The Jamaican writer Marlon James was in conversation with Shalini Puri at the Tata Literature Live 2021. Here are excerpts from an article in Scroll.in featuring the interview.
Marlon James’ novels have achieved both critical acclaim and bestselling status. His monumental third novel, the 700-page A Brief History of Seven Killings, written almost entirely in Jamaican Patwa or Creole, won the 2015 Caribbean OCM Bocas Prize and the Man Booker Prize. He is the only Caribbean author other than VS Naipaul to have been awarded the latter.
His novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award in the USA. It is the first in the Dark Star Trilogy, an epic quest story set in a mythic Africa. The second novel in the trilogy has been launched in February 2022. James is currently working on Get Millie Black, a TV crime drama series for HBO and UK’s Channel 4 set in Jamaica.
Now living in the USA, James has also written and spoken widely about race, LGBTQ experience and rights, and the politics of diversity in Jamaica and the US. In 2019, he was featured as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
James was in conversation with Shalini Puri, professor of Caribbean, postcolonial, and world literatures at the University of Pittsburgh at the Tata Literature Live 2021. Her teaching and publications span memory studies, indentureship, slavery and incarceration, social movements, and environmental humanities.
Their conversation touched upon the dynamism and range of Caribbean and other postcolonial Englishes, the search that led to James’s current trilogy, the importance of myth, debates about cultural appropriation, the stakes in writing across differences and inequalities, and his advice to writers.
Marlon James, a very warm welcome to you and to our audience. [. . .] Congratulations on your new trilogy, Dark Star, and on the 2015 Man Booker Prize for your previous novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. I don’t know many writers more versatile or prolific than you. Your novels span historical fiction, realism, speculative fiction, fantasy epic, and they are typically six or seven hundred pages long. I think they are an ad for Kindle editions.
Oh my god, I need to try that actually.
Yeah, you should. So it’s really hard to introduce your work in a few words, so for our short 40 minutes, I think the best introduction to you is you. Could you kick off our conversation by reading for maybe a just a couple of minutes from your work so that our audience can hear you? And if you’d like to contextualise the passage, feel free.
Sure. So this is one of the characters, his name is Demus and he’s one of the boys who were in the plot to kill Bob Marley. He’s actually one of the boys who end up showing up…And this is a scene of him the night before. He’s not exactly having…conflicts, but he’s being weighed by all these internal demons and this is the night before they go about doing the thing that will change Jamaica’s trajectory, everybody’s life. So this is him. He says:
“This is how bad man wake up: never go to sleep. I wasn’t sleeping when Funky Chicken [that’s the name of one of the characters] with the heroin shakes start to walk over in him sleep saying Leviticus, Leviticus, Leviticus over and over. Me never did sleep neither when Heckle run over to the window and try to push himself out. Bam-Bam sleeping but he sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall and the whole night he didn’t move. Me dream awake, about the brethren who leave me poor on Caymanas racetrack. Me make the heat rise up in me like a fever then take it back down and make it rise again. You can do that the whole night. Last night Josey take me aside and say the man come back from Ethiopia two nights ago. This is how you can make a thing you lust for keep you awake.
This is how you know most man in the room too young. Not an hour after they fall asleep they start moaning and mumbling and if you is the fat man from Jungle, you call out a woman name three times. Dorcas or Dora, me can’t remember. Only young man get wet dream. Heckle in the corner sinning. Only young man can sleep with all the burden crushing down on two shoulder like God just get tired of carrying burden and throw it on you.
I, I didn’t sleep. I not even sleepy.”
— ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’
[. . .] Okay, I have one other question before moving into a discussion of your newest work. And that is: in A Brief History, you make a mischievous reference to VS Naipaul. And Naipaul is probably the best-known Caribbean writer in India—though I’m hoping that you and some other Caribbean writers will change that. So could you just briefly talk about what you see as Naipaul’s literary significance or shadow?
Well, I think his literary significance is that he brought a clarity and a maturity and a sort of a ruthless…ruthless is the wrong word, but I’m going to use it anyway…a kind of a ruthless sort of clarity and simplicity to our literature. I also think Naipaul at his best can enter a situation and in a very quick time judge it correctly, judge it perfectly—when he’s on. Which is why he may be the rare fiction and nonfiction writer where both genres are pretty equally matched in terms of brilliant works. You know, at the same time, when his prejudices get in the way, he misses the mark way off.
It’s funny, I was writing an introduction for a Toni Morrison novel that’s coming out next year–and one of the things I talked about was language and how in a response to the kind of over-fluid and servile English that we learned, that he certainly learned (if you read a novel like To Sir, With Love you hear it), Naipaul went too far the other way.
There was this mission to erase all lyricism from his work. There’s a big difference between In a Free State and The Mimic Men. There is almost a kind of a self-shame at work. How can we erase the sing-song of our mothers or our aunts or the people in the street or the way in which we brought musicality to literature, how can we erase all of that to this kind of astringent prose? And I think that to me is the consequence of a sort of a self-shame: that it did lead to an over-astringent kind of English. [. . .]