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Marlon James

Tuesday, February 19, 2019
7:30 pm
KQED Broadcast: 03/24/2019, 03/26/2019, 03/27/2019

Marlon James is the author of the novels A Brief History of Seven Killings, John Crow’s Devil, and The Book of Night Women, all of which explore and retell twentieth-century Jamaica through a litany of perspectives.  His forthcoming novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first in the Dark Star Trilogy, a fantasy series rooted in African legend, which James describes as an “African Game of Thrones” (Entertainment Weekly). Born in Kingston, James was the first Jamaican author to win the Man Booker Prize in 2015. He has published short pieces in Black Noir, Esquire, Granta, Harper’s, The Caribbean Review of Books, New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. In his 2016 viral video Are you racist? ‘No’ isn’t a good enough answer, he makes a case for more rigorous anti-racism, as opposed to mere non-racist complacency. James lives and teaches in Minnesota, and spends the rest of his time in New York.

Jeff Chang is a journalist, music critic, and the author of Who We Be, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, and We Gon’ Be Alright. He is the former Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University and currently serves as Vice President of Narrative, Arts, and Culture at Race Forward.


Books Referenced

Films/TV/Videos referenced

  • “The Hobbit” (dir. Peter Jackson, 2012-14)

  • “Lion King” (1994)

  • “Formation” (dir. Melina Matsoukas, 2016)

  • “The Affair” (2014-2019)

  • “Rashomon” (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

  • “Black Panther” (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018)

  • “The Wire” (David Simon, 2002-08)

  • “The Empire Strikes Back” (dir. Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Authors referenced

  • Margaret Atwood

  • Basil Davidson

  • Michael Ondaatje

  • Salman Rushdie

  • HP Lovecraft

  • James Frey

  • Shelby Foote

  • Lola Shoneyin

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  • Joe Ide

  • Richard Price

  • George Pelecanos

  • Stendhal

  • William Styron

  • Angela Davis / Ibram X. Kendi City Arts & Lectures

Transcript

Jeff Chang: Good evening. Welcome to City Arts & Lectures. My name is Jeff Chang. Tonight, oh tonight. We’re so, yes, we’re so happy to have with us the amazing multi-hyphenate writer, the winner of the Man Booker Prize for “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” which has to rate as one of the most important books of this young century.

He’s also the author of “John Crow’s Devil,” “The Book of Night Women,” and the book we’re here to talk about tonight, “Black Leopard Red Wolf.” San Francisco, please give a warm welcome to Marlon James. Marlon.

Marlon James:  Hey. 

Jeff Chang: Welcome. 

Marlon James: Thanks for having me. I’m trying to make sure I don’t show my underwear. That happened in Texas. Everybody had a way different kind of show than I was intending. 

Jeff Chang: I don’t think I’ve seen you since you won the Man Booker Prize. So–.

Marlon James: Yeah, that was a while ago.

Jeff Chang: It’s been a little while. Yeah. Yeah, so congratulations belatedly. 

Marlon James: Well, thank you. 

Jeff Chang: I wanted to start. Yeah, please it’s a big deal, right? I guess I wanted to start off by asking the thing that you know, any of your friends would have asked, which is like, has life changed?

Marlon James: Oh god. Well, I mean no, no, just all my Facebook posts end up being  headlines in the Guardian. So that’s definitely changed. You know, I have friends and family who are, God bless them, remain incapable of being impressed by me. So that kind of sort of narrows things or keeps things in check, but other than that, not really. I mean I made some money, so that’s great. That’s, and you know, I mean the prize does bring attention to your book and you know, sometimes selling a lot more than you would have sold normally and lord knows selling a book sure beats not selling a book. 

Jeff Chang: Absolutely. 

Marlon James: So yeah, it’s been interesting. It’s been, I haven’t–but at the same time I haven’t really, it’s not something that I’ve allowed to have put pressure on me. Otherwise, I would never have followed up with a sci-fi fantasy novel. 

Jeff Chang: Well, let’s ask about that. How how is it that you came to write a sci-fi fantasy novel? I guess after winning a big prize you could take any kind of route that you want. But most people would expect that you probably do the serious–. 

Marlon James: The serious, or the sort of quietly observed small novel. Yeah. I thought of that. Or just repeat what I did.  I’m trying to think how, when I decided this is the story I wanted to tell. I know when I became interested in it, which is not necessarily the same answer,and it was you know, I’ve said this before, it was this fight I had with a friend of mine.

It was I think 2010 or 2011. So this was even you know, it was even before “Brief History” came out and it was a fight over the casting for “The Hobbit.” And I was like–.

Jeff Chang: Which is how all great novels begin, I guess. 

Marlon James: Of course. All arguments over “The Hobbit.” And I said, you know what, this is, you know, I’m going to argue about inclusion, you’re going to argue about political correctness, it’s going to be ugly. That’s exactly what happened. 

Jeff Chang: Wow. 

Marlon James: So, you know, I said I can’t believe the cast for “The Hobbit” is so white. And so lacking in diversity and all of the stuff. And he was very you know, “Lord of the Rings” is a British show and it reflects British culture and it’s Norse and Viking and blah blah blah and I said, you know, “Lord of the Rings” isn’t real.

It’s like when Megyn Kelly says Santa is white. Santa isn’t real Megyn. You know, I was like. But the argument just escalated as it would have, and I was like, just keep your damn Hobbit, which is not a reflection on “Lord of the Rings,” because I love “Lord of the Rings” so much I had to spellcheck the book to make sure I wasn’t copying too much, but it, so it sent me on this mission not to write, it sent me on a mission to read. 

To read all the sort of African history and mythologies and so on, some of which I knew about. Everybody knows about Ghana and Songhai and Mali and Son-Jara and so on, but there was a lot I didn’t know. So at first I just, I was looking for stories. And the stories I was reading were just like so fantastic and crazy, I mean the book started to write itself really.

Jeff Chang: Yeah. I mean, I actually don’t know if a lot of folks have read “Son-Jara” and know about–.

Marlon James: No, because they think “Lion King” is “Hamlet.” And I was like yeah, “Lion King” and they’re always very very always smug when they’re going, “oh ‘Lion King,’ it’s ‘Hamlet.'” I’m like, you really need to brush up on your Shakespeare. Cause that’s not how “Hamlet” goes.

You know, Lion King is Son-Jara, it’s the lion of Mali. I mean, it’s–I’m not saying, you can take stories wherever you want to take them, or wherever you want to take them from, and do whatever you want with them. But I think there are things about you, I think there’s things about a people that the myths tell them. 

And I agree with Margaret Atwood. She says human nature hasn’t changed in a thousand years, and how do you know? Check the myths. And I think it’s easy for take it for granted when you have that mythology system at the core of your culture, but if you’re like me and you grew up in the diaspora, you grow up thinking ground zero is slavery.

And that there isn’t much–you heard of much and you might even be told stories when you’re a kid, but that kind of mythological legend history foundation I didn’t have, I had to go find. 

And I knew I wanted to write a story that draws from that, but still is a world of the imagination, a world of fantasy, like a “Lord of the Rings,” or even an “Arabian Nights.” 

Jeff Chang: A few questions to ask about that. The idea of actually going and doing a deep dive into a lot of these mythologies–did things sort of start to fall into place for you, in terms of thinking about stories you might have been told as a child or different kinds of–. 

Because I ask because in so many ways mythologies are also bodies of knowledge, right, and coming out of, from sort of an indigenous point of view, these are the most important things that people need to sort of maintain survival, cultural survival, in a sort of hostile type of world. So I guess I’m asking about did things kind of fit together for you as you started doing these dives? 

Marlon James: Yeah, but not in the way I was expecting, because I, the stories I knew of and the stories I’ve been told are still very heavily Westernized, and they’re still very much influenced by European storytelling, European folklore, and way too much Bible. 

Jeff Chang: So these are the Christianized versions of– 

Marlon James: Yeah, even if you read–.

Jeff Chang: Oral histories, oral stories, oral tradition.

Marlon James: Yeah, but even if you read, what was it called in English? “The Forest of a Thousand Daemons”? I can’t remember. It’s the first novel written in Yoruba and was translated, Wole Soyinka did a translation recently. It’s still hugely Christian, Christianized. And not just Christianized, but Westernized. And there are some aspects of Western culture that we take for granted that just don’t compute in African storytelling. For example, all the connotations that happen when I say midnight.

We think darkness, we think the witching hour, we think evil, we think something creepy, we think something’s under the bed, we think all the things that are hidden in the daylight. We think of vampires. We think of monsters. None of that means anything in a lot of African stories. Midnight is a noon of the dead. Midnight is when the ancestors come out.

So midnight is the ultimate family reunion. It’s actually a pretty joyous time. Whereas high noon, when the sun is up, is scary as shit. Because African vampires aren’t the wussy British ones or European ones. I mean, these jackasses you turn on the sun, and they all turned to ash. 

African vampires are like yeah, turn, yeah, open the window so people can see me killing you. You know, they have no fear. It’s like everybody in Africa became “Blade” honestly. They have no such fear. So then you find that high noon in some of these stories is the scariest time of day. Because evil monsters, whatever, have no–they don’t have to shrink and fade with the night. Night is when the ancestors come. 

That’s why one of the most interesting stories I read–this was a research I did. And it didn’t appear in the story, but it was one of most interesting things I learned, was that in a lot of African territories, doctors are finding it hard to treat schizophrenia, because with a lot of the African patients the voices are affirmative. So what do you do if you have your own cheerleading squad in your head? 

Jeff Chang: These are the ancestors speaking to you.

Marlon James: Yeah, because of the tradition of the ancestors speaking to you. So, you know, nobody is saying “kill yourself, kill your family.” Everybody’s like “you can do it!” Why would you want to get rid of that?

Jeff Chang: Right. 

Marlon James: It’s like, I got my own cheerleading squad and glee club in the middle of my head. Of course, I’m not gonna get rid of it. But it’s again, it’s out of the idea that the ancestors are always there and always play a benevolent role in your life. 

Jeff Chang: So what is the sort of balancing act that you have to do between recovery in some ways, right, this is process of recovery, and recognizing, as you do, that these mythologies are retold in the English language, through missionaries who collected oral stories and wrote them down? But processing that as a process of recovery and trying to invent something wholly new?

Marlon James: Well, the first thing I did was rejected those missionary stories. There’s lots of history written about Africa. Honestly if it was written before 1980, I just ignored it. Except for maybe Basil Davidson, but otherwise I read them for comedy. I was like, look at this racist shit. 

I was like this guy doesn’t even know how orientalist he is. I just really read it for fun. Because there is always work being done in Africa, in the continent. There is always new research. There’s Nigerian research done by Nigerians. There’s Congolese research done by people in the Congo. There is translations been done by people who know, you know, there are people who speak Yoruba who are translating Yoruba. So there is a lot has happened in the past even 10, 15 years.

So I wasn’t lacking information. I wasn’t lacking stories being told by the original peoples and translations I could trust, because yeah, I am from the West. And I speak English. And I wrote a novel in English. So that already–there are some limitations. 

And I didn’t want to use language–I didn’t want to use Swahili. I didn’t want to turn Swahili into Elvish. So what I found myself doing was using a lot of the language systems and trying to force English to submit to their will, in a way. 

So like some of the characters only speak in present tense verbs regardless of the tense. Which is something Jamaicans do as well. We always thought it was just broken English, when it turns out, no, we just–it’s just that Massa couldn’t stamp it out. 

So, you know, or the counting systems, or the cosmology. You know,  one point Tracker says, “we live in the great gourd of the world.” So they knew, from a long time, that the world was round. And using that, those language systems and those worldviews into telling that story. Because I had to let go of all, of everything Western.

The thing is, even though most of us may not be practicing Christians, we’re all devout Calvinists. You know we still follow that rule system. We still follow that virtue meets reward thing that–this and this and this is the measure of a fulfilling life, which is of course horseshit.

But it was very hard for me to kind of de-Westernize myself to tell this story, even though I was still telling the story in English. 

Jeff Chang: How did it begin, did it begin with language? One of the things that I wanted to tell you, actually, was I had the privilege and the honor of being able to interview Ibram Kendi and Angela Davis here about a month ago. And we were talking backstage about you coming here. And Angela–. 

Marlon James: Angela Davis was talking about me? 

Jeff Chang: Angela Davis was talking about you. I’m about to tell you the story. Angela Davis was saying that what she loved about your books. 

Marlon James: You’re saying Angela Davis has read my books. 

Jeff Chang: Yes. 

Marlon James: Okay. Y’all can’t tell me nothing…

Jeff Chang: Was the language of it. The language of it. Did I just make your night, your month, your year? 

Marlon James: I’m trying to stop crying right now. 

Jeff Chang: We need some, we might need tissues over here. 

But no she’s–.

Marlon James: Between that and Toni Morrison’s birthday. God.

Jeff Chang: Yes. So anyway, she was saying that she read the book, but she wanted to really hear it. So she got the audiobooks so she could actually listen to the sort of melifluousness of the language and I guess I’m wondering, you know, how you came up with the language. 

You literally created a new language almost for “The Book of Night Women,” and over and over and in “A Brief History of Seven Killings” your–somebody described it as ventriloqy–and in here there’s such a beautiful, there’s whole passages where Tracker, which–we have to talk about Tracker– but Tracker and Leopard are having these great conversations in this sort of beautiful kind of English that just rings true for any of us who grew up with quote-unquote broken English.

And so I, you know, how did you come up with the kind of language that the characters are speaking? Sogolon and all these other folks. 

Marlon James: Well, I mean first I had to get over my own self prejudice where came to language and the whole idea of broken English, like it needs to be fixed. When I wrote my second novel, “Book of Night Women,” that was a fight, because I wrote it originally in this sort of queen’s English.

This sort of you know, I mean, I love my Jane Austen and all of that and I was using words like betwixt a lot. 

And but it was, it was very very, the thing is it was very very stilted, because the thing about Standard English that I learned in Jamaica, and I realized speaking to Michael Ondaatje about Standard English learning in Sri Lanka, and speaking to Salman Rushdie about Standard English learning in India, is that we learned servant English.

And it was very skillful on the British part to teach us servant English. And you know, so every time I opened my mouth I sounded like somebody’s butler. So I was very quick to get rid of that and get rid of that type of language.

But to jump to this, I, for me every book I’ve written so far, I don’t set out necessarily deliberately to do it. But I do wonder how it sounds aloud. And I do write it to be read aloud. You know, certainly this book and the one before it. Which is why sometimes I think the audio book may be the definitive version of it, but I’m interested in the oral, the auditory quality of words.

I’m interested in sound. I think novels should have volume. And I’m attracted to novels with volume. Whether, you know, novels that know when to shout and know when to whisper. And I think not a lot of novelists, not a lot of writers have volume control. And that for me is actually really really important. 

The other thing is, because take a novel like “Night Women.” Fact is, I don’t know how slaves sounded, not 100%, because nobody at the time who was recording stuff were interested in recording slaves. We have some songs and have the folk traditions and so on but a lot of it was me guessing. You know, I know a little, I know quite a bit about 19th century and 18th century English.

What would it sound in, you know, in the mouth of a slave, and what would it sound in the mouth of a slave without all of that sort of racism, eurocentrism affecting it? With this is the same thing. Taking all these different languages I was learning. 

But also thinking about what language would be post-Iron Age. And getting rid of any of the metaphors that would be, you know, that wouldn’t be there. I can’t say the character sped along, the concept of speed hadn’t been invented yet. 

And yeah, but that’s how, for me, and I spent a lot of time with voice and a lot of time with dialogue, because after all that then it has to sound like people are actually speaking. And that’s a whole other thing. 

Jeff Chang: Yeah, there’s just amazing passages here where they’re arguing with each other and you just get caught up in the whole poetry of it all. I just think it’s a beautiful thing. And then you have characters who tell stories, and stories within stories, and stories within stories of stories.

There’s so many amazing characters in this. There’s four, five pages of characters listed. 

Marlon James: Yeah. Even more than in “Brief History.”

Jeff Chang: In there and then it seems like you didn’t capture all of them. Do you start by creating characters when you’re actually putting together a novel, or does the plot come first?  Does the idea–?

Marlon James: I think the characters come first for me, because most of the times I don’t know why they’re in my head. I’m like, why did you show up? What, I mean there’s still characters in my head who I haven’t written stories for. Characters do show up first. That doesn’t mean I think it’s their story. 

Tracker, who ends up telling the story, was not the main character the first time I wrote this book. But then I also wrote it in third person and really stilted English because I’m a glutton for punishment.

Jeff Chang: So you actually had gone through this whole process with “Night Women,” 

Marlon James: Yeah.

Jeff Chang: And then you came back to it again? 

Marlon James: Because I still have this–I don’t know why I keep thinking that third person is like “real literature,” you know, and I was like, I’m going to write it in the third person because that’s literature.

Not literature as you Americans say. 

Jeff Chang: Litrature. 

Marlon James: Yeah. And it just didn’t work that way, it just did not work. Nothing came alive for me. The characters didn’t spark, you know, at all. I forgot the question. 

Jeff Chang: The question was if the characters came first–

Marlon James: Yeah! So. 

Jeff Chang: I guess the followup question is, how Tracker? How we got to Tracker?

Marlon James:  We got–Tracker was a minor character in the very first draft of this thing I wrote. And I remember it because I wrote around 25 pages. And when, you know, I wrote 25, and by the time I was done, I was so happy because I knew none of this was going to be in the book.

And I was like, you know what, I’m really grateful that I wrote all of that. I’ll never see these pages again. 

Jeff Chang: Do you keep them? Do you burn them? What do you do with them? 

Marlon James: I keep them. But after I had to sort of write it off to get to this character. But Tracker was a minor character in that thing, and I remember when I had, I had a basic idea of the story I wanted to tell, but it was almost kind of fantasy by numbers. It was you know, the fall of a royal house and how that sprinkles down to the common folk and I tried to write that novel for a good, I mean for several months and I couldn’t get anywhere with it. And one day I looked at my notepad and I literally just flipped it upside down.

And the the people at the dregs of the street, at the bottom of the notepad, were people on the top. And it suddenly made perfect sense to me. 

Jeff Chang: Wow.

Marlon James: So I was like, yeah, I’m going to write about Tracker, who’s some sort of hound, who lives on the fringes of society, and I’m going to start with the people in the street, and the shapeshifters and and all of that, and if it eventually ends up in a palace that’s fine.

But the novel did not take off for me as a narrative until I flipped it and I said, you know what, I want to write about the people who would be in the street. Well in prison actually. And that’s how it really started.

In terms of voice. You know, I mean, it’s one of the reasons why I always thought the idea of the reclusive author was bullshit. Because if I was a recluse, no novel would have happened.

This novel happened because I was talking to this director Melina Matsoukas who directed “Formation,” so of course, she’s a legend in my eyes. Like you came near Beyoncé? Like…So we were– 

Jeff Chang: Many times actually. 

Marlon James: Yeah. 

Jeff Chang: More than a few times. 

Marlon James: Yeah. We were talking about “The Affair” and–. 

Jeff Chang: “The Affair” the TV show. 

Marlon James: The TV show.

Jeff Chang: Yeah. Which I hear you haven’t seen yet.

Marlon James: I still haven’t seen it. It’s sad. I’ve given them so much free press. 

Jeff Chang: They should send you all the screeners forever. 

Marlon James: I know. Anyway, but when she was talking about the idea of different people seeing different people in the middle of a relationship, seeing it so profoundly differently, you know, she was thinking this is a great idea for a TV show and I was like forget a TV show, this is a novel. Hell, this is a Trilogy of novels.  Suddenly you have to tell all three stories. 

And I knew each novel was being narrated by one voice. I know they’re all experiencing the same thing. And I knew they’re all at a very very very different idea about what happened. Different enough that I could write three, totally self-contained novels about the very same event. You know, like “Rashomon,” if “Rashomon” were three movies. And that’s how that happened.

It’s–pretty much every novel, I have had, the turning point was a conversation with somebody. With “Night Woman,” it was me talking to a poet from the Congo, and she was talking to me about matrilineal society. I mean, with “Brief History,” it was my friend Rachel, when I said, I don’t know whose novel this is, and she says, why do you think it’s one person’s story? And go back and read “As I Lay Dying.” And I did and it was the epiphany.

So, you know, I mean, if you’re a recluse, you end up writing stuff like HP Lovecraft. And Lovecraft had a fantastic imagination, but he was an atrocious dialogue writer. 

Jeff Chang: Right.

Marlon James: You know, he’d write things like, “it burns Theotis,” like, what, no, what is that? But then he was also a bigot, you know, he was a bigot and hated people.

Jeff Chang: I think you could say he was more than a bigot.

Marlon James: Yeah. 

Jeff Chang: You don’t have to say he was more than a bigot.

Marlon James: But it’s–you can’t write dialogue if you’re not engaged with people. Or at the very least, snooping on them. 

Jeff Chang: I also think it’s just a really interesting way. First of all, as you were saying that you flipped the notepad over the–. Bob Marley, you know “the stone that the builders refused shall always be the head cornerstone” just dropped into my head and I was tripping on that, so I had a huge grin on my face. I don’t know if you could see it, at the moment. 

But the other thing I was thinking though, is the ways in which we think about story and who has authority. We argue a lot about authority of story and in some traditions, in many traditions, stories are all there, and people can take whatever story that they choose to take about this particular event that might have occurred. 

Marlon James: Yeah. And in a lot of African storytelling, it’s a trickster who’s telling the story. So you already know you can’t completely trust what the person is saying. That throws our whole idea of truth in a whole different, you put it under a different lens.

I think we have this idea that the very fact of the telling of story means it’s true. Or the very fact of the telling of the story assumes authority in the teller. Especially if you read, like, Victorian lit. You read a person like Elizabeth Gaskell, she’s making it very clear, I am the authority here and I’m telling you how women are. You know, I don’t know which novel, it might have been “North and South,” then she’s talking about some lady, and she’s like, “and which person at this time in their years would have had the capacity for wisdom anyway?” I’m like shut up Elizabeth. 

But there is that assumption, it’s a very Western thing. Which is why we’re always having these problems when people lie, like James Frey or whatever. We’re still having these issues. 

Whereas, if I’m telling you a folktale, you already know I’m probably pulling your leg. You already know that I might be lying to you. And that means the whole idea of truth becomes something you have to judge.

So one of the things with this Trilogy is, I’m not like publishing an annotated version or a part four, which is like “what really happened was.” So the reader is going to have to read all three and then judge for themselves who’s telling the truth. Because I’m certainly not telling them.

Jeff Chang: On the very first page, you have Tracker saying, “you want truth or story”? 

Marlon James: Mhmm. 

Jeff Chang: And the first time I think I read that, I thought, oh, he’s juxtaposing truth, something that’s fixed and final, with story, something that’s fluid and malleable, right? But you’re saying actually, that’s a false binary. And I know the whole book is about overturning binaries. 

Marlon James: Yeah.

Jeff Chang: Gender binaries, all kinds of emotional binaries, all kinds of binaries. Talk a little bit about that. This idea that we ought to oppose truth and story, right? He says, what does he say? He says, “facts carry no color or shape, facts are just facts.” Then he says, “you want truth or story?” 

Marlon James: Mhmm. Well, I mean, it’s like “Life of Pi”–do you want a story with a tiger or without the tiger? Because I think there are lessons that invented story can tell you that the facts can’t. I think, you know, I remember somebody saying, you know, fiction is a lie that tells the truth. 

That’s one of the dumbest things I have ever heard a person say. I was like, fiction is not a lie, fiction is fiction. You know, there’s a difference between me distorting truth and me inventing something, that has nothing to do with it. A fiction is a creation, and a lie is a distortion. 

But there are things that, I mean there are things about the self that “Huckleberry Finn” can tell me that Shelby Foote can’t. And I think that the original storytellers, the original tellers of epics realize that, and there’s some greater truths, if we’re going to stick with that word truth, or some greater wisdoms, I’m using it as a plural, that you get from the invented story. 

I mean, we already know that, that’s what fables do. That’s what allegories do. A fable is there to teach you something deeper. It doesn’t mean, there were, you know, “The Musicians of Bremen,” there were never any singing donkeys or so on, but the fables are teaching, is telling you something, without even necessarily being didactic. And I think that’s the same thing.

I think, you know, truth is one thing, and the facts of a story are one thing, and you can learn from that. But there are things you’re going to learn from me spinning this yarn that me just telling you what happened is not going to tell you. And I think that in the ancient traditions and old traditions people understood that, people knew that. Somebody knew that if– let’s even leave Africa and go to Greece.

There are things that you’re going to learn from the historians  recounting war, and there are other things you’re going to learn from the dramatist telling you about Medea. And both are universal truths they are telling you, they’re just not telling you the same thing. So, yeah.

Jeff Chang: I want to go back to Tracker. I just–Tracker’s such an amazing character, and you really mess with all kinds of things when you bring Tracker into the center of the story. I know in other interviews you said don’t get too love with Tracker, because we’re about to flip the whole script with the next two, you know, entries in this trilogy. But Tracker’s amazing. Tracker is a shapeshifter. He’s proudly, loudly gay. He is the–.

Marlon James: Emphasis on the loud part.

Jeff Chang: And you know in sci-fi and fantasy, you’re working in a genre where it’s usually the He-man, it’s Conan the Barbarian and all these other types of characters. Was that something that that you deliberately decided that you–was that part of the reason that you chose Tracker to be the central character?

Marlon James: You know what? No. That’s a surprise, which is a surprise even to me. Tracker and Tracker’s sexual identity and the non-binaryness came out of the research.

Jeff Chang: Tell me more. 

Marlon James: Yeah, cause, I–it looks like I’m trying to score some intersectionality points and I’m like no, it was the research done.

Jeff Chang: You’re putting them on the board, man. 

Marlon James: Yeah, you know when I read up on things like shogas, which is kind of a pejorative now in some African countries, but back then shogas were warriors and they weren’t the only ones. I think there were the Mavala warriors as well, and everybody knew they were gay. 

The shoga were known to be because they were the only men trusted with unmarried brides, you know with brides-to-be. And it’s like yeah, I’m going to trust you to my virgin daughter because you and I both know nothing is going to happen. Virgin son, not really, but daughter, yeah. 

So clearly it was known and it clearly was something that was absorbed into the whole social fabric. And I found it really validating because you know, I see the news reports everybody else sees about you know, the virulent homophobia in Uganda or in certain parts of Nigeria. 

And I remember somebody asked my friend Lola Shoneyin, she’s a novelist from Nigeria, and says, you know, “will Africa”–and I hate  when people act like Africa is a country, but–“will Africa ever accept gay rights?” and blah blah blah. And Lola said, Africa was born ready, until a bunch of TV preachers from America told them that they weren’t. You know, it’s–. 

And you know, I’ve interviewed Chimamanda Adichie and she said the same thing. Says everybody knew the two aunts down at the end of the road. You know, everybody know the two brothers who don’t look like brothers.  And everybody know the two aunts down the road, maybe the place you can get an abortion, maybe not. And so on. 

And that while they weren’t necessarily absorbed into the village, into the family, into the society everybody know if they were to leave, the society would fall apart. And again it’s not until you know, the you know, the Rick Warrens and the John Hagee’s of this world showed up.

And I come from Jamaica. I know exactly that tactic. I used to be in church. You know, it would be things, the first thing is, are we being filmed and when you tell them no, Brother D, you not being filmed, then the things that come out of their mouths about the gay agenda and and showing them all sorts of porn. And you keep going how did these devout Christians get all these fetish porn? 

But then ask any hotel manager what happens to their cable when there’s a Christian convention. Yeah. But they brought it–but so the point I’m getting at is, far from me trying to inject a new element into the story, the queerness was the oldest element in the story. The non-binaryness was the oldest.

I mean kudos that you now use plural pronouns. We’ve been using it for 4,000 years. I’m glad y’all caught up. And it’s funny, because you know, as a Jamaican, it just hit me off gaurd that I’ve never had a problem using plural pronouns. My students think I’m so progressive. I’m like no we just call everybody them and they.

We already do that. You know, it’s again, it’s one of the things for me that was really refreshing and sometimes shocking and a lot of times affirmative, was all the things Massa couldn’t suppress and couldn’t get rid of. 

You know, the–because even if you’re going to into rural South, everybody knew the gay guy. That’s the guy you call sweet, you know? Yeah Maxwell, he’s sweet. He’s still a part of society. Nobody’s trying to drive him out or kick him out our burn down his house, but everybody know Marco’s sweet. 

So there is always that thing I said, you know, to this day I ran into far more racism in the gay community than homophobia in the black. Which leaves everybody silent. 

Jeff Chang: It’s San Francisco. So Tracker and Leopard are shapeshifters. 

Marlon James: Yeah, well Leopard’s a shapeshifter really, Tracker just–. 

Jeff Chang: Tracker’s not really a shapeshifter.

Marlon James: Tracker just changes clothes a lot. 

Jeff Chang: Leopard’s a shapeshifter. 

Marlon James: Yeah.

Jeff Chang: Is that metaphorical as well?

Marlon James: No! And you know, that’s the thing again I think with fantasy sometimes, I think we too often think we’re drawing for allegory and I wasn’t with this. 

The thing about Leopard, the thing that was really interesting again back in the research, is that in a lot of European, American, Western mythologies and fantasies, the were-creatures  are all dog, they’re all canines. And so they’re werewolves. 

Whereas in a lot of the African stories the were-creatures are all cats. So they’re were-leopards and were-hyenas. Well a hyena is slightly feline, they’re closer to cats than dogs. Were-cheetahs, were-leopards. 

And I knew I wanted–well, I knew I was going to have shapeshifters. Cause again, the shapeshifter is a huge part of African mythology. You know, the shapeshifter, the trickster, the lightning bird, you know, the–. 

Jeff Chang: The vampire lightning bird. Ooh–what a character. 

Marlon James: Oh, God. He was so much fun to write. Pretty much, I’m trying to think if any of the creatures in my book were invented. I think all of them I drew from actual folklore.

Jeff Chang: Wow. 

Marlon James: Yeah.

Jeff Chang: You drew names from folklore as well?

Marlon James: Some of those, yeah. And some of those I invented, but a lot of them, like Eloko or Tokoloshe or Bultungi, they’re all part of the folklore.

Jeff Chang: Changing up a little bit here. You know, this is sort of a moment I guess for afrofuturism. “Black Panther” was the biggest movie last year.

Marlon James: “Black Panther” really helped me with his book.

Jeff Chang: Did it? 

Marlon James: Yeah. This is how it helped me. So they’re having a sales conference and everybody’s like, we don’t know, we don’t know. I’m like, I know you don’t know. But, Wakanda. And they’re like, yeah. 

Jeff Chang: Yeah, we get it now. 

Marlon James: It was like every five minutes, it was like, wow, so there are no white people in it, and like, no, but you know, Wakanda. 

People ask, I’m like “Black Panther’s” a gift that keeps on giving. And now Killmonger bought the book, so. Anyway, you were saying.

Jeff Chang: No, I just. That was a great digression. Which happens a lot in the book. There’s all kinds of digressions that are really beautiful. 

So we’re kind of in this moment–I guess one of the interesting things is that there seems to be an effort too to peg this as genre fiction. And I just would love to hear what you have to say about about genre. And fiction. 

Marlon James: I mean, I, for the most part, I think the term genre fiction is bullshit, you know. Because the problem with it, one of the problems with it is that when a writer such as myself writes in genre, they think I’m slumming.

Jeff Chang: Hmm, like you’re actually–now the Man Booker Prize winner is going to glorify this downtrodden genre.

Marlon James: Yeah, it was interesting, when a lot of British publishers heard that this is what I was going to do they didn’t want it actually. 

Jeff Chang: British. 

Marlon James: Yeah, one person–.

Jeff Chang: The same folks who gave you the Man Booker Prize. 

Marlon James: Precisely. Well, the Man Booker Prize is a different thing, I think. One of the publishers, who shall remain nameless, 4th Estate, you know said, you know, it’s too sci-fi for the lit crowd and too lit for the sci-fi crowd and neither will read it. And then another publisher was like, we have to read all three before we decide if we’re going to publish it.

Jeff Chang: Wow.

Marlon James: I was like, I won the Booker, motherfucker. It’s like, sorry for swearing. 

Jeff Chang: It’ll all get bleeped for the radio broadcast.

Marlon James: But it just shows us how much they, how strict they were with genre. Come back over to these shores, I think sometimes we do have this sort of patronising idea about genre, and this idea that you know, it’s not literary, it’s not high brow. When a writer like me do it, I’m sort of elevating it. I’m like, no, I’m not elevating shit. 

You know, it’s–there’s so much snobbery in the whole idea. I actually don’t mind if you want to call it, you know they call it genre fiction and I don’t necessarily mind the title, what I do mind is the snobbery behind it. 

I to this day have yet to have an awkward discussion about representation with a crime writer. I haven’t had it with Joe Ide, I haven’t had it with Richard Price. I haven’t had it with George Pelecanos. I’ve never had to talk to them about how to write a black character. I still think there are literary people who simply exit that whole idea by just never writing anybody other than a white man or white woman. So, you know, yeah, what–only one of the writers on “The Wire” was black, as far as I remember? I’m pretty sure only one. I may be wrong. But only one that I know of. Meaning that the crime writers do the work. 

And I don’t think the literary writers do the work. We just assume the privilege. And then when you get called out on it, you’re, oh you’re censorship, and like, no, people are just saying you wrote a whack ass character. It’s, you don’t get to escape critique. 

Look at other genre fiction, let’s look at Chick Lit. Which again, people don’t have a very high opinion of. But Chick Lit is the only genre where women work. Because I read some literary fiction authors and I’m like, how do–literary novels, and I’m like how do the women in this novel eat? It’s like, what do you do at 2:00 p.m.?  

So, it’s, you know, and the thing is I didn’t grow up that way. And I didn’t, and I never had an attitude to books, despite it being driven out of me by literature teachers. You know, it never occurred to me that I’m supposed to think, you know, I’m supposed to think, you know “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is more powerful than “Love and Rockets.” Cause it’s not. 

Jeff Chang: They’re on the same level. 

Marlon James: They’re absolutely on the same level. Absolutely.

Jeff Chang: Absolutely. “Palomar.” 

Marlon James: “Palomar,” I said it in the New York Times, “Palomar’s” the greatest American novel of the past 35 years.

Jeff Chang: I agree.

Marlon James: And I scramble to come up with a number two. You know, it’s you know, I remember–. 

Jeff Chang: “Locas.”

Marlon James: There you go. There’s a number two. “Locas.” 

Jeff Chang: We’re talking about Los Bros Hernandez, the comic book artists. 

Marlon James: Yeah, and you know, probably, certainly in the top three or four biggest literary influences on my life. But yeah, and if we’re going to talk about genre, comics is also put in a genre. 

But I mean, growing up, I just read whatever I could get, and whatever I could borrow, whatever I can steal, whatever I could buy. I mean, I read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” because the person in the class before mine made the big mistake of leaving it behind.

Sorry person if you failed Spanish Lit. But it was Spanish Lit and you shouldn’t have had a book in translation, so you were cheating. So anyway.

Jeff Chang: So do you think that your–because your diet of reading was conditioned in a lot of ways by post-colonialism, right, like what was available to you were trade paperbacks. The cheap stuff. 

Marlon James: The cheap stuff! 

Jeff Chang: The $3.95 books. 

Marlon James: Yeah. This is why, you know, sometimes when fantasy people really want to get into–okay, I really want to know your background in fantasy and sci-fi–they’re so disappointed when they hear I only read “Lord of the Rings” like a few years ago. And I just read “Dune” and I–where would I have gotten these books? You know, I’d buy whatever was at the pharmacy. Or shoplifted.

So the funniest thing for me was when we finally got cable, and I’m watching all these movies, and I’m like man, I haven’t seen “Star Wars” in years. I haven’t seen “Empire Strikes Back” in years. This is going to be so great. I sit down and I’m watching this and I’m realizing I have never seen this film.

Jeff Chang: Hmm. 

Marlon James: And I know everything about “Empire Strikes Back.” I had a Cloud City diorama over my bed. 

Jeff Chang: You did. 

Marlon James: I know everything about “Star Wars,” but I realized I read the book. I read the novelization. 

Jeff Chang: Allen Dean Foster. 

Marlon James: Allen Dean Foster, the man. “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan,” I read it. “Return of the Jedi,” I read it. “Dragon Slayer,” I read it. So my fantasy background is really pop. Is really, you know, whatever was in the drugstore. And I’m really glad for that. 

You know fantasy for me was was whatever heavy metal comic the bigger kids was reading, you know. Or just comics, you know, in general. 

And I also used to love reading whatever I see adults were enjoying way too much. So the day I got my hands on Jackie Collins. First novel I read in one sitting, “Hollywood Wives.” The next, I think I’m 14. No, 13. I read all of “Hollywood Wives,” I read the next one, and I’m like, I’m grown now. It’s like, I’m an adult now. 

But, you know, and I thoroughly enjoy it. I just, I never, I don’t rank reading experiences. I mean, yeah every now and then I come across a book I flipping hate. But I think that’s a value judgment, I don’t think that’s me knocking the genre. 

Jeff Chang: Yeah. Hmm. It’s just so interesting to hear you talk about your reading habits, because I just know you to be one of the best read people that I know in all the kinds of–. 

Marlon James: That’s all in my twenties and thirties. It’s all downhill now. I’ve read three novels so far this year and I feel like I’m going fast. 

Jeff Chang: Is that right? 

Marlon James: Yeah. 

Jeff Chang: Wow. But everything was pretty much during your 20s, you’re saying, you–.

Marlon James: Yeah, like 20s and 30s.

Jeff Chang: Kind of did a deep dive.

Marlon James: Yeah, that’s when I read the whole known universe.

Jeff Chang: Really amazing. We’re going to open it up to questions in just a second. But I guess I wanted to ask you this question first. So there was news that broke last week that a black leopard had been photographed for the first time in a century, and I was like, how do you get your marketing plans to line up like this? It’s just amazing. 

Marlon James: I gotta tell you, my marketing department, you know, their skills are fierce. I gotta say. They–.

Jeff Chang: Props, whew.

Marlon James: I think, you know, I think she just wanted to know what all the fuss was about. She kept hearing her name and she just came out.

Jeff Chang: She came out. They’re beautiful pictures. We’re going to see–we got some mics that are going out throughout the room right now. We’re going to bring up the house lights here. If you’ve got a question, raise your hand and say where you are so we might be able to identify where you’re at. 

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s coming from the orchestra to your right. 

Marlon James: Orchestra. Where am I looking? 

City Arts & Lectures: Oh, all the questions tonight are coming from the Orchestra. 

Jeff Chang: Okay, okay.

Audience Member 1: Hi. Thanks. Fantastic. So. Sorry, cause I’ve heard this question asked at a panel before and the panelist was very annoyed at it. 

Marlon James: Was it me? 

Audience Member 1: No it was not you. 

Marlon James: Okay. 

Audience Member 1: What books would you say are in your person–what are the five books you would say are in your personal canon? 

Jeff Chang: That’s a great question.

Marlon James: Oh, wow. Five books. Damn. That means I have to cut five. Five books in my personal canon. Jessica Hagedorn’s “Dogeaters.” 

Jeff Chang: Yes. Amazing book.

Marlon James: Toni Morrison “Song of Solomon.” Salman Rushdie “Shame.” Gilbert Hernandez “Palomar.”  And I’d say Olive Senior’s “Summer Lightning.” And I can already think of five more. 

Jeff Chang: You want to add five more? We’ll give you special dispensation.

Marlon James: You know, I really–Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera.” José Donoso’s “Obscene Bird of Night.”  What else would I put? I would put–what would I put? I’d probably put “Hellboy: Wake the Devil.”

Jeff Chang: I hear there’s a good story about “Hellboy, ” you were almost late to–. 

Marlon James: Yeah. 

Jeff Chang: One of your own appearances.

Marlon James: I nearly missed my own book signing because I was lining up to get his–lining up for him to sign my book.

Jeff Chang: So you’re standing in the Mike Mignola line, and everybody’s over there standing in line for you. 

Yeah. Oh and “Pride and Prejudice.” Those are books I have probably read more than four times and I’ll probably read at least four of them this year.

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back toward your left. 

Audience Member 2: Thank you. You were talking about the notion of volume. I think I can imagine that the notion of lower or higher volume when it comes to dialogue. What about description?

Marlon James: Yeah, description does play–I think it depends on how you do it. Because even description has rhythm and there is tone and there is texture. Particularly texture. It’s–I’m trying to, I was trying to remember something, like maybe a line of narration that I teach. But depending on– metaphors can expand a space or shrink it. 

I think one of the things that is very hard to teach in creative writing, which is why most creative writing teachers–and I’m making a blanket statement as if I knew all of them–don’t teach pacing. Because pacing is something the narration does. The dialogue can do it too, but the narration does a lot of that. 

So rhythm and momentum and so on–there’s a quiet way of describing the dark. There’s a loud way of describing the dark. You know, there’s a quiet way of describing rushing water; there’s a loud way. Stendhal, when he used to write battle scenes, would cut the sound.  You know think about that, think about a war scene where you can’t hear anything. So you basically become the average soldier in it. So that’s narration. And that’s volume. He deliberately muted it. It’s one of the loudest things in the world– war–but he cuts the sound. Because if you’re a soldier and a bomb has exploded by you, you’re deaf for the next 15 minutes, but bullets are still coming at you.

So that’s what I mean in terms of how you can increase, reduce or increase, reduce, expand, contract volume and sound with your work. Somebody who does that really well is Azar Nafisi. “Reading Lolita in Tehran” is just a masterclass in sound. You know an explosion–they’ll feel a rumble then they’ll hear a rumble and it’s only when you come upstairs you see the remnants of smoke, and you know okay, something happened here.

Jeff Chang: That’s wonderful.

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s on your left.

Audience Member 3: So as we approach sort of the ability to store information sort of indefinitely does the the sort of approaching immortality of your writing change the way you approach it? Sort of the fact that it will now live longer or more likely forever? 

Marlon James: Man. I don’t know. I don’t know, I never think about that. I’m just glad that my books are in print. I don’t know. It’s not something I think about. That’s a total lie.  Of course I want people to be reading my book a hundred years from now, who am I kidding? 

But I don’t know if I can write that way. I don’t know if I can write thinking in terms of legacy. I think some writers do it and and you know, and to an extent that it starts to affect their work. There used to be a rumor that that William Styron did that. That he just started and people would say yeah, you keep working on that Nobel, William. 

I yeah, of course I’d love the stuff I write to survive beyond me. But I think the most I can do is write the type of story that I think is indicative of the time I’m writing it. Even though I’m writing about fantasy or I’m writing a novel set in 1803. 

For me, I still write the novels I want to read.  So I actually to an extent wouldn’t mind some irrelevance because it would mean that there– lots of people are telling these stories. You know, I wouldn’t want in a hundred years, people still talk about the rarely told story of slavery.

I’m like no, it should be something that we have tons of narratives about. So yeah. 

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the center.  

Audience Member 4: Hi. Thanks so much for coming out tonight. I was really captivated by the first story you were telling about midnight versus high noon and how that’s so ingrained in Western culture. And I’ve been familiarizing myself a little bit with the hero’s journey and Joseph Campbell’s kind of interpretation of Western myth and that hero’s journey. 

In your research is there kind of a different sort of journey that the trickster is on or telling, or is there a different sort of lens that I should know about? You know, trying to come to the kind of stuff that you’re writing now.

Marlon James: You know, I will say this, though, the further back you go with stories is the more they have in common. And I went pretty far back. 

Jeff Chang: You didn’t only read African epics you– 

Marlon James: Right. 

Jeff Chang: You read all the European epics as well. 

Marlon James: Yeah, I read the “Kalevala” and the “Mabinogian,” and the Icelandic sagas, and re-read “Beowulf” so that all you wouldn’t have to.

And you know so many of them have–all of them have dragons, all of them have floodments, all of them have the Great Serpent biting its own tail. But I’m thinking–the kind of shifts I had to do to read these stories. 

Because a lot of African epics are still in verse, which is what’s so great about them. All of them are still, you know, they’re written to be accompanied by music. And I think that, you know to enter these worlds you’re also entering worlds of rhythm and worlds of sound and worlds of song and dance and that can really sort of widen your whole idea of how to read something.

Because I think you know, when we read, we read in silence, we need silence to read. Whereas with these you kind of actually have to have music or art or something going. So it’s reading and writing as a participation in a whole bigger creative practice. It’s almost collaborative. And I think that’s a whole–for me that was a whole different way of looking at story. And certainly writing it. 

Jeff Chang: Maybe this is another way of coming at the question of what you’re saying, but I thought about the way in which stories are used in the book and that you have stories upon stories upon stories. That you have all kinds of different ways of looking at the same type of event told throughout the book and that in some ways the point isn’t necessarily about the plot of it. But the point is about the world of it, right? The being immersed in the entire sort of body of knowledge that you’ve drawn on and that you’ve added to. 

Marlon James: And also kind of lost. 

Jeff Chang: Yeah.

Marlon James: In a way. 

Jeff Chang: The immersion piece.

Marlon James: You know, I’ve heard one or two readers say, there are times I felt adrift. I’m like yeah, that was deliberate, you should feel adrift a little bit sometimes. If your read “Arabian Nights” you get adrift because that is also story upon story upon story. Because you know, it’s not necessarily trying to create a labyrinth, it’s just that, you know, it’s like you hear one thing, it opens up possibilities with something else. 

And it does, and sometimes the stories come back together, sometimes they don’t but that’s fine. That sometimes the whole purpose of story is to open up the story B. 

And I know I wanted that. I wanted that there in this. Also a lot of you know, that’s how, the really really ancient oral stories and oral traditions, that’s why you came back the next day. Because in telling a story A went off into story B and maybe I finished story B but I didn’t finish story A so you have to come back tomorrow night. And that’s how you know, they kept it.

Jeff Chang: You kept it going. Yeah, I kind of picked up this book and read it and thought of it as an epic in the way that the “Kumulipo” is an epic, or the “Journey to the West” is an epic.

Marlon James: Yeah, yeah, “Journey to the West,” yeah.

Jeff Chang: That these are–you embed yourself in this. 

Marlon James: Yeah like “Adventures of Amir Hamza” and so on. I knew I wanted to write a book that comes across as what a story or a song would have been then.

Which is why, you know, I resisted the whole idea of it being allegory or anything. Like no I wanted to write, that’s why I re-read “Beowulf” and “Kalevala” and you know. And the Tolkien that I read a lot of was his unfinished stuff. Like “Tale of Sigurd and Gudrún.” And he also did a “Beowulf.” So yeah. I wanted to go back to how stories back then are told. 

Jeff Chang: But also thinking about too, the environment in which you’re writing. And having music on right, having “Bitches Brew” on or being kind of in a world as you’re creating the world? 

Marlon James: Yeah. Well, I write in music. I write to music. I mean God bless people who can write in silence. Silence to me sounds like deafness. I can’t do it. 

Jeff Chang: Yeah. Other questions? 

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the front. 

Jeff Chang: Right here. Ok.

Audience Member 5: I’m loving the book and I can’t wait to see the film. I was reading one reviewer who advised their readers to put on a smock when they’re reading your book and they–I think it  was in The Guardian–they questioned you about the use of violence and asked you about that. 

I think you talked about, you distinguish between our exposure to violence and our exposure to suffering. The difference between those two things and I–that makes a lot of sense to me and I’m just wondering how you see that reflected in our culture?

Marlon James: I think, and I’m probably going to talk about sex as well. Because we’re always thinking sex and violence, we’re so Western. But I’ve always objected to people who say that there’s lots of violence in the book. Because it’s not that there’s a preponderance of violence, as there’s a resonance, sort of violence, and there’s a difference between preponderance and resonance.

I’m going to give my oft tired example of Led Zeppelin records, where I talk about how you know, for all the reputation for being the masters of heavy metal each Led Zeppelin album is 60% acoustic. Yeah, that it’s the loud tracks resonate and reverberate. “When The Levy Breaks” lives on for two weeks after you play it. And it creates that idea that it’s overwhelmingly loud. 

And I believe the same thing with violence. I don’t have a lot of violent scenes but the violent scenes resonate because–. One of the problems with violence in–particularly in film is there’s all this violence, but there’s never any suffering. There’s all this violence but there’s never any consequences. You know, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children die every year from violence, it’s not just a person who was firing a gun at you. And I believe in that, I think violence should be violent, I’ve said that. 

And I also believe in writing explicit violence. I think–I’ve always challenged the whole idea of subtlety. And you know, I remember in my MFA program I wrote an explicit sex scene and a person says, you know, if you just show us the desire then you don’t have to show the sex. I was like, why is it have to? I was like, don’t bring your little WASP morality, repressive morality on me. It’s like, you know violence should be violent and sex should be sexy.

There are two types of sex I do not like. One is space break sex.  And you know, space break sex–.

Jeff Chang: What do you mean by space break sex?

Marlon James: So space break sex is like, “he came to my room.” Big space break, “the next morning.”  So you got space break sex, or you have what I call indie film sex. Where they’re clearly not attracted to each other, they’re just being coolly compulsive, the sex always sounds like fap fap fap, and they enjoy the cigarette more, and the end of the sex and the cigarette is a good hour of self-loathing. You know? Also known as British sex.  

Jeff Chang: You’re about to go to London man. 

Marlon James: It’s all right. I give the Brits shit all the time. They’re used to it by now. 

Jeff Chang: All right. 

Marlon James: But it’s– the funny thing I found about that kind of sex is how classist it is. So unless you have the type of money and income for leisurely making love in a steamy love scene, you’re having indie sex. You know I was like, you know, brick layers have orgasms. You know, I’m pretty sure that janitor came last night. And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t sort of really horrible thing where he enjoyed the cigarette more than the sex. It’s just this idea that it’s still tied to class and leisure. As if busy people don’t get it on and enjoy.

I thought I was ridiculous. I think most people, at least most people I would assume have some degree of satisfaction with their sex lives, and that there is nothing wrong with writing a sex scene as sexy. Or, you know, a violent scene as violent, or romantic scene as romantic. I think sometimes literary fiction authors are afraid of sliding into sentimentality.

Either that or they’re having really crappy sex. But it’s– these are important things though. These are important things that humans–these are important human actions and human interactions, and I think they should totally be in fiction.  

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the left. 

Audience Member 6: I’m in the center here. I like your impressions of Octavia Butler. Were you influenced by her? Do you–what’s your take on her? 

Marlon James: I love Octavia Butler, I was influenced by her– none of the direct ways in which I was influenced by her. I read “Parable of the Sower” a few months ago and it was shocking how much it stopped being science fiction. 

Jeff Chang: Reads like a documentary. 

Marlon James: I was like good God this all came true. This is–you’re right. It’s a documentary now, it’s nonfiction. Yeah, and it’s funny because in a lot of ways Octavia Butler was actually a bigger influence on my historical novel than on this sort of speculative one. She was a huge influence on “Night Women” because my historical novel –. 

Jeff Chang: “Kindred” was?

Marlon James: “Kindred,” yeah. It was a huge influence on “Night Women” and it continues to be, but yeah, it’s–now I read her just to see how prophetic she was. But yeah, as I said, the irony was that she was a bigger  influence on my so-called realistic fiction than she was on my sci-fi.  

I don’t think I’ve read that one yet.

City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the front.

Jeff Chang: Okay. 

Audience Member 7: Thank you so much for your books and especially for “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” I loved it. And I began reading it and then I switched to the Audible version, which is fantastic, and I wondered if you had any involvement with that, or if they do that without consulting? And then my other question is what were the three novels that you’ve read so far this year?

Marlon James: I auditioned pretty much everybody for that book, and pretty much all my audiobooks I auditioned them. Because I really don’t want to read them. 

So yeah, everybody went through and it was–I picked all of them. So it was great. Yeah, they’re wonderful. And the new book, Dion Graham does a fantastic job. The problem is–

Audience Member 7: I just ordered the new one on Audible too because I loved “Seven Killings” so much.

Marlon James: The problem is every time there’s a song in the book Dion Graham sings them. So I was like, I don’t know what kind of game you’re trying to raise from my book readings, but I’m not singing–I’m not singing them.

So what I’ve been reading, the three books I’ve read so far this year. I read “My Sister the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite and I loved it. 

I read “The Perfect Nanny”  by Leïla Slimani. I think it’s hilarious because it’s called “Lullaby” in the UK. And there’s a kind of reader in the States who picks up a book called “The Perfect Nanny.” And they are so horrified by that first paragraph that they’d never go any further. Even when I put it up on Facebook, the person was like, I couldn’t get past that first paragraph. Oh my God. I was like, yeah, they probably shouldn’t have called it “The Perfect Nanny.” 

And the third one, I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I’m having a ball, is “Jane Eyre.” Cause I have not read that novel since I was what, 15? And and I’m very much in camp “Wide Sargasso Sea.” I’m reading it and I was just like, damn this is so goth. You know and I love what a smartass she is. She really lets these characters have it. Then she suffers of course because we’re still talking about the 19th century.

So yeah, those are the three that I’ve read so far. Well, read and reading so far.  

Jeff Chang: Time for one more question. 

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the  right. 

Marlon James: Whose right? My right or your right? 

Audience Member 8: How you doing boss?

Marlon James: Hey, big up, yourself?

Audience Member 8: Alright, so this year I read “Things Fall Apart” and it opened me up to the idea of how mythology can break you– from growing up in a West Indian family, you’re indoctrinated to Christianity, and if you could name what novels– African-based novels– that could do the same thing that “Things Fall Apart” did for me, to see how Christianity came along with the invasion / brainwashing of the African Traditions out of the African diaspora and culture. 

Marlon James: So you’re asking like a really simple question.

Jeff Chang: It’s the last question so. 

Marlon James: Yeah, the last question to put me on the spot. You know what, I really like Amos Tutuola’s “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.” I really like that. I’m trying to think of other novels. God, what is it, Zakes or Zakes, let’s call him Zakes Mda, “The Heart of Redness.”  It was a really really interesting one.

Who else would I say? I’m trying to think, I’m trying to go all over the place.  Man, you put me on the spot. I have to really think about it. Those are the first two that came to my mind. Zakes Mda, M-D-A and it’s called “The Heart of Redness.”  You know what, I’m going to be thinking about that. See you probably should come up to me at the signing. By then I’ll have a list. 

Jeff Chang: Let’s close out with this question. You’re somebody who I know on Facebook is deeply engaged in the issues of the day. You were talking a little bit earlier about the role of a writer in their world at this particular moment, you know and thinking about what legacy is. But I’m very curious what you think and maybe this is, maybe you don’t think about it at all. 

But what do you think having a Trilogy out that’s set in pre-colonial Africa, that’s fantastical, that centers queer characters, women characters, that’s beautifully written, that’s sprawling, that’s telling stories within stories, that’s questioning truth versus story versus you know, the way that that folks are trying to be in the world right now. What do you think that all means? 

Marlon James: Man, they were really saving the simple questions for last. I don’t know. I don’t know if I know what it all means. There’re hopes I have for the 21st century and there are hopes I have for 21st century literature, and one of them is the end to Orientalism and this kind of narrative colonialism and so on. 

There are stories I wish I read when I was younger and there are stories I wish were available when I was younger, which is not to knock the stories I did read, I did read them. But every now and then, yeah I did kind of want to see somebody that looked like me in them.

I’m not trying to score a point or anything. I was just like, man out of–I just wanted one character like that, that looked like me and and so on. And that’s why we latched onto “Black Panther” from way back in the 70s and “Black Lightning” and all these, you know, all these characters. And I also–even the presence of characters–and comics did a lot in terms of representation, I still you know, I’m a fantasy guy. I’m a nerd, I’m you know, I’m a geek, and I wanted the kind of story that I would be lost in for weeks. 

And it just, it couldn’t all just be European stories. I mean, and I love all of those stories. But I just want people to have a broader idea of when an epic is and a broader idea of what stories is, and a broader idea of what being involved and being immersed in a story, you know can mean, and take ownership of the book and take ownership of stories.

We already know what a narrow mind can produce. You know I would love to see more of what open minds can produce. I want to see if young people are reading, they’re reading so much more than we were, and being exposed to so much more. I mean, I wish I am alive to see the type of stories they write. Because it’s going to blow our minds. Yeah, I think. 

Jeff Chang: Thank you so much, Marlon James everybody.

He’ll be outside to sign books in just a few minutes. Thank you for coming.