One day when Colin Channer was a little boy in Kingston, Jamaica, reading comics at the back of his mother's pharmacy, a peculiar-looking man walked in. He was a member of one of the richest Lebanese families in Jamaica and he was wearing a dress. He was a large man, tall and broad, and his hands were as big as mitts. He had undergone a sex-change operation and needed to purchase some hormone pills.
After the man went out, Colin called to his mother: "Mummy. Why is a man dressed like a . . .?"
"Don't say nuttin . . .," his mother returned sharply.
At an early age, then, Channer began to wonder about the slippery nature of sexual identity. At the same time, his parents' divorce over his father's infidelity started him thinking about the difficulties of love. The complications of love, sex and gender have remained central preoccupations for Channer, whose lively exploration of these topics in books such as Waiting in Vain and Satisfy My Soul, have made him a top-selling novelist.
Born in Jamaica in 1963, Channer moved at 18 to New York, where he still lives. By day he worked as an editor for magazines such as Billboard and toiled over his fiction at night.
After Waiting in Vain appeared in 1998, readers embraced him as a sort of male Terry McMillan ( Waiting to Exhale). The overwhelming popularity of his book gave Channer the clout he needed to pursue a long-time goal: to start up a Jamaican literary festival.
Launched in 2001, and attracting thousands of visitors each year to Treasure Beach on Jamaica's southern coast, the Calabash International Literary Festival has turned Channer into one of the most influential writers in the Caribbean, the place he still regards as home.
Channer was in Toronto to promote his latest book, Passing Through. The work is a collection of linked stories that feel more sophisticated than anything else he has written, spanning the lives of men and women of various hues caught in the web of race over space and time. Love and sex remain a central theme, but spirituality in Passing Through is heightened.
In the first story, The High Priest of Love, Father Eddie, a black priest on a Caribbean island, has the urge to seduce women. But in the end he is too guilty to consummate the act. The story provides an excellent example of what Channer defines as a reggae literary style.
"In reggae, there is no argument between spiritual love and physical attraction," explains Channer, who is a secular Rastafarian. "We are spiritual beings having a human, earthly experience."
In Passing Through, and in all his work, Channer exhibits a remarkable ability to depict intimacy between black men and women. Probably no other novelist writing today produces such genuine and intoxicating portraits of black lovers. Indeed, it is difficult to find images of loving black couples anywhere in the media today.
Channer believes that reggae lyrics offer Caribbean writers a model: "The American Motown tradition is 'oooh baby baby, you're the greatest thing and I'm going to give you this and that.'
"But the Trenchtown tradition is about the complications of love. You have these working-class black men who are welders in their day jobs who can find in themselves these tender places from which to write about women in their neighbourhood. Like when Gregory Isaacs sings, 'Although she wasn't the best girl/ She brought happiness into my world.' "
Love is not just Channer's subject, it's his style. It practically oozes out of him. In conversation he negotiates that fine line between charm and flirtation. At one point he leans back in his seat, rests his foot on my chair and smiles boldly into my eyes. He doesn't merely recite me the love lyrics of songs, he sings them, breaking into a smoky, sexy tenor. In emphasizing an opinion, he adopts an affectionate-sounding patois. His mischievous brown eyes fill with passion when he addresses his favourite topics: women, literature, Jamaica and music.
Channer is the first to admit he is a lover not a fighter. But lately he has been raising hackles with his open criticisms of the earlier generation of Caribbean novelists.
He believes the region has produced marvellous poets -- Derek Walcott, of course, but also Kamau Brathwaite, Edward Baugh, Olive Senior and Kwame Dawes.
He admits there are some "very good" English-speaking Caribbean novelists as well.
But according to Channer -- and it is this opinion that ticks people off -- only two are great: V. S. Naipaul of Trinidad and Wilson Harris of Guyana.
"But what about Austin Clarke?" I ask.
"Austin is a very good novelist," he replies. Channer's "very good" sounds condescending.
How about Caryl Phillips? I press. Phillips was nominated for a Booker. "Yes, he's very good too," nods Channer. Andrea Levy: Very good. Paule Marshall: Very good. Jamaica Kincaid?
"I think Jamaica Kincaid is very, very good," he says, catching the fire in my eye. "But her works are too thin. The novel is a book form. Naipaul, on the other hand, is truly great," Channer says, "because he has produced a body of consistently good work over time, among them some classics of world literature, like A Bend in the River and A House for Mr. Biswas. Naipaul infuriates me because him don't like black people. But if I am a writer in a workshop with some students, I give them Naipaul to read because of what you can learn from him. Perfect sentences every time."
The desire to improve the region's literature is one reason Channer, along with writer Kwame Dawes, founded the Calabash festival. Channer knows he is being harsh about Caribbean writing. But he insists he is speaking out of affection and concern, that he is challenging the region to excellence.
"The novel in the English-speaking Caribbean has gotten pompous and self-inflated," he says. "It's not looking at itself relative to the output of other language groups in the area, and the wider friggin' world. That's why Calabash had to be an international festival, to give people a sense of scale. See Bell Hooks. See John Edgar Wideman. See Maryse Condé. . . . See it there. See it there. We don't reach yet." Ouch. Love hurts.