BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Dec. 24, 2015–A foremost Belizean novelist, playwright, poet and orator, John Alexander Watler, known for his culturally exuberant and witty masterpieces, died quietly in his sleep in Baltimore, Maryland, USA on Wednesday morning, December 23, at the age of 77.
According to Watler, he was born on November 6, 1938 in Monkey River, Stann Creek. Although he has been living in the USA for several years now, he always considered Belize his only home.
Watler, who received a diploma in journalism in 1995, wrote, in a short chronicle of his life story:
“I began writing at the tender age of 13 when a schoolmaster told me I had a special talent for writing. He encouraged me with private lessons in English and grammar; I excelled in both in elementary school and high school.
“My parents could not afford to send me to a college but the writing bug was within me and I pursued knowledge with a passion, mostly by reading the great books of the Western World and anything else that I could lay hands on.
“At 18, I got a shot at newspaper reporting and knew that I wanted to become a journalist. At the age of 20, my first short story was dramatized over the country’s only radio station and the review was raving.”
Although he wrote many engaging short stories over the years, his first novel was published when he was in his 60s. The birth of Cry Among Rain Clouds: The Belize Detective, began a new era in his life, which has spanned almost two decades.
Since Watler’s passing, there has been an outpouring of condolences and fond remembrances of his works, among them novels such as The Banjuju Tribe, Cry Among Rainclouds, Sea Lotto, The Bomba Codex, Blue Hole, Renaissance, Antics, and Boss of Dangriga.
Some of Watler’s most outstanding stage performances brought to life unique compositions such as “Wapye’s Letter”, “One Foot Was Pushed”, and ”Sunkutu’s UFO Experience”, which are featured in the works.
In a short bio published by the Belize National Library and Information Service, John Watler is revered as “a folk hero … highly honored in Belize for keeping Belizean Creole culture alive at a time when it was most unpopular to do so.”
The Institute of Creative Arts, an arm of the National Institute of Culture and History, said that universities in the US, including Texas A&M, Marlborough College and Sterling College, have hosted John Alexander Watler as literary performer.
Watler was also recognized with the Gold Medal Award in 1978 by National Festival of Arts: Historic Narrative; the National Poetry Contest Award in 1999 by National Institute of Cultural and History; and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011/2012, in Chicago, Illinois.
In 2005, Watler released an audio CD with three of his stories: The epic poem – The Story of Belize City, “While they fight/I write”, and “The Grand Tour of Monkey River”.
“I am getting old and there is so much request for me to put my work out so that more people can hear some of my writings and some of my poems and things like that. This is a very good time to do it, especially since I am ill with my heart and I gotta go take an operation in Cuba, I am putting out this CD to raise some money so that I can do what I need to do,” Watler had told us.
His friend, Curtis Gillett, who remembers him as a “soldier,” said in announcing Watler’s death via Facebook on Wednesday that, “Only a year ago this week, he was released from hospital in Glendale, CA following successful quadruple bypass surgery.”
Karl Villanueva, who edited The Bomba Codex, which Watler co-authored with Michael Robateau, said of Watler on his passing:
“John Alexander Watler does not fit the mold of a university-trained intellect, but I found him to be one of the most learned individuals I’ve met. He wrote more than one million words. Before he died, he had recently been robbed of a computer with an unfinished novel, Calypso Coup, that had 65,000 words. This novel and other recent works are now lost.”
Villanueva remembers Watler as “a national treasure that was overlooked by those who could not grasp his value to our society and mankind.”
Watler, he said, lived a minimal life with a small footprint, but his imprint will outlive even us, because he is published.
“He used all his energy and talent in every waking moment. He was not lazy. John Alexander Watler ruffled a few feathers along the way, but we must admit it is tough to keep up with a genius,” remarked Villanueva.
Among his gifts was his ability to commit his long plays to memory. Watler told us once that he had a photographic memory and that he had memorized all his dramatic works, including some of his monologues that are over an hour long.
He recalled that when he was a student at Lynam Agricultural College in Stann Creek, he would memorize poems his teacher gave him in as little as 20 minutes.
I once wrote of him as “Belize’s own Mark Twain.”
Rest in peace, John Alexander Watler.