and scream, “Kiss me neck! Me white!” any more than anyone begins the day by bawling, “Rahtid, me brown!” or “Say what? Me black!” or “Lawd Jesus, me turn Chiny.” The color of your skin is like the color of the car you’re driving. People outside the car can see its color better than you can. I may be driving a white car but most of the time I don’t know it. I’m just driving as best I can.
BS: Do you go home often?
AW: I go to Jamaica four times a year when I can afford it. I get invited to sumptuous dinners and all I have to do is play court jester, which I’m often willing to do.
BS: Would you go back home to teach?
AW: I wouldn’t mind a couple of years teaching at Munro. The mornings are cool and dewy. It’s a beautiful campus. If they ask me, I would go, although my wife said I’d be going by myself. The hardest challenge: sometimes I don’t particularly want to do something—you’re fighting yourself.
BS: Do you have a special/preferred time to write?
AW: Any time will do. If I get harnessed into a project I don’t like, then it’s hard. Have you ever gotten up and said, “Rassclaart, I’m a year older and I haven’t written anything yet”? That’s how it feels sometimes. A writer writes constantly, day and night.
BS: What is your philosophy as a writer? What makes Tony Winkler tick?
AW: Your work will get better if you try harder. If not, by happenstance, it may be good, but with hard work, it will mushroom, grow. I don’t have a particular methodology for writing, but in writing one has to learn to simply “trust the darkness.” My biggest surprise as a writer is learning how to write.
I take things as they come. I have had people tell me I’m a rebel. I have a cousin, a doctor in Toronto, who told me, “Of all the family members, I thought you would be a rebel and come to no good.”
One thing I have learned in life is to respect everybody’s point of view. I try not to be better than you.
Barrington M. Salmon is a British-born Jamaican journalist who has been writing for more than twenty years. He recently completed a master’s degree in creative writing and new media from Demontfort University. He is a traditional African priest in the Akan Akom tradition and has lived, worked, and studied in Washington DC, United States; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Leicester, United Kingdom.