LargeUp Interview: Author Colin Channer on “Kingston Noir”

June 14, 2012

Words by Sherman Escoffery—

Kingston Noir is an anthology that makes readers feel like a participant instead of just a mere spectator. Expertly curated by editor Colin Channer (who also contributed the story “Monkey Man”), its 11 dark stories collectively present a complex, vérité look into the shadows of Kingston, Jamaica. An unscripted interview with Colin could easily turn into a treatment for a full-length documentary, because he is an amazing storyteller that can easily weave fiction with historical facts, with few able to distinguish the difference. So, we stayed focused on the anthology Kingston Noir, without talking about the recently concluded annual Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica, which he founded in 2001, or his other novels such as national bestseller Waiting in Vain or The Girl with the Golden Shoes. He says his approach to Kingston Noir was like that of producing a great LP, so listen with your eyes as we run the tracks.

LargeUp: You were once described as Bob Marley with a pen instead of a Gibson guitar. How has music inspired your writing?

Colin Channer: I’ve been called many things in my time. Usually it isn’t anything this nice! Well, I might be a professor and a writer and all that to some people, but to myself I am nothing but a failed reggae artist. When Michigan and Smiley came out with their second hit “Nice Up The Dance” in 1979 I saw my future. My friend Dayne Gibson and I were going to be the next big thing. You know what our name was? Bread and Butter. That’s how idiotic we were. So I began to write lyrics—mostly funny stuff. I also began to make the rounds at recording studios, mostly Joe Gibbs, where I saw a lot of musicians up close and served a great apprenticeship in the art of being a musician. Well, this is the nice way of putting it. Most of my time was spent buying cigarettes and beer for grown men with my saved-up lunch money.

It was only when I began to write seriously, which was in the 1990s, that I realized how much my teenage years, which coincided with the best years of reggae, had influenced me. Reggae’s global success gave me a kind of cultural confidence that I had not gotten from Jamaican literature, which was still mostly regional in its reach. Reggae also provided me with a model of storytelling that was simultaneously political and philosophical but also comedic and romantic and erotic and tragic. The best reggae is at the same time deep and entertaining. I think this is one of the reasons why I have never [been] afraid of not being taken seriously if I choose to play around—as I often do—with popular forms, as I did with my first novel Waiting In Vain and my latest offering, Kingston Noir. I did not have to abandon Jamaica or its culture to have an international career. Reggae removed that as a dilemma for me.

LU: How did you get involved with Kingston Noir?

CC: The publisher of Akashic Books began speaking with me about Kingston Noir many years ago. He was very low key with his approach. Just asked me if this was something I’d be interested in doing. I said yes. Funny thing is that I ended up doing three other projects with Akashic in the meantime—Iron Balloons, The Girl With the Golden Shoes, and So Much Things to Say. I should explain that Kingston Noir is not a one-off. It’s a part of an internationally famous series that began with Brooklyn Noir in 2004. Akashic [has] published over 50 titles in the series. There’s been, for example, Paris Noir, Rome Noir, Los Angeles Noir, Havana Noir, Istanbul Noir, Boston Noir and London Noir. Each story [in Kingston Noir] is set in a specific district or neighborhood of the city—Portmore, August Town, New Kingston, Downtown Kingston, Constant Spring, Mona, Half Way Tree, Norbrook, Trenchtown, Greenwich Town, and Hughenden. In other words, uptown, downtown and all around town.

LU: You divided the book into three sections, each with its own theme song. How does each section relate to each song?

CC: The book is divided into three sections. This is true. This division came about after the list of stories had been finalized. It was up to me to name the sections. Using the names of reggae songs just seemed to make sense. The sections are “Hard Road To Travel,” “Is This Love?” and “Pressure Drop.” It would take too much time to go into a description of each story. In fact, I think doing so would dampen the experience of reading the book. What I can tell you though is that some of Jamaica’s most acclaimed writers are collected here, and also that they’re joined by two guest-writers from Nigeria and the UK. Here are some of the names—Marlon James, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction; Chris Abani, winner of the PEN Hemingway Book Prize; Patricia Powell, winner of a PEN New England Discovery Award; and Ian Thomson, winner of the W.H. Heinemann Award from the Royal Society for Literature.

LU: I can’t believe that there is no meaning whatsoever behind the songs you used to name the sections. Come on Colin.

CC: Well, if you put it that way, big man, let me put it like this. The four stories in Hard Road To Travel all involve characters who are on the move. The stories in Is This Love? all have something to do with twisted affection. The three stories in Pressure Drop are all about people in really, really tough life and death dilemmas.

LU: So, you were like Lee “Scratch” Perry running a production session for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd or Joe Gibbs on Kingston Noir. Some people never made it past the audition, and some got recorded but never got released. Talk about some of the reasons why some never made it onto the album Kingston Noir.

CC: No anthology is ever able to include all the stories that are sent in. Sometimes it is a matter of a piece being too long or too short. Sometimes it is a matter of subject and tone. Noir fiction must be dark in its outlook, even when it has a comic spark. Sometimes it is a matter of writers running out of time to revise. Sometimes it is a matter of writers not wanting to revise for reasons that are very personal to them. These general reasons explain why some stories—even really good ones—didn’t make it into Kingston Noir. In the final analysis, it came down to this—I wanted to produce a classic, a work that people will come back to time after time. So some really hard decisions were made.

Photo: Melvin Calender

LU: Is it healthy to have a book of “noir” out there about a city with a reputation for violence? And did you have any detractors?

CC: Kingston was selected to be a part of the series because it is a fascinating place, because it is a city that hundreds of millions of people around the world find interesting. In other words, it was included for the same reason that London or Rome or Paris were. Underworlds exist in all cities. People make moral compromises with dark consequences all over the globe. But there is something culturally, and socially, and politically, and artistically specific about Kingston that makes it stand out. The series would be incomplete without it. Detractors? Not that I know of.

LU: What do you hope people will learn or realize about Kingston and Colin Channer after reading Kingston Noir?

CC: I hope they realize that Kingston is urgently beautiful and painstakingly complex. I hope that realize that Colin Channer loves this place as much as he hates it, which is his way of saying it’s his home.

Visit the Akashic Books website for information on upcoming readings with Colin, and other Kingston Noir events.