Marlon James is Not the Updike of Jamaica, and Other Revelations
The Man Booker Winner Reflects on the Year That Was, With John Freeman
Marlon James has been coming for a long time. And he won’t take no for an answer. Ten years ago, the tall, dread-locked Jamaican novelist heard no 78 times when sending out his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, before a small Brooklyn publisher (Akashic) said yes. He jokes now most of that was because “I didn’t know what I was doing”.
“I still remember the last one I got,” he recalls. ”It was a card. I was like really? There’s a ‘not for us’ card?”
It’s fair to say the world had not reserved a spot for a writer like James. He’s had to create one. The son of a lawyer and a police detective, James worked for a long time in advertising, and turned to writing with the seriousness of a man who had to write a few things out of his system.
Raised in Kingston, James had grown up reading Shakespeare and Dickens, and was beginning to tell stories that bent the laws of reality in ways his traditional education could not contain.
The novelist Kaylie Jones taught James in the Calabash Workshop, and convinced him to take his much rejected book out of the trash and work on it. “It was Kaylie who just forced me to edit and edit and edit that book,” James says.
Since then, James hasn’t looked back, turning to ever bigger canvases with each book, a self-challenge that was justly rewarded this fall as he became the first Jamaican novelist to win the Man Booker Prize and only the second writer from the Caribbean, the first being V.S. Naipaul.
James won the prize for his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, a vast and sweeping docu-novel that revolves around the failed assassination attempt of Bob Marley in December, 1976. Among its 70-plus characters are prisoners, kidnappers, mothers, cops, drug pushers, gay gangsters, bangers with names like Funky Chicken and Bam-Bam, a CIA operative, abandoned children, the beat-down, the bad.
“What kind of journalist you be if you don’t want to know the backstory?” a prisoner asks a man who visits him in the Rikers Island jail.
Drawing on several recent works of reportage as well as his own imagination, A Brief History of Seven Killings seems to ask a similar question. From the street up, James presents Jamaica in the wake of independence as a series of unraveling threads through the voices of over a dozen narrators. Moving from Kingston in the late 1950s to New York in the 1990s, the book depicts, among other things, gang wars, the island’s garrison politics, the CIA’s involvement in them, the corrosive drug trade to Miami and New York, and Jamaica’s tortured confusion over race.
Since the Prize, James has been on a world tour. I caught up with him in Vancouver, Miami, and London. Most of this conversation took place in Vancouver, where he arrived dressed in stylish jeans and a t-shirt and quickly filled the room where we were speaking with the world of Kingston he describes in his book.
John Freeman: Your mother was a police detective, did she help you find out information about this case, did she work on the case herself?
Marlon James: She didn’t work on it. In fact, I don’t think anyone worked on it. Jamaica is a lot like certain parts of India. Where we haven’t really gotten to the investigation part yet. We don’t follow the investigation with discovery, we follow it with the confession. And confession can be had any way. They still beat a confession out of you. It’s something that still happens in certain parts of India, it’s very much a part of the colonial machinery. So if you’re in India, Sri Lanka, you’re in Jamaica, you know that kind of police force. So no, they wouldn’t have investigated it. Also I feel they already knew who did it.
JF: I feel like this is a book about masculinity. And the various ways it is performed.
MF: Totally, all these men sort of jockeying for this position of Alpha male thing. Who’s gonna take over the ghetto. But it’s also complicated. Two of the richest characters in the book are both gay. And not just gay, they’re bottoms. It was me in a very very a big way fucking with the perceptions of what is masculine—it’s always this very cartoonish and extreme definition of straight, of masculinity that keeps shifting. If you go to like a dance hall—and I dare anyone to do this—you don’t need to go to a dance hall, go on YouTube and check any male dance hall act and kill all the sound and hum in your head “Vogue.” It works! It’s very ornate. It’s very delicate. It’s men dancing with men, all this waving hands thing going up and down…
JF: Obviously Marley is at the center of this book but there’s many other musical cultures.
MF: Back in the 1970s, even when Marley was around, Marley was not what you’d hear in the clubs. Marley’s not what you’d hear in the street. You’d hear Big Youth, you’d hear Dillinger, you’d hear Mighty Diamonds and U Roy, this sort of Jamaican precursor to hip-hop. And some of that comes in here, the type of free association that would happen with dance hall.
JF: It almost sounds like rhyming slang.
MF: To the point where we even take it one step further. Like if you ask me how I’m doing I’m not three bad? Cause three is after two and two rhymes with too, so it’s not three bad. If I’m gonna talk, if I’m gonna write using voice and using Jamaican voices I’m gonna write the way Jamaicans get their voices from. A huge part of that is music and musical hall culture. Because if anything I think Reggae got there first in terms of using voice, using dialogue to talk about human condition in a way. I mean… they really got there first.
JF: How did you end up working with Sean Paul?
MF: Well, I went to school with him.
JF: Ah, he was a suburb boy like you.
MF: Yeah. Yeah, he was more uptown then me. But I ended up working with him because one of my closest friends was his manager. I used to do graphic design, and I remember there was this party and everyone left but Sean. And Sean was in a back room somewhere writing lyrics and I said to my friend, his manager, “Jeremy that’s the one I want to work with.” And that’s kind of what happened. I sort of became his art director.
MF: Yeah! I was his art director. Image controller…Working with Sean was really interesting. Cause you know Sean’s a white kid, although he’d never say he was white. Sean was uptown and I was uptown and we’re all kinda uptown middle class kids we’re not, you know, we’re not authentic Reggae people.
JF: As a gay black man who’s heroes include Dickens and whose education is British and who lives within academia, what kind of aesthetic issues are you going to have to deal with going forward, what kind of shadow boxing are you going to have to do?
MF: Shit, I was always negotiating. Negotiating’s the wrong word, it was always code switching. Even on a very basic language level I do not talk this way to my friends. If you came with me to a reading in Barnes and Noble I’ll sound like this, if you follow me to a reading in deep Flatbush I’m not gonna sound like this at any point in that reading. Not even in doing the question and answer. That’s just on one thing, on a language level. There’s a time in a certain reading I wouldn’t be wearing these jeans because they’re too tight. It’s only like recently that I kinda stopped inventing versions of myself for the different areas I have to negotiate.
JF: But I guess certain escapes or disguises can be useful. I wonder if you would have been able to write this book while living in Jamaica.
MF: I don’t think so. In all sorts of reasons. I’ll pick an aesthetic one first. I don’t know if I’d gotten to the point where I’ve been so exposed to Virginia Woolf and Maurgerite Duras and a lot of that come from being around my peers at Macalester College. Modernists and Post-Modernists, which is not to say there isn’t post-modernist and modernists in Jamaica, but I wouldn’t have known them. And I was still writing books, my first two books were written in Jamaica, but both portray more of a Victorian influence than anything else. So especially the American chapters in this book, I don’t think have would happened there. Not just because they’re set in America but also because it’s the loosest prose I’ve ever written. It’s where I think I finally let go of the idea of writing a novel and just got writing. So on a very sort of aesthetic level, yeah, I don’t think I could have written it in Jamaica. In terms of content, I wouldn’t write non-stop gay sex scenes in Jamaica, someone might read it.
JF: The book I thought a lot about was Midnight’s Children. In the way Rushdie kind of moved from writing books that were Victorian in their influences (in a coded fashion) to writing something that he said, I want the noise of the place , want the noise of the language.
MF: This was not written in any quiet space. I wrote it in pretty much every café in Minneapolis. I wrote it at a train station, I wrote it when I was on tour for Night Women. I wrote it with music playing all the time. The window right behind Microsoft Word was Firefox. I’d be distracted by music, distracted by websites. I don’t recommend writing a novel like that. But that’s part of the reason why, one, it’s so discursive… I knew I had to let in as much of the world and as wide of the world. I was literally just feeding on that, it was very much a public novel.
JF: You’re now being interviewed dozens of times a day, what are the questions that you are asked about this book?
MF: I’ll never forget the interviewer who asked the question. They said, “As someone who survived the ghetto through the power of the pen…” (laughs) But I wanted to tell them, you know, I grew up middle class. You want to read how my suburban class life was, pick up Karl Knausgaard’s first book. That’s exactly… I even had the Sonic Goo t-shirt. But then the question always follows… “But how do you know?” “How do you write this?” You mean talent and imagination? Research? It’s… I mean nobody goes around thinking a professor having improper sexual relationships with students… that’s why Coetzee wrote Disgrace. The idea of that… of even thinking that, is ludicrous. But if I’d have written that book, I’d have been asked it.
JF: Spirit of ’76 was such an interesting year here. And yet, here is this book, and there have been so many other books, showing how the spirit of ’76 outside America was a very different, bad period.
MF: America in terms of foreign policy is a totally different America. And that’s the America we knew. But then contrasting that with watching Sesame Street and all this huge cultural influence. I mean I six years old, why do I know who Henry Kissinger is? Why? Why do I know this? Why, before I’m ten do I know who Larry Devlin is? Why?
JF: I wonder… John Crow’s Devil was set sort of pre-independence. This novel is sort of set in the aftermath of independence. The Book of Night Women unfolded during the period of slavery. I sometimes wonder if you’re writing a series of novels that re-mythologize Jamaica. Or are you going to resist becoming the Philip Roth of Jamaica?
MF: I’m actually waiting for Jamaica’s Updike, I know it’s not me. But I’m waiting for him. Or her. I’m very, very suspicious of writers who are on missions. Still, here’s some shit I want to get off my chest, certainly about sex and sexuality. And I’ll probably write that. Me and Colum McCann once made this pact about the novels we’ll never write. And I think we both said we’ll never write an immigrant novel, though he probably broke that. More than once. We promised never to write the college novel. We’ll never write the campus novel. We’ll never do the coming-of-age novel. But there’s still things in Jamaica I want to talk about. I mean, the short story I wrote in Kingston Noir, “Immaculate” was about one of the things I wanted to talk about. A certain class in Jamaica can get away with anything. Even though I’m going to be leaving Jamaica in the present for a while, with the stuff I’m going to write next… I actually kind of know what the next real time novel is gonna be. I kinda know already, and it’s gonna be set in New York, so I’m gonna break my rule about never writing the immigrant novel.