A Brief History of Seven Killings, Jamaican novelist Marlon James’ celebrated book, is anything but brief. The epic story takes readers on a journey back to Kingston, Jamaica, during the late 1970s, beginning with the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. What follows is a chilling tale of seven killings, immersed with violence, politics and a whole lot of Jamaican patois. James, who was most recently shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize—big deal!—sat down with Island Outpost to discuss his book, his comic book collection, and his complicated relationship with Jamaica.
By Nadja Boncoeur
When you began writing A Brief History of Seven Killings, was there a lightbulb moment when you decided that Bob Marley’s assassination would be the focus?
There was a light bulb moment, but I wasn’t the lightbulb. The lightbulb was my friend Rachel. When I was complaining to her that I keep starting these novels and I can’t finish them, and that I don’t know whose story it is, and she said, “Well, why do you think it’s one person’s story?” That made me think of When I Lay Dying, which was a big eureka moment. The Faulkner novel is about a dying woman who is watching one of her sons make her own coffin—but the story is never told from her point of view. It’s told from all the people around her. So that kind of story, where all these people on the periphery are telling the story of one event, became really interesting to me. Some of the characters in my book never even meet Bob Marley.
I read that comic books inspire your writing.
Oh, yes. Whenever I get together with people like Junot Diaz or Michael Chabon or any of those writers around my age, within ten minutes we get into comic books. We’re all hugely influenced by comics. I can still differentiate X-Men by the issue number. There is something about the visual language, the kineticism of it. I can tell when a writer read comics. I can tell when a filmmaker read comics. There’s a sense of angle in film that you can tell. The second that you watch The Matrix you know that Wachowski read comics. The first stuff I ever wrote was comics.
Best comic ever?
Damn. The best comic ever may be Batman Year 1.
Your novel is being adapted into an HBO series. When you were writing it, did you see it on the big screen?
Yes and no. I didn’t write it thinking, Oh, this will make a good TV show or a good miniseries. I think that’s kind of cynical. But at the same time, I am almost influenced by film as I am by books. I teach fiction, and I use film quite a bit. I think sometimes novelists just like to hear themselves talk. They love to show how they can narrate a sentence, whereas I’m almost an anti-narrator. I like narrative, but I’m not a narrator. I don’t appear in the book. In film, if you can’t see it or hear it, it doesn’t exist. You can have 50 pages of people thinking in a book—I have a 300-page stretch of people thinking. That doesn’t translate into film. But I am also very much interested in cinematic language. There are some important aspects of storytelling that I think I got from filmmakers. I also think I am a very visual writer. I actually do care about what my scene looks like.
Will the show be shot in Jamaica?
Everybody so far is really excited, but it’s still pretty early. In the film business, everybody can be gung-ho about a project and it still doesn’t happen. It’s an occasion to be happy but also cautious and optimistic. Will it be shot in Jamaica? Usually when a show is set in a country, it’s ideal to set it in that country. But Jamaica is not a place that is caught in a time warp. The country doesn’t look like it did in 1976. And why should it? We’re always on the move.
Is there much of a Jamaican community where you live in Minnesota?
There’s some. I don’t actually see them too much. The community is going on with their lives. They don’t seem very interested in me. I’ve been here eight years, and despite the fact that there is a whole community of Jamaicans here, I think I have only one Jamaican friend. And he’s someone I know from college, so he doesn’t count.
I wrote a complicated book, and the book I wrote before that was complicated as well. We have a little bit of a complicated relationship.
Does the country of Jamaica have a complicated relationship with you as an author as well?
Yes, but I think that’s a sign that an author is doing good work. Especially because the stuff I write tends to mine Jamaica’s past. Some people would rather not talk about it. First I was muckraking over religion, then I was muckraking over slavery. And now I’m muckraking over politics. They better hope I don’t write a gay novel next. The last time I read in Jamaica a bunch of people started screaming in protest. They were protesting the vulgarity they saw in the prose. My characters aren’t vulgar; they are just real. I was never interested in sugarcoating stories about Jamaica. Sometimes to a fault. In my earliest writing I think I went too far. I was thinking, let’s make this as grotesque as possible. Let’s make this as dark as possible. Now I am interested in both the good and the bad about Jamaica. The beauty and the warts—and sometimes the warts is the beauty.
How do you think Jamaica has changed since the 1970s?
The children of the 70s are now adults. I think my generation and the new Jamaican millennials are very intelligent, sophisticated and worldly. They’ve traveled, and they are a pretty powerful workforce. What has not changed is that Jamaica still doesn’t know how to support them. We still end up with brain drain. The economy is still in the garbage. What’s different now is the skilled Jamaican can work anywhere in the world. But what’s the infrastructure to keep all this talent and intelligence here? What has not changed is that I don’t think we’ve figured out how to take care of our brightest people. There are very frustrating ways in which Jamaica has stayed the same.
What do you think will change that mindset?
Jamaicans are going to have to start demanding more of their leaders, and demanding more of the people who the leaders speak to. We need to have a broader idea of what investment is. Investing in the arts is great idea; encouraging production as opposed to just importing. We can’t keep borrowing and borrowing until the country actually starts producing, and that includes its creativity. There are a few times in my book where the character Nina Burgess says that her worry is that Jamaica won’t get better or worse, it will just find new ways to stay the same. It’s not just about changing politics; it’s not just about changing politicians. It’s also about changing the mentality and the outlook of the people.
I read your article in the New York Times that spoke about your journey of accepting yourself as a gay man. I wanted to touch on the subject of homosexuality in Jamaica. How has the climate in Jamaica changed towards the LGBT community? What would you tell a child growing up LGBT in Jamaica?
There is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture where everybody will know that their neighbor is gay, and the two aunties sleep in the same bed at night, and it’s sort of their business. I’m not sure if this is progress, but at least it’s something. I think there is still a sense that you can never sleep with both eyes closed. You’re still on guard, you’re still not completely safe. But then again, there are places in the States where you’re not at ease either. Hell, at least Jamaica isn’t Uganda. No one so far has tried to enforce legislation, no one is trying to be Russia.
To somebody growing up now, I wouldn’t be surprised if their friends are more open-minded. My friends were pretty damn open-minded. I would say: Find a community. Thank god for the Internet. If it wasn’t for the internet, some people would never find their community. You’re going to need that. You’re going to need your people.
Can you tell us a little bit about your next book, which you described as “the African Games of Thrones.”
I’m primarily a sci-fi fantasy guy. I remember a couple of years ago when the news came out that the cast for The Hobbit was all white, and people were protesting. It was 2010—why were we still having that discussion? The pushback was that it was a story set in Britain. And I thought, no, it’s a story set in a place that doesn’t exist. It’s like saying Santa Claus is white. No, Santa Claus isn’t real. The idea that they’re pushing is, because it’s based on white mythology, it has a right to be all white. I realized in the midst of this discussion how tired I was of it. I’m tired of picking up a fantasy book and picking up not just European mythology but a European worldview. I’m not knocking it—they are some of my favorite stories. But I’ve always known that African history, mythology and folklore is just as wild, diverse, maddening and wonderful as anything else. I’m letting myself loose in a different kind of playground.
Read part two of our interview with Marlon James, in which he reveals his all-time favorite Bob Marley songs, and the hands-down best beach in Jamaica.