There’s more scrutiny of what I say since I won the Booker: Marlon James

Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James on how winning the Booker changed his life, of his book being rejected 78 times, and how writing helped him come out of the closet as a homosexual


Marlon James at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Marlon James at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Jaipur: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Jamaica-born Marlon James’ third novel, first draws you in because of the Jamaican patois in which the characters speak. Pegged on the attempted assassination of singer Bob Marley, James fictional account takes you within the heart of 1970s Jamaica, with its slums and ganglords and children who hold a gun before a toy, the CIA playing its games in the region, and the violence of the daily life there. For this novel, James won the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes, but it wasn’t easy getting there. He speaks here of his first novel being rejected 78 times, of him giving up being a writer, and now, since he’s got international exposure with the Booker, of him facing a lot more scrutiny—not that he’s more careful of what he says. He is dreadlocked, and he writes in his book with reverence of The Singer, but he speaks of how Bob Marley and Rastafarians were considered the lowest scum of humanity when he was growing up, and why Marley means a lot more to him now. Excerpts from an interview:

What has winning the Man Booker Prize meant to you?

I don’t know, because I don’t think you go looking to win the Booker. At least I hope people don’t do that. But it was a turning point. It certainly changed my book sales. But also, it just sort of brought a certain higher exposure and increased my profile as a writer to the point where, nowadays everybody pays a lot of attention to what I put out on Facebook as opposed to before. Not that I have got more careful of what I say; if anything, I have gone worse. I noticed that there is a lot more scrutiny now.

I guess on a more positive spin, more people pay attention to what I say. And I tend to be very engaged with a lot of social issues, which I haven’t stopped doing. So hopefully, post Booker, there is a little bit more attention paid to some of the things I talk about beyond fiction and non-fiction.

What are the social issues you engage with?

I live in the United States so I talk about race quite a bit. Race, racism, sexism, homophobia—these are issues that concern me. I am not an activist, but I also think that as a writer writing in the world I can’t really ignore what’s going on in the world. I have always done that, but people pay attention to it now. I just did a video called Are You Racist?, for The Guardian, and Guardian sends me an email that it’s been viewed 8.7 million times. I was like… are you serious? I was expecting 7-800. Again, it’s the post Booker effect, people pay attention if I’m saying something and, whether for good or for bad, that has not made me more careful of what I say.

You have people slamming you on social media?

Yeah, totally. That’s the thing, you can’t read the comments. If you read the comments, you lose all faith in humanity. There’s always these negatives. I take it as saying that maybe I’m doing something, saying something worthwhile. Usually there are a number of people who attack it. I’m just fine, being a writer I’m used to negative feedback. It’s not like that’s something new.

You wrote a piece in the ‘New York Times’ on being a closet homosexual in Jamaica, and how in your childhood your fear of being found out was so high that you just fell silent. Obviously that’s changed now.

It is. One thing about the New York Times article that people forget is that it ends in 2012. Not only am I different from the person mentioned in that article, I am also different from the person who almost reports from it. It’s been almost too many years since and I have certainly been a lot more assertive and confident in the world, and a lot more outspoken about issues. There has been a huge change, but part of the reason that led to that article was because I was changed and I could write from a more distanced perspective. I am writing as somebody who has come out of something, reflecting back on it.

These stages of change—is that happening because of your writing experience?

For me, yes, actually. I said in the NYT article that I realized my present was something I could write my way out of. And I think once you hit upon that thing that is you, that you are meant to do, for want of a better term, I think that’s the thing that will take you where you need to go. And I realize the one thing I think I can do really, certainly one thing I can do better than the other things that I have tried, and I realized that if I was really going to move from a place of discomfort and unhappiness to some place that is the opposite, it was going to be writing that was going to take me. So yeah, writing is 100 percent the reason why.

When did you know that you wanted to write?

That’s a good question, because I was writing for years before I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I think part of way that certainly Jamaicans and part of the diaspora are raised was that we should be lawyers and doctors. And my father was a lawyer and he was miserable. But I think we are raised with this idea of securing our future, not for bad reasons necessarily, but the idea of any type of life in the arts—writing, music, dance—was just something that I didn’t think there was much of a future in. So I always wanted to write, but I never thought of it as something to pursue seriously, not until my late 20s-early 30s actually.

My first book didn’t come out till I was 34. And even then, I still didn’t think I was a writer. I think, for me, I knew I was a writer when somebody asked me—I think I was 37—if I weren’t writing, what I would be doing. And I couldn’t answer the question. Which Is funny, because I have done nearly everything. You name the job and I have done it. But I couldn’t answer; I was like, I don’t know, I have no answer to that question, this is it. There is no other, no second career. No matter what happens to me, I will find a way to write a sentence. And I think that’s when I knew. By then I already had a novel out. But I still didn’t think I was a writer.

Your first novel, ‘John Crow’s Devil’, was rejected more than 70 times. That didn’t deject you?

Of course, that totally stopped me. The thing about that story is because that part is true, people look at me as this model of perseverance. But I didn’t persevere at all. After Rejection 78, I gave up. Seventy-eight was a lot. I did give up. I left writing. I destroyed that manuscript. I was in advertising, so I went back to that, I totally forgot that life and it wasn’t until the Calabash Writer’s Workshop—there’s a workshop in Jamaica—invited me for the second year and one of the writers there, Kaylie Jones, was impressed with what I did in class and asked if I had written anything else. And I had given up being a writer and I said no. My friends were like, he’s lying, he wrote a book and doesn’t want to show it to you. I was like, no I wrote a book and destroyed it. And she insisted on seeing it. So I had to go through some miracle to find that destroyed manuscript.

I found it in an old email outbox. And I remember, I was printing it out, and I didn’t have enough paper, so I just chopped the first 20 pages and the last 20 pages—I didn’t even look—and sent that to her. And she was like, this is great. She said she would find me a publisher, and she did. That’s how it happens, it needs a lot of luck. Perseverance yeah, but a lot of luck.

But perseverance too. I remember thinking that if you sent it out 78 times, you were certainly very confident about your work.

I was confident, but it’s in hindsight that I realize that I sent it to 78 publishers. These six people rejected me, I sent it to another six. I didn’t realize I was doing that until it added up to that many. But I didn’t know the number, I was, okay, they didn’t want it , somebody else will. I kept sending it out in batches of six.

And after the first novel was published, it started to look up for you? It was easier getting your next novel published?

Not really. You know, I had a great independent press who were hugely supportive of the book and it got a lot of attention. But I still had a day job, I was doing things other than writing. My second novel was published by Riverhead, which is a subsidiary of Penguin, and they accepted the manuscript. People think my rejection story ended with the first novel, but it didn’t. Riverhead published it but nobody else wanted it. So unlike the last novel where everybody turned it down, this time everybody turned it down but one. It was still hard.

What was the number of rejections you faced this time?

Not as high, only around 16 this time. And the rejection letters were way nicer.

While reading ‘The Brief History of Seven Killings’, the Jamaican patois is what draws you in immediately. Is that what you’ve grown up speaking or hearing?

Yeah, all the variations of it, the sort of more British than the British standard English, which is for us a sort of post Victorian kind of English, overly formal. There’s a patois that we speak at home, in the streets, there’s patois that’s rural, patois that’s influenced by popular culture, particularly reggae. Also before the 70s, you have a youth that’s heavily sustained by American culture, particularly television. There’s that spilling as well, TV and music and popular music. There’s all that spilling in as well. One of the things I wanted to do in this novel is show that there’s no one English. There can never be. And there’s no standard English, either, and there can never be. The sort of, not a cacophony, but the sort of plurality of voices was something that was very important for me to achieve in that book.

But there is an English that had an elitist element to it, with patois considered low brow?

Oh yeah, it is looked upon like that in all its contradictions and hypocrisies, that there is a certain elite way of speaking. It is also sort of archaic. It’s a way of speaking that even the British finds hilarious because nobody talks like that anymore. It doesn’t accept the dynamism of language. And I think it also makes you a servant to the tongue as opposed to the tongue serving you.

I’m very interested in language and linguistics and etymology. There is this idea of a proper standard English. But there’s no such thing as a standard English, not even spoken by the British. But it is one way in which colonialism still makes its presence felt.

My second novel is also patois and I got more criticism from Jamaica than anywhere else. You are an English teacher, why would you use this kind of language. It’s broken English, as though it needs to be fixed. Language should have friction, that’s what creates new words, makes it dynamic. If the way you speak is the way your grandmother speaks, there’s a problem in how you speak. That also applies to so-called standard English, or proper English, whatever people might think that is.

Each character in your book is given a unique voice. Was that difficult to write?

Yes and no. It’s the most work and the most fun I have had. It was simply just a lot of fun, differentiating these voices, it certainly helped me differentiate my characters, just the way these different voices play with each other. One thing that becomes a kind of running joke in the book is different characters talking about how another character speaks terribly—I can’t stand when that person chatbad; Or, If I lose by temper I am gonna chatbad, and so on. So, the class tensions that are expressed in how we speak in language and in dialect, and that was also something I wanted to capture. But it was a lot of fun, it was a lot of work, but fun. I had to keep track of how my characters spoke, imbue different characters with specific traits just so I can distinguish them. A lot of the work is carried by voice. And it’s a big book. So I had to find ways to… not just the heading on top of the chapter, but the language itself should say this is Josey Wales.

Was it a conscious decision from the start to have each chapter led by a single person?

I think so, I can’t remember when that became a conscious thing to do. But I know it became necessary just because of the way I was writing. I spent one day in a character. If I did it any other way, I would become too caught up in plot. And a lot of the time, a lot of scenes in this book, a character is just sitting down and observing, reflecting, and I wanted to just sit in that space with each character. So that was one of the few rules I had—one character per day, 2,000 words a day. I like discipline. I can write pretty much anywhere, but I am usually quite strict about how many words. But once I hit 2,000 I stop. I don’t care if I am mid sentence… that’s it, I’m done. There are a lot of things to do than write.

Obviously music has a special resonance with you. What does Bob Marley especially mean to you?

Bob Marley means a lot more to me now than he did then. I grew up in a household where reggae listening was not encouraged. And I am putting that quite mildly. The irony of me having this hairstyle is that I grew up when Rastafarians were considered the lowest scum of humanity. Still, despite the huge conversions, despite the Rastafarian movement being such a huge part of black consciousness, certainly 90% of the reason why we listen to reggae, it was viewed as an undesirable subset of Jamaica. And was persecuted quite violently.

Bob Marley by then was already an icon. He was not an artist we heard on the radio because we didn’t play local music; we only heard from the cooler neighbours who were really safe in their identities, you heard it on the streets, in jam sessions, parties. But at the same time, when I was growing up in the 70s, youth culture had already moved on. There’s already a new music coming up on the street called danceoff. This was the music of people who couldn’t afford instruments.

As I got older, Bob Marley became more significant. For one, I don’t think there was any artist who had to create in such an atmosphere of people trying to get him. I don’t think there was somebody trying to make art with so many forces working against him while he was trying to do it; they eventually tried to kill him at one point. The idea of keeping that going, and creating... such astonishing output, with so many forces trying to stop him, is absolutely remarkable.

Did you have to research your book a lot?

I did a lot of research, but a lot of the book I knew, growing up in Jamaica. There’s a character in the book who talks abut how she hates politics and she hates that she’s supposed to know. I hated politics and I hated that I knew it. A lot of the atmosphere of the novel, a lot of the events of the novel—my mother was a policewoman, my father was a lawyer—I knew, but even knowing it I still had to research it, I had to stop being a witness, and start being journalist in a way. So my version of the events is still this one’s person’s opinion. Also the novel takes place in more countries than Jamaica, countries I know nothing about. I know nothing about the crack cocaine trade in New York in the 80s. So there’s a lot of research once the novel exports itself. Usually my research for a novel will take up to a year. I’m not necessarily trying to get things perfect, but I’m trying to inhabit spaces I didn’t live in. And sometimes, it’s not the big things, it’s who got shot where, what type of paint would be on the walls and would it be toxic. Then it brings a kind of texture to the novel that the capital R research can’t give you

Was it an emotional journey living with these characters?

I learned from my last novel. The novel before did cut deep emotionally. I was writing about slavery, it was pretty horrendous. Now I have a distance. I do become a kind of a journalist when I am writing a novel. It allows me to be free of the characters, particularly the villains, the bad ones. So no, I am actually quite distanced when I write stories, particularly when they get very tense. I do have to keep that distance so I can fair to the characters.

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