[Blackstudies-l] A Caribbean Literary Renaissance: Joshua Jelly-Schapiro and Marlon James

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Thu Mar 8 03:17:05 EST 2018

lisaparavisini posted: " Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, an interview with Marlon
James for the New York Review of Books. In January, the Key West Literary
Seminar—a yearly gathering that has since 1982 brought leading writers to
Key West for three days of public conversations and read"
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New post on *Repeating Islands*
<http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/> A Caribbean Literary
Renaissance: Joshua Jelly-Schapiro and Marlon James
lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>

[image: marlon-james-key-west.jpg]

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
<http://www.nybooks.com/contributors/joshua-jelly-schapiro/>, an interview
with Marlon James  <http://www.nybooks.com/contributors/marlon-james/>for
the *New York Review of Books*

In January, the Key West Literary Seminar <http://www.kwls.org/>—a yearly
gathering that has since 1982 brought leading writers to Key West for three
days of public conversations and readings around a particular theme—was for
the first time in its history organized around a geographic region. The
seminar’s theme this year was “Writers of the Caribbean.” It began with a
lecture by Jamaica Kincaid, the distinguished novelist from Antigua, and
featured others ranging from Haiti’s Edwidge Danticat to Cuba’s Leonardo
Padura to Britain’s Caryl Phillips and a slate of younger writers—Kei
Miller, Naomi Jackson, Ishion Hutchinson—who have in recent years helped
bring about a renaissance in Caribbean letters. Also included were Joshua
Jelly-Schapiro, author of *Island People: The Caribbean and the World* (2016)
and a regular contributor to the *Review*, and Marlon James, the Jamaican
novelist whose most recent book, *A Brief History of Seven Killings *(2014),
a sprawling portrait of modern Jamaica told through the lens of a 1977
assassination attempt on the reggae legend Bob Marley, made James the first
Caribbean writer since V.S. Naipaul to win the Man Booker Prize. On a
Friday afternoon, at the San Carlos Institute in Key West, Jelly-Schapiro
interviewed James about the development of his work, his new novel, and
what will come next. What follows is a condensed, edited version of that

—The Editors

*Joshua Jelly-Schapiro*: *We listened here last night to Jamaica Kincaid
talk about the impact *Jane Eyre* had on her as a young woman**—**how as a
schoolgirl growing up on the small island of Antigua in the 1950s and
1960s, Charlotte Bronte**’**s novel set her on her way to becoming a
writer. You grew up in Jamaica a couple of decades later. What were the *Jane
Eyre*s** for you?*

*Marlon James*: Well, there were a few *Jane Eyre*s—one of them, certainly,
was *Pride and Prejudice*. *Pride and Prejudice* is not the first great
book I read, but it was the first great book I read that felt like a great
lit teacher. I remember my actual lit teacher then, Mr. Bryan, walked into
our class and said, “It’s a sad day for me, because I get to watch you all
experience something for the first time that I have experienced millions of
times, which is to read the greatest book ever. This book,” he said, “is
even better than D.H. Lawrence.” Which is the perfect thing to say to
teenage boys. And it was *Pride and Prejudice*.

I learned a lot about writing unsavory characters from that novel. Think of
a character like Mrs. Bennet, who everyone thinks is a person of derision,
but who is in fact one of the few characters in the Austen universe who
really knows what time it is. This is a society where, if Collins decides,
as the new heir of the estate, to throw all the sisters out in the street
for them to starve to death, nobody would frown on it. They would say: “You
should have found husbands.” Mrs. Bennet is the only person in the novel
who seems to realize this fact, that she’s saving lives. And I so remember
that—seeing how important unsavory characters can be; people whom [readers]
don’t like, but who are smart and whom you just can’t totally dismiss.

Another book that was really important to me, in my figuring out how to
write about Jamaica, was Jessica Hagedorn’s *Dogeaters*, which is a novel
about the Philippines set between the 1950s and the 1980s. I remember when
I read it, I said, “This is the greatest book about Jamaica ever written,
and it’s set in the Philippines.” If you’re from a city like Kingston, or
Manila, or Mexico City, you realize the best way to describe the
ridiculousness of our cities is that you’re always between a general
election and a beauty contest. That’s how *Dogeaters* opens. These twin
obsessions. And only when you live in one of those kinds of cities do you
understand that. When I think of Jamaica, I think of general elections; I
also think of Miss Jamaica.

*And with reason, these days**—**in Jamaica, for better or worse, Miss
Jamaicas have become politicians. But another writer I wanted to ask you
about is one whose book you just bought from the second-hand bookshop in
town**—**you arrived carrying a first UK edition of Salman Rushdie**’**s *
Shame*. I know Rushdie**’**s been important to you. How so?*

Yes, I mean this book [*Shame*] is responsible for my destroying my first
novel. Gabriel García Marquez talks about how *The Metamorphosis *was the
book that gave him permission to write fiction. Up until he read Kafka,
Marquez was a journalist. He read this story and was appalled by it: “What
do you mean? People do not wake up as roaches! No! You don’t do that!” But
somewhere between its beginning and end, the story completely transformed
how he saw the world. And *Shame*, really, was that for me.

I remember being appalled by it. I grew up in a very Victorian tradition of
writing a novel. In *Shame*, there would be something like, “Colonel X will
die on page fifty.” And, of course, you flip to page fifty and he’s dead!
Rushdie was eliminating surprise, making snap judgments of characters. At
one point he says, “What kind of character is this?” I was like, “You wrote
him!” I remember being so shocked by it until I became sort of electrified
by it. I totally threw away that first novel and rewrote a whole new one
because I just didn’t know there were no boundaries.

*Growing up in Jamaica in the 1980s, you went to Wolmer**’**s Boys’ School*
*—**which is quite a storied place in Kingston, lots of distinguished
alumni. Harry Belafonte, for example.*

Yes, though Harry Belafonte was expelled! [Laughs] Wolmer’s was that kind
of place—as posh as it sounds.

*You were not expelled. But it wasn**’**t a particularly happy place for
you, was it?*

No, it was a big sports school, you know. I don’t think I was thinking
about being “gay” yet, but certainly I was a nerd. I’m an Eighties kid. I
agree with what Karl Ove Knausgaard said in *My Struggle*, about how if you
were a teenager in the Eighties, it didn’t matter where in the world you
were, you had the same Eighties. We were all raised by TV. We watched
*Dallas*. We had two working parents. We started out maybe listening to
Madonna. We left the decade listening to Sonic Youth and just feeling, more
than anything else, this kind of boredom. There are different kinds of
boredom. The boredom I’m talking about is endless and repeatable boredom:
everybody has the same house; everybody has the same slab roof; everybody
has the same car; everybody likes the same music. That was really
stultifying. That’s one of the reasons why I became a devourer of
libraries. Most of the books I’ve read were in that rush between fifteen
and thirty just reading every flippin’ thing.

*You mentioned TV, but I know music was also really important to you**—**it
was one way, maybe, to access an **“**outside,**”** to other places and
sensibilities. I grew up far from the Caribbean, in Vermont, listening to
lots of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. But you, in the 1980s in Jamaica, were
not listening to much reggae.*

No, I really wasn’t. I was in an all-boys high school, so I listened to
some of that era’s dancehall reggae, of course. But to me, reggae was like
my uncle: “Yeah, I know you’re here, but please stay over there.” It wasn’t
until I was way older that I realized how sly and how clever a lyricist Bob
Marley is, because those are two words you don’t always put with reggae.
Reggae can be very earnest and very sincere and very passionate; it’s never
usually thought of as just “sly.”

*You were a self-identified **“**rock kid**.” What did that mean for you in
Jamaica? I presume there weren**’**t many kids you were growing up with who
were into The Cure and Sonic Youth.*

Not really. I remember somebody who told me she loved me in spite of my
being a Satanist. [Laughs] I guess it was my first experience of
subculture, growing up in Jamaica and hanging around people who were
listening to alternative rock. It was also an entry into other things. It
was an entry into a lot of poetry. I wouldn’t have read Verlaine or Rimbaud
if it wasn’t for Patti Smith. Just as a way of defining myself, certainly
those records did a lot. In a lot of ways, I’m more inspired by music and
film than by books; they’re still my primary influences, I think.

*Your first novel *[John Crow’s Devil]* was set in the 1950s in Jamaica,
your second *[The Book of Night Women]* on a plantation there in the
eighteenth century. But with *A Brief History of Seven Killings*, you get
us up to the present, or the 1970s and 1980s at least**—**and Marley was
the way in, through this attempt on his life. But the Marley you write
about isn**’**t the global icon I encountered in Vermont**—**he**’**s this
local figure, **“**the Singer,**”** through whom you can examine all layers
of Jamaican society. How did Marley become the seed for your book?*

The start, really, was this story I read years ago, years before I wrote my
first novel, and was haunted by. It was an article in *Spin* magazine, in
the February 1990 issue. It was this story about the boys who tried to kill
Marley. It was the first time I’d read anything about it. This was
something that no one in Jamaica speaks about, at least in public. If you
saw [Kevin Macdonald’s] *Marley *documentary (2012), you’ll remember that
the section [about the assassination attempt] was barely two minutes. So I
was really fascinated by that story, but I sort of filed it away. I
wouldn’t come back to it again for over twenty years—and only then because
it snuck up on me. I didn’t plan to write about it until I did.

Because nothing in *Brief History* started the way it ended up. The first
page I ever wrote is now on page 458. I was writing a crime novel starring
a hitman who was trying to kill this Jamaican drug lord. I remember writing
that, and thinking in the back of my head, “He’s one of the guys who tried
to kill Marley.” But that was just going to be this sort of “Gotcha!” at
the end, and my brief 120-page novel would have been finished. I just
couldn’t finish it. I got to a part where I just couldn’t go any further.
And I just figured, well, let’s find another character. So I created this
character, another hit man, called Bam Bam. Then it was the same thing:
writing the character for maybe forty, fifty pages, until I ran into a dead

I remember having dinner with my friend Rachel, and I said, “I don’t know
whose story this is.” And she said, “Why do you think it’s one person’s
story? When last have you read *As I Lay Dying*?” I went back and read
Faulkner, and that was a big eureka moment. I realized that it couldn’t
just be one character’s story, that it had to be many. And that became even
clearer when I started to almost think like an investigative journalist:
these boys with guns they can never afford. Where did the guns come from?
And when you follow the trail of the guns you end up in politics. When you
end up in politics you end up in diplomacy. Before you know it, I have a
Cold War novel on my hands, when I’m just trying to talk about seven
boys—some of them were not even twelve yet—trying to kill Bob Marley. But
it was one of those chapters in Jamaican history we just don’t talk about.
And, as a novelist, I’m really interested in things people would rather not
talk about.

*Those **“**blank pages in history,**”** as it were.*

Yes, and this is such a huge blank spot—but also the sort of blank spot
that anyone in Jamaica can tell you about, if you have them on a veranda
and they know they’re not being recorded. I always say, “In Jamaica, I
don’t trust facts, I trust rumors.” A lot of *A Brief History* came from
rumors, from talking on verandas. The whole idea that Marley was going to
finance a third party, I found out on a hill somewhere. In a sense, a lot
of the really crazy stuff that happens in that book is the most truthful.
Marley really did forgive one of his assailants. This kid became a part of
his entourage and then vanished. He vanished after Marley died, then
cropped up a few years later in East Germany with a bullet in the back of
his head. But that will be the sequel.

*You**’**ve spoken eloquently about how the notion of the **“**Great
Jamaican Novel,**”* *like the **“**Great American Novel,**”* *is a harmful
one because it emphasizes the idea that there could just be one story. *A
Brief History* is, of course, made up of different characters speaking
their stories. Was the form of this book intentional in that sense**—**a
way to suggest that this is how one must write about Jamaica, about any
complex place?*

I’m really terrible at talking about process, because nothing that happens
in my books was ever my intention. I knew this was a novel being carried by
voices, but the problem with writing a novel about voices is, sooner or
later, you run out of voices. When I realized I had to give Weeper, who was
supposed to only exist in the mind of another character, a voice, I thought
to myself: “This is, like, person number fifty, I have no voices left.”

What really helped me write him was re-reading Marguerite Duras’s novel, *The
North China Lover*, which is one of my favorite books—I certainly like it
more than *The Lover*, on which it’s based. *The North China Lover* came
about because Duras wrote the screenplay for *The Lover*, which was a
terrible film, and she knew it, but she went back and looked at her notes
for the screenplay, and because she was Marguerite Duras, she went, “This
is as good as a novel. I’ll just publish it.” And she did. And it really is
a fantastic novel. It’s just character notes and stage direction—but really

And as I was writing Weeper, the gay gunman, I was trying to figure out: if
he’s on the one hand a pretty vicious gunman, but on the other a deeply
closeted guy, he’d be obsessed with space. He’d be stage-managing
everything. He would know where everything is in relation to everything
else, distances. And he’d be obsessed with it. All of that I got from
reading Duras. A lot of those voices come from me just basically stealing,
figuring out the way in which *they* enter the story.

*It**’**s interesting to think about cinematic writing in relation to *A
Brief History*, especially now that it**’**s being turned into a TV show
with Amazon. What has that process been like?*

The obvious thing about writing a TV show is that it really is a
collaborative effort. There’s a writers’ room. There are around five of us.
Each person writes two episodes. Despite knowing the story, you still have
to plot everything back out. There are characters who are in the TV show
who are not in the book and vice versa. The TV show takes a wilder
trajectory. In fact, the entire first season is maybe about the first
twenty pages of this book. It just follows different rules.

You also have to let go of ego really quickly. If there are five of us
writing, and I am Mr. Episode 5 and Episode 10, then a lot of people are
writing stuff before me. You also have to let go of how different people
perceive your characters, which I actually have no problem with. I thought
I would hate collaborative writing more than I do. I actually quite like
that process.

*You**’**ve also just finished a new book, which I haven**’**t read a page
of, but I did see a photo of the manuscript**—**a big stack of paper. So I
know it**’**s not short. Also, that it**’**s fantasy. What can you say
about it?*

Yes, usually people dodge the “fantasy” tag by saying they write
“speculative fiction.” But I’m fine with “fantasy.” This novel came about
because of an argument I had with a friend way back in 2010. They had
announced the casting for *The Hobbit*, and I was like, “Wow, no diversity
whatsoever, not one person [of color] in this cast. You know, if an Asian
popped up in the Shire, nobody would have cared. Nobody would have cared
that there was a Chinese hobbit.” My friend tried to explain, “Well, you
know, it’s a British story, and European mythology,” and so on. And I said,
“Fine, but *Lord of the Rings *isn’t real.” It’s like when Megyn Kelly says
Santa Clause is white. Santa isn’t real!

But where I went with this argument, eventually, was just to say, “Well,
just keep your damn *Hobbit*. I’ll make my own.” So I started going back to
the African stories that survived in the diaspora, lots of Anansi stories
and so on. I went and read the African epics. They’re so good—I mean, I
came across one where a cannibal dies of old age. Fantastic stuff. But a
lot of these epics have been translated by researchers. I think they’re
just waiting to be translated by a poet, to be turned into different kind
of books.

I’ve always been interested in fantasy. My favorite genres are still
fantasy and crime. I’ve always been fascinated by witches and monsters and
all these things that are not the property of European fiction. We all have
that giant serpent biting its tail. But there are distinctions, too—you
know, African vampires have no problem killing you in broad daylight. They
don’t just come out at night. Night is the noon of the dead. Night is when
you go talk to your ancestors. But day’s fair game, too.

*So where and when is this novel set?*

It’s set in a mythic Africa. I resist saying it’s set in the Middle Ages or
the Dark Ages because those are European terms. If you were to force me,
I’d say, “OK, Dark Ages.” But it’s a mythical place. It was a lot of fun
doing something like what [J.R.R.] Tolkien tried to do with Middle Earth.
Also, really hard to write. When you’re writing anything “speculative,”
it’s so easy to get lost in world-building. You can get to a place where
what you’ve done, basically, is to have created a video game but not
written a story. Getting over that and remembering why we read novels was
very important. It took a long time figuring out who should tell the story
and how.

*This is your first book, then, that**’**s not set on the island where you
grew up or in other places where you**’**ve spent time. But I wonder, how
does where you**’**re from shape your approach to the material? Junot D**í**az
has famously talked about how the idioms of fantasy and science fiction may
have a particular resonance in the Caribbean, because of all that**’**s
fantastical and brutal about the islands**’** actual history.* *“**Who more
sci-fi than us?**”* *as he puts it.* *Do you agree?*

I do. It was a huge moment for me reading* Midnight Robber* by Nalo
Hopkinson, because her work meant that the world my grandparents introduced
me to was something I could read. Folktales have as much legitimacy as
anything else. That’s one of the reasons why [Gabriel] García Márquez says
he’s a Caribbean writer. His is a Caribbean sensibility. The whole idea of
“the marvelous real”—that the reality of the Caribbean is wilder than the
craziest fiction. That’s why there are flying people in his books. Even in
reading the book of a visitor like Peter Matthiessen’s *Far Tortuga*, I
recognize that you have to let go of the idea of social realism if you’re
going to write about this place, because this place challenges social
realism at every turn. It took me a long time to get over the idea that
that was illegitimate, that that wasn’t literature. I was, like,
“Literature is *Silas Marner*.” But then that changed—and what changed it
[for me] was reading Caribbean writers.

*Do you consider yourself a **“**Caribbean writer,**”** then? Is that
identity important to you?*

If you asked me ten years ago, I would have said, “Hell no, I’m not a
Caribbean writer! I’m a writer.” Now, I’m like, “That guy was a jackass.
Don’t listen to him!” Of course, I’m a Caribbean writer. And I’m super
proud of it. Even this novel I’m writing that’s set in a mythical African
continent very much has a Caribbean sensibility. It’s like the name of your
book, *Island People*—I think there’s something about not just being in the
Caribbean, but also being from an island, a place at once isolated but
connected to everywhere, that still filters into everything I do and how I
see the world. I totally embrace that.

There’s this idea that can be very enticing, especially when you’re young,
that the best way to move forward as an artist is to erase identity. But I
don’t think it’s an either-or. There’s so much erasure going on already. I
wasn’t about to be part of my own erasure—and for me, a large part of that
was learning how to be Caribbean, learning this tradition. Once, I was just
Jamaican—and Jamaicans do have that exceptionalist attitude. But a lot of
my identity as a Caribbean person I learned from going to the University of
the West Indies, and from reading people that we in the Anglo-Caribbean
didn’t used to read—Simone Schwarz-Bart, Reinaldo Arenas, writers from
Suriname, and the rest of the Dutch Caribbean. I regret that my eyes
weren’t wider open earlier. Imagine if I had been eighteen and reading
Cuban writers, or if I had read Michelle Cliff when I was fifteen. Damn,
the stuff I could be writing now!

But there’s so much happening now, it’s such an exciting time. And drawing
on that tradition, and being a part of that—of course that’s part of my
work. It feeds it. How could it not? The Caribbean is really coming into
its own, and that’s good for all of us.
*lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>* |
March 6, 2018 at 12:13 am | Categories: News
<http://repeatingislands.com/category/news/> | URL: https://wp.me/psnTa-zzy

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