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Marlon James is a writer for a few reasons: It brings him joy. It allows him to address cultural erasure. It quiets the characters in his head who won’t let him sleep until he brings them to life.
But mostly he writes because he doesn’t know what else he’d do with himself.
“This is my vocation and my job,” James told the crowd packed into Old Main’s Carson Ballroom on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus Friday night. “And what I do in the world, what I see in the world — I want to make sense of it. … But also, there’s a lot of (stuff) I need to get off my chest.”
The celebrated author, whose New York Times best-selling novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” was recently optioned for the big screen by “Black Panther” star Michael B. Jordan, was at ASU in advance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to participate in a dialogue called “Reclaiming the Fantasy Novel” as part of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies’ Race Before Race symposium.
The annual symposium brings together medieval and early modern race scholars, students and community members for two days of presentations and discussions that consider the study of race through the framework of classical texts and inspire cross-temporal dialogues about race.
Center Director Ayanna Thompson introduced James on Friday, saying that while questions of appropriation, adaptation and authority of narratives swirled in attendees’ minds after last year’s symposium, “a creative genius plunged headlong into the same waters but through a work of stunning complexity and beauty: the 2019 novel ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf.’”
Who better to discuss “power, history, knowledge and ownership than Marlon James?” Thompson asked the audience, and was met with widespread applause.
A native of Jamaica, James is the author of four novels. His novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” won him the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, making him the first Jamaican author to take home the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. In the novel, James explores his country’s history through the perspectives of multiple narrators and genres to shed light on the untold history of Jamaica in the 1970s, touching on the assassination attempt on reggae musician Bob Marley, as well as the country’s struggles during the Cold War.
He cites influences as diverse as Greek tragedy, William Faulkner, Shakespeare and Batman.
At the event, James chatted with Michael Bennett, an associate research professor with appointments at ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and Center for Science and the Imagination, about everything from why he writes, to how he writes, to the role of music and violence in his work, to what it means to be a queer person of color writing fantasy.
It all started with some great advice from Toni Morrison: Write the novel you want to read.
James has always been a lover of the fantasy genre, calling himself a “fantasy geek,” but said he rarely — if ever — saw himself in the stories he read.
“Reading these novels, as person of color, you double read them,” he said. “Part of it is feeling (like you’re) not part of this world. … So I’m inspired by responding to erasure.”
Several attendees submitted questions for James ahead of time, many of which asked about his writing process. After addressing what inspires him, he talked about the importance of creating a routine and a defined space to work, even if it's just at your local Starbucks.
Though James is a huge music fan and music plays a big role in his work, he said he doesn’t listen to it while he writes, because it would be too distracting. Rather, he listens to it on the way to his writing space.
“One of best things you can do for yourself as a creative person is will this kind of synesthesia,” he said. “A lot of fearlessness I get inspired by is from listening to jazz. … There’s something about listening, seeing, hearing, reading artists pushing the boundaries of their own time.”
He’s also a fan of reggae (“It’s music that deals with very complicated, political situations,” he said), Prince and even some metal.
“The musician is a historian,” James said of his respect for practitioners of the art form and the reason it looms so large over his own work. “The person who keeps truth from generation to generation.”
The auditory quality of words is something he said he’s constantly considering as he writes, wanting to be sure what he has written sounds just as good spoken aloud as it looks on the page. He stops short of reading his entire novel out loud, though, joking that it would be “very painful.”
When Bennett brought up the topic of violence, James replied that he doesn’t actually think there is a lot of violence in his books.
“There’s not a lot of it, but it resonates,” he said. “If it doesn’t resonate, then you’re numb.”
On the subject of mythology and its influence on the fantasy genre, James pointed out that what J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had that many writers of Afrofuturism don’t is an abundant and well-documented canon.
“One thing I bring up about Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and others, is what it must feel like to take your mythologies for granted,” James said. “The average British person doesn’t realize how much they’re still clinging to Arthur and Camelot.
“But for me, trying to write these stories and not having that mythology … Some survived but a lot didn’t.”
Bennett commented that it must be fascinating to go through the experience of creating your own mythologies and then watching them become a new resource individuals can use to “frame events in an increasingly chaotic world.”
“Yeah, especially if you’re black and queer,” James replied.
At that, Bennett parlayed the conversation toward the buzz surrounding a film adaptation of “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” for which Barry Jenkins, who wrote the script for “Moonlight,” has signed on.
“That makes me very happy because I’m a big fan of ‘Moonlight,’” James said. “It’s also a sign that he’ll keep the queer elements in.”
He’s not worried about Jenkins adding to the story, though:
“I’m not interested in something that follows the novel to a T. Bring something else to it!”
Top photo: Marlon James (right) speaks to a crowd of scholars, students and community members at ASU's Tempe campus Friday, Jan. 18. Photo by Megan Potter/ASU Now