A Conversation with Marlon James and Victor LaValle

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Lila Shapiro interviews Marlon James and Victor LaValle as they talk about “race, fantasy, and James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf over dumplings.” Here are excerpts; read the full interview at Vulture.

The other day, Victor LaValle, a Queens-born author who employs the form of the fairy tale as a barbed hook to lure readers into serious treatments of race, parenting, and the internet, ordered dim sum with Marlon James, a Jamaican author of sweeping social epics that delight in challenging all the conventions of narrative. Both have book projects out this week. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is James’s highly anticipated follow-up to the Man Booker Prize–winning A Brief History of Seven Killings. LaValle has co-edited a new speculative anthology, A People’s Future of the United States, prompting 25 of today’s biggest SFF writers to contemplate the future — and dark present — of the country.

The writers first met a decade ago, at a reading in Harlem for James’s second book at the Hue-Man Bookstore (since closed). “That was a great night,” LaValle said. James nodded and added darkly, “Mismanagement killed that store.” They were coming together again just after LaValle had written a Bookforum cover review of Black Leopard. His own speculative-fiction background made him a good match for what James has described as his “African Game of Thrones” — his first foray into high fantasy, an epic quest about a search for a missing boy through a mythical Africa populated by vampires and witches and unreliable narrators. LaValle loved it. “This book might do his finest job yet of blending the horrific and the exquisite,” he wrote. He also felt the book serves a higher purpose: “Every page reads like a corrective to what’s still too often left unstated about the fantasy genre: If literary fiction is quite white, fantasy is even whiter still.” (James, for his part, blurbed LaValle’s last book, The Changeling, calling it “a mesmerizing, monumental work.”)

[. . .] Let’s talk about what’s going on in speculative fiction today. How is it changing?

MJ: There are so many writers now who’ve been blurring the line between so-called literary and so-called genre that they become almost meaningless. It used to be people thought you were slumming if you wrote genre.

VL: Genre work can still face that problem of people saying, “But what’s it really about?” That can still be the sticking point for this stuff being “taken seriously” or not. [. . .] Literary realism demands that everybody agree on what real life is — and it is really a very specific subset of American or European life — but if all the writers and the critics and the jurors for the prizes agree that this is our life, it becomes realism. I love reading the fantasy of middle-class life in Connecticut, because I’ve never lived that before. Do you all really cheat this much? That to me is like, Wow!

MJ: I grew up in an independent Jamaica, but my classes were still very British colonial. I was taking British exams because it was all that was available. But, the difference between me and my parents was that they couldn’t stop pop culture. Despite it being impressed on me that this, over here, is literature, and comics are something different, I grew up refusing to distinguish between them. I am getting the same feeling from Love and Rockets that I’m getting from One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I’m supposed to look at one as, that’s comics and that’s a serious novel? From a very early age, I thought, That’s bullshit. The whole idea of a great American novel is bullshit. But if you twist my arm, I’m probably gonna say American Tabloid and Love and Rockets.

[. . .] I’m curious to hear you guys talk about this idea that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the African Game of Thrones — and the genre expectations that carries with it. You could say a lot of things about Game of Thrones but one of its defining characteristics is that it’s driven by plot more than anything else.

MJ: It’s also a grown-ass book. One of the central achievements Martin did was to take very fantastical elements and put it into very adult story. I love how he kills off characters. I love that there are adult consequences. There’s certainly a very adult attitude toward sex and sexuality, which is very unlike most other genre books. That’s one of the thrills of it. But what was the question again?

Just the genre expectation it sets up, to call this the “African Game of Thrones.”

MJ: Oh god. [Sighs.] Because I said that as a joke.

VL: But it was too good. It was a great line. [. . .]

For full conversation, go to https://www.vulture.com/2019/02/marlon-james-and-victor-lavalle-have-a-conversation.html

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