When Jamaican writer Marlon James wrote his first book, John Crow’s Devil, it was famously rejected 78 times. James burnt the manuscript and erased it from his friends’ computers. Later, he retrieved a copy from his email outbox for a workshop. From there to winning the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings, his fictional account of an attempt to assassinate Bob Marley, it has been a long journey.
Soon after winning the award, he joked that he would “geek... out” and write an “African Game of Thrones”. The first instalment of the Dark Star trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, was released in 2019 and nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction. The second instalment, Moon Witch, Spider King, came out last year. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is also being adapted for OTT with actor Michael B. Jordan as producer. In a conversation on the sidelines of the recently-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, James discusses fantasy writing, violence and why a lot of men write poorly about women characters. Edited excerpts:
How did you switch from contemporary history to fantasy?
I have always been omnivorous in my reading. I am not a literary snob. I don’t rank genres. There are brilliant works in each genre. I am very suspicious of people who only read one genre or who rank them or who think one is more intellectual than the other. All literature is a work of the imagination; otherwise, it’s not literature. So, for me, the idea of switching genres doesn’t feel like switching genres. When I was young, I read whatever I could get my hands on and that means I read everything. And I developed this attitude that great stories can be had anywhere.
There has been criticism that your books are too violent. Do you hold back with the violence you portray sometimes? Or do your editors cut some of it out?
Actually, sometimes I am the one who holds back and the editor puts it all back in. We have to be very careful about how we respond to violence. People keep telling me they are disturbed. And I’m like, aren’t you supposed to be? We actually watch and read explicitly violent things. I can’t look away from the consequences of violence: it brings suffering, it brings pain, it brings blood. And we shouldn’t look away; we should care about what violence does to bodies. People who can’t read my books will go watch a John Wick film. If dozens and dozens are killed, but you don’t think of them when the credits roll and boy meets girl, it says a lot more about you as a viewer than my attitude to violence.
You said somewhere that a lot of men don’t write women well. Why do you think that is?
A lot of writers don’t read women. It’s all well to think I know my mom and my sister, but they don’t read women. James Miley said that the problem with Heart of Darkness is that instead of reflecting, embodying or just observing black people, all James Conrad did was to project his fears and desires upon them and react. That’s what a lot of male writers do with women and that’s what a lot of white writers do with black people. When we fail to portray people accurately, it’s a failure of both empathy and observation.
In fantasy especially, it’s easy to use a lot of tropes. Are there tropes that you consciously avoid?
I avoid the magical child trope. In my book, the child ended up being a big disappointment. The magical child is still in a way a version of the Christ story. It is a huge part of fantasy, but I am not interested in it. It’s a western way of telling a story. I was also not interested in telling a story of the European middle ages and putting some witches and demons into it.
As a professor of writing and a wildly inventive writer, what advice do you give your students?
I spend three days in my class drumming rules into my students. And then, on the fourth day, I have them read stories that break all the rules. This is to remind them that though all I am saying is useful, it’s still one person’s opinion. This is not to say don’t learn from the rules, because a lot of them do learn. But it’s also to realise there are so many ways of telling a story.
There has been a coming-of-age of sorts for novelists from Asia and Africa. Is this happening in cinema, too?
Yes. We are hungry for stories, and we are hungry for stories where people like us are in them. A lot of this is already happening. RRR didn’t need any blonde damsel in distress, and yet it took the world by storm. RRR didn’t need a Europe to be a hit. It’s Europe and America that are joining the party now. We’ve always told our stories. Even if we tell stories for each other, that’s enough.
In India, a lot of reading in the fantasy genre is Eurocentric. If you had to recommend some books, which would they be?
I would definitely recommend A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. If the reader is younger, then The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang.