The cliche that truth is stranger than fiction is true. It turns out that one of the main characters in Diana McCaulay’s 2010 novel Dog-Heart was inspired by none other than Christopher ‘Dog Paw’ Linton, who was taken into custody by the security forces on January 24th after topping the most wanted list of the police for several months. Day before yesterday Jamaica Defence helicopters hovered in the air for hours during the operation that netted Linton. After the first hour their incessant buzzing receded to the background like a dull but persistent headache. The University of the West Indies, where i’m based is right next door to Elletson Flats where Dog Paw was eventually found and arrested. We are squarely in the middle of the Dog Paw Gang’s turf which covered Kintyre, Papine, August Town and its environs.
I knew that the novel which i got to read in manuscript form way back in 2006 had been inspired by several street youth that McCaulay, an environmental activist, had tried to rehabilitate in the 1990s. She had written about that experience in her Gleaner columns, detailing her despair when the young boys she had tried to send to school eventually reverted to the streets. There are several co-incidences: the names Dog-Heart and Dog Paw for instance; also one of the illegal operations Dog Paw has been accused of is sand-mining. In the novel sand-mining is what sustains the young boys.
In March 2010 on the eve of the Kingston launch of Dog-Heart I had interviewed Diana on my blog:
AP: How were you able to get into the head of an impoverished street youth? I know you had tried in the nineties, when you wrote a Gleaner column, to help one or two such youth? Is this novel inspired by those attempts? And did you have any success with the boys you tried to rescue from the street?
DM: In a sense, Dog-heart was inspired by my relationship with a family of boys and their mother in the 1990s, my attempts to help, but the events and people in Dog-heart are entirely fictional – nothing in Dog-heart really happened and the people are quite different from that family. But during that period I did observe many aspects of their lives and realized how difficult their circumstances were. It was humbling – people of my class tend to dismiss people like Dexter and his mother, Arleen, as, I don’t know, wasters, wut’less, stupid. But what I saw was something different – I saw people, children, trying their best to survive situations that I was sure would have defeated me. So I started thinking about it, imagining what it would really be like. Dog-Heart also had its genesis in a writer’s workshop at Good Hope, back in 2003 – we were asked to write a short piece from the point of view of someone of a different age, class, race, background and sex – and I wrote what became chapter two of Dog-Heart. I sent it as a short story called Car Park Boy to Caribbean Writer, they published it, and I decided the seeds of a novel were in there. So I kept working on it.
As for the boys I did try to help, that’s a fairly sad story, one I am not sure I am ready to talk about, because it is their story to tell too. I often wonder about what THEY thought at the time. I lost track of the family when I went to study in Seattle in 2000 – but when I came back to Jamaica in 2002, I learned from one of the boys’ teachers that the eldest boy had been killed by the police in a prison riot. And funnily enough, recently a friend encountered the youngest boy – who is now a man – and we are to get together – hasn’t happened yet.
Yesterday, I learnt that the elusive Dog Paw was one of the boys Diana had tried to rescue. I assumed that he was the model for Dexter, the protagonist of Dog-Heart, but i was wrong. His older brother Jeffrey, since brutally murdered, was the inspiration for Dexter. It is Marlon, Dexter’s younger brother in the novel who was modeled off Christopher Linton. Marlon is a lovely young boy, brimming with hope and wonder and trust, not unlike the child who became Dog Paw and who was eight years old when Diana entered his family’s life. Please read on for my interview with Diana today about the Dog Paw she knew and Dog-Heart, her novel.
DM: Hi Annie, I will try and answer your questions, but I want to tell you a few things before I start. First, obviously I have known Christopher Linton was one of Jamaica’s most wanted men since just after Dog-Heart came out in March 2010. I have never talked publicly about it, though, for various reasons — mostly respect for his privacy and that of his family, and not wanting to use a tragic story for opportunistic book publicity. So when people have asked me about this– Jamaica is a small place, after all — I have answered truthfully, I really didn’t want to lie about it, but have also asked them not to discuss it in public. I’ve decided to talk about it now because I have seen such horrible comments about Christopher on websites, Facebook, and heard them in conversation – things like, the police shoulda kill him, him is worse than a dawg and the like. I’ve decided to speak because I knew this young man, Christopher Linton –- Damien was his pet name -– from he was about eight until he was nearly fifteen or so and he was a sweet, very intelligent little boy with great potential and he was failed in every way by our society.
We need to stop pretending that such men are merely irredeemably evil and are simply to be exterminated. We need to understand what made the boy Christopher Linton become the man he is. I want to state clearly that I am appalled by the crimes he is accused of, and if he is guilty and convicted, he should be incarcerated. I want to say that like most Jamaicans, I am deeply concerned about the levels of crime in our society, I am as afraid as the next person especially as I get older, and I do not want to face a young man with a gun who is prepared to take my life without thought, but also, I want to challenge us as a people to examine the reasons for, the genesis of a young man like Christopher, one of our own sons, now effectively facing the fact that his life is over at 24, even as he and others must deal with his probable or certain role in ending the lives of some of his fellow Jamaicans. It is all an unspeakable tragedy.
AP: You’ve said that the protagonist in your first novel Dog-Heart was loosely modelled on Christopher ‘Dog Paw ‘Linton whom you had tried to rescue from the streets in the 90s when he was an adolescent. When did you find out that the young boy you knew had become a wanted gang leader and was none other than the Dog Paw the police have been searching for since last May?
DM: No, Dexter – the protagonist in Dog-Heart – was not modelled on Christopher Linton. What I have said is that I was involved in the education of four boys from the August Town area, beginning in the early 1990s and ending in roughly 2002. One of them – the second oldest – was Christopher Linton. His elder brother, Jeffrey Jones, was beaten to death while in prison during a prison riot in roughly 2002 or 3. None of the characters in Dog-Heart are the real people – I guess the best way I can put it is that the actual experience of becoming involved with these four boys started me thinking about the whole situation I was witnessing, experiencing, living through and I sat down to write a novel inspired by these real events. But the people in Dog-Heart, the events that occur in the book, I sat at my computer and made them up. As soon as Christopher’s name was mentioned in the newspapers, I knew who he was – I can’t remember how long ago that was, but probably more than a year.
AP: You’ve emphasized that “the events and people in Dog-heart are entirely fictional – nothing in Dog-heart really happened and the people are quite different from that family” but are there any similarities between them? For instance Dexter, the central character in your novel who grows into the gangster Matrix is portrayed as someone who is loving, sensitive and bright but who ultimately cannot overcome the internecine circumstances of the life he was born into. People have commented on the fact that Dog Paw comes across as well-educated and well-spoken. Did he actually graduate from school? What school did you send him to?
DM: When I say that the entire system failed Christopher, one example of that is the education system. When I met him when he was about eight, he was completely illiterate – and he was in school – but he could not recognize or spell simple three letter words. After just under four years in a good prep school – St. Hugh’s – he passed his G-SAT for Jamaica College. So yes, he graduated from St. Hugh’s. As I said before, he was a very bright boy, I am sure he is an intelligent man. He floundered at Jamaica College – he was in a very small remedial class at St. Hugh’s and at JC, he was suddenly in a class of 40-plus. Within a year or so, he was asked to leave as he had not met the minimum academic standard. The school also reported he wasn’t attending regularly, wasn’t doing his assignments. We got him into another secondary school, but within less than a year, his grades were so bad that the sponsors I had found were unwilling to continue to fund his education. I should say that initially myself and my then boyfriend funded the education of the four boys, but when I left my private sector job to work at an environmental NGO, I had to find other help and for many years, the education of the boys was paid for by overseas Jamaicans and local business people. So think about it, at just over fourteen or maybe fifteen, Christopher was out of school, with no prospects, no programme to learn a trade or anything – and then, his brother was killed – beaten to death – while in police custody. I imagine the rage and pain he must have been in – his entire family must have been in – and I am sure this event had something to do with the path his life then took.
AP: Linton has claimed in an Observer interview that he knows nothing of the charges the police want to lay against him. Do you think he’s being framed? He is very young—only 24—to be such a dangerous gang leader. Have you talked to him at all since your novel came out? Do you know if he’s read it? Have you been in touch with the rest of his family?
DM: I have no idea if he’s being framed or if he committed the crimes he is accused of. He IS very young. I haven’t talked to him, no. When I went to Seattle in 2000 I lost track of him and his family. When I came back, I learned of Jeffrey’s death, contacted Jamaicans for Justice, who had spoken to his mother, saw one of the teachers at St. Hugh’s who had been very involved with all four boys, and she told me that Christopher was no longer living at home and was in a gang. It was then that I started to think about the whole experience, question my own opinions, my own prescriptions that education is the answer, and eventually those thoughts became Dog-Heart.
AP: Linton has made an impression in interviews of someone who is very intelligent, articulate and educated. Did you see hints of this in him when you first met and is that what made you want to try and help him out of the ghetto?
DM: I didn’t meet Christopher first. It was really his brother, Jeffrey, who impressed me, and it was he we set out to help. To this day, I couldn’t tell you why he touched me in the way he did, compared to the many other children I have encountered in similar circumstances. I met Christopher and his brothers subsequently – and we then realized that we could not single out one child in the family for help, but had to make sure they all got the same assistance. I can only say again that Christopher was a sweet little boy with great potential who I remember and think about with fondness and I find the situation now unbearably sad, both for him and if he is guilty, for those he hurt or killed.
AP: I hope that finally Dog-Heart will get the attention it deserves. It is in effect the first document that seriously explores the conditions that influence the formation of characters such as Dog Paw; actually another novel that also does this is For Nothing at All by Garfield Ellis but of course it does so differently. You have tried so hard to change the environment that we all inhabit, in more ways than one, not merely as an environmental activist but by drawing attention to the systemic handicaps children such as Dexter suffer, are you at all frustrated by the lack of real change? What do you think it will take to produce an environment in which children are not exposed to such callousness and cruelty?
DM: Well, I’m not talking about this because of Dog-Heart. I’m talking about this, because I want to say, look, I knew this man when he was a child, this man who is easy to hate, easy to demonize, but he did not come out of the womb like that, that he was a child who never had enough, ever, not one day of his life. Yes, I’m very frustrated by the lack of real change in Jamaica, by the weakness and lack of integrity in our leadership, by the lack of thought we Jamaicans ourselves bring to these problems, by the level of national discourse, by the way as Mutty has always said, we trivialize our politics, it’s all a big party to us. I don’t know what it will take to bring about real change – where this particular issue is concerned, I have no expertise, I’m just a witness, a storyteller.
AP: The title of your novel doesn’t necessarily refer to the protagonist Dexter, or does it? I got the impression it more fit his friend ‘Lasco’ who seemed irredeemably ‘bad’. So were you referring to a metaphorical ‘Dog-heart’, a system that turns young children into dog-hearted killers? as an aside i wonder why or how the term ‘dog-heart’ came into being, are dogs really like that?
DM: Dog-Heart doesn’t refer to any particular person in the novel. It’s a reference to dog-heartedness, that quality that we Jamaicans talk about, recognize and react to with such revulsion. So yes, the title is more of a metaphorical frame for the subject of the novel. I don’t actually believe in dog-heartedness. I have no idea how the term came about – a linguist would have to investigate – and I think the heart of a dog is generally a big warm kind heart – unless, just like people, the dog is mistreated.