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Marlon James previews epic new novel: Africa provided ‘a huge reservoir of ideas’

Feb. 11, 2019 

Marlon James, the Macalester College professor with a meteoric writing career, was recovering from surgery last week as he geared up for a national book tour. The procedure had repaired a torn meniscus, James explained. “I’m using a single crutch now, but it’s not going to stop me.”

James will spend the next several months promoting “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” a rangy new fantasy filled with mystical, magical and shape-shifting characters. It’s the first entry in his Dark Star trilogy, promising three perspectives on a single epic set in ancient Africa. It’s also his first book since the 2015 international blockbuster “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” with its 22 foreign language translations.

The Man Booker Prize-winning author intends to keep his Minneapolis apartment, but we reached him by phone at his new place in Brooklyn. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: We know you for historical fiction such as “A Brief History of Seven Killings” and “The Book of Night Women.” Now you’ve leapt into another genre, fantasy.

A: That comes from growing up in Jamaica and reading what I could get my hands on. I don’t know how people end up with genre snobbery. I was not rich enough for that. You read the book somebody dumped. You read the book somebody left behind from the previous class. That’s how I came across (Gabriel García Márquez’s) “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I’m reading Sidney Sheldon, but I’m also reading Tennessee Williams, O. Henry, Shakespeare. And I’m reading tons and tons of comics. And it didn’t occur to me that these are different things judged in different ways until I went to a lit class.

Q: Did that make you adopt a literary hierarchy?

A: Thankfully, I never fully absorbed the whole idea that one sort of literature is more valuable than the other. I think that helps me when I write. Yes, I can shift all over the place in terms of subject matter. To me, though, it doesn’t seem as dramatic a shift as it may seem to other people. Maybe I just have a really terrible attention span or get easily bored. If we’re going by what Toni Morrison said — write the books you want to read — these are the books I want to read.

Q: Tell me about the genesis for your Dark Star trilogy.

A: It began with a fight I was having with a friend when they announced the cast for “The Hobbit.” I was like, “Lord, God, here we go again. We’re gonna have this argument about representation.” I’m gonna say, “Why aren’t there people of color in this cast?” He went: “’Lord of the Rings’ is British history and British mythology.” And I looked at him and went, “Dude, ‘Lord of the Rings’ isn’t real. If I had been to the Shire and saw an Asian or East Indian hobbit, nobody would have cared.” I got tired of arguing for representation. It set me on a mission of discovery.

Q: Representation is a big deal to you.

A: I remember when “The 13th Warrior” came out (in 1999) and I heard the warrior was going to be a Moor. I’m here thinking, Denzel (Washington). Instead, it’s Antonio Banderas! And it’s not a knock on Antonio Banderas, but even in films where I expected to see people like myself, they weren’t there.

Q: You had an impulse to do something, but did you know what it would be?

A: No. I was talking to Melina Matsoukas, who directs a lot of Beyoncé videos and directed “Insecure.” She was talking to me about this TV show which I still haven’t seen, “The Affair,” about how, in it, the man and the woman are telling stories. They think they’re telling the same story, but the stories don’t add up, even in very simple ways. And she was like, this is a good idea for a TV show. And I was like, “Forget the TV show, this is good idea for a novel.” That was the eureka moment where I instantly knew what the trilogy would be … three versions of the same story.

Q: “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” feels cinematic in style and scope.

A: I’m very suspicious of people who write books aiming for them to become movies. Sometimes you can just tell. At the same time, I write books that are cinematic because I’m so influenced by cinema. In a lot of ways, I’m more influenced by cinema than by books. I still enter a scene like I’m going to storyboard it.

I also like the economy of cinema. And that cinema depends a lot on the sensory. It’s like I tell my students, a sunset doesn’t need your help. The natural world itself is unique, brilliant, poetic, dark, dangerous and sexy all by itself. That’s something I learned from cinema.

Q: This novel lands post-“Black Panther.” Just like the movie, you’re telling a story with a cultural confidence and muscularity that’s very different from what we’re used to seeing.

A: For me, Africa, the continent, was a huge reservoir of ideas, mythologies, legends, histories. I can literally dive in, pull out some items and make a story — just as how George R.R. Martin can go into Viking lore or Cixin Liu can go into some Chinese lore. To me, it’s going back to the myths. We always have to go back to the myths.

Q: What surprised you in your research?

A: A lot of people think I’m dealing with things like gender identity and queerness and homosexuality and varieties of sexual experiences because I’m trying to make the novel contemporary. Those are the oldest elements in the book. That came from the research. Addressing people as “they”? Sorry, people, Africa did that 4,000 years ago. Recognizing queerness and not having antipathy for homosexuality and homosexuals — that’s nothing new. The African continent was always ready for that kind of stuff until white American preachers told them that they weren’t.

Q: As I was reading, I couldn’t stop laughing. Are people getting the humor?

A: A lot of people say they can’t get over how funny it is. I write some pretty dark stuff. Some horrible things happen. I have to balance it with something. And I balance it with humor, but then again, humor is an essential part of culture, certainly black culture. Humor is one of the ways we got through slavery.

Q: Like “Black Panther,” though, you offer a vision of a world that doesn’t deal with the trauma of the last 500 years.

A: Black people in the diaspora have to get over this idea that slavery is ground zero of our history. When I was writing this book, I thought I was a decolonized person. But I had to do some more decolonization to write this. Even in the way people speak. I quoted around 17 different languages in the book. But I wasn’t about to turn the Wolof language into Elvish.

Q: Did you enjoy “Black Panther”?

A: I love it for lots of reasons. One was the ambiguity of the villain. Every time Killmonger said something, I was like, “Well, where’s the lie, though?” It was also full of black pageantry, not European pageantry that’s given a splash of chocolate. The filmmakers did their research. There’s a lot of Mali in “Black Panther,” and understanding of the old kingdoms, like Songhai. I also had to watch it to make sure it doesn’t seem like I’m ripping them off.

Q: Can you give us an update on the screen adaptation of “A Brief History of Seven Killings”?

A: It’s no longer with HBO. HBO’s management at the time thought there was no audience for that story.

We’re in negotiations right now to move it to another home that might be more receptive. We’re still developing and trying to get the pilot correct. Nothing has been signed and put in stone yet.

 





 


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