Reggae. Gang warfare. Political unrest. Police brutality. The beautiful Caribbean island of Jamaica could well be summed up in just those few phrases in the 1970s. Marlon James lived in a staid, middle-class neighbourhood in the suburban town of Portmore outside Kingston, his days consumed by reading, yet the unrest still managed to creep in and settle down like an uneasy mantle that was impossible to shrug off. “It’s a small island to be sure, but politics had, by the mid-1970s, infiltrated absolutely everything, right down to what colour to wear out in public lest it be taken as an outward declaration of political loyalty. Politics infused the news, politicians were involved with gunmen and gangsters. Politics flirted with culture and culture grappled with politics. It was simply impossible to escape and nobody managed to do it, not even a six year old boy lost in books,” says James, 44, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner for A Brief History of Seven Killings (One World Publications).
The sweeping novel, James’ third, traces this fissured landscape and the staggering violence leading up to the 1976 general elections. In particular, it hinges on the attempted assassination of reggae superstar Bob Marley at his residence and its brutal aftermath that resonates for decades across nations, way after the musician’s death in 1981. It’s an urgent, audacious work, nearly 700 pages long, which captures the aesthetics of violence through the voices of nearly 75 characters — including mobsters, teen gunmen, politicians, journalists, CIA agents and even a ghost — with great aplomb.
James says he had carried the story within himself for quite a while — “…from 1991 in fact, before I graduated (from) college, even before I wrote my first two books.” He had come across a story by Timothy White, author of Catch a Fire, the Life of Bob Marley. “It was the first time he (or anyone) talked about the boys who tried to kill Bob Marley, and from that far back I was hooked on to the story,” he says.
His is a vast canvas, and James is a consummate artist, striking the perfect balance between his diverse cast of characters and the many different dialects that he makes extensive use of. He let his characters chart their own course as they appeared unbidden, with little idea of where they were headed or how they would end up. “I am very detailed in the machinery of my stories, sometimes even creating charts on the wall with characters, time, action and location in separate columns. But that’s just to organise my head space and clarify what I’m doing. Once it’s done, I never follow it,” he says.
The hitman John-John K appeared fully formed, but “had no story.” Others like Nina Burgess, a former receptionist, started almost like a space filler. “But literature is a series of discoveries and decisions, and in the case of several of my characters, the wrong ones. Then those decisions would have consequences and those consequences would have consequences. But you have to get to know your characters to love them and, in the end, I started loving even people I wouldn’t be caught dead with. I think when you’re writing a large novel and a huge cast, readers can pick up quickly which characters you have contempt for, and not in a good way,” he says.
Very little of A Brief History… however, comes from lived experience. James’ parents were both in the police and his world had a genteel veneer to it. “There are several different Jamaicas and though I was aware of all of them, I didn’t live in this one,” he says. There was music and lots of it; not just Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, but artists who were, often, even more popular: The Mighty Diamonds, Dennis Brown, Dillinger, Big Youth. “That was before I turned 13. As a teenager, I fell in love with American and British rock and pop — Eurythmics, Pet Shop Boys, The Smiths, The Cult, Prince, Duran Duran.” And there were books. “I was always interested in reading from even before I could actually read. I remember being enthralled by comics and attempting to draw some myself. The first novel that got me so hooked to writing, however, was Laura Ingall Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, which I now hear, was written by her daughter. I was lucky to have a great school library and would borrow a new book every week. My father had more books, mostly Shakespeare and Romantic poetry, but my mother subscribed to Readers’ Digest, which had an entire universe of stories every month,” he says.
James had a flair for cricket, the other great Caribbean preoccupation, but he hated it. Reading would be both his refuge and his saviour at different points of time in life. In From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself, a poignant essay that James wrote in The New York Times earlier this year, he speaks of how books came to his rescue at a time when he realised he was gay and was struggling to find acceptance in a mostly homophobic nation. It was Salman Rushdie’s Shame that showed him that “the present was something I could write my way out of.” It would be nearly another decade before his first novel, John Crow’s Devil (2005), would be published and would take him to America, to a teaching job in Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota, where he still works. His second novel, The Book of Night Women (2009), follows the travails of a young slave girl Lilith who challenges the boundaries enforced on her. Published four years later, it would garner comparisons with the high priestess of African-American literature, Toni Morrison.
For all his love for reading, James did not grow up idolising writers. “I grew up idolising books. To this day, I have no idea what Laura Ingalls Wilder looks like. I am amazed by Appointment in Samarra, but I wouldn’t say I idolise (John) O’ Hara. I actually think this is a problem, us reading writers and not books. Sometimes it leads to us spending too much time on weak books from strong writers, and not enough time on great books from writers you might not think are very great, such as say O’ Hara,” he says.
In a way, it explains why he refrains from naming Bob Marley directly in A Brief History…and addresses him simply as “The Singer”. His idea, he says, was to look at Bob Marley “the icon, the symbol, the voice on the radio, the image on TV.” “It was a conscious decision for several reasons. It’s a work of fiction, not biography and I think the fiction writer has the right to invent as he sees fit, or rather to give in to the sense of invention that makes a novelist tell stories,” says James, whose next novel is set in central Africa in the 1100s. But before that, James is writing the pilot for the HBO adaptation of his prize-winning book.
His writing, says James, has no fixed schedule. He wrote his second novel while on tour promoting his first one and it cured him of his “need for a set writing space.” “I wrote any and everywhere; in cafes all over Minneapolis, at school, waiting on the bus or train. Killing time on a flight or whenever I was trapped in an airport. I learned the art of stealing time to write. And I write anywhere,” he says.
James is the first Jamaican author to win the £50,000 Man Booker Prize, edging out more popular writers such as Anne Tyler and Hanya Yanagihara, but he says it would have been a great year for Jamaican culture “even if I wasn’t in it.” “Claudia Rankine won the Forward Prize for Poetry (for Citizen: An American Lyric), making her the second Jamaican in a row to win it. Usain Bolt is breaking every record that tries to hold him. Ebony Patterson is shaking up the art world. Storm Saulter has made the most important Jamaica film (Sprinter) since The Harder They Come.”
Has anything changed since the time he moved out of the country? “Jamaica continues to change and grow in exciting ways. And yet, the country also remains frustratingly the same. The unfixable politics. The corruption. The economic policies that go nowhere. The crippling death and pointless austerity measures that has never worked for any country on the planet. It’s not just depressing, but it’s the same kind of depression of 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago,” he says.
Story appeared in print with the headline Redemption Song