Marlon James

Stepping out with literary legend Marlon James

Richard Burnett
Commentaires
Marlon James

Jamaican literary icon Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but now lives in Minnesota where he teaches English and creative writing at Macalester College. His novel A Brief History of Seven Killings – which revolves around the attempted assassination of reggae star Bob Marley – won the 2015 Man Booker Prize..

James is back in the news, proudly out and making headlines for his just-published novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first in the author’s Dark Star trilogy described as “an African Game of Thrones.”
 
I recently caught up with James on his current book tour which brings him to Montreal’s Rialto Hall for a public Q&A on March 5. Our interview has been edited for brevity.
 
•••
 
How long have you been plotting your Dark Star trilogy? 

I knew it wasn’t going to be a typical trilogy. I knew I was going to tell a story that moved in an associative way, instead of a linear way. Also, because I was telling an African story, even if it was told in English. I also wanted to revisit this scene – the traumatic death of a child – from three different angles. I’ve been working on it from 2015. I knew it had to be African, and had to be fantasy as opposed to a historical novel.
 
I keep reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf described as “an African Game of Thrones.” I was wondering if you find that reductive.

I understand why people say it because I said it! I said it as a joke in a magazine years ago. It is apt and it is reductive. To say “African Game of Thrones” is to serve as a promise and as a warning that not only is this a world of make believe and monsters, it is also a very adult world of violence and murder.
 
Speaking of labels, I have long said that after my name, my being gay is the most important thing about my identity. I was wondering what it is like for you: How central to your identity is your Blackness? How central to your identity is being gay?

They are bo­th central to me. I quite like labels. I fought for them. To say a label is limiting is like saying a name is limiting. A name is suggestive of universes. It took me a long time to get to this point, why would I throw it out already? Maybe it’s because I am in my late 40s, and I’m old enough to remember what it was like in the 80s when everybody turned a blind eye to AIDS. To say those terms are limiting is kind of ridiculous. I mean, at one point, I did not want to be called a Black writer, I just wanted to be a writer. It also serves me and what I write: in this novel, both Black Leopard and Red Wolf are gay.
 
Are you a gay writer, or a writer who happens to be gay?

Saying a person happens to be gay is like saying a person happens to be Black. We could argue about this for years, but I do think there is a gay aesthetic and sensibility. I’ve just never been a fan of this next-to-normal bullshit. I think too often it is particularly gay men buying into patriarchy. I think it’s this idea if we erase ourselves – are you being part of a universal identity or are you being heteronormative?
 
One of the things that was really refreshing about researching this book was coming across queer cultures across Africa. Africa has a bad rep, but to realize things like shoga men were the only guards allowed around virginal brides because everybody knew they were gay, so the women were safe – that’s a fact, and that was an identity. That’s how they were identified. There was also much gender fluidity and sexual fluidity and non-binariness. It was very affirming as a queer Black man reconnecting with his African roots.
 
When other kids called you a sissy when you were five, you found solace in comic books. Did reading and writing save your life? 

Reading saved me first. My comic was The X-Men. Reading X-Men was quite a lot like being an X-Men. I got the gay subtext from way back. I was a sissy and nerd in school and I helped all the cool kids pass their exams because they were dumb as shit and as soon as that period was over, they went back to calling me “fag.” I said to myself, “I am doing the same thing as these mutants, I am saving the people who are trying to harm me.” As a kid, you don’t understand that trying to save them is a ridiculous impulse, but a 14-year-old is a 14-year-old. .
 
Bob Marley would be 74 this year. One of my good friends is Roger Steffens, the world’s foremost historian of Bob and the Wailers. Roger believes if Bob was alive today, he would be upset with the homophobia in reggae. 

I do love Bob. I did not realize until I was older how sly he was. And that is the thing about Bob that a lot of other reggae stars don’t get: they don’t get how sly he was. Anybody who listens to Kinky Reggae knows Bob wasn’t homophobic. It’s too libidinous, it’s too sexy, too accepting.  
 
You teach creative writing. What is the single most important message you like to impart to your students?

To read more than you write. I still come across too many writers who don’t read. I can tell that they don’t read. I tell them there are things I can’t teach them, that there are some things about writing you only learn from reading other people. Reading can change your life, like it did mine.
 
You teach creative writing. What is the single most important message you like to impart to your students?

To read more than you write. I still come across too many writers who don’t read. I can tell that they don’t read. I tell them there are things I can’t teach them, that there are some things about writing you only learn from reading other people. Reading can change your life, like it did mine. 
 
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly presents Marlon James in Conversation with Dimitri Nasrallah for Black Leopard, Red Wolf at Rialto Hall on March 5 at 7pm. Admission: $10. For more info, visit mtl.drawnandquarterly.com. 

 Marlon James