It’s one-o-clock in the afternoon at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Writer Marlon James’ badge says Speaker, and he has talked his way to weariness for the day. This is the last appointment and I get a request to advance it; the 2015 Man Booker Prize winner is waiting only for us to arrive before he can hide away and prepare for another day of speaking at the event. The exhaustion is evident as we begin our interview in a quiet corner away from the crowds, he calls for water and tea too, but gradually as we speak, his eyes light up. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected 70 times before it found a publisher. Tiredness has never got the better of him.
What is your first memory of writing?
Probably writing comics. Probably writing and drawing comics. And reading Jules Verne and adventures. We all read stories as children, but a lot of us want to go one step beyond that. Like, I want to do that. I want to do that to somebody what just happened to me. And I can’t remember the age, maybe it was six or seven. In hindsight, I don’t know when I thought I would be a writer. In fact even after my first novel, I didn’t think I was a novelist. I didn’t know I was a writer until I’d done my second book and somebody asked me, what do you do other than writing, and I didn’t have an answer! I was like, I don’t know, there is no other thing. But it’s something that occurred to me.
At what point did you decide to write your Man Booker winning title, A Brief History of Seven Killings?
I started writing it way back when I was writing my second novel [The Book of Night Women, 2009]. It was a totally different book back then, it was
supposed to be a short novel set in New York. And from there it grew to become A Brief History of Seven Killings. I didn’t set out to write that book. I was just following a story and choosing not to be narrow in it, but while exploring the characters, it went to the Bob Marley assassination attempt in 1976 and that’s how it all actually started.
Your book is more than a story about the assassination attempt on Bob Marley; it’s a story of the War of Drugs. How far do you think we’ve come from this history? How powerful is this war today, in the global context?
We haven’t come anywhere from this history! What was going on in the Caribbean and in Columbia in the 70s is going on in Mexico right now and the War of Drugs will stop only if we want it to be stopped. So we really haven’t gotten anywhere. In fact it’s worse now. I was reading Don Winslow’s novel, The Cartel, and he dedicates a page-and-a- half to a list of names and I was like, is this all of the names of people who helped you write the book, and he was like, ‘no these are all the people that have been assassinated and all the journalists that have been killed covering the drug beat’. They’ve murdered thou- sands upon thousands of people. It’s no better. It’s as bad as it always was.
The novel is a bridge between the living and the dead the ancestors’ wisdom, albeit sometimes late in the day, comes in often. Do you personally believe that spirits help the living?
No, I’m a total atheist. I’m also a total carnalist, I don’t believe in spirituality. I don’t believe in the part psychology version of it. But I do believe in those who believe in that belief. I have some friends who do and I tell them, I don’t believe that but I believe in your belief. I have friends who are Christians; I was a Christian, I have friends who are Muslims, friends who are Wiccan and I take what they say to me very seriously. I have a friend who follows Santeria and worships Orishas and I listen to what she says! I have friends with a serious belief in astrology and again I don’t believe in it, but I take it seriously.
A lot of what is in the book is African storytelling, where there is no difference between dead and liv- ing. I also read a lot of Greek tragedy and Greek drama, and the idea of the chorus. Especially of the chorus that nobody is listening to. That’s something that I have had in my first novel and this one. The chorus is usually a person or a room of people who tell you aspects of the story and often contradict a story. Sometimes you listen to them most often you do not. They talk to the read- er more than the characters and it’s always been part of Greek tragedy but also sometimes of African storytelling. They’re sort of the elders or the spirits who are in conversation with you who don’t necessarily have an effect in the events of the story or the music or the play or the epic.
Your last novel, The Book of Night Women, was a slave story. Now, in part this is a ghost story. What attracts you to the grim?
The thing about the slave story and the ghost story, is that they’re both quite funny. But yes I am attracted to the darker side because a lot of it comes out of crime, and I’m interested in what’s going on in the underbelly of the society. I am drawn to film fiction and noir fiction. I am drawn to the things that human beings do to human beings. I’m very curious about evil. One idea that I’ve been in argument about is that people who do terrible things are insane. Why did that guy kill all those people? He was insane; no he was not! We have to accept that perfectly rational human beings can do horrendous things to people. And I’m interested in that. I’m interested in the darker aspects of humanity.
Has the subject ever seemed haunting?
If anything, it has a positive effect because I thus end up appreciating the goodness of humanity a lot more. I’m so wowed by humanity, I’m wowed by kindness. I’m surrounded by wonderful friends and family and just the good- ness and generosity of people.
There’s a lot of lashing out at the Jamaican police in your book. How did you come about the critical narrative? Did you fear the consequences?
Well I’m not there and who knows what’s going to happen when I am there! I don’t think it’s critical; I’m just saying it as it is! The police came from the same set of people who wanted to control the population; I’m talking about Colonial police. I don’t know how far that’s true for the Indian police. But it’s so in the Caribbean, and so in Africa. That was the whole point of who the police was. And since then we haven’t really evolved much out of that. In the British Commonwealth countries it’s still the same they beat the crap out of the people till they ‘confess’! A lot of these forces still do that. It’s a very medieval way of solving a crime. There’s no real criminal investigation, there’s no kind of due process. It still happens. There’s tons of corruption. And I’m not being critical I could have been, but I’m just saying this is something toxic
and we consider it normal but it’s not normal. Like we’re in a toxic relationship thinking it’s normal but it’s not normal. It’s a toxic relationship.
As for how other folks back there perceive it, I ultimately don’t care. I don’t think any artist should work for public approval. Instead of seeing it as painting a serious picture, they should see it as painting a picture.
How did you conduct your research into cocaine trade and put all the pieces together?
Just researched it! I came across a lot of it through media; I didn’t think of going to source material. I was researching right up till the end. I didn’t think I would research for a year and then write; I was researching and writing at the same time. Photography was a lot of help, in some ways even more so than the news stories. Then, talking to my friends who were drug addicts and drug dealers helped. It happened as I wrote; I’d have never been able to do this if I was just researching year after year.
What is the biggest challenge that you faced?
The biggest challenge that I faced was taking all these risks that I was taking. There’s something scary about writing in a way that you haven’t written before before. And a lot of it is stuff that I haven’t written that way before. And that was the biggest risk coming to terms with all this and moving ahead with it. As opposed to sticking to think- ing what the novel should be. I think that’s a terrible thing for a writer when he starts to see the word ‘should’. There’s no such thing as ‘should’ when you are creating any form of art. And I had to get beyond that ‘should’ but it was really scary moving like that.
What do you think Bob Marley would have said about your book?
I have no idea. Of course it starts out with the assassination attempt on him but it moves beyond that. I hope he would have liked it; I hope he would have seen a lot of what he said about Jamaican society and how in a lot of ways we have come far but how in a lot of ways we have not progressed at all. There’s so much stuff he talked about in his own music, so I hope he’d see that.
What does the Man Booker Prize mean to you?
The Man Booker feels fantastic. I grew up reading some of these titles and it’s amazing and overwhelming that they put mine among those books. It’s shocking and surprising and humbling but also a great affiliation. I don’t think you should look for awards, but when it happens it’s a great thing.
Describe the Jamaica that you hate, the Jamaica that you love, and the Jamaica that you hope for, in one line each.
I love that there are so many people I love back there. It’s that one place in the world where without reservation I can say, I have a right to be. There’s something about Jamaican mentality, about the Jamaican way of life that I absolutely love. What do I hate, I think we can be narrow-minded about quite a few things such as gender and sexuality at all levels of society and I hope we go beyond that, we grow some more we mature some more, and become the great people we already are.
A novel [Black Leopard, Red Wolf] that’s set in the Dark Ages. I’m going way back in history but it’s sort of speculative fiction. The book is based in Africa.
Text Soumya Mukerji