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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

Outtakes & Influences

Paul Reyes: How proactive were you about planning this book? Did you know going into it how you wanted to map everything out, or did you wing it?

Marlon James: I wish I had a more structured and confident way of coming up with stories and writing stories, but a lot of times they happen through dumb luck. Just yesterday I was looking at my notes for this novel, and the first one is from early 2015. It took me another full year to figure out how I was going to tell this story. I knew what I wanted in it, I knew the elements of it. I even knew I wanted it to be three stories. What I didn’t have was voice, point of view. I just didn’t know, How am I going to tell this thing? And how am I going to have it in three novels? Am I just biting off more than I can chew because I’m afflicted with sci-fi-itis—or fantasy, where everything has to be a trilogy, or tetralogy, or whatever? I didn’t know if it was my ego working here or just my love of sci-fi books.

And it didn’t occur to me until I was talking to a director, Melina Matsoukas, who directs Insecure, and we were talking about another TV show, The Affair, talking about the structure of it. It’s a he-said / she-said, but in such a subtle way that sometimes you don’t even notice that in his version of the story her dress is above the knee, and in her version of the story her dress is below the knee. And while she was talking about this idea for a TV show, that was the epiphany. I was like: Damn, that’s a good idea for a novel. And it suddenly made sense that I was going to write a novel in first person, three different books, telling the very same story but highlighting how, between how you see a thing and the agenda you bring to it and the biases and prejudices of your upbringing and your desires, two people can see things in totally different ways.

I can’t remember the specifics, but someone was doing a story about a lynching in the South that happened way, way back. He first went around asking questions like, “What do you remember about the lynching?” And he got the usual answers. People saying what they think he needed to hear, people doing a version of “reader please like me,” trying to come across as the hero of their story even though they were flippin’ racist, all of that. And then he changed the tactic; he changed it to, “What do you remember about the summer of ’52?” And that changed everything. A person was like, “Oh, you mean when those four black boys raped that poor girl?” And he realized that they still looked at it as a situation where four black guys did something, and that’s it. The lynching didn’t even come into it. That reminded me of how three people can see the same thing and have such radically different perspectives. That’s when I realized I could write three different novels based on the same thing. 

I’m fascinated by the long game here, since the project isn’t fully appreciated until the reader finishes the third installment, five or ten years from now, and reaches that crucial question of which story to believe. It’s a patient project. One novel is difficult enough, thinking about it book by book.

Yeah, certainly. And I’ve been thinking “story” instead of “novel.” This would’ve been an impossibly huge novel if I had all the points of view in one. But I realized that I didn’t want the point of the novel to be “Hey, look at these three shifts in perspective.” The way I’m looking at it, you can read one and not the others, and you’re fine. Of course, I hope you read them all. But you could also read them in any order. I’m throwing it on the reader. Any belief is going to have to come from them.

People say that fiction is the lie that tells the truth, but for me, fiction isn’t lies, fiction is fiction. If I’m inventing, it’s neither lying nor truth. Because I’m not being dishonest, and I’m not distorting something that’s already there. It doesn’t feel new to me, because this is how old stories are told. This is how epics are told, how the Anansi stories are told. Think of the necessity of this kind of story. In the oral tradition, if someone is telling a story, they don’t have time to invent something new every day. They’re going to try to take the same characters in the same predicament and try to do something totally different with it tomorrow. 

This isn’t so different from what Joseph Campbell was exploring with mythologies and faiths—archetypes, themes. I suppose it’s also what colors histories, and biographies in particular. You think of any historical figure—like Churchill, who is constantly being revisited by different scholars who come to a different conclusion based on biases. We accept these variations as part of what makes history & biography dynamic.

And in a sense, even when we do that with Churchill, we’re still looking for a narrative to replace the one before. There’s this idea that this biography was “truish,” but that biography is “truer.” Yes, Churchill led Britain and Europe through World War II, he’s a hugely inspiring figure. But he also had a Kenyan concentration camp that held Barack Obama’s grandfather. Part of the problem is that we keep looking for this version of “true” that we can live with. And maybe we should just let go of that. The story of him being a horrible, empire-loving racist is true, and the story of him being the protector, the guardian of the realm, is also true. And both books are worth reading. Truth is relative, and it changes so often. 

You’ve had tremendous success with crime fiction, but tell me about your love of fantasy.

My primary source of fantasy is comic books. I’m more of a comic-book guy, even though I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman, and I read lots of John Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, and even back to old stuff—stuff I used to love as a kid, even Roald Dahl. But also magical realism, whether it’s García Márquez’s stuff or something like Manuel Mujica Láinez’s The Wandering Unicorn, which I don’t think anybody reads anymore but they really should.

But you know, fantasy, sci-fi, that was the first time I felt my mind inventing, and I’ve always been drawn to it. And part of it is growing up in this sort of staid, suburban upbringing where everything is pretty much the same as the day before. I talk about this in my class: When you’re writing boredom, you have to know what kind of boredom you’re writing about. And one of the things about suburban boredom is that it’s endlessly repeatable. Everybody has one house, two cars, three trees. And that goes all the way down. Fantasy, then, becomes such a striking break from that, which is why I was always drawn to it.

  Even film. I can’t remember when I found this out, but it was a shocking day for me. I was watching Return of the Jedi on TBS, and it hit me: I have never seen this! I knew everything about Star Wars. I was a part of a Star Wars fan club; I had the Star Wars coloring books; I could tell you where Dagobah is; I know where Cloud City is; I know how the clouds are in Cloud City. And I realized I have never actually seen these movies. I used to read the novelizations of these movies. I would read the spin-offs or the comics—the comics of Star Wars are incredible. But I never saw the movies until I was an adult. So even my cinematic language of fantasy is actually a literary language. It’s because, you know, I lived far enough away from the movie theater that I didn’t get to see The Empire Strikes Back. My parents weren’t going to take me there, I wasn’t going to get to go. But the books were everywhere. So Alan Dean Foster’s my hero.

When did you first take a crack at writing your own sci-fi?

When I read Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, I wanted to write a space opera. If the gods are good, that thing will never show up anywhere, because I do not want to see it. It was, of course, atrocious. But that’s how you do it. Or you draw comics. Drawing comics, but particularly coming up with my own version of X-Men and Teen Titans and so on. And I’ve never outgrown Grimm’s Fairy Tales. There’s a point when you go, I’m too big for Mother Goose, and yeah, I got too big for Mother Goose, and I left Mother Goose behind, but I never got over other fairy tales. All the other stuff I remember putting behind me. Not that. 

So I’ve always been driven to read that stuff, but the type of reading that made me want to write—fairy tales and comics and those fantastical things—were always the things that drew me first. As I became more of a writer, and more conservative—that’s the word—writers like García Márquez and Atwood were both revelations to me. They showed that you could have the emotional gravity of so-called literary fiction and still retain the writer’s right to invent, to be fantastical, to let go of whatever we call reality. Personally, I think that social realism is a construct. But to do all of that, to not let go of my love of a George Eliot kind of novel just because I also really, really like a Wilkie Collins kind of novel, or even the penny dreadfulsor My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

It was very strange when I first came across literary hierarchy—you know, this is literary fiction and this is sci-fi and so on. I didn’t grow up that way, I didn’t read books that way. I would read any book I came across. I have nothing but great memories of reading James Clavell. Shōgun, Tai-Pan, King Rat—I loved them. I remember being so proud the first time I finished Tai-Pan. Of course, now it would be a hugely problematic book. But yeah, it never occurred to me, I never read that way and I don’t plan to start. 

Literature is stubborn in its silos. But film is so much more flexible.

It is! It’s interesting how it plays out, though. One of the things with this novel—a lot of the British publishers passed on it. One publisher, I can’t remember which one, literally said, “This sounds too fantasy for the literary audience and too literary for the fantasy audience and neither will read it.” I was like, Wow, I guess you have a really low opinion of Ursula Le Guin, then, or you have no idea what Margaret Atwood has been trying to do. But it’s still there.

I’ve been having a lot of heated discussions about cultural appropriation. And I think instead of getting into that argument, which is a nonstarter, people can write whatever they want. But one of the things I’ve said—because let’s extend this argument, because I’m tired of hearing the same things—I said, Why is it that we don’t have a problem with the crime writers? How come nobody’s screaming “cultural appropriation” at them? Most of these writers are writing people of color and writing them at their absolute worst behavior. But why is it that every rapper is still trying to pull off The Wire? Almost everybody who wrote on The Wire was white. Richard Price, George Pelecanos. Why is it that the crime writers managed to pull this off? What are they doing right? And the response I get from most literary people is, “Oh, I don’t read that.” Well, no wonder you suck. And this is why your black woman from the hood is an insulting racist caricature. Because you don’t read people who pull that stuff off every day.

And I know black writers trying to get close to that kind of interiority and still can’t pull it off. So the question I had, originally, is extended to be: Well, try it out. And if you don’t know, go ask somebody. You could talk to a crime writer. You could get over your sense of genre superiority and find out what it is about inhabiting this “other” that these writers nail that us in literary fiction keep floundering with.

Marlon James’s recent reading:

The Dilemma of a Ghost 
by Ama Ata Aidoo

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson 

Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra

Segu by Maryse Condé

Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent, edited by John William Johnson, Thomas Hale, and Stephen Belcher

The Sagas of Icelanders, with an introduction by Robert Kellogg

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Láinez

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

Metamorphoses by Ovid

The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake 

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley

The Oresteia by Aeschylus, edited by W.B. Stanford and translated by Robert Fagle 

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola,

Fables (graphic novel series) by Bill Willingham


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