Isle full of stories

Annie Paul on Passing Through, by Colin Channer


CRB ARCHIVE

Issue No. 2 – November 2004

Isle full of stories
by Annie Paul

Annie Paul on Passing Through, by Colin Channer

Passing Through by Colin Channer (One World/Ballantine, ISBN 0-345-45334-4, 368 pp)

To Colin Channer’s fans, his new book of short stories, Passing Through, is going to seem like a departure from his two novels, Waiting in Vain and Satisfy My Soul. To borrow some terms from Jamaican music, a major influence on Channer: if Waiting in Vain was a “girl tune”, and Satisfy My Soul a frenzied dub, Passing Through is a measured attempt at what is known as reality music, imaginatively served up with his trademark lyrical flourishes and sexual braggadocio.

San Carlos, the island in which Channer’s latest stories are set, is a microcosm of the Greater Caribbean. Despite its Spanish name, it is intriguingly familiar — from its creole language, Sancoche, to its fitfully active volcano, Mt Diablo. Though San Carlos is an English colony, Sancoche is a “dialect of Spanish”, because of the island’s longer history of Spanish rule. “Sancoche” is also the name of a thick Trinidadian stew made of a variety of ingredients. Especially in the early stories, when the Carlitos, the inhabitants of San Carlos, speak their local lingo, it is represented as Trini English, handled with seeming ease by this hitherto quintessentially Jamaican writer.

Passing Through is the story of the Caribbean depicted in all its fertile splendour by a writer whose ambition has been to attempt in writing what the region’s musicians have accomplished with sound. This is a story of gradations, blends, and cut-’n-mix racial synthesis. As Channer says, “Looking at the people of this island you’d be tempted to believe the legend that they fornicated as a kind of art, that Carlitos chose their partners based on secret recipes for new eye-pleasing flesh.” “Half-caste” Father Eddie, whose story we’re told first, is described as having been a “complicated boy whose code of genes was not a language but a dialect”. Threading the stories loosely but firmly together are themes of illegitimacy and impurity, of impotent patriarchs and fickle matriarchs, all springing from the loins of this exiled priest.

Passing Through is about writers and writing as much as anything else, interspersed as it is with letters to the editor from St William Rawle, a feudal relic and ceaseless campaigner for “the arts” and pornography equally, marooned in this “funny, backward place”, where if you tell them “you want to write and paint for the rest of your life . . . they think you need to be committed“. Then he reads Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory and becomes convinced that he is a man of letters, destined to write.

What is not clear is from whence the writing gene emerges. But from Rawle, who writes incessantly and publishes his own vast output (67 books); to Estrella, who suddenly discovers that “writing was an elemental force, like hurricanes and floods, and began to visualise the stream of words that she would like to share with someone that she loved”; to Shooky Dominguez, who thinks of himself as “the most accomplished writer that the island had produced”; the island is gradually written into legitimacy, until by 1982 its capital, Seville, can be described by a visitor as “a kind of Caribbean town I’d never seen: a well-proportioned, vibrant place without a tourist trade or gross extremes of wealth.”

By the end of the 20th century, which marks the end of the book, the island is under “guided democratic rule”, and when a character slips into the vernacular it is described as “the rarely uttered Spanish dialect called Sancoche, which education had diluted out of common use.” San Carlos’s volcano, Mt Diablo, is erupting again, as it did at the beginning of the book a century earlier, when Father Eddie set out on his exile. The vast changes experienced by the island and its people are in danger of being swept away, but when the lava subsides we find that the quixotic Rawle has been replaced by a member of the younger generation of local writers, Dominguez. Everything and nothing has changed.

Shoucair “Shooky” Dominguez is arguably the most vividly realised character in Passing Through. Despite some excellent writing, the earlier stories in the book have an archival, sepia-toned quality, possibly a deliberate authorial strategy. The contrast when we reach 1982 is striking. It could also be the switch from third person to first, but no matter the reason there is a definite change in tone and pace once the story “How I Met My Husband” starts, with the bald statement “I met him in San Carlos in 1982”. Carmona, the narrator, lives in the US, but is really a kind of middle-class higgler who buys low and sells high. From time to time, she makes trips to the Caribbean, where she trades “rubbish bought on Delancey Street” and knockoffs for “true creations that were treated like stepchildren in their own homes.”

In Dominica, for example, pleather loafers by a “Pair Cordon” could fetch a dozen bowls handwoven by a Carib Indian who was eighty-five years old. In Haiti, half a dozen jeans by “Kevin Kline” could get a painting done with chicken feathers by a living voodoo priest.

By the time five-foot-seven Shooky of the “deep testicular quail” appears in the next story, “Poetic Justice”, the pace has changed again, and we are hurtling through the mental processes of a writer crazed by petty jealousy and thwarted passion. Shooky is terrorized by his girlfriend’s “ex”, a poet whose work “had the kinds of blatant messages that speak to men who fall in love with reading late in life while passing long, unstructured days in jail.” To make matters worse, the New York Times has given him an enthusiastic review. “Six-four and self-inflated,” Kendall Power “didn’t like to talk; he liked to argue.”

He didn’t like to chat; he liked to teach. As if he had a platform in his shoes, he spoke like he was up and you were down, and had the habit of explaining common references as if he thought that he was pitching way above your head.

Power is a send-up of the African-American poet Kevin Powell, often billed as “the unvarnished voice of the hood”. The story opens with Shooky discovering that Regina, his beautiful, tall ex-model lover, used to go out with Power. The tale of Shooky’s revenge is alternately hilarious and pathetic. Most interesting, with Shooky, Channer achieves that ambivalence of character that has you wondering at times if Shooky is a bad guy or a good guy. Do we empathise with him, or is he really a female-bashing, self-centred little twerp? If we empathise with him, what does that say about us? And empathise one does, despite Shooky’s greed for fans, who he treats as if they were vitamin pills to be popped in times of need. At moments of stress, he reverts to “Island English”, which sounds Jamaican in structure (“When was the last time you and him talk?”). Shooky’s utter misery and desolation are finely evoked.

Waiting for Regina, feeling all alone, I felt a slack disorienting sense of loss. Life became a blur, the trees in the median, the facing buildings from across the street, the people moving up and down the sidewalk, softened to a smear congealing in a long amalgamated, multicoloured streak.
Kendall Power and Regina, Kendall Power and the Times. Which was worse? I wasn’t sure.

The local literary police have expressed anxiety over the influence a braggadocious writer like Channer might have on incipient literary talent in Jamaica. Local critics worry that his texts are not “literature”, a category that has been successfully deconstructed almost everywhere but here, but then, as Channer reminds us in Passing Through, we are in the tropics, where most things, even time itself, comes late. This book more than fulfills the promise of “The Ballad of the Sad Chanteuse”, a haunting story that preceded Channer’s first novel, though it was published only after Waiting in Vain appeared. This is the most ambitious and far-reaching collection of stories written by a Jamaican in recent years; it definitively announces the arrival of a formidable new generation of Caribbean writing, one whose task is to breach the gap between the high modern and the popular, and establish its author, Colin Channer, as the lyrical samurai of the Jamaican literary scene.