Up Close and Personal with Award Winning Author Marlon James
Article By Shelah Moody
Photos by Lee Abel
“From Jamdown to Boogie Down; hope you enjoy the trip.” –Marlon James
This fall, acclaimed Jamaican author Marlon James arrived in San Francisco on the heels of winning the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his third novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (Riverhead Books). James made history as the first Jamaican to receive the coveted award.
During his visit, the Kingston -born Minnesota resident had a chance to check out some Burmese food in the city and found a rare Verve recording at Amoeba record store in the historic Haight Ashbury district. James, who is openly gay, joked about the prospects of finding a husband in San Francisco.
Most importantly, on the evening of Oct. 26, in conversation with author Marie Mockett, James read passages from “A Brief History of Seven Killings” to a packed house at Green Apple Bookstore SF. In a time when bookstores are closing around the country and readers are downloading their literature on Kindle, James’ fans lined up for autographs, some of whom had purchased three books at a time.
At 45, with three novels, including “John Crow’s Devil” and “The Book of Night Women,” under his belt, James, graduate of the University of the West Indies, is at the top of the literary world. “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” along with the U.K.’s Man Booker Prize, has so far earned the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, The Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction and the Green Carnation Prize. “Seven Killings” has already been optioned for a movie by a major outlet.
“I’ve never been so emotionally invested in someone winning the Man Booker Prize; I was overjoyed when you won,” Mockett said to James. “I think the world of you and your work. I’m glad you are here today to discuss this incredibly difficult text.”
“A History of Seven Killings” is not your typical novel. James writes about a Jamaica most outsiders do not get to see, including the poverty, psychological pain, homophobia, class and color divisions and political wars and drug wars. The violence described by James in the book is so graphic that James has been compared with filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.
“Seven Killings” is centered around the assassination attempt on music icon Bob Marley on Dec. 3, 1976 at his home at 56 Hope Road (now the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston). Willingly and unwillingly caught up in the frightening plot are ghetto gunmen, gang leaders, CIA agents, journalists, politician, musicians and groupies. Bob Marley is referred to as the “Singer,” a national prophet and hero in the novel who embodies all of the country’s dreams and also, its frustrations. “A Brief History of Seven Killings” moves from Jamaica to New York and Miami and spans 30 years as Jamaican gang violence and turf wars spread to the U.S. Reggae artists such as The Mighty Diamonds, Dennis Brown, and Gregory Isaacs and of course, Bob Marley, are part of the soundtrack.
“If anything, this novel is about the severing of the link between the ghosts and the spirits and the living. In the absence of that link, everything sort of falls apart.”—Marlon James
James seamlessly toggles between the world of the living and the dead, and lines are blurred between dream and reality. One of “Seven Killings” most important characters, is Sir Arthur Jennings, a deceased politician.
James described Jennings as an eternal Cassandra that nobody believes.
“He represents a lot of things,” said James. “He’s slightly based on a real person in Jamaica. In a lot of ways, he was our Kennedy. A lot of people pinned a lot of hopes on him.
One day, at the Sunset Beach hotel, he was found dead at the bottom of his balcony; his neck was broken. They said he had sleeping sickness when he’d never had a history of it. The rumor has always been that he was pushed. Pretty much everybody believes that, including his family, who will not talk about it. There is always a sense that a bright hope for Jamaica died with him. I was fascinated by this man and the idea that he was taken out by someone in his own party.”
“I will probably do this for every book that I write; I always have a character who functions as a Greek chorus in my novels, mostly to keep me on track,” said James. “I’m very discursive when writing and teaching; I go all over the place.”
The voices in “A Brief History of Seven Killings” will haunt you. It will be interesting to see how Hollywood will cast narrators such as gunmen Bam Bam and Demus (who James calls a “reflective gangster”) Nina Burgess, a middle class Jamaican and who allegedly had an affair with “the Singer” and strives to escape Jamaica either on a plane or in a coffin, Josey Wales, the don of the fictional Copenhagen City, (who James described as a psychopath with a refreshing world view) and Alex Pierce, a white Midwestern journalist on assignment for “Rolling Stone” magazine. Hmm… I envision Jonah Hill in this role. In fact, I vote for singer/actress Cherine Anderson of “Dancehall Queen” fame, in the role of Nina.
According to James, who is also a creative writing professor at Macalester College in Minnesota, characters sort show up living rent free in his head and won’t leave until he gives them a story.
“In a lot of ways, this is the loosest I’ve ever written a novel,” said James. “My last novel stuck to a very classic idea of how a novel should be written.”
During their conversation, Mockett referred to “A Brief History of Seven Killings” as a post-post colonial novel. In the post-colonial novel, according to Mockett, people are finding their identity against backdrop of the imperial power.
James said that Demus and Bam Bam could be considered post-post-colonial characters.
“With Bam Bam, the overriding cultural influence is America,” said James.
James said that he does not feel any spiritual or emotional caffinity to the U.K.; even though he received a pre-British colonial education, “Sesame Street” was on TV every day. Television and radio, he said, changed everything, even though there was tons of British pop music playing .
“Jamaica is like Sri Lanka, like a lot of people in the commonwealth, you are raised to be subjects of empire– even now,” said James. “It took me a while to realize that my standard English sounded Victorian.”
During their discussion, Mockett asked James if he found himself writing differently since he settled in the U.S. in 2008.
“Oh yes, I do think that I write differently,” said James. “Even with “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” I feel like the Jamaican half is very different from the American half. There are more literary flights of fancy in the American half. I didn’t realize it until a Jamaican friend pointed it out to me. There is a bigger sense of freedom; there are things I wouldn’t write in Jamaica, like I don’t think I’d write a novel with back to back scenes of hot gay sex. And they are hot!”
Some of James’ greatest literary influences are Salman Rushdie, Virginia Wolfe and Marguerite Duras, author of the “North China Lover.” James said that Duras was the inspiration for the Weeper, a gang enforcer, gunman and drug trafficker who masks his homosexuality with bravado.
“Weeper, being such a dangerous character but also being such an emotionally vulnerable person, would be the type of guy who would stage manage everything, including his own sex,” said James.
James, who received his master’s degree in creative writing from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania in 2006, said that he is fascinated by language and dialect and writes passages of the novel in the Jamaican patois specific to each character. James has been praised for the way he writes his female characters, and Nina Burgess is a shining example in “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”
“Nina’s entire life is her reeling from something from which she’s really isn’t quite sure what happened,” said James. “It isn’t set in stone that anybody would have been coming after her—spoiler alert. Nina’s world view is very much mine, right to the point where education almost seems like a betrayal, because we were so fully educated and equipped and given nothing to do with it. There are tons of Ninas. I in a lot of ways was a Nina.”
Stay tuned for James’ next novel, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf.”