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With his booming voice, Colin Channer inspires new writers

By Mara Sassoon
On September 19, 2011

Last Wednesday evening, the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence Colin Channer read from a selection of his work at the Women's Studies Research Center. The reading was the first event of the year in the School of Night reading series, a program that brings writers to campus each year to read from their works and talk to students. Previous Fannie Hurst Writers-in-Residence include such well-known authors as Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich and John Irving. Channer has formerly held residencies in Chicago, Guyana, Jamaica and Barbados, and he currently teaches English 109b: "Directed Writing Short Fiction."

Channer was born in Kingston, Jamaica and moved to New York as a teenager. His Jamaican heritage has greatly influenced many of his works. He is also the co-founder of the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust, which puts on an annual festival in Treasure Beach, Jamaica, as well as supports writing workshops and publishing seminars in the area near the festival.

In his introduction at the reading, Prof. Stephen McCauley (ENG), who is currently the associate director of Creative Writing, said that Channer is "that rarest of rarities: … a writer who has shown himself to be tirelessly, generously supportive [of ] and helpful [to] other writers." At the reading, Channer undeniably showed an appreciation of and support for his students and fans alike. Upon entering the room, he sat down among the crowd and, while waiting for his introduction, spoke candidly to two audience members who had attended another of his readings a few years ago. When asked what he enjoys about teaching creative writing, Channer replied, "The energy that [I] get from students and the opportunity to see real talent developing."

Perhaps it was emblematic of these feelings that he began by reading a piece by one of his former students, Chris Abani, that appears in So Much Things to Say, the anthology that he coedited with Kwame Dawes. The anthology contains pieces written by people who have read at the Calabash Festival over the years.

Channer then read a personal essay that he wrote in May for the Wall Street Journal that reflects on the 30th anniversary of Bob Marley's death. For Channer, Marley, "as a storyteller" is one of the great influences on his writing "because of his ability to reach out internationally while still maintaining relevance locally in his home country." In his essay, Channer revealed that something that he truly admired about Marley was that "there was no sense that [he] had been styled. … Yes, there was the grammar of American fashion in his look, but he'd disrupted that language, reshaped it, creating a ‘sty-alect.'"

In a way, Channer does something similar to this in his writing. From his personal essay on Marley to the story that he read next from his forthcoming anthology Blue Christmas, he showed a deft control and command over his characters' voices. In the Blue Christmas anthology, the stories look at Christmas in a melancholy way. The particular excerpt that he read involves a warlord who calls himself Santa. It focuses on how a little girl must cope with living in a refugee camp in the violent and war-torn area of Africa. Channer said that the people in the world who do not have the ability to write down their stories inspired him to create this character.

Listening to Channer read from his work was a truly unique experience because he evoked his characters so vividly. During the reading, he slipped in and out of his characters' different voices seamlessly—almost with an actor's flair—even when that character happened to be a little girl living in an African refugee camp. By doing so, he drew the audience in and made the stories he told present. His expert command of his characters' voices (at the heart of which is, undoubtedly, his own distinct voice) made for some very believable characters. Channer does, after all, seem to treat his characters as real people, even asking the audience at one point, "Who am I to argue with a character?"

An audience member then asked Channer how he was able to write in the voice of a little girl, and he responded, "The inheritance of human emotion belongs to all of us, … but, we have to embrace it, we have to honor it, even. … I can feel anything, I can imagine anything, and when it comes to writ[ing] this story in this girl's voice, I just had to listen … and find the music, the poetry, in that voice, but also the dignity in it." Channer certainly proved that at the foundation of a good story is characters that are simultaneously authentic and captivating.

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