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Towards black myths

  • In an exclusive interview, Man Booker winner Marlon James talks about his new novel, pitched as the African ‘Game Of Thrones’

Marlon James is inspired by his grandfather’s stories and believes ‘in the aural quality of language’.
Marlon James is inspired by his grandfather’s stories and believes ‘in the aural quality of language’. (Courtesy Mark Seliger)

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Black Leopard, Red Wolf, written by Jamaican writer Marlon James, is one of the most awaited novels of the year. It is the first part of his Dark Star trilogy, touted as the African Game Of Thrones. “I could have easily written a European fantasy novel in black verse, but I didn’t,” says James, in an exclusive phone interview from New York.

James, who took his quest deeper, comes from a “family of storytellers, fibbers and people who stretch the truth a lot”, and the fantasy novel is an experiment in storytelling. It rejects the Caucasian knights and fairies, it turns the tropes of Western fantasy writing upside down. Words talk; they shout and mumble and sing in parts, like a storyteller from the past. Men are as easily attracted to men as kings are to courtesans in other stories. And truth, often, is a by-product of deceptions.

In the recent “J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture On Fantasy Literature” that James gave at Pembroke College, Oxford, he remarked on how Tolkien had myths to turn to, but “people like me did not. Growing up with no myths, no legends, no histories, except for those of the colonizer and occasional oppressor…myths that come from your culture or people speak to you in a way that others do not.” With this trilogy, James is also creating a myth he can relate to. A myth of belonging.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, put simply, is a quest told through the eyes of the protagonist, Tracker. It is said that Tracker has a nose that can sniff the dead from the nether regions, a prodigious skill that he employs to track down missing children, errant husbands and runaway wives. Awed by his olfactory prowess, people often forget to warn others of his mouth. For Tracker is also an incendiary, rough at the edges, and, ultimately, lost himself. The quest is also one within.

Along with a supernatural bunch of mercenaries that includes a shape-shifting leopard-man, a dedicated witch, a badass buffalo, a sensitive giant and a simply-human, simply-sexy warrior, he is given a task. They must go in search of a young boy and return with him, either alive or with evidence otherwise. For the boy is special. The reasons for this emerge slowly, often cross-talking and negating each other through the stories.

To write this book, the writer, too, had to make his own journey. And it began with decolonizing the imagination. James grew up speaking colonial English. “It took me a while to realize that every time I spoke,” he says, “I sounded like someone’s butler.”

Unlearning the religious and belief system that overlapped with the language was more difficult. James grew up as a church-going Christian in Jamaica. So enmeshed was he in the system, he even underwent an exorcism in his early 30s, to get rid of his homosexuality. The ritual did help—to get rid of the Catholic guilt and shame wrongly associated with his sexual orientation.

Research for the novel led James to Africa. It led him to the old Saharan tribes of Omo valley, the Nyangatom, the Hamars, the Dogon and the pre-Islamic cultures that had existed. It led him to discover the “Shogas”, the legends and the monsters he was denied as a child.

“There was a time when only Shoga warriors were sent to protect virgin brides because everyone knew they were gay,” he says, speaking of the sophisticated understanding of erotica and diverse sexualities that these ancient cultures possessed. Nor was this understanding ideal, he explains, citing the practice of circumcision. “What (these) societies choose to do with non-binariness is a different issue, given the breath of homophobia that has taken over some of these countries. I am interested in the origin of the thought in the first place.”

As for the monsters (and the book is filled with them), a lot of them exist in the mythology he researched. “Much as I wanted to create a universe, I also wanted to use the monsters I was denied while growing up as a black person in diaspora.” Among them were vampires who were indifferent to daylight, unlike their pale Western cousins. In the novel, James plays with our notions of day and night, black and white, in refreshing and subversive ways.

For that matter, James also plays with the expectations from a Man Booker Prize winner. This novel follows A Brief History Of Seven Killings, which got him the coveted prize in 2015. His choice of fantasy as a genre for his next novel is unconventional.

“It is ridiculous that a novel that is realistic has a higher profile than, say, One Hundred Years Of Solitude,” says James.

The assumption that realism and its ancestors are the purveyors of empathy is “a Western thing”, he explains. The 18th century novel considered empathy to be the highest form of emotion, above sympathy, pity and compassion. Yet “the novel has always been a construct”, James says, and so much of fantasy-building was passed off as social realism. “A lot of our literary racism, sexism, comes from novels purporting to be realistic. Instead of rendering characters and observing them, (the authors) projected their fears and desires on to them.”

Within the fantasy genre too, the European fantasy dominates. And James was writing a different kind, “one which isn’t about the trials of the upper class”, the kings and queens and the fate of the throne.

The structure of the novel was a challenge, till he came across The Affair, a TV series. It reminded him of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, since it involved different perspectives. “The idea that I could tell two-three different points of view of the same story and the stories don’t add up was electrifying,” he says. It was more suited to the African way of storytelling. One where the narrator is a trickster, someone who cannot be relied upon and compels the listener to work hard and put it together. For this reason, James envisioned the entire story as a trilogy, with each novel told from the perspective of a different character.

He made a list of his plot lines and then “turned them upside down”. “Instead of starting in a throne room, I start in a jail. It was then that the kind of novel I wanted to write appeared,” he says.

So has the novel succeeded in its vision? James is cautious in his answer. “I am not an African person, I’m part of the African diaspora,” he says. “Ultimately, I’m still using the colonizers’ language. What I hope I did was subterfuge, to quietly trick the English language into doing things it’s not used to doing, that’s where I would like to begin with…”

James is annoyed when the prose from former British colonies is described as “lyrical”. It is a cliché. “But there is undeniably a musicality that we brought to English that wasn’t there before…it goes back to our oral stories. Ancient African epics are told with the guitar, the kora (a stringed musical instrument) and the talking drum.”

He is inspired by his grandfather’s stories, stories with songs. “I believe in the aural quality of language. Prose has meter, it has rhythm and bones. When you read (Gabriel Garcia) Marquez or (Salman) Rushdie, you’re reading people who grew up hearing stories….”

Black Leopard, Red Wolf: By Marlon James, Penguin Random House, 640 pages, 699.

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