No one can accuse Marlon James of playing it safe. The Jamaican-born, U.S.-based author won sweeping acclaim—not to mention the Booker Prize—for 2014’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, a densely populated novel revolving around the historical 1976 assassination attempt on reggae star Bob Marley.
But instead of following up this triumph with a return to Brief History’s realism, James has launched himself into the realm of fantasy epic. His latest work, the sprawling Black Leopard Red Wolf, is just the first installment in a projected trilogy set in a world of witches, shape-shifters, humans with animal powers, and other figures drawn from his years of research into ancient African myth and folklore.
The Straight caught up with James at a tour stop in Portland, Oregon, to talk about Black Leopard Red Wolf and its connections to a lifetime of imagination.
Georgia Straight: All fiction is about world-building in a way, but the fantasy genre demands that outright—it entails constructing a unique universe. Did you find you were creating the rules of Black Leopard Red Wolf’s world during the writing process? Or did you have to map out those rules beforehand?
Marlon James: Definitely the latter—which doesn’t mean I wasn’t trying to do the former. I was trying to set up plot and had these ideas of what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. I knew I was going to write a fantasy novel. There are still some…conventions about writing a fantasy novel, and the research and the stuff I was uncovering completely changed that, completely challenged that, to the point where the novel felt like it was writing itself. So yeah, I have very clear ideas—I’m usually pretty clear about what I want with a book. And then at some point…as the characters become more real, they almost institute their own rules and couldn’t give a crap about me and my intentions for a book. I have yet to have a book that ended up the way I originally intended it.
GS: Are the forces of fantasy and myth hard to control as a storyteller? I imagine it’s unlike being grounded in historical events, as you were for A Brief History of Seven Killings.
MJ: Not necessarily, because what I have to remember is that it may be a fantasy for me, but it’s not a fantasy for whoever is in the book. So the rules of a carefully well-done story still apply….And that sort of naturalism, even though it’s getting fantastical, I have to follow. That’s one of the things that, I guess, used to floor people about magical realism—that these sometimes supernatural and off-kilter things are happening, but in a world it’s as gritty as any urban novel. And so, yeah, I think that kept me in check, because I think with fantasy there’s always a danger of getting lost in world-building. I know sometimes, when I’m teaching that type of stuff to my students, I can tell they’re far more interested in building the world than in telling a story, and then I say, “You sure you don’t want to be a video-game programmer?” Whereas I know I still like an adventure. I grew up with Robert Louis Stevenson and all those novels, and I still want a yarn.
GS: People are reaching for comparisons for Black Leopard Red Wolf—dropping names like J.R.R. Tolkien, Toni Morrison, and Gabriel García Márquez. And you’ve spoken elsewhere about the influence of superhero comics. What are its literary ancestors?
MJ: Definitely Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and definitely Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—actually, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, because I probably read that one more. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and the folktales I was actually told when I was a kid….Comics like Hellboy, X-Men, and so on. And also all the sci-fi and fantasy I grew up with. I grew up with a very pop view of sci-fi and fantasy. I didn’t read Lord of the Rings till I was an adult. In fact, I didn’t read Lord of the Rings till after the films. Most of those books, I wouldn’t have come by them. Where I grew up in Jamaica…usually it would be rich kids or kids who’d travel all the time who’d have books like Lord of the Rings. I had to settle for whatever movie novelization of a film that was so popular that, even in a remote pharmacy where I grew up, I would see that book. Even my sci-fi/fantasy film language is actually book language. I didn’t see Star Trek: Wrath of Khan until the ’90s—I read the novelization. Same thing with Dragonslayer, same thing with Return of the Jedi and Empire Strikes Back. So my fantasy vocabulary is still very pop. It was whatever was so popular that it would filter down to me.
GS: You’ve said elsewhere that running across Salman Rushdie’s book Shame was a turning point for you, as well.
MJ: Yeah, absolutely….I grew up with mostly Victorian lit. Even though I read lots of comics, I still had this idea—and it’s the wrong idea—that literature should be serious, and that make-believe and fantasy and the surreal and all of that shouldn’t be in fiction. And I wrote these sorts of novels and stories that were very stilted and ponderous, because I had this idea of what language and stories should be. And, yeah, that was a lightning bolt. I just didn’t know you could do that, and I’ve been messing with reality ever since.
GS: Does this new project, which will be a trilogy, open up some new space in the landscape?
MJ: I don’t know. I know it opens up some new space for me, the writer [laughs]. I don’t know. I think that space was already open. There are writers who have been playing with that—literary authors who have never given in to that whole idea of genre boundaries, and sci-fi authors like Neil Gaiman who’ve been writing stuff of just really astonishing literary merit. So, if anything, I think I’m joining stuff that’s already happening. I will say, though, that I think that a lot of those books, all of which I love, are really entrenched in a European tradition—not just in terms of subject, but also in terms of form. Which is fine. I’m a devotee of that. But I also wanted something that sounded like those sorts of folktales that my grandfather and grandmother would tell me, and the African epics that I read, which are decidedly not western.
GS: How did you get hold of those epics in written form? Were they easily available?
MJ: Not necessarily, because a lot of them have been translated mostly by scholars….Some are recently translated, some are translated in French, and a lot of them—I mean, God bless the people who are doing this work—but you can tell they haven’t really been translated by a poet yet. You know, if the only version of the Iliad we had was something that archaeologists translated, it wouldn’t be the Iliad. But just the vibrancy of the stories is there. These are stories that are very sensory, by our definitions very amoral, very sensual, very sexual. Identities and boundaries blur. They’re just so decidedly nonwestern stories.
GS: Are the historical and mythological elements in Black Leopard Red Wolf coming from a specific African region or culture?
MJ: Well, yeah, I didn’t want to do that whole grab-bag-from-everywhere thing, so I kind of stayed in the centre. I’d say I went below the Sahara and then went from east to west. So we’re talking lower Ethiopia, upper Kenya; we’re talking going across to what right now would be the Congo and Uganda—the ancient kingdoms like Ghana, Mali, Songhai…But I didn’t want the Christian or the Islamic. I wanted before that. I wanted the fetish priests and the myths and the legends and the monsters and the mermaids, that kind of world.
GS: On that level, is there a political component for you about writing in the fantasy genre? Lots of people associate it with escapism. But is there a political impulse?
MJ: I don’t know, because fantasy does two remarkable things at the same time: it’s escapism and confrontation. One of the things that I love about YA [young-adult] fantasy, for example, is how they will use that means to explore really contemporary things, including queerness, including growing up, including betrayal, including “What do we mean by loyalty?” and so on. It’s one of the reasons why, in my mind, Buffy is the best TV show of all time….I think the great thing about YA is that YA packs in so many of these social lessons almost as nobody is looking. So I know I didn’t set out to be political or to make political statements. And I’m also very resistant when people think a fantasy novel is an allegory for something—you know, “Sci-fi is an allegory for the present.” No, sci-fi is sci-fi! And if it resonates in that way, that’s really saying more about the reader, because the reader is supplying that subtext. So I think that, if anything, it’s showing that a lot of aspects of human nature have always been with us and haven’t changed.
Marlon James will discuss Black Leopard Red Wolf at the Waterfront Theatre on Sunday (February 17), in a special Vancouver Writers Fest event.