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Marlon James’s Notes to Self

Writing Against Type

ISSUE:  Spring 2018

One big expectation of the murder mystery is that the payoff includes some answers, that eventually we learn the truth. The best payoffs are layered, too, so that the revelations include not just who did the deed but how and why—what the motive was, offering a bit of insight into our own natures.

Then there is the mystery in which truth is relative. In his current project, a crime story framed within a sci-fi/fantasy African epic, Marlon James is upending a genre’s expectations by allowing the reader a certain agency. The plot is what he calls a “why-dunnit”: A boy’s kidnapping sets the main characters (“hunters and mercenaries and ne’er-do-wells”) in motion, each assigned the same task of finding him, only to discover him dead. The reader enters through the project’s structure—a trilogy of novels wherein each installment tells the same story through a different protagonist’s point of view—three perspectives, Rashomon-style. Truth, bias, the corruption of memory: Tricky themes surface quickly.

Photographs by Tim GruberPhotographs by Tim Gruber

But why three books, when three parts of a single volume might do? “I didn’t want the narrator’s point of view to be the point of the novel,” James says. “If they were all together, the whole point would be to observe these three shifts. This way, if you read one and don’t read the others, ever, you’re fine. I hope people read all three, but they have a choice. I’m throwing it on the reader. The reader has to decide who to believe.”

Thus, the trilogy becomes a radical act of storytelling rooted in older forms—the ancient epic, the oral tradition, tales manipulated according to the teller’s purpose. This rebooting of one’s own novel is also a kind of subversion of the Western literary tradition’s idea of an authoritative text.

“The whole idea in the Western canon is that this is the version that we have accepted as authentic. That doesn’t really exist. In a lot of African storytelling, there’s no such thing as the authentic version, no director’s cut. Even looking at the old African epics, nobody’s tried to claim a particular version as true. So this doesn’t feel new to me because this is how old stories are told. This is how epics are told.”

Since his first notes in 2015, James has been steeped in these ancient texts, working his way through the Tale of Genji and the Mahābhārata, through Beowulf and the Kalavela, poring over Africa’s epics, such as those of Kelefa Saane and Askia Mohammed, of Son-Jara and Njaajaan Njaay. He devoured history along the way, too, “particularly the Dark Ages, and especially how the Dark Ages would’ve read in the African continent, in Arabia and so on, where their ages weren’t dark at all. So there’s a lot of archaeological work I had to do with this book, a lot of excavation.”

The walls of James’s office are papered over with the evidence of this immersion. Above one desk, a grid of multicolored Post-its: notes from such books as Maryse Condé’s Segu and Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit; notes from historical texts on old Berlin, on Timbuktu, on Dogon cosmology. “Most of these are about values, not really about story. A lot of this is stuff that informs the text, a lot of it I’ll glance at and go, Oh, that’s the way to enter the paragraph. They guide the worldview. They spark ideas, non-narrative things that I think are essential in a story. But none of these are plot points. That’s a whole other chart.”

Photographs by Tim Gruber

The panorama of sci-fi aesthetics (John Harris’s sci-fi landscapes, volumes of Ursula K. Le Guin) and African grandeur (photos of the Mursi, Nuba, and Masai tribes; cutouts of Ethiopia’s ancient castles) that surround him are intended to come together in his imagination, such that the novel’s fantastical elements reinforce an underappreciated truth about Africa’s own history.

“The rise and fall of great kings, and magnificent castles, and destroyed forts, and huge armies, and big ships—every continent has it. It isn’t exclusive to the European story. So I want to show that the ‘other’ cultures are as complicated and sophisticated as Europe. Nobody needs me to tell them that—certainly Africans don’t need me to tell them anything. It’s more me telling myself. As a person growing up in the diaspora, my view of these things were first and foremost Britain’s view. So there was a lot of unlearning that had to happen before I started to write this book. I wanted to divorce myself as much as possible from the European, and a lot of these pictures helped do that.”

Given James’s reputation as a writer of literary fiction, a sci-fi/fantasy trilogy is sure to befuddle plenty of people. So be it. In his opinion, such narrow rules are endemic of a tradition that could use some disruption.

“It was very strange when I first came across literary hierarchy,” he adds. “You know: This is literary fiction, and this is sci-fi. And so on. I’ve never read books that way, and I don’t plan to start. Instead, I like what Francine du Plessix Gray says: Rebel against the tyranny of genre.” 

—Paul Reyes


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