Marlon James, author of A History of Seven Killings, winner of the Man Booker Prize among other prestigious awards, visited our MFA this May for the Lindsey Reading Series. His readings and Q & A session will be uploaded to our journal soon, but before you watch those, here is an interview with Marilyse V. Figueroa and James on books, science fiction, and unicorns.
Marilyse V. Figueroa: Out of all the books you have read, which ones do you wish you could have written?
Marlon James: I remember the first book I read that I wish I had written was probably Little House in the Big Woods. I was about 9 or 10. It’s the first time I went from loving a book to wishing I was the person who did this that made people love books. It was the first one that made me love books, and I think that’s it. The books I wish I had written are the books that made me want to write them.
Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters is a book I wish I had written because I think it’s stuff I had been thinking of. When I met her, I said, you wrote the best novel about Jamaica ever, and it’s in the Philippines. Because I know that life. I know about growing up in a third world country, growing up surrounded by violence. One of the crazy things I remember about living in countries like the Philippines or Jamaica is–and this is what she nailed–you’re always in the middle of either a general election or a beauty contest. And when I saw that, I thought, “this is Jamaica, I wish I wrote this.” And there are others I wish I’d written: Gabriel García-Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. But the novels that speak of the condition that I’m living in make me think, I could have written that because this is what I know.
MVF: I think it’s valid to know you can still write about these experiences as well.
MJ: But the thing is, they were writing about what I knew, but they weren’t. I didn’t grow up in London, or the Philippines, or India. But again, it’s about the whole universality of the human experience, and I think that’s what I wanted. I wanted to write a book that connected people that have nothing to do with me. Little House in the Big Woods connected with me, and I did not grow up on the frontier midwest.
MVF: What books keep you writing?
MJ: I always come back to Song of Solomon because I love the ambition and the riskiness of it. It is not as controlled a novel as Beloved. Song of Solomon almost flies off the rails, which is what I love about it. White Teeth as well. I always come back to John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and I read that when I was 13. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk is another. I come back to the Greek tragedies like Oresteia and The Aeneid more than anything else.
MVF: You recently announced you’re writing a fantasy series. Do you have particular things you want as a consumer of science fiction and fantasy?
MJ: As I get older, I am more particular. Which is not to say I can’t read a book that isn’t more diverse, but I question that future. I’m certainly not going to read a racist sci-fi anymore, and there are tons of those, too, particularly in fantasy. I’m probably not going to read Tarzan again.
MVF: Yes, and the fact that the industry keeps creating these narratives without thinking is troubling. I believe the new Tarzan film came out a few years ago, but I didn’t see it.
MJ: I saw it so you wouldn’t have to. It was interesting watching them try to wrestle with the problematic nature of it. I said, God bless you guys, you tried really hard. But it is still a white man in the jungle being king. The idea that a Tarzan baby would survive ten minutes in a jungle–it’s fantasy. We know that. But the movie, still, at the end, couldn’t help itself being an imperialist. You could have totally put Tarzan in that situation, but Tarzan doesn’t assert himself as king of the jungle, and still had a riveting narrative.
But to come back to the question, I don’t think I am a watchdog for those things. I find myself in a very organic way saying I’m just not interested in that type of story anymore. I’m tired of a future where I’m not in it. I’m tired of a vision of the past where I’m not in it because that’s even worse.
MVF: They’re lies.
MJ: They are not even lies because fiction is a pack of lies. They are delusions, and I don’t need these elaborate delusions to enjoy a novel. I’m sorry if you need a white protagonist to like a novel. That’s you. That’s your problem. And I have no problem telling people, I think that’s for you, and don’t feel bad about it. But it’s not for me. I’m too old to have the umpteenth argument about inclusion, so I’ll just say it’s yours. Sometimes that can offend them even more.
MVF: Yes, because you’re saying, if you want to own that delusion, that’s fine.
MJ: I think people want to have it both ways. They want to be race exclusive, but they don’t want to be called out for it. I know people who do not want to be called racist. They’re not going to stop being racist, that’s not the point. They want to stay being racist, but they don’t want to be called that. So, my response is if you are fine with a totally race exclusive, totally white male hetero vision of the future, then go get your peeps. But don’t kid yourself about what you’re doing.
MVF: We publish a lot of emerging writers at Front Porch. What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
MJ: To the younger version of myself, don’t throw away any of your work. Your creative process has an order, yes, but you don’t necessarily understand it yet. You may very well be writing your third novel right now and don’t realize it, and you threw it away because “it’s not good.” Or you might rewrite a scene for novel five right now. Even your bad work has stuff in it. Don’t throw away or devalue any of your work.
You want to work to the point where you are your strongest–not your toughest. Those are two different things. Learn to read like a writer. Read and read more. Read good work, read bad work, read every genre. Resist the tyranny of genre.
MVF: And these are my last serious questions, if you could wear one novelty t-shirt for all time, what would it be or say?
MJ: It would probably be my Naked Lunch t-shirt, which I do wear all the time! Because people keep asking what is a “Naked Lunch”?
MVF: If you had to choose to be a unicorn with the stubby legs of a pony or a leprechaun whose rainbow ended in a donation jar, which would you choose, and why?
MJ: Leprechauns are so ugly, plus I have seen all the Leprechaun movies, and I don’t want to watch that. So, I’d rather go with a unicorn.
MVF: Ponies are beautiful, right?
MJ: Ponies are beautiful! Sure, they’re like tiny horses, but you gotta love everybody.
Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970. His most recent novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, and the Minnesota Book Award. It was also a New York Times Notable Book. James is also the author of The Book of Night Women, which won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Minnesota Book Award. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice.
Marilyse V. Figueroa is an MFA candidate in Fiction. Her debut collection of short stories, Benevolent Altar, will be released in spring 2018 by Broken River Books.