Marlon James: “Me, violent? It must be that people don’t watch the news”


“¿Soy violento? Debe de ser que la gente no mira las noticias” [“Me, violent? It must be that people don’t watch the news”] is the title of an interview of Jamaican-born writer Marlon James by Javier Ansorena (ABC). Ansorena says, “The Jamaican writer, a sensation of literature written in English, arrives in Spain with the book that has been dubbed an “African Game of Thrones.” Here are excerpts of Ansorena’s introduction and interview with the author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf. 

Marlon James speaks with ABC in Brooklyn on the same morning that, closeby, “J’Ouvert” was celebrated, a carnival explosion of the Caribbean communities, especially from the Lesser Antilles, such as Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, or Antigua and Barbuda. When day breaks—hence the word of French origin—a madness of dances and songs is unleashed, with bodies full of dust and paint that take on more color with the first light of the morning in the midst of an overwhelming and hypnotic music. Violence also appears, with fights and shootings mixed in with the multitude [of revelers]. James is from Jamaica, a country where J’ouvert is not a tradition, but it is an ecstatic and fierce scene that could easily fit into the imaginary that the author has built for his latest book.

James is one of the latest sensations of Anglo-Saxon literature. In 2015, he won the Man Booker Prize, the most relevant literary prize in the United Kingdom, for Brief History of Seven Murders [Breve historia de siete asesinatos] a complex novel about the attempted murder of his fellow countryman Bob Marley in 1976.

Not wanting to stick to the sweet honey of success, he embarked on a literary somersault, a fantastic trilogy located in a medieval and mythical Africa. Shortly after winning the Booker, he said in an interview, half-jokingly, that he was going to write “an African ‘Game of Thrones.’” The label stuck and this is how what he calls “the Black Star Trilogy,” is popularly known. Its first installment Black Leopard, Red Wolf [Leopardo negro, lobo rojo] came to light in February in its original version and starting today, it is in Spanish bookstores.

Do you regret that comment on “Game of Thrones”? Now everyone refers to your book like this…

No! It’s kind of fun. George R.R. Martin (the author of the series on which the series is based) sent me an email about it. “I heard that you have written an African version of my book; it sounds incredible” (he laughs). We met in March and talked. He is charming. The reason I said that is because it was a quick way for people to understand that there is magic and fantasy, but for adults. The idea that you can write about mythological creatures, monsters, and witches and make it a story for adult is not new. But somehow, “Game of Thrones” captured this.

Like in “Game of Thrones,” violence abounds in his book. What is the purpose?

I am frequently accused of showing excessive violence. I find this hilarious; it must be that people don’t watch the news. In just ten minutes of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, guts are spilled out five times. And nobody criticizes him; it is because that violence has no consequences. For me, violence has to have consequences, it has to reverberate. [We must understand] that dying hurts… that a bullet hurts. It is the same with sex. Violence is disturbing. If you are not disturbed and horrified by these scenes, then I did not write them well.

[. . .] It’s almost an accident that James is in this Brooklyn café today, in a blue T-shirt with the Manhattan skyline, his locks tied in a ponytail and now a successful author. After his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected by several publishers, James himself tried to boycott a literary career that had not yet taken off. “People think that I persevered in order to become a writer, but it’s the opposite,” he confesses. “I destroyed that book. I tried to eliminate any bit of it.” At the insistence of writer Kaylie Jones, who he met in a literary workshop, he was encouraged to send it to one more publisher. It was published in 2005 and was very well received by critics. Then came The Book of Night Women, and then, total success with the Booker award.

For Black Leopard, Red Wolf, for years, he dove into African mythology and epic tales, in their folklore, in oral and written traditions, and in their parallels with European myths and legends, which have dominated fantasy literature. That is the breeding ground of the voyage of the protagonist, Tracker, framed in the African Middle Ages, with monsters and witches, demons and shamans, enchanted landscapes, passion and revenge. It is almost a genre in itself.

One could believe that it is a universe far removed from the Spanish reader…

Well, Don Quixote is from Spain. Therefore, after all, any novel that is based on a voyage starts there. It is about people on a quest to find one thing and they discover something else. It is something universal, it happens to all of us. These are elements that are seen in a lot of the folklore that I have explored; it’s ancient.

Now that you mention it, is your attempt to create an African fantasy genre a quixotic endeavor?

Yes, but no. Because it is not new. It is new for me and for readers. But I am rooted in centuries-old traditions. Also, as a reader, I was always interested in the fantastic. I knew that at some point I would return to it. And I knew that, as a member of the African diaspora, at some point I would take care of it. If you are white in Europe or in the U.S., you don’t care much about your myths, and there are many. The British, for example, do not realize how their mythologies affect them. Arthur, for example, convinces the British that they were always civilized, even though they may have been some of the worst barbarians in Europe. Or Camelot. Or Robin Hood. I, as a descendant of slaves, do not have that. I was separated from my mythology. I don’t have that feeling of an African nation, of African belonging. That’s why I started to research, to find stories that went beyond what my grandmother told me, stories that didn’t arrive with the slave ship.

[. . .] You are linked with Tolkien, but also with Latin American magical realism. Do you see that connection?

It is a great influence on me. Above all, Gabriel García Márquez and José Donoso. What interests me about them is that what is magical for the reader is not so for the protagonist. At some point in the nineteenth century, we began to believe that realism was reality. And it is just another genre. In realistic narrative, women do not work. Men are macho. Everyone has lovers. There are no black people. And everyone lives in Maine (he laughs). I don’t know why it’s called realism; it’s just as if a handful of whites liked to see each other in books.

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention. Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. For original review (in Spanish), see]

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