Booker prize winner Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, talks about Caribbean writing, Naipaul and about ranting on Facebook! James, a professor of English at Minnesota’s Macalester College is the first Jamaican to win the Booker Prize in 2015.
Indian readers are used to books set in India, England, or America. We haven’t really engaged with the Caribbean since Naipaul’s early books. Is this because Caribbean writing hadn’t exploded until you came along?
Maybe it’s a combination of a lack of opportunity to Caribbean writers, the world not possibly paying attention post Naipaul… A lot of writers like Naipaul got attention because they were basically Caribbean writers in Britain, and also because back then we thought the only literature in the Caribbean was Anglo. That was never the case but I think we just had a very narrow idea of what Caribbean literature should be. It was hardly a sort of desert between me and Naipaul. There were some very major works in between some of which did get a lot of attention. And in the Carribean diaspora literature just exploded – everyone from Juno Diaz to Zadie Smith, who is still essentially a Jamaican novelist.
People in India think of Naipaul as Indian.
I’m sure Naipaul thinks he’s Indian. When he won the Nobel he thanked India and the UK, he never thanked Trinidad. I guess Naipaul is Indian in the same way I’m African and there are times as a member of the African diaspora that I do claim Africa and I do consider myself in some ways an African writer. So yeah, I think there is something legitimate about Naipaul considering himself Indian, just as there is something legitimate about me considering myself African.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a very male novel.
The last novel I wrote was all women - The Book of Night Women. For this, I was interested in men and boys. I was interested in what happens in a fatherless society, what happens with boys who grow up on a diet of just violence and the very weird ways in which we practice masculinity. Two of the most vicious people in the book are gay men and how does that challenge even Jamaica’s idea of masculinity, sexuality. Why are those two linked if they should be linked at all? It was almost, in a way, me being both fascinated and revolted by maleness.
How has life changed after the Booker?
I notice that a lot of my Facebook posts become newspaper articles now! (referring to his Facebook post soon after landing in Delhi that was widely reported in the Indian press) It’s funny. But I don’t scare easy. I made Facebook posts about how writers of colour have to deal with pandering to a white female audience, and a lot of white women including some of my friends exploded all over the internet. Everybody said I’m ignoring their struggles and I said no, I’m not insulting white women; I’m talking about the market place. I think it’s very real when we are told to whiten up our characters. My friend, a Japanese American novelist, was told to take the Japanese part out of her character. The UK publisher who first read my book asked me to turn it into a Jane Austen novel.
She said could I rewrite it in an 18th c Standard English voice. She’s basically saying can I turn my slavery novel into a Jane Austen novel or maybe it’s Wuthering Heights with whipping!
Guess you’ve got to be careful of your Facebook posts now.
I probably won’t! I’ve always been pretty outspoken. I rant and I will say things in a fit of anger and passion all the time and I also reserve the right to be irrational on Facebook. It’s Facebook! When I want to do something that’s a well thought out argument, I write essays or write articles or post videos!
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