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Marlon James writes Jamaican epic

October 27, 2014 


             

Author Marlon James is photographed in his studio apartment in Minneapolis.

It’s around 3 p.m. on Oct. 1, the biggest day in Marlon James’ career — if not his life. His third novel, "A Brief History of Seven Killings," hit bookstores with more buzz than a swarm of bees.

James is on his phone with prominent Jamaican blogger Annie Paul, who has just published her interview with him online. The blog post, in which James discusses his novel about the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Kingston, has upset editors at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, each of which has a story on James coming out soon.

"Can you please take it down?" James asks Paul, no sign of panic or upset in his voice.

She wonders why anyone would care about her little blog in Jamaica.

"It’s just for a little bit,’?" he says. "It’s an embargo thing."

Reluctantly, Paul agrees.

"Alright, cool," he says, signing off. "The Times, I’ve worked with them — they always have to be first."

The media storm is all about "Seven Killings," a nearly 700-page novel published by Riverhead, a Penguin imprint. The press is sending James on a multiweek national tour to support a work that blunt New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called "epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex."

Novelist Russell Banks has been similarly effusive, saying that "Seven Killings" is "scary and lyrically beautiful — you’ll want to read whole pages aloud to strangers."

The book is "an indispensable and essential history of Jamaica’s troubled years," said Publishers Weekly.

Make no mistake: "Seven" is no easy airport read. The novel, which James has been thinking about for decades and which he completed over the past four years, radiates from the Dec. 3, 1976, assassination attempt on Marley, the reggae superstar. Two days after dodging most of the bullets, an injured Marley headlined a peace concert in Kingston, the Jamaican capital, standing between the leaders of the two political parties like, he would later say, Jesus between the two thieves.

James uses the assassination attempt as a touchstone to create an imaginative, Joycean mosaic of social history that pulls in a dizzying cast of characters.

"Seven Killings" takes place in 1970s Jamaica, where the CIA, intent on Jamaica’s not becoming a socialist country, armed rival political gangs that would morph into the posses that ruled parts of New York and Miami in the 1980s and 1990s. There are spies, gang bosses, politicians, musicians, lovers and dreamers.

James’ first novel, "John Crow’s Devil," was published by small, independent Akashic Press. He moved to Riverhead for "The Book of Night Women," a novel set in the 19th century and told in a woman’s voice. That one has been optioned for a film, but it didn’t approach the rapturous reviews that make "Seven Killings" a breakout book for the 43-year-old author.

THE FIT PROFESSOR

James has the physique of the track runner he once was (his specialty was the 200 meters, although he could not cut it in the land of Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce). To tame his dreadlocks, he sometimes wraps his hair in a bandanna. And he inspires awe in his students at Macalester.

It seems that he has been living for this moment. On his official publication day, as he bounds into his rented loft atop the Midtown Global Market in south Minneapolis, he is greeted by a blast of bright light coming in large windows that give a panoramic view all the way to St. Paul. Framed posters and photographs of primitives and nudes cover the walls, along with framed album covers — Hendrix, the Stones, Grace Jones. It’s the kind of place where Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Bowie would feel right at home.

James sits at a table and flips open his MacBook Air to see what all that fuss is about. He clicks on the article in the Times, hoping aloud that he hasn’t used up his 10 free stories this month. The author photo strikes him first.

"That’s the one they chose?" James says. "I thought I was smiling; I’m not that serious."

His phone buzzes constantly, and there also are dings coming from his computer indicating social-media updates from friends and followers. He switches to Facebook, and exclaims as he sees who has posted on his page: "Victor Chang!" he says. "He was my first writing teacher at UWI," the University of the West Indies.

As he reads, he pauses to address a question of language that comes up about this work. The book is told in voices from a wide strata of Jamaican society, from slang and Patwa to the queen’s English. Patwa, he says, is not some dialect of English or, worse, "broken English," but its own language.

"It has its own rules, grammar, everything that a language needs to function," James says. "True, it’s not written down, but not every language is written."

"Seven Killings" is James’ imaginative attempt to make sense of his formative years. He was born in 1970, two years before Michael Manley swept to power, promising a Sweden-style socialist paradise. On the other side was American-born Edward Seaga, often referred to as CIA-ga. More than a thousand people died in political violence that brought Seaga to power in 1980. Manley returned to power from 1989 to 1992.

 (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

JUNKIES, DONS AND PRINCE

The book is based on real events and real people, but the names have been changed. For starters, James doesn’t want to be sued. For another, the characters from that era, or their descendants, are still around.

At the bookstore reading, he says that he may not be able to go to Jamaica for two years. Asked if he thinks that the dons or political forces in Jamaica will read his book, he nods. "Or they’ll hear about it," he says. "It’s a popular parlor game."

At the bookstore that night, James reads a passage about a Jamaican don named Josey Wales, a trusted distributor of Colombian cocaine to North America. On a trip to New York, Josey goes to a crack house in Brooklyn for the first time to see the effect of his distribution network.

Outside the drug house, the don gets held up by a junkie waving a squirt gun filled with urine. The junkie sprays Josey in the face. Peeved, Josey goes into the house and uses real guns to shoot the zombielike clientele there. The scene is an orgiastic flurry both gory and funny.

Another excerpt involves a man and a woman meeting in an apartment in New York. While they flirt, Prince plays on the stereo.

The man "walks over to the stereo and picks up the album jacket," James reads, then goes into the characters’ voices.

"Who’s the homely looking dyke on the bike?" The man asks.

"That’s Prince."

"Prince who?"

"Just Prince. The mustache wasn’t a giveaway?"

"My second thought was, that was the hottest bearded lady ever."

SON OF A JUDGE AND A DETECTIVE

James grew up in Portmore, a suburb of Kingston, Minn. His mother was a police detective, and his father, who died in 2012, a judge. His family is the Jamaica diaspora in microcosm. James’ siblings live in Canada, the United Kingdom and Jamaica.

"We were the Cosbys, or saw ourselves as such," he said. "My childhood was pretty boring."

He was into comics and music, said Sara James, a graphic designer and Marlon’s younger sister.

"Whenever I think back on my childhood, the soundtrack for all my memories is not reggae, but Prince and Madonna and Men at Work," she said. "That’s Marlon’s influence. That’s all he was into."

When he was young, James read everything he could — novels, poetry, comics. He would get magazines at his favorite bookstore in Kingston. "It would be January and we’re just getting the October Rolling Stone, but I didn’t mind," he said.

That craving for things foreign opened his world. It also helped form his rangy aesthetic.

"He’s a singular talent who’s been dedicated to reading and to writing for a long time," said Jamaican-American novelist Colin Channer, founding artistic director of the Calabash Literary Festival, through which James and many other writers honed their crafts and got their breaks. "He’s of a generation of writers who inherited the boldness and the freedom of earlier writers. … But his freedom also comes from reggae. He has a central place in the global modern."

For Channer, the hallucinogenic stream of consciousness that animates parts of "Seven Killings" is not just the influence of Faulkner and Morrison, but also of reggae, specifically dub music.

"Marlon is doing in literature what Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry did in music," Channer said. "He’s channeling a reggae aesthetic that’s being overdubbed on literary styles."

At Calabash 10 years ago, James got his big break. He used to go to all the readings and workshops.

"I remember this round face bredda with picky head in the front row," Channer said.

At one workshop, he met writer, editor and professor Kaylie Jones. She had heard about his work and was excited to meet him. The only problem was that he had thrown out the manuscript of his first book, "John Crow’s Devil." James had to contact friends in London to retrieve a copy.

"When I read it, I was spellbound," Jones said. "I can’t believe that it had been rejected by most of the publishers in New York. They must not have read it."

Jones suggested James to Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books in Brooklyn. He, too, was smitten.

"Marlon’s writing hits me on a visceral level while completely capturing my imagination, my intellect," said Temple, who used his earnings from his rock band (Girls Against Boys) to found a press. "His writing has gristle, this raw coarseness that I’m attracted to in music and literature. When you lose yourself in it, it’s such a pleasure because you’re in the hands of a master."

In his classes on campus and in his readings, James often is surrounded by former students. They talk about him in near-reverential terms. Jeff Bennett, who sometimes works out with James, said that his former professor’s influence changed the course of his life.

When he sent James a story, Bennett was not even an English major. He changed majors, graduated and has been sending out fiction. Recently, he gave notice at his job so he could spend more time writing.

Jones, the editor and writer, heard James talking recently. She said it sounded familiar.

"He was saying some of the stuff I teach my students," she laughed. "I told him, ‘I taught you that.’?"

"He said, ‘Oh, that’s where I got it.’ I have to remind him.

"When I first met him, 10 years ago, I told him he was going to be the voice of a generation. He was going to do great things. And here we are, and he’s just getting started."

 

 

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