'People Live Before and After Violence': An Interview with Marlon James

The author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf on the intellectual responsibilities of the reader, Die Hard and Vin Diesel, and gay action heroes.

Thea Lim is the author of An Ocean of Minutes, which was a shortlisted finalist for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She is on the faculty of the...

Photo © Mark Seliger 2018

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Bond Street Books), Marlon James’s fourth novel and his follow-up to his Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, is a Molotov cocktail through the window of the literary status quo: it’s a fantasy novel, the first in a trilogy, about a group of outsiders who go on a quest, crossing mythical African kingdoms to find a missing boy. There’s Tracker, a runaway who seeks his lost people, only to reject them when he learns their truth; there’s the shape-shifting leopard who is his best friend; there’s a giant who is not a giant; a compass that is a human infected with lightning and kept in a cage; and a feminist separatist witch, whose line “Thank the gods for this man to tell us what we already know” is coming soon to a tote bag near you. Their reasons for seeking the boy are as varied as who they are: for money, to restore a royal lineage, or just for something to do.

This book leaves the reader breathless. Stories act as portals to other stories, and then become other stories still. People turn into animals, a god-butcher spies on the heroes in their dreams, white scientists grow flowers out of hair, and all of this is mixed with true horror, like the scenes that take place at a slave auction. The novel criss-crosses genres, from the classic trickster tropes, to repeated scenes of teleportation, to an empire in the sky with a grim dystopian core. Through it all, blistering fight sequences jostle with moments of tender friendship, and families are found and lost. And this is only Book One.

In all this wildness, the novel repeatedly leads its reader to ask, what makes a story, a story? And what are stories good for, if we cannot trust them to answer our questions about what really happened, or to give us the meaning we crave? I interviewed Marlon on stage at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, for Sheridan Reads. In front of an audience of two hundred, who packed into the campus bar just to see him, we talked about the intellectual responsibilities of the reader, how violence can be ethical, Die Hard and Vin Diesel, and gay action heroes.

Thea Lim: Much has been made of the fact that you’ve described Black Leopard, Red Wolf as an African Game of Thrones. Sometimes, when diasporic writers present an experience that has been as yet underrepresented in Western fiction, they’re interpreted as offering a guide to their world, for outsiders to their world. Yet more often, diasporic writers are just trying to write about their own experience, so that readers of colour like them can see themselves on the page. Does your work fulfil one of those functions—a guide or a mirror—or is it something else entirely?

Marlon James: I do like the idea of fiction communicating something that hasn't been communicated before. But I didn't really write this for the white gaze. Or anybody's gaze, really. For me, first and foremost, it was a duty to story. I mean, I committed to writing the hard way. I could have easily written more accessible novels. I quite know how to write them. I tell people I've been trying to sell out for years. It's just that my idea of a sell-out is my novel about, you know, nine black women who have an all-female slave insurrection. That says commercial pay dirt to me.

I think, ultimately, I still believe that the book that's in your head should be the book that comes out on your page. And I think that, if you have too many considerations happening between here and there, then you kind of end up with a novel that was written by a committee, despite your really, really best intentions.

I also think, one of the things that writing this book reinforced for me, is that in a lot of the oral tradition, the reader—well, in this case, the listener—has a lot of work to do. So, for me, it's not necessarily that I'm writing a bridge, so much as, "Here are the ingredients, build a bridge and come over here." In all the great books that I've read, you know, Beloved isn't trying to reach me, I have to reach Beloved. Dogeaters isn’t trying to reach me, I have to reach Dogeaters. Master and Margarita isn't trying to reach me, I have to reach over.

I think people forget what an active activity—that's redundant, but you get what I'm saying—what an active activity reading is. It's more than just opening a book and expecting the book to, you know, here we are, now entertain us. There's a lot of work that the reader has to do, and I think that's what I was thinking of more than anything else.

Ultimately you’re saying, it’s the needs of the story that come first, more than anybody else’s. And speaking of the reader having to reach over, discussions of your work often touch on violence; you were recently called a “virtuoso of violence” by author Victor LaValle. But in order to write violence well, a writer has to know how much is too much. Something my creative writing students and I often grapple with is how to ethically represent violence, specifically sexual violence. Do you have personal guidelines that determine how you employ or represent rape in your work, or does that also come down to the needs of the story?

I always find it interesting that people say that my novels are filled with violence, or violence-drenched, because they're really not. You know, the average type of action films we watched in the ‘80s and ‘90s are Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger films. They're killing anywhere between 48 and 70 people. I did not kill 48 to 70 people in my book. But if one of those killings in those movies was, say, a shot to the stomach—and I say a shot to the stomach because that’s very painful and very slow—can you imagine if one of those hundreds of people [Bruce Willis] shot was a father or had three kids and was forced to be in this job, or was just going through the suffering of dying…it would be a completely different film. We would say, "Oh my god, Die Hard is so disturbing!" instead of, "Die Hard is a Christmas movie!"

It’s one of my favourite Christmas movies.

Listen, I adore that movie, I adore it, but I know I recognize how, what is happening is that these movies are selling violence without suffering. And I think the reason why I get tagged with violence is because I don't separate those.

Because you let the reader see the suffering.

Because violence comes with suffering and violence comes with aftermath. How can you be non-explicit about violence? Violence is an explicit act. You're sometimes literally breaking a body open. I think for me the most difficult scenes in my book, I have to turn myself into a reporter, so my overall advice is take a journalism class. Because you have to go in and get a story, but you have to be respectful. You have to be respectful but explicit. Or instead of explicit, clear.

When you shirk on it, it's kind of an insult to people who suffer it. Like, people say to me they can't read my novel [The Book of Night Women] because it’s about slavery. I’m going to guess that reading about slavery is slightly better than being a slave.

How you know when you’ve slid into a kind pornography of violence is when we become numb. If it's still visceral, if it's still disturbing, it's doing a good thing. If it's like, "Oh, Lord, another one," then you’ve slid into pornography.

People live before and after violence. And I think that's also important, that yes, there’s suffering, but there is also survival. And there’s also living with the consequences and living with pain and living with dismemberment. And I think because for me, I don't shirk from any of those things, so people think it's violent. Violence should be violent. Sex should be sexy. So be simple and be clear and don't blink.

So if a character does experience violence, then there have to be repercussions. And is that true even for secondary or smaller characters in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, of which there are many—were you able to find space in the narrative to show how they experience violence as well?

Well, what I’m about to say almost sounds like it contradicts what I just said before, but then there’s also the off-stage event. There’s also the thing we don’t see, that people are reeling from. And certainly for the supporting characters and characters walking around those scenes, that also becomes important. It sounds like I’m contradicting what I just said about being explicit, but it’s still explicit. There are stages and there is aftermath and if the story is true to that, then we'll get the full range. But I think it's also important to know that people who experience these things are surviving, and survival is also important, and how you write survival is important.

And the flip side of violence is intimacy and tenderness, of which there’s also a lot in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, especially between the men in the novel, and specifically queer men. Recently, there was a thread on social media asking people to list popular narratives that showed “healthy men's relationships,” where that was defined as men supporting each other through emotional growth. At that time, all I could think of was the Fast and Furious movies. But I would now add Black Leopard, Red Wolf to that list. 

I’ve always wanted to be nearer to Vin Diesel. [Laughs]

Because there are so many points when Mossi and Leopard really try to encourage Tracker, your protagonist, to have more of an emotional fluency and self-awareness. Did you model those relationships after anything in particular, or was there something you wanted to say about bonds between men?

The first thing I wanted to do is separate masculinity from sexuality, which I think doesn’t happen enough. It's been interesting, for example, watching people wrap in their head around such a go-getter action hero being all about the boys. Well, both Black Leopard and Red Wolf are gay, spoiler alert.

So that was the first thing to separate. But also to explore tenderness. I actually think Tracker's most tender relationship is with the Ogo, and he has this absolute affection for this guy. And a huge part of that affection comes from [Tracker] giving the Ogo space to confront his own demons. He understands that the best thing he can give the Ogo is his ears and he sits down and listens to him all through the night. And that to me is intimacy too.

And the Ogo is one of the members of Tracker's entourage in the story’s main quest to find a lost boy, and it’s interesting because Tracker does not come across as, particularly, someone whose empathy is his driving force. But something in the Ogo spurs him to decide he wants to listen to him. What is it in the Ogo that sparks that?

You know, I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. There is a kind of innocence there. I really resisted doing the gentle giants.

He's not gentle, which is a huge part of his story. 

He is not gentle at all. And also he can't shut up, when most giants are like "wooo" and that's like an entire sentence. But with the Ogo, they make the mistake of telling him something and he goes on talking for almost up to two hours and won't shut up. But I still think he's kind of adorable, in his way.

Did you have a model for your gay male action hero? I can think of Omar from The Wire, but I can't think of anybody else.

Omar would be a great person to mirror off, if I had actually watched The Wire. It’s one of the grievous sins against Western Civilization that I’ve only seen Season 1 of The Wire, I did not watch the rest. Who did I model Tracker after? I'm not sure. I came across so many different kinds of characters in my research of African mythology and a lot of African epics, and I've always liked the kind of, not necessarily anti-hero, but the kind of trickster, hustler kind of character, and African storytelling abounds with them. One thing is, in an Anansi story, to listen to an Anansi story, you have to come to terms with the fact that whoever is telling the story might be tricking you. So what is it to know that the narrator is unreliable, that a trickster is setting the story? That shifting is not just shifting truth, it's shifting shape, it's shifting identity, it's shifting sexual preference. I love the whole idea that nothing is fixed in this universe. As it should be, I don't think anything should be. And I think that in a lot of ways, that influenced Tracker.

But also, you know, Tracker goes from being a brat to a full on asshole and then he learns some really, really good lessons, the hard way. I don't know, maybe he is a different version of myself—I tend not to put myself in my stories.

But you slipped in through Tracker?

Tracker's stance on religion may be like mine. Because when people say, I don't believe in God, I say, I don’t believe in belief. 

Which we hear Tracker saying, it’s one of his catchphrases.

He says that quite a bit.

So like you say, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a story about stories. Sometimes, especially in the parts with the Ogo, it's a story within a story within a story. And much of the novel is fun and epic and fantastical, but then there’s a real vein of sorrow that runs through it. And I began to think that part of what the book is exploring is how we turn to stories to try to cope with or manage the traumas of life, and yet what Tracker really struggles with near the end of the book, actually on the second last page—which was my favourite part—is how sometimes stories can’t really help us make meaning. So what are stories to you? What do you hope they can do, whether it’s the stories you read, or the stories you write? 

I'm not as hopeless about story as Tracker is, because I actually do think stories heal, or at least stories make a space for it. And the thing with stories, particularly in the oral tradition, is they played so many roles, and that's why it amazes me how convoluted and how tricky oral story could be. Because we're reading novels and we complain about their difficulty. "It's too labyrinthine, I don't understand it, and it keeps going around." But in the oral tradition, when a story might deliberately be tricking you, you have to listen to the story and also figure out what really is going on. The oral tradition places a way greater trust in the intellectual capabilities of the listener than we sometimes place in the reader. That, to me, was super interesting, and I definitely wanted to carry it over. Which is why [in my novel] there are stories on top of stories and there are parts you've got to figure out, and there are parts where you're left adrift. And hopefully the current will come and grab you, and pull you back in. Because I think the bond between listener and storyteller is different.

I mean, to use a Joan Didion line, which I stole in this book, we do tell stories in order to live. And we tell stories in order to live on. And we tell stories in order to persevere. And we tell stories to bring glory to people who don't necessarily have glory, or get glory. So ultimately, storytelling is a healing act. It's a community-building act. And almost every culture has it serve that purpose. So I knew I wanted to write a novel that, in some way, at least tries to capture that.

Do you think that active listening to a story—having to listen and to put the pieces together yourself and do the work—is that also healing? Or is it just the act of telling your story that heals?

Oh, definitely the act of listening [is healing]. And really for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes just to hear a story. Or to hear ourselves in the story. Or to be told the subtext. “The story's this but what you are really telling me is this.” That's why we have fables. That's why we have allegory. Stories are also detective work and stories reveal, sometimes not in the space you expect it to reveal, something about us. For me when I'm writing, I'm very conscious that a novel should have volume. That it should sound like it should be read aloud. That's why the audio book is really good.

I did listen to parts of it. The reader, Dion Graham, is amazing. 

I kind of wrote it for him.

Specifically with him in mind?  

Not for Dion Graham in particular, although he is amazing. But I wrote it to be read aloud. 

I wanted to ask you a question about working with editors. Especially because you say that this is a book that you wanted to be labyrinthine and voluminous, and I was wondering if your editors ever pushed back against that, if they ever wanted you to be more obvious. Or were they just along for the ride?

My main editor is Jake Morrissey, but I also had my Canadian editors read it, and then after that, I don’t know if my Canadian or my American editors knew this, but I had a British editor read it too. Because at a certain point we've all read the book so much, and this completely fresh eye comes in and goes, "Wow, this first section is maybe too long."

One, a good editor doesn’t tell you what to write. Which is why I think people like Gordon Lish are not good editors. But a good editor will keep at you until you've written it. Like, Jake would say, "I don't think you got it." And then I'd go back, and he’d say, "I still don't think you have it."

Did you ever say no, you’re wrong, or did you accept that?

No, I'm pretty good at listening to editors. They don't tell me what to write, I don't tell them what to edit. And I also trust my editors. That's the thing—I think you have to trust your editor. That an editor's eye is not a reader's eye. And there's a certain point in your manuscript where you just don't have the eyes for it. You just don't. I know you've been living with it for ten years, and you look at it, but I'm an editor as well and, for example, when I teach my students, the way I read their work is not the way they read their work. I do think intimacy with the work sometimes really turns a certain blindness to your work, that's natural. Sometimes you can shift that by, well, if you really want to torture yourself, have your friend read it to you.

Like, out loud?

Yes, read it out loud. There are things your ears will hear that your eyes won't see.

But to come back to the editor relationship, I remember my second novel, this is one of the things that I wouldn’t have picked up, but an editor picked it up. [In The Book of Night Women] my character just left the house burning to the ground with everybody in it. It's a family novel. [Laughs.] And she goes back to her old plantation, to the old people she always knew, and I just went on with the plot and moved on. And my editor said to me, if I go back to people I've known all my life, but I'm under the suspicion of having done a terrible thing, wouldn't that change the dynamic of how everybody relates to me? It never occurred to me. But it would. My editor was right. Because people who didn't like me might respect me now, people who thought I was nice probably think I'm evil, some people will fear me when they didn't before, some people might finally think I'm cool—you know, you burn down master’s house, of course you're cool—but it never occurred to me. And I think sometimes those things, sort of the deeper nuance, and the deeper relationship between characters, is something a really good editor can bring out in a manuscript. They're not trying to re-write your book. If your book needs to be rewritten, trust me, you won't get as far as them, I'm sorry.

It's interesting you say that it didn't occur to you, because it sounds like what your editor was talking about was the very thing you said earlier, about how violence should resonate. The problem with the scene, the way you’d written it, is that there wasn’t impact.

Well, I learn, so.

I wonder if what a good editor does is they sort of read as your highest self. Like, they read as you would read, but on your best, most fabulous day. 

Yes, but I also think an editor sometimes has to get tough on a manuscript, and that's where, from the beginning, writers start to really sort of flinch because your book is your baby.

I always go, just think of your book as your fourth baby. It's like, "Take it please."

It’s like, “I’m tired.”

So I have to ask you a question about music, because you always talk a lot about music in your interviews. I saw you interviewed with David Chariandy last year in Toronto, and you said you’d been listening to a lot of Björk. But if you were to make a playlist for this book, are there any songs that would absolutely have to be on there? Do Leopard and Tracker have a walk-up song? 

Oh my God. Maybe I’d just put “Soul Makossa” on repeat. What was I listening to? I was actually listening to a lot of Miles Davis with this, and Herbie Hancock.

I wouldn’t have expected Tracker’s walk-up song to be Miles Davis. 

Well, you know, “Spanish Key” is really propulsive and Herbie Hancock has Mwandishi which I was listening to. Just a lot of ‘70s jazz fusion, I was listening to a lot of ‘70s funk. So it's weird, it’s set in Africa, but it’s a total blaxploitation soundtrack. [Laughs.] Lots of Isaac Hayes and so on.

But also lots of Fela. Especially when I'm writing the parts that are long and almost like stream of consciousness, because a Fela song will go on for 60 minutes. But also I'm really attracted to rhythm, I really latch on to rhythm when I'm writing a story. The poets can’t have all the fun. But I do think prose should have a meter. And prose should definitely have a beat.

Do you always listen to music while you’re writing? Does that help you with the meter? 

It does. But I don't think about [the meter], not consciously. But I also just can't write in silence. I'm like, kudos to people who do it. My friend goes off to his log cabin that looks like an outhouse, and he goes and just writes. And I'm like, I just couldn't do that. To me silence feels like deafness, I just couldn't do it.

Thea Lim is the author of An Ocean of Minutes, which was a shortlisted finalist for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She is on the faculty of the Creative Writing & Publishing program at Sheridan College.