Marlon James: An Immersive First Monday

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A report by Zascha Fox for The Catalyst.

Colorado College’s First Monday’s speakers are intended to provide academic and intellectual stimulation for students at the start of every block. Jamaican novelist Marlon James, Block 2’s selected speaker, was no exception. James is the author of three books, his most recent being “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” for which he was awarded the Man Booker Prize. The book covers several decades in time and chronicles the assassination attempts on Bob Marley. 

Many students and faculty however, feel that they lack context for the First Monday’s speeches, and don’t have enough information to get excited about it. The “Mixtape” event on Sept. 20 aimed to do just that—give people a taste of what’s to come next block and make sure that students and faculty already feel invested in the story. 

The “Mixtape” began with an introduction to James’ life to give a background for the rest of the event. He was born in Jamaica into a middle class family, and grew up with a strong international influence. Contrary to popular belief, he was not raised in a crime-ridden setting. He even says in his book, “There was never a single murder in my neighborhood; there was barely a robbery. It was so suburban that it was almost disappointing.” 

The novel itself takes place in 1976 Jamaica, just as reggae was “making its way to the world’s stage.” The Rolling Stones, along with other musical groups, were in Kingston trying to harness some of Bob Marley’s sound. The country was in huge political unrest, and it was a dangerous time to be identified with any party, or with neither. James cites William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” as “an important key for how to tell this story,” through the voices of various people all in Jamaica at this time. Contrary to what the title may suggest, there is nothing brief about this history. In fact, the novel serves as an expansion of the events in question.

The “Mixtape” consisted of various students and faculty readings, each one taking the persona of a voice in the novel and telling the story from their point of view. “We never actually hear the voice of the singer, but the music of the singer surrounds the whole novel,” described the speaker for James’ introduction. 

The first speaker, senior Soeren Walls, took the voice of Sir Arthur George Jennings, a deceased former politician. Jennings strongly emphasized that he was dead. “The dead never stop talking, and sometimes the living hear,” he stated.

Senior Alec Sarche depicted Barry DeFlorio, the CIA station chief in Jamaica. DeFlorio lamented the “big reggae guy” and all of the extra work that he was causing for the CIA.  The next two speakers were both members of CC faculty. Theater Professor Idris Goodwin depicted Bam Bam, a Jamaican gang member, while Dance Professor Anusha Kedhar took the role of Nina Bridges, a former receptionist (currently unemployed). Bridges speculated on the high chance of a shooting at Bob Marley’s event. “Tomorrow is the peace concert, and all it will take is one shot, even just one fired into the air,” she said.

One of the final speakers represented Alex Pierce, a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. While he had written stories on musicians for his whole career, Pierce described the situation in Jamaica as “a version of hell that twists and turns to its own soundtrack.” It was clear that this character felt his assignment on Bob Marley was both the most intense and the most important one of his life.  “I came to this country knowing I would find something,” he said. “I think I have, I know I have, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.” 

He also found that, through writing about Bob Marley’s music, he was opened up to the extreme political and social unrest that the whole country was going through. “Locals are either catching a flight to get out of dodge, or getting killed,” he said. The “Mixtape” ended with a concluding speaker that didn’t speak as one of the fictional characters in the novel. He continued to help the audience gain more perspective on the first Monday speech, giving them advice for further material to explore. 

He especially emphasized Biggie Smalls’ Life After Death album, describing how it could provide insight on the previously discussed history and issues. He brought up several open ended questions, including “what does it mean to live after death?” and whether the death penalty may be more humane than life in prison. 

Although the “Mixtape” was created as a supplement  to the First Monday talk, the night was able to stand alone as a thought-provoking and inspiring event. Because of the variety of characters and perspectives, the audience was able to identify and understand different sides of the account, whether they were previously familiar with the story or not. Audience members also enjoyed seeing both their professors and peers take on such unusual and challenging roles. 

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