Anthony Winkler’s Lunatics

Jamaican author Anthony Winkler talks to Kim Robinson about his work and his love for his island home

–––––Anthony Wilker in a hotel lobby in Kingston; although he has lived in the USA for most of his life, his novels are unequivocally grounded in Jamaica. Photograph by Dale Kevin RobinsonSome members of the Winkler clan at Palisadoes, Jamaica, in 1949The Winklers on holiday in Jamaica: Anthony, his wife Cathy and daughter Becky. Photograph by Dale Kevin RobinsonWinkler and renowned American actor James Earl Jones. Jones played the title role in the US-produced feature film The Annihilation of Fish, based on Wrinkler’s short story of the same nameWinkler at work. His co-authorship of a number of English grammar textbooks, have given him a good living and allowed him the freedom to pursue his creative interests. Photograph by Dale Kevin RobinsonWrinkler and author Kim Robinson-Walcott. Photograph by Dale Kevin Robinson

Every time Anthony Winkler takes his annual vacation with his family on Jamaica’s north coast, he encounters people who assume he’s American. At first. Until he opens his mouth. At which point a raw-chaw Jamaican accent, possibly accompanied by a few choice raw-chaw Jamaican words, puts paid to any misconceptions about origin.

Winkler is used to having to prove that he is no bogus Jamaican. “People have been questioning my Jamaicanness all my life,” he says. In Jamaica, where he lived until he was 20 and then again for a year in 1975-76, as well as in Atlanta, where he has been living since 1978, people have often assumed that all Jamaicans are black; so that if you are white, then, logically, you can’t be Jamaican. In Going Home to Teach, an autobiographical account of a year Winkler spent teaching in Jamaica, he remembers an encounter with a boy who saw him standing outside the gate of his Montego Bay childhood home, which he was visiting for the first time in decades:

 

“You not a Jamaican” [declares the young boy who has observed Winkler looking at the old family home and been told by Winkler that he used to live there].

 “I was born in Kingston Public Hospital,” I said angrily. “I went to Cornwall College, right here in Montego Bay. I lived in that house for seven years.”

 “You not a Jamaican,” he repeated stubbornly. “You a white man.”

This was too much to bear in front of the very house in which I had spent so much of my childhood.

 “I’m a r—s cl—t Jamaican!” I snapped . . .

The boy was unmoved. “Any white man can learn bad word from book,” he said scornfully. (76)

 

In an article titled “The Looks That Blind Us” that he wrote for the  Atlanta Constitution newspaper, Winkler acknowledges that yes, as Americans keep on telling him, none of his family “looks ‘Jamaican’”; yet “we were born and raised to adulthood in Jamaica. Jamaican culture was the mother’s milk of our upbringing.” He and his family, he says, are “all hard-core unrepentant Jamaicans who collectively sigh when Americans tell us how we are supposed to look. But that’s the nub, isn’t it? We all hold loopy stereotypes about each other, and often we cling stubbornly to them beyond the evidence of our senses.”

The desire to be recognised by his fellow Jamaicans was, he says, one of the reasons he wrote The Lunatic, his second novel, which Trinidadian Wayne Brown in an Express review called “the funniest and most scandalous novel ever written by a West Indian”. Winkler succeeded: The Lunatic has become Jamaica’s most popular work of fiction to date, and its publication ensured Winkler the recognition of his countrymen (a fact vividly brought home to this writer a few years ago when she was being checked by surly security guards at Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport: her copy of the book fell out of her hand luggage, and the guards broke into smiles, enthusiastically agreeing that “dat deh book funny, bwoy!”).

 

The Lunatic, the story of a good-natured Jamaican madman who is ensnared by a much madder German tourist and becomes her lover, is hilarious, indeed. It is full of eccentric, if not downright wacky, characters — the sort one soon becomes used to in Winkler’s works: a bigoted landowner obsessed about the future of his gravestone (the cemetery is overrun by cows and goats who have no sense of decorum when it comes to their bodily functions), a prim and proper but flatulent schoolteacher, a melancholy flame heart tree, scandal-mongering, rambunctious talking bushes. The novel is also generously peppered with juicy Jamaican bad words — so much so that it has produced outraged responses from many readers (and delighted responses from many more). Winkler denies that his intention was to shock, however: “I wanted the novel to sound Jamaican, and that’s how we talk.”

Whether or not one agrees that that’s how we talk (the speaky-spokey Jamaicans that Winkler delights in ridiculing in his books, like the schoolteacher in The Lunatic, would probably disagree), there’s no denying that the novel has unmistakably Jamaican nuances. A seemingly farcical plot conceals multiple levels of meaning, including a satirical look at Jamaican society and its hypocrisies, its class and racial divisions and prejudices, not to mention Winkler’s observations of sex-based tourism and the eternal Quest for the Big Bamboo.

Although Winkler has lived in the USA for most of his life, his creative work is unequivocally grounded in Jamaica. All of his books — his autobiographical work, his four published novels, as well as his two completed manuscripts now awaiting publication — are set in Jamaica, with Jamaican protagonists. Winkler resists any over-enthusiastic analysis of this. For him the reason is simple: “I write about what I know.” In order to write successfully, he maintains, “You have to live it. If it’s not in the bone you can’t write it.” He came to this realisation after failing with some earlier attempts at writing novels and plays which were set in America and focused on Americans.

Yet Winkler’s Jamaican novels all (with the exception of The Great Yacht Race, which deals primarily with the brown and white middle and upper classes in Montego Bay in the 1950s) feature black protagonists, many of whom lead marginalised existences. In addition to Aloysius, the homeless lunatic whose best friends are the flame heart tree and bushes of the Jamaican countryside, there is Zachariah, the deformed Portland fisherman in The Painted Canoe who barely ekes out a living; Baps, the teacher-turned-shopkeeper in The Duppy, who takes out his frustrations with the unruliness of Jamaican society by imposing discipline on village customers, before he gets transported to an equally out-of-order heaven; and Precious in the soon-to-be-published Dog War, who works as a housekeeper in Miami.

“These are the people I grew up with,” Winkler says, adding that his own childhood was somewhat on the edge. The family lived in financially straitened circumstances, with Winkler’s father moving from job to job and his mother growing callaloo in the back yard to help support the eight children. Some of his richest childhood memories are from times when he used to accompany his father on trips from country village to country village where he mounted film shows on weekends, setting up his film projector in whatever hall or room was available. Winkler’s observations of the villagers’ lives and behaviour on these trips remain embedded in his memory, and still influence his rural Jamaican characters. Zachariah is based on a fisherman he knew when he lived in Montego Bay. Always a rebel (he was expelled from high school), Winkler also spent a lot of time on the streets, and the people of the streets became his friends.

The resolution to stick with what he knows has extended to other creative projects, one of the most recent being the screenplay The Annihilation of Fish (based on a story of the same name), which was recently made into a US-produced feature film.

Fish is set in California, where Winkler spent his first years in America, but the protagonist Fish is a lonely Jamaican migrant. On being released from a mental institution (one guesses that he may have been maddened by America), Fish rents a room in a boarding house where he meets the equally lonely — and equally kooky — Poinciana, an American woman who lives in the room beside his. In Winkler’s world, eccentricity is treated as normal, so Poinciana is not surprised that Fish wrestles with the devil, and Fish is not perturbed by Poinciana’s long-standing affair with the (long-dead) composer Puccini.

The movie, which was premiered in Jamaica last November to critical acclaim, has been screened at American film festivals and is due for general release in the USA in the next few months. It stars James Earl Jones as Fish, Lynn Redgrave as Poinciana, and Margot Kidder as the film’s third kook, the landlady (who reminds us of the crazy California landladies recalled by Winkler in Going Home to Teach).

What was it like working with these major talents? “It was easy, because they loved the script — in fact, they loved it so much that they agreed to do it for the minimum daily rate.” Winkler and Jones developed a friendship based at least partly on a mutual admiration of talents, though Winkler, who tutored Jones in the Jamaican dialect, has one reservation. “He got ‘raas’ okay, but he couldn’t pronounce ‘guzu’ [a Jamaican word meaning an ancestral spirit or an act of witchcraft, with the u’s pronounced like short oo’s as in hood or wood]. I went over it with him hundreds of times, but he kept saying goo-zoo.”

At least this time the producers were interested in respecting Winkler’s desire for authenticity — as opposed to his experience a few years ago working on the screenplay for the Disney film Cool Runnings. “They kept messing with my script, adding certain expressions to the dialogue of the Jamaicans, like ‘ain’t’, and I kept saying, ‘No Jamaican would say that!’, and their response was, ‘Well, Hollywood Jamaicans say that.’” Winkler was quite happy when the assignment came to a premature end.

Yet this stubborn refusal to compromise his artistic integrity haven’t limited his opportunities for money-earning. “I’m lucky,” he says. “I haven’t had to depend on my creative writing projects to earn my living, so that gives me the freedom to work on whatever I feel like working on when I’m doing something creative.”

Winkler’s bread-and-butter has come from his co-authorship of a number of English grammar textbooks which have done extremely well in American colleges. “I’m fortunate in that I’ve been able to make a comfortable living as a writer — something that I doubt I could have done had I been living in Jamaica.”

 

America has undoubtedly been good to Winkler. It gave him the opportunity to further his education, having been sent there as a high school dropout by a mother determined to make good out of her son. He worked his way through college, and at the end of it came out with three degrees, and financial security. He despised California, where he went to school, but has come to love Atlanta, where he has been living for close to 25 years.

Yet nowhere but Jamaica can he truly, in his heart of hearts, regard as home. And home, after all, is where he found a publisher for his novels. “The American publishers didn’t understand what I was writing. I got many rejections.” Publication of his novels in Jamaica led to American editions of two of them — The Painted Canoe and The Lunatic — which led to the sale of film rights for both books. The Lunatic was released in 1992 by Island Pictures and now has a cult following. That in turn led to the sale of film rights for another manuscript that has not yet been published — which in turn led to other film projects, the most recent  being The Annihilation of Fish.

Jamaica understands him, and he understands Jamaica. “Anywhere else that I live, I’ll always be an expatriate,” Winkler says. “Jamaica is Mummy, and when I die, if not before, I’m going home to Mummy.”

An earlier attempt to go home to Mummy, his short-lived repatriation to Jamaica in the mid-seventies, is recorded in Going Home to Teach. Winkler headed home at a time when many Jamaicans, scared by the prospect of socialism, were heading in the opposite direction. “Everyone going, and you coming!” his brother, who met him at the airport, said to him in amazement. Winkler, accompanied by his American wife, Cathy, whom he had met on holiday in Montego Bay a few months before, took up a teaching post at a rural teacher training college. His eventual frustrations with that institution made it impossible for him to remian in Jamaica, and he left abruptly after a last-straw confrontation with the administration. (Winkler admits to a fiery temper, and a penchant for using colourful local expressions when he explodes). Nevertheless, Going Home reveals a deep understanding of, and love for, his homeland.

 

Winkler visits Jamaica at least once a year. Every Easter he takes a family vacation with Cathy, children Becky and Adam, and other family friends, somewhere on the north coast — in recent years, usually at Silver Sands in Trelawny. On these trips his family teases him about the variety of Jamaican food which he insists be made available to all — from ackee to jerk to rice and peas to fried plantain to gizzardas to condensed milk — not to mention his basic must-have, bulla. “We can’t find bulla in Atlanta,” Winkler complains, reaching for the package. (“We found it once, but it was hard and stale!” his wife adds.)

And of course other trips home are frequently necessary to discuss possible new projects (he is in discussions with theatre practitioners about mounting a production of one of his plays in Kingston), or to fulfil  public engagements now that he is acclaimed as a writer. (He was particularly tickled when the school from which he had been expelled invited him to be guest speaker at a function in honour of the headmaster who had expelled him!)

So Anthony Winkler has achieved the recognition that he wanted in the country of his birth. And that recognition is spreading in America too. Which doesn’t stop a few tourists and locals on the beach at Silver Sands from being surprised when they hear his accent. But that’s okay. A r—s cl—t or two puts everything right. Every time.