A Caribbean Literary Renaissance: Joshua Jelly-Schapiro and Marlon James

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Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, an interview with Marlon James for the New York Review of Books.

In January, the Key West Literary Seminar—a yearly gathering that has since 1982 brought leading writers to Key West for three days of public conversations and readings around a particular theme—was for the first time in its history organized around a geographic region. The seminar’s theme this year was “Writers of the Caribbean.” It began with a lecture by Jamaica Kincaid, the distinguished novelist from Antigua, and featured others ranging from Haiti’s Edwidge Danticat to Cuba’s Leonardo Padura to Britain’s Caryl Phillips and a slate of younger writers—Kei Miller, Naomi Jackson, Ishion Hutchinson—who have in recent years helped bring about a renaissance in Caribbean letters. Also included were Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, author of Island People: The Caribbean and the World (2016) and a regular contributor to the Review, and Marlon James, the Jamaican novelist whose most recent book, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), a sprawling portrait of modern Jamaica told through the lens of a 1977 assassination attempt on the reggae legend Bob Marley, made James the first Caribbean writer since V.S. Naipaul to win the Man Booker Prize. On a Friday afternoon, at the San Carlos Institute in Key West, Jelly-Schapiro interviewed James about the development of his work, his new novel, and what will come next. What follows is a condensed, edited version of that conversation.

—The Editors


Joshua Jelly-SchapiroWe listened here last night to Jamaica Kincaid talk about the impact Jane Eyre had on her as a young womanhow as a schoolgirl growing up on the small island of Antigua in the 1950s and 1960s, Charlotte Brontes novel set her on her way to becoming a writer. You grew up in Jamaica a couple of decades later. What were the Jane Eyres for you?

Marlon James: Well, there were a few Jane Eyres—one of them, certainly, was Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice is not the first great book I read, but it was the first great book I read that felt like a great lit teacher. I remember my actual lit teacher then, Mr. Bryan, walked into our class and said, “It’s a sad day for me, because I get to watch you all experience something for the first time that I have experienced millions of times, which is to read the greatest book ever. This book,” he said, “is even better than D.H. Lawrence.” Which is the perfect thing to say to teenage boys. And it was Pride and Prejudice.

I learned a lot about writing unsavory characters from that novel. Think of a character like Mrs. Bennet, who everyone thinks is a person of derision, but who is in fact one of the few characters in the Austen universe who really knows what time it is. This is a society where, if Collins decides, as the new heir of the estate, to throw all the sisters out in the street for them to starve to death, nobody would frown on it. They would say: “You should have found husbands.” Mrs. Bennet is the only person in the novel who seems to realize this fact, that she’s saving lives. And I so remember that—seeing how important unsavory characters can be; people whom [readers] don’t like, but who are smart and whom you just can’t totally dismiss.

Another book that was really important to me, in my figuring out how to write about Jamaica, was Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, which is a novel about the Philippines set between the 1950s and the 1980s. I remember when I read it, I said, “This is the greatest book about Jamaica ever written, and it’s set in the Philippines.” If you’re from a city like Kingston, or Manila, or Mexico City, you realize the best way to describe the ridiculousness of our cities is that you’re always between a general election and a beauty contest. That’s how Dogeaters opens. These twin obsessions. And only when you live in one of those kinds of cities do you understand that. When I think of Jamaica, I think of general elections; I also think of Miss Jamaica.

And with reason, these daysin Jamaica, for better or worse, Miss Jamaicas have become politicians. But another writer I wanted to ask you about is one whose book you just bought from the second-hand bookshop in townyou arrived carrying a first UK edition of Salman RushdieShame. I know Rushdies been important to you. How so?

Yes, I mean this book [Shame] is responsible for my destroying my first novel. Gabriel García Marquez talks about how The Metamorphosis was the book that gave him permission to write fiction. Up until he read Kafka, Marquez was a journalist. He read this story and was appalled by it: “What do you mean? People do not wake up as roaches! No! You don’t do that!” But somewhere between its beginning and end, the story completely transformed how he saw the world. And Shame, really, was that for me.

I remember being appalled by it. I grew up in a very Victorian tradition of writing a novel. In Shame, there would be something like, “Colonel X will die on page fifty.” And, of course, you flip to page fifty and he’s dead! Rushdie was eliminating surprise, making snap judgments of characters. At one point he says, “What kind of character is this?” I was like, “You wrote him!” I remember being so shocked by it until I became sort of electrified by it. I totally threw away that first novel and rewrote a whole new one because I just didn’t know there were no boundaries.

Growing up in Jamaica in the 1980s, you went to Wolmers Boys’ Schoolwhich is quite a storied place in Kingston, lots of distinguished alumni. Harry Belafonte, for example.

Yes, though Harry Belafonte was expelled! [Laughs] Wolmer’s was that kind of place—as posh as it sounds.

You were not expelled. But it wasnt a particularly happy place for you, was it?

No, it was a big sports school, you know. I don’t think I was thinking about being “gay” yet, but certainly I was a nerd. I’m an Eighties kid. I agree with what Karl Ove Knausgaard said in My Struggle, about how if you were a teenager in the Eighties, it didn’t matter where in the world you were, you had the same Eighties. We were all raised by TV. We watched Dallas. We had two working parents. We started out maybe listening to Madonna. We left the decade listening to Sonic Youth and just feeling, more than anything else, this kind of boredom. There are different kinds of boredom. The boredom I’m talking about is endless and repeatable boredom: everybody has the same house; everybody has the same slab roof; everybody has the same car; everybody likes the same music. That was really stultifying. That’s one of the reasons why I became a devourer of libraries. Most of the books I’ve read were in that rush between fifteen and thirty just reading every flippin’ thing.

You mentioned TV, but I know music was also really important to youit was one way, maybe, to access an outside, to other places and sensibilities. I grew up far from the Caribbean, in Vermont, listening to lots of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. But you, in the 1980s in Jamaica, were not listening to much reggae.

No, I really wasn’t. I was in an all-boys high school, so I listened to some of that era’s dancehall reggae, of course. But to me, reggae was like my uncle: “Yeah, I know you’re here, but please stay over there.” It wasn’t until I was way older that I realized how sly and how clever a lyricist Bob Marley is, because those are two words you don’t always put with reggae. Reggae can be very earnest and very sincere and very passionate; it’s never usually thought of as just “sly.”

You were a self-identified rock kid.” What did that mean for you in Jamaica? I presume there werent many kids you were growing up with who were into The Cure and Sonic Youth.

Not really. I remember somebody who told me she loved me in spite of my being a Satanist. [Laughs] I guess it was my first experience of subculture, growing up in Jamaica and hanging around people who were listening to alternative rock. It was also an entry into other things. It was an entry into a lot of poetry. I wouldn’t have read Verlaine or Rimbaud if it wasn’t for Patti Smith. Just as a way of defining myself, certainly those records did a lot. In a lot of ways, I’m more inspired by music and film than by books; they’re still my primary influences, I think.

Your first novel [John Crow’s Devil] was set in the 1950s in Jamaica, your second [The Book of Night Women] on a plantation there in the eighteenth century. But with A Brief History of Seven Killings, you get us up to the present, or the 1970s and 1980s at leastand Marley was the way in, through this attempt on his life. But the Marley you write about isnt the global icon I encountered in Vermonthes this local figure, the Singer, through whom you can examine all layers of Jamaican society. How did Marley become the seed for your book?

The start, really, was this story I read years ago, years before I wrote my first novel, and was haunted by. It was an article in Spin magazine, in the February 1990 issue. It was this story about the boys who tried to kill Marley. It was the first time I’d read anything about it. This was something that no one in Jamaica speaks about, at least in public. If you saw [Kevin Macdonald’s] Marley documentary (2012), you’ll remember that the section [about the assassination attempt] was barely two minutes. So I was really fascinated by that story, but I sort of filed it away. I wouldn’t come back to it again for over twenty years—and only then because it snuck up on me. I didn’t plan to write about it until I did.

Because nothing in Brief History started the way it ended up. The first page I ever wrote is now on page 458. I was writing a crime novel starring a hitman who was trying to kill this Jamaican drug lord. I remember writing that, and thinking in the back of my head, “He’s one of the guys who tried to kill Marley.” But that was just going to be this sort of “Gotcha!” at the end, and my brief 120-page novel would have been finished. I just couldn’t finish it. I got to a part where I just couldn’t go any further. And I just figured, well, let’s find another character. So I created this character, another hit man, called Bam Bam. Then it was the same thing: writing the character for maybe forty, fifty pages, until I ran into a dead end.

I remember having dinner with my friend Rachel, and I said, “I don’t know whose story this is.” And she said, “Why do you think it’s one person’s story? When last have you read As I Lay Dying?” I went back and read Faulkner, and that was a big eureka moment. I realized that it couldn’t just be one character’s story, that it had to be many. And that became even clearer when I started to almost think like an investigative journalist: these boys with guns they can never afford. Where did the guns come from? And when you follow the trail of the guns you end up in politics. When you end up in politics you end up in diplomacy. Before you know it, I have a Cold War novel on my hands, when I’m just trying to talk about seven boys—some of them were not even twelve yet—trying to kill Bob Marley. But it was one of those chapters in Jamaican history we just don’t talk about. And, as a novelist, I’m really interested in things people would rather not talk about.

Those blank pages in history, as it were.

Yes, and this is such a huge blank spot—but also the sort of blank spot that anyone in Jamaica can tell you about, if you have them on a veranda and they know they’re not being recorded. I always say, “In Jamaica, I don’t trust facts, I trust rumors.” A lot of A Brief History came from rumors, from talking on verandas. The whole idea that Marley was going to finance a third party, I found out on a hill somewhere. In a sense, a lot of the really crazy stuff that happens in that book is the most truthful. Marley really did forgive one of his assailants. This kid became a part of his entourage and then vanished. He vanished after Marley died, then cropped up a few years later in East Germany with a bullet in the back of his head. But that will be the sequel.

Youve spoken eloquently about how the notion of the Great Jamaican Novel, like the Great American Novel, is a harmful one because it emphasizes the idea that there could just be one story. A Brief History is, of course, made up of different characters speaking their stories. Was the form of this book intentional in that sensea way to suggest that this is how one must write about Jamaica, about any complex place?

I’m really terrible at talking about process, because nothing that happens in my books was ever my intention. I knew this was a novel being carried by voices, but the problem with writing a novel about voices is, sooner or later, you run out of voices. When I realized I had to give Weeper, who was supposed to only exist in the mind of another character, a voice, I thought to myself: “This is, like, person number fifty, I have no voices left.”

What really helped me write him was re-reading Marguerite Duras’s novel, The North China Lover, which is one of my favorite books—I certainly like it more than The Lover, on which it’s based. The North China Lover came about because Duras wrote the screenplay for The Lover, which was a terrible film, and she knew it, but she went back and looked at her notes for the screenplay, and because she was Marguerite Duras, she went, “This is as good as a novel. I’ll just publish it.” And she did. And it really is a fantastic novel. It’s just character notes and stage direction—but really fantastic.

And as I was writing Weeper, the gay gunman, I was trying to figure out: if he’s on the one hand a pretty vicious gunman, but on the other a deeply closeted guy, he’d be obsessed with space. He’d be stage-managing everything. He would know where everything is in relation to everything else, distances. And he’d be obsessed with it. All of that I got from reading Duras. A lot of those voices come from me just basically stealing, figuring out the way in which they enter the story.

Its interesting to think about cinematic writing in relation to A Brief History, especially now that its being turned into a TV show with Amazon. What has that process been like?

The obvious thing about writing a TV show is that it really is a collaborative effort. There’s a writers’ room. There are around five of us. Each person writes two episodes. Despite knowing the story, you still have to plot everything back out. There are characters who are in the TV show who are not in the book and vice versa. The TV show takes a wilder trajectory. In fact, the entire first season is maybe about the first twenty pages of this book. It just follows different rules.

You also have to let go of ego really quickly. If there are five of us writing, and I am Mr. Episode 5 and Episode 10, then a lot of people are writing stuff before me. You also have to let go of how different people perceive your characters, which I actually have no problem with. I thought I would hate collaborative writing more than I do. I actually quite like that process.

Youve also just finished a new book, which I havent read a page of, but I did see a photo of the manuscripta big stack of paper. So I know its not short. Also, that its fantasy. What can you say about it?

Yes, usually people dodge the “fantasy” tag by saying they write “speculative fiction.” But I’m fine with “fantasy.” This novel came about because of an argument I had with a friend way back in 2010. They had announced the casting for The Hobbit, and I was like, “Wow, no diversity whatsoever, not one person [of color] in this cast. You know, if an Asian popped up in the Shire, nobody would have cared. Nobody would have cared that there was a Chinese hobbit.” My friend tried to explain, “Well, you know, it’s a British story, and European mythology,” and so on. And I said, “Fine, but Lord of the Rings isn’t real.” It’s like when Megyn Kelly says Santa Clause is white. Santa isn’t real!

But where I went with this argument, eventually, was just to say, “Well, just keep your damn Hobbit. I’ll make my own.” So I started going back to the African stories that survived in the diaspora, lots of Anansi stories and so on. I went and read the African epics. They’re so good—I mean, I came across one where a cannibal dies of old age. Fantastic stuff. But a lot of these epics have been translated by researchers. I think they’re just waiting to be translated by a poet, to be turned into different kind of books.

I’ve always been interested in fantasy. My favorite genres are still fantasy and crime. I’ve always been fascinated by witches and monsters and all these things that are not the property of European fiction. We all have that giant serpent biting its tail. But there are distinctions, too—you know, African vampires have no problem killing you in broad daylight. They don’t just come out at night. Night is the noon of the dead. Night is when you go talk to your ancestors. But day’s fair game, too.

So where and when is this novel set?

It’s set in a mythic Africa. I resist saying it’s set in the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages because those are European terms. If you were to force me, I’d say, “OK, Dark Ages.” But it’s a mythical place. It was a lot of fun doing something like what [J.R.R.] Tolkien tried to do with Middle Earth. Also, really hard to write. When you’re writing anything “speculative,” it’s so easy to get lost in world-building. You can get to a place where what you’ve done, basically, is to have created a video game but not written a story. Getting over that and remembering why we read novels was very important. It took a long time figuring out who should tell the story and how.

This is your first book, then, thats not set on the island where you grew up or in other places where youve spent time. But I wonder, how does where youre from shape your approach to the material? Junot Díaz has famously talked about how the idioms of fantasy and science fiction may have a particular resonance in the Caribbean, because of all thats fantastical and brutal about the islands actual history. Who more sci-fi than us? as he puts it. Do you agree?

I do. It was a huge moment for me reading Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson, because her work meant that the world my grandparents introduced me to was something I could read. Folktales have as much legitimacy as anything else. That’s one of the reasons why [Gabriel] García Márquez says he’s a Caribbean writer. His is a Caribbean sensibility. The whole idea of “the marvelous real”—that the reality of the Caribbean is wilder than the craziest fiction. That’s why there are flying people in his books. Even in reading the book of a visitor like Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga, I recognize that you have to let go of the idea of social realism if you’re going to write about this place, because this place challenges social realism at every turn. It took me a long time to get over the idea that that was illegitimate, that that wasn’t literature. I was, like, “Literature is Silas Marner.” But then that changed—and what changed it [for me] was reading Caribbean writers.

Do you consider yourself a Caribbean writer, then? Is that identity important to you?

If you asked me ten years ago, I would have said, “Hell no, I’m not a Caribbean writer! I’m a writer.” Now, I’m like, “That guy was a jackass. Don’t listen to him!” Of course, I’m a Caribbean writer. And I’m super proud of it. Even this novel I’m writing that’s set in a mythical African continent very much has a Caribbean sensibility. It’s like the name of your book, Island People—I think there’s something about not just being in the Caribbean, but also being from an island, a place at once isolated but connected to everywhere, that still filters into everything I do and how I see the world. I totally embrace that.

There’s this idea that can be very enticing, especially when you’re young, that the best way to move forward as an artist is to erase identity. But I don’t think it’s an either-or. There’s so much erasure going on already. I wasn’t about to be part of my own erasure—and for me, a large part of that was learning how to be Caribbean, learning this tradition. Once, I was just Jamaican—and Jamaicans do have that exceptionalist attitude. But a lot of my identity as a Caribbean person I learned from going to the University of the West Indies, and from reading people that we in the Anglo-Caribbean didn’t used to read—Simone Schwarz-Bart, Reinaldo Arenas, writers from Suriname, and the rest of the Dutch Caribbean. I regret that my eyes weren’t wider open earlier. Imagine if I had been eighteen and reading Cuban writers, or if I had read Michelle Cliff when I was fifteen. Damn, the stuff I could be writing now!

But there’s so much happening now, it’s such an exciting time. And drawing on that tradition, and being a part of that—of course that’s part of my work. It feeds it. How could it not? The Caribbean is really coming into its own, and that’s good for all of us.

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