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
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.
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.
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,
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.
that make you adopt a literary hierarchy?
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.
me about the genesis for your Dark Star trilogy.
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
Representation is a big deal to you.
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.
had an impulse to do something, but did you know what it
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.
“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” feels cinematic in style
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
“Black Panther,” though, you offer a vision of a
world that doesn’t deal with the trauma of the last
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.
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.
you give us an update on the screen adaptation of “A
Brief History of Seven Killings”?
no longer with HBO. HBO’s management at the time
thought there was no audience for that story.
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.