A Conversation with Marlon James

A Conversation with Marlon James

Sunday, October 18, 2015

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The 2015 Booker Prize winner talks books, politics, and how the idea developed for his award-winning novel

Last Tuesday, author Marlon James became the first Jamaican winner of the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction with a "vivid, violent, exuberant and expletive-laden novel", A Brief History of Seven Killings, based on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. James was awarded the £50,000 prize during a black-tie dinner at London's medieval Guildhall.

James beat five other authors, including two Americans: Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler, for the multi-generational family saga A Spool of Blue Thread, and Hawaiian writer Hanya Yanagihara for A Little Life, the story of four male friends, one of whom is a survivor of horrific child abuse.

The other finalists were British writer Sunjeev Sahota's immigrants' story The Year of the Runaways; the fratricide fable The Fishermen, by Nigeria's Chigozie Obioma; and British writer Tom McCarthy's digital drama Satin Island.

A Brief History of Seven Killings charts political violence in Jamaica and the spread of crack cocaine in the US, and hinges on a 1976 attempt on the life of reggae superstar Marley - identified in the book only as "The Singer." The story is told in a cacophony of voices - from gangsters to ghosts, drug dealers to CIA agents - and in dialects ranging from American English to Jamaican patois.

The 44-year-old James, who teaches creative writing at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on winning said he hoped his victory would bring "more attention to what's coming out of Jamaica and the Caribbean, because I think there are some brand-new voices coming out who are exploring contemporary society, who are exploring what's beyond politics, what's beyond colonialism".

The following is a previously unpublished long-distance telephone interview that took place on the publication of A Brief History of Seven Killings between Bookends writer Alecia McKenzie from her home base in Paris and James at his home in Minneapolis.

Alecia McKenzie (AM): Congratulations on the book. There's so incredibly much happening on the Caribbean literary scene now. How do you see this?

Marlon James (MJ): Yes, I think that in some way there's a kind of a boom. But I remember when people were talking about a boom in African writing, I would think, yeah, but Caribbean writers have always been productive - both in the Diaspora and among people who stay in the Caribbean. There's always been a sizable number of people writing. I have a ritual when I go to a reading, particularly if there are Jamaicans in the audience, I just start the roll call of names. And at the end of it I go: those are the people you're not reading. We've come a long way. But think of all the people who have been coming out of nowhere and writing brilliant books ...

AM: I think that now there's an unprecedented explosion of literary talent across the region...

MJ: I think we're the first generation to come out of the sort of post-colonial yoke and that's one of the reasons why I really reject that term, certainly when anybody calls me that. I'm not influenced by post-colonial at all. Most of us, if we were colonised, we were colonised mentally and economically by the US. So the sort of dialogue between us and the Mother Country, or the rejection of dialogue between us and the Mother Country, we care about neither. Do some of that linger? Yes, some of it still lingers. In some ways, even though it's not a Caribbean book, The Dead Yard by Ian Thompson reminds us, in a lot of ways, how much we're still kind of latched on to colony and colonial mentality. But I mean that's the people, not the writers, and I think that even when we write about the past, we're writing it with different lenses, we're writing it certainly without a sort of defend-the-Mother-Country or respond to the Mother Country. There are other things to think about and other things to care about, and I think our idea of identity in a lot of ways is somehow more explicitly Jamaican and more explicitly Caribbean than it would have been 50 years ago. I think that a Jamaican reading To Sir With Love now will find nothing in it that resonates.

AM: Well, I would disagree with you on that. Maybe the Jamaicans who go to the US have a different experience, but our Jamaican community in Paris could certainly identify with the themes in that book, and Caribbean people in Europe know this. It's still there.

MJ: That is depressing.

AM: Yeah, that is depressing. I know other people who have come here and taught, and they could tell you similar stories, even young people. I studied in the States and I've taught in Europe, so I can do the comparison, and some of those themes are still relevant. Then again, when you see what is happening in the States, with young black men being shot by police, that's the other reality as well. Maybe people can empathise more...

MJ: It may also be just the devil that you're used to...

AM: Exactly.

MJ: But I also think, though, that with some of those older novels there's an idea of what literature is, and that idea was specifically Victorian-English-led. That even up to the Sixties or Seventies, something like dialect was still something you used at a distance, or you do it in a highly stylised way, or you do it in a way that was still kind of drawing attention to it, as opposed to just owning it.

AM: Right. I see what you're saying.

MJ: I think that's one of the things that's different.

AM: Let me ask you - you studied lit at UWI, right? So who were your influences?

MJ: I don't think I'll ever get out of the Toni Morrison influence, and why would I want to? So certainly Toni Morrison; in particular, Song of Solomon and Sula. Lots of Salmon Rushdie. Salmon Rushdie's Shame in particular totally changed my whole career trajectory as a writer. From the Caribbean, certainly lots of Earl Lovelace. Olive Senior ... Summer Lightning was devastating.

AM: Yes, Olive has influenced a lot of writers from the Caribbean.

MJ: I also came from a family where my parents were both into literature, so I'm hugely influenced by Shakespeare, and he'll always be the biggest influence. The American writers: lots of Mark Twain, in particular Huckleberry Finn. In terms of owning dialect and writing with dialect, I got that from Huckleberry Finn, actually. There are so many more ... James Joyce's Dubliners. Gabriel Garcia Marquez of course, and certainly a lot of the modern 20th-century American lit. Like Hemingway ... Well, not really Hemingway. More like Faulkner. Certainly lots and lots of Faulkner. Of all the writers, the one who I always end up coming back to before starting a book is Faulkner.

AM: That's interesting. What about Naipaul and Walcott? Have they sort of entered your consciousness at all?

MJ: You know, Walcott entered my consciousness mostly as an adult reader. Part of that is my fault, part of that I think is not. When I was in high school, the only Naipaul you read was Miguel Street. Matter of fact it's because Naipaul so explicitly rejected the Caribbean, I think the Caribbean explicitly rejected him and it got reflected in the school curriculums. So, most of the Naipaul I found, I found on my own. By the time I read him, it was nearly too late for him to be an influence. What I liked about Naipaul, actually, is the way in which he can enter a situation, especially in his non-fiction, and in a very short time just nail it. There are ways in which The Middle Passage is sadly still true. (He) updated it with some new chapters. The new chapters went a lot into Jamaican gun violence, Jamaican gangland violence. He updated it with the JLP coming into power and the PNP coming back into power and just the general malaise and dismay that was going on in Jamaica. But it also was the first time that followed up on the guys, the men, who tried to kill Marley, and that to me was really fascinating, including his take on what happened to them. And that's stuff that Jamaicans know. On one hand, a lot of stuff that's in that book comes to a lot of Jamaicans as a shock, but a lot of Jamaicans already know and it's something that's already been documented. But again, just because it's documented doesn't mean that Jamaicans will know it... I became really fascinated with that. But writing about just the killers themselves didn't really take me anywhere... One of the reasons why the novel turned into this big thing is because I started to read novels with multiple characters, novels where several characters tell one story, like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and James Ellroy's American Tabloid or Charles Dickens' Bleak House. Even Tolstoy. But I just started to think wider. The other thing that was a big influence is not a novel at all, but an essay. There's an essay that I teach in my non-fiction class that Gay Talese wrote, called "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." It's a legendary essay, considered the best piece of journalism of the 20th century, and that's loaded, but I actually agree with it. What happened is Talese went to interview Sinatra, but Sinatra wouldn't talk to him, and he kept trying and trying to get an interview and Sinatra wouldn't talk to him. They kept saying, "Sinatra has a cold." So what he did is he just forgot Sinatra and started to interview everybody around him. Not just people close to him but the maid who turned his sheets, the daily cook who made him a meal, the person who owns a restaurant which he was in on Friday, and a whole different kind of portrait of Sinatra emerged by not talking to him at all. So you end up with a perception of the person and events of the time from all the people on the periphery as opposed to the people in the centre of the action. And that just became the novel. It became a very big thing. Even one of the executions of one of the Jamaican characters is told from the point of view of the Chicago-born executer, not the Jamaican. ... I became really fascinated by that. What are the other narratives that somehow end up being, end up clashing with this singular event. We all know how was the shooting to Bob Marley, and how the shooting was for Rita Marley. But how was the shooting for somebody who was in the bus stop across the street? Or the people who lived in that townhouse complex by the fence? How did they process it? Sometimes without even knowing it, you can have an impact on somebody's life, negative or positive, that reverberates for years, and you have no idea that you did that. Like picking on somebody in school and then moving on and not realising that what you did to that person at 13 shaped everything they became for the rest of their lives ...

AM: Have you been surprised by all the positive reviews so far?

MJ: I'm always surprised when I get positive reviews. I think that's just my defence mechanism. I expect the worse and when I get something good, it's wonderful.

But I don't know if it's surprise … you're sort of taken off-guard because, you know, writing is a pretty solitary thing. I don't write thinking of what the reviews are gonna be, because you just don't have time. It's more sort of a jolt even when the reviews are good because you go, oh, it's a public thing now, it's out there. You spend 10 years writing, or even if you spend two months writing a short story, one of those months, the story only existed as something in your head. And then it becomes something on your laptop, your writing pad or so on, it's still something that's barely, at the most, five feet away from you. So when that just gets thrown out into the world, you're kinda still outside with your pants down and people going: that's really nice underwear. But your pants are still down.

AM: Let's talk a little bit about gender, because there's a lot of discussion about this in the literary world. I consider (a famous Jamaican author who paved the way for many) to be one of the best writers from the Caribbean. Do you think she would be more acclaimed internationally if she had been male?
MJ: I don't think so... Certainly when I was trying to sell my first book, I realised that a lot of publishers, major publishers, just didn't think the Caribbean was something to look at. Even when I was shopping around my first novel, one person actually said “the Caribbean isn't in this year”.
AM: Really?
MJ: So I think some of it is the mainstream press not paying enough attention. I don't think she would have succeeded more if she were male. If that were the case, then Earl Lovelace would be on to his fifth bestseller by now. I think it's the industry. I think the industry has a very narrow idea about books. But also, the industry sometimes can't get past its old practices. The only time they'll get behind, for example, a collection of short fiction, even if it's absolutely brilliant, is if they feel a novel is coming soon. One exception to the rule is Jhumpa Lahiri, who came out of nowhere, with Interpreter of Maladies. But she's really easily marketable. She lives in Brooklyn, she is beautiful, there are lots of non-literary things that the American star machinery can latch onto. So it can also be that as a writer, she doesn't fit their star machinery. We Jamaicans sometimes … I think the fact that some of us grew up with pretty stable lives - I mean even now, I can still hear the disappointment when people realise I didn't come from the ghetto. It's not sexy. I did an interview with an Italian journalist when Dudus was caught, and he started, without even asking me: “As someone who wrote himself out of the ghetto, who saved himself by the power of the pen, as opposed to the power of the gun …”
AM: Oh my goodness.
MJ: You know, I grew up in Portmore, and in Portmore the thing you worry most about is if water was going to lock off. I was watching Sesame Street the whole time, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I don't come from that culture.
AM: Well, Marlon, I'm really disappointed … The only reason I'm interviewing you is … no, I'm joking.
MJ: (Laughter). No, but even now, somebody will call me - a publicist - and when I tell them, they go “oh oka-ay. Oh”. I say: people, get out of this.
AM: It's funny you should say that, though, because on the other hand I get this thing of being a “middle-class writer”, from people who don't have a clue about my background, and I could tell them some stories that would maybe surprise them. But people just assume things.
MJ: Yeah. Yes. Jamaica is small, and you know everything. At one time, both of my parents were police. But it doesn't matter what class you came from, if you were growing up in Jamaica in the Seventies, you didn't escape. There was nowhere to escape, so those things are still real. I remember when Bob Marley got shot, I remember when the PNP member of parliament Roy McCann got shot. I remember what it meant. It meant that now it was open season. It wasn't just people in West Kingston killing each other. They were moving uptown. I know the fear. I remember when people were talking about Home Guard, and Home Guard must have meant the police couldn't do the job. So you didn't escape it, no matter what strata of society you were in. But I still think the publishing industry has these narratives that they like. And (some writers) don't fit into that easy narrative … But they still look at this thing as marketing to just what they were looking for. I mean my first book was rejected 78 times … It's really tricky figuring it out. Sometimes I think publishers have an idea, and a lot of times they're wrong, about what is a book with international potential. And who writes in a way, that even if you're writing about a hut in Clarendon, it's written in a way that somebody in Russia can relate and identify … I think sometimes publishers don't think about some of these works from countries tap into these sorts of universal things that we can relate to. That, of course, is highly subjective. And nine times out of 10, they're wrong.
A.M.: Well, the self-publishing industry is proving some people wrong. Thanks for this.
MJ: Great talking to you.

-- Alecia McKenzie is an author, journalist and artist who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but is now based in France. Her books are, Satellite City, winner of the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean), When the Rain Stopped in Natland, a novella for young readers that has been included on the literacy programme in several schools, Doctor's Orders, a novella for teenagers, Stories From Yard, and her latest, Sweetheart, which was in May 2012 announced as the Caribbean regional winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize 2012.

She is also the founder and editor of Southern World Arts News (SWAN), an online cultural magazine devoted to the arts from the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America, South Asia and elsewhere.

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