INTERVIEW: Marlon James “I’m not going to tell the reader who to believe”

25 min read


Luke: What made you want to write a fantasy story?

Marlon: A bunch of things. I’ve always loved fantasy stories. Even though I wasn’t exposed to a lot of it when I was young. A lot of the major works, Lord of the Rings, [Chronichles of] Narnia, Dune I didn’t read until I was an adult. Growing up in Jamaica, I wouldn’t have known those books, other than they were what rich kids read. A lot of my exposure to fantasy was pop fantasy. Star Wars, Dragonslayer, Excalibur, Dungeons and Dragons and not even the game because I couldn’t afford it. Comics were my fantasy world. Comics, fantasy films, whatever book I could get my hands on.

Luke: Which comics did you read?

Marlon: X-men, Teen Titans and Batman mostly, but also Daredevil, Groo, Thor and Conan. I lived inside these stories, but was, even when I was a kid, concerned with how Eurocentric they all were. Don’t get me wrong—I love European fantasy, history, and particularly mythology and I have studied quite a bit of it, but after a while I did run into a sort of European burnout. I think it is easy to take it for granted when your mythologies and fantasies reflect you. But if you’ve never had them, then you really have no idea how much nationhood, personhood you have lost.

Earlier this year, I gave the J.R.R Tolkien lecture. I talked about what happens to a society when you can take your myths for granted, myths like Robin Hood, or even Camelot. Camelot is an essential mythology to Britain. It is an essential fantasy because it reinforces the idea that Britain was always a civilization. That there was always chivalry as opposed to Barbarism, living in huts made of mud and shit, which is what it really was. The myth reinforces the idea of Britannia in ways that they can take for granted now, but it’s as crucial to the Empire as Shakespeare or conquest. Mythology was both history and religion at one point, and it stands as a sort of emotional history of a people. Now take someone like me who never had anything like that, for whom ground zero was slavery, where the mythologies and the histories were erased, stolen, taken away or just not taught. All those things that you can take for granted because of your mythology and fantasy, I did not have. The main reason why I went into writing a fantasy novel wasn’t even to write a novel, but to learn my people’s emotional history. But once I started to read, the book started to write itself.

Luke: How different was the writing process to your more literary fiction?

Marlon: Very different because most of the books I have written, even the one that was set 200 years ago, was still playing on stuff I know. And even if I didn’t know it, there’s a rich history to draw from. They are based on things that are essential to my identity. I’m from Jamaica so I can write about Jamaica. I live in America so I can write about America.I live in New York so I can write about New York.

But now I was writing about a place that did not exist. I had two challenges: First, to invent a totally new universe, and secondly to make it seem as if that was not what I did at all. Because if you simply invent a universe, you run the risk of becoming a tourist in your own story. You have to live there. We’ve all read those books where you can tell the author is so concerned with world building that there is no story. It might as well be a video game. So the challenge is double. Create something that doesn’t exist, then make it seem as if it always has.

Let me put it this way: It is one thing if the novel is fantasy to the reader, but it can’t be a fantasy to the people in it. It may be supernatural and unbelievable to us, but it can’t be so for them. The world was brand new for me, but characters were already over it.

Luke: So you didn’t want to what Robert Jordan did where the adventurers step out of their quiet village into this bigger world. You wanted your characters to already be a part of it. Is that right?

Marlon: Yeah, but a lot of that is such an established western way of telling a story. Fantasy owes a huge debt to the west, but it also owes a huge debt to the east, and it’s not as if those worlds are all that foreign. A lot of us grew up with Arabian Nights, possibly the most spectacular fantasy ever written. It is not European, no good knight versus a bad knight, or the fall of a noble house or the rise of a wicked queen — narratives all very European. Maybe even Christian. Maybe even Calvinist. Which of course comes back to Tolkien. I think he is both super famous and underrated in a weird way, but he (and CS Lewis) are still very much playing in Christian ideologies. I was going to say Christian mythologies, but figured I’d get blasted for calling Christianity a mythology.

Luke: I think Christian mythologies is fair.

Marlon: The challenge with this book was to write something separate from that. I mean, I grew up in that world. I grew up Christian. I was a devout church member until I was thirty-seven. I wanted to go for an Africa that was pre-Christian, but also pre-Muslim—because a huge part of Africa is Islamic— and to connect with the kind of pagan world. But even that world is problematic, because it is also European. And I was interested in the very different ways people move in the world. One way that shows itself is the sexuality in the book. A lot of the way in which Africa, particularly present-day Africa sees homosexuality is through the lens of evangelical Christianity, which means through the lens of Europeans and more recently Americans with their own kind of religious colonialism. When prior to these religions, queerness, non-binaryness and fluid identity were taken for granted.

Luke: Could you walk me through your world building process? Did you start with a map or did you start with the characters?

Marlon: I always start with characters. That is one aspect of my process that has remained the same. It can be really exciting because stories are ultimately about people, but it can be frustrating because a lot of time when characters turn up in my head I don’t know why they are there. I have no idea what their story is or what I am supposed to do with them. Research helps, but a lot of times in my stories there are lots of fits and starts, trial and error. For every four to six-hundred page book I write, there are two hundred pages that get chopped because I start on something that didn’t work and usually -certainly for my case- I get frustrated. Then I’ll be talking to a friend who makes some loose comment and suddenly that’s it. 

With Black Leopard Red Wolf, I was talking to a friend of mine when she mentioned this TV show called The Affair. I had been writing this novel which I thought was a trilogy but didn’t know how to tell it. The basic gist of The Affair is that two people are cheating on their spouses. They tell their sides of the story, but the stories don’t add up. Even something as simple as the woman’s skirt length changes, depending on who’s telling the story. As my friend told me this story all I could think of was what a great idea this was for a series of novels. A trilogy. But it wasn’t going to be a part one, part two and part three, like The Two Towers and The Return of the King. It would be three different tellings of the same story.

Luke: So in the next one we are going to get somebody else’s perspective on the events.

Marlon: Yeah. The next is by Sogolon who is in a lot of ways the villain of the first novel. Well not really the villain, she is way more complicated than that, but for people who have already read the book, they can already imagine what the story will read like from her eyes.

Luke: She comes across as pretty unsympathetic and Tracker dismantles her through the story, but you do get the feeling that we are not getting the whole tale. It is almost frustrating because you are not sure if we have the truth or if Tracker is lying to us and I really liked that aspect of the story.

That’s how a lot of African stories work. The reader is left with much more responsibility.

Marlon: On one hand this made me excited about writing the book— the idea of going back to the same event through a different person’s eyes. If you go into a room and somebody is gobbling a bag of chips you might think he’s gluttonous, I might think he’s starving, but we are looking at the same thing. That excited me. It’s as if Rashomon were three different movies. It also breaks somewhat from western storytelling. In almost all western storytelling we take for granted that the person telling the story has the authority to tell it,to the point that when you use an unreliable narrator that in effect becomes the story. Otherwise, we trust the teller. We trust Huckleberry Finn. We trust Nick Carraway. In old African stories, there’s no such thing. In African storytelling, it is the trickster who is usually telling the story and that changes everything, including how you listen or read it. Belief is not only flexible, it might not even be necessary. It’s certainly a choice that the reader has to make.

Luke: Right, and does that even matter?

Marlon: Maybe not, but that’s how a lot of African stories work. The reader is left with much more responsibility. That is one of the things that survived slavery and the slave trade into the Americas. In a lot of Jamaican folk stories, it ends with the storyteller asking you “Well did you believe it?” and you go, “No. Tell me another one.”

There is this great line at the end of Life of Pi when the people listening to the story disbelieve that there was ever a tiger. But then the narrator asks them, which story do you want, the one with the tiger or the one without? Yes I can tell you an enchanting story, but whether it is true or not is something you’re going to have to decide. To extend that, at the end of this trilogy I’m not going to tell the reader who to believe. Out of the three books, the reader will have to pick one.

It’s going to be interesting. Reddit is going to explode.

Luke: But you can be telling the truth while not really knowing what happened at all.

Marlon: Right. The reader has a lot of work cut out for them. That is one of the things that I think is very different about non-western storytelling. In western stories, particularly fantasy, you know good, you know evil, and you know that good triumphed. With a lot of African storytelling, we don’t know any that…

Luke: I was curious to know which real work cultures you drew on while writing this book.

Marlon: The real cultures that I drew on were for the most part central and west African with a bit from the east, mostly cultures just below the Sahara. The Omo Valley—lower Ethiopia, upper Kenya, the Mursi and the Kano. The tribes that populate that region had a huge influence on Tracker’s upbringing—not even his upbringing, his time in the village. I also was looking at the great African empires such as Mali, Songhai, First Ghana, Second Ghana, great cities like Timbuktu and Djenné. All these of [these] cities that predate medieval times. With the stuff I was reading about Ethiopian empires I could have written a historical novel, something on a par with The Tudors or Wolf Hall. The stories were so rich. I was dealing with a lot of medieval and pre-medieval Africa but I’m not sure about the word “medieval” because that still implies a European eye.

One of the things fantasy gave me was a new way to imagine these cities without Europeans telling us what they were. One of the first things that Europeans had a way of doing to any non-European society, was to underreport their size. If you only followed the Spanish you would think that Tenochtitlan was only as big as a park, when it was larger than Paris. The same thing is true for a lot of these African cities. As recently as 2010, people were still doing documentaries on the great Zimbabwe as if it were singular, like some African Stonehenge when there were dozens of Zimbabwes. It is easy for us to believe a European landscape with all these castles and forts, but that was the same thing that was going on in southern Africa.

The real cultures that I drew on were for the most part central and west African with a bit from the east, mostly cultures just below the Sahara. The Omo Valley—lower Ethiopia, upper Kenya, the Mursi and the Kano.

I was able to populate the world in such a rich way because the history is so rich. A lot of it is current day research because honestly if a book about Africa was written before 1960 it is prettymuch useless, other than for unintentional comedy. A book written at the turn of the century by a European serves no purpose other than to show what racism looks like.

Luke: It was just a way for them to justify their colonial adventurism.

Marlon: Right, but the cool thing is that there is lots of current research going on. But again I was writing a fantasy novel. So I was hugely inspired by these real worlds, but as a fantasist I also wanted to invent. I wanted to create my own monsters and my own kingdoms with lands that shoot up into the sky, and cities that float on air. So that it still feels, despite all the history, like a product of the imagination. You read Game of Thrones, you can tell the history. You can tell what George is reading, but ultimately the crucial elements of that book are the invented ones, the families and the white walkers.

Luke: One of the things I think your book does really well is that it blends cultures together. They are interacting with each other. In a lot of fantasy you have your dwarves here and your elves there and they’re completely different. However, in your work the various people know about each other, they overlap with each other. How can other fantasy writers do this better?

Marlon: first you have to be interested in various cultures, beyond being fetishistic about it. I think one thing we forget about ancient worlds, going as far back as Persia or Babylon or Athens is that these societies interacted and traded and got along way better than we do. In my novel most of the boats that appear are Dhows. That is something that Africans learned from India. We like to think that the Portuguese showed up and suddenly everybody is trading. But no, Africa and India have been trading for millennia, Africa and the Arab world have been trading for millennia— though a lot of that was slaves. 

Luke: Here in Istanbul, for example, we get Yemeni food which is a real blend of Indian, African and Middle Eastern food. Their cuisines really show that these places have been trading as long as people have been living there.

Marlon: Yeah, because people have this idea that civilisation is something we invented fifty years ago, but it has been there forever. We also have this idea that African societies are primitive. Sometimes we even think we are giving them a compliment by saying that whereas, there has always been a diversity in African societies from the get-go. By the time Europeans show up, a lot of these kingdoms were in decline. Even so, a lot of these cities were still very spectacular. Benin city for example, I based Malakal on Benin, which had streetlights. Djenné had clay plumbing in the houses. There is so much richness to draw from Africa.

Luke: The world you build is beautiful, but it’s also brutal and unjust in a lot of ways. Were you ever tempted to create a more utopian version of fantasy Africa?

Marlon: No, because I think that utopian was ultimately just as insulting as something that is only murderous. I think that ancient societies, despite all their advancements in communication and cooperation, were more violent. It was a fact of life and it was not just violence. It is also disease and plague. I’m not the biggest fan of Steven Pinker, but I do think that his general argument that we are less violent than we were a thousand years ago is true. It’s not necessarily violence or barbarism, but yeah we solved a lot of things by warfare. I still wanted a medieval —I keep coming back to that word because I can’t think of anything else- an ancient epic. But as a fantasy person, a comic book person, as a person who reads a certain kind of story, I also like blood and guts. I love Conan. I love sword and sorcery that comes with people slashing and dashing through these landscapes. I think that the problem with doing a utopian thing is that it starts to seem like you are doing Africa a favour. It’s like when I wrote my previous novel and people said, ”Oh you are reinforcing stereotypes about Jamaica being violent if you talk about people being violent.” No. It’s not the atmosphere or the violence that is the problem, it is whether your characters are real or caricatures. I wanted to write about a wild landscape, an untamed landscape and the fact that there are advanced cities doesn’t change that. I mean look at now. We like to think we are sophisticated because we are all on the internet, we all have our Tumblrs and so on and we all think that we have a certain level of peace, intelligence and civilisation, but we are still committing atrocities. Ignorance and hate has exploded, and women are getting Facebook approved death threats every day. People are still committing war crimes and genocide. What is our excuse?

Luke: You are right. I am reading a book on the Spanish civil war now and I am amazed at how much violence there was in just the general political atmosphere before the war even starts. And that is less than a hundred years ago.

Marlon: Yeah. Our capacity for brutality would be pretty shocking if it weren’t true. But I also get told often that my books are violent because people misread two things. One: Violence is supposed to resonate, and violence is supposed to disturb. One of the things that I find disturbing is watching an action film where the hero gets his machine gun and kills two hundred people, kisses the girl and walks off into the sunset. Well some of those people didn’t want to fire. Some of those people didn’t want to join that army. A lot of people have wives and children too. A lot of widows and orphans were formed when you killed all those people. Also when people get shot they don’t die instantly. Some people die over a month. Some people suffer the whole time. When I write violence I refuse to ignore suffering, which is something that profoundly disturbs people. I find the separation of the two—n fiction and in news reporting far more disturbing. 

Two: There is a difference between preponderance and resonance. I think preponderance makes us numb. It is one of the reasons why we can watch the hero kill five people then move on and it doesn’t register with us. Resonance is when something echoes when it resonates, stays with you and stains you because ultimately, violent is not normal. It’s not normal to be killing people. It’s not normal to see a dead body in the street. If you walk down the street and see a dead body, you’re gonna be horrified and you are going to think about it for a long time because it is not normal. It’s supposed to be disturbing and also violence is supposed to be violent, those scenes should disturb you. You should wonder why it is in there.

Luke: I don’t know, have you’ve read Gene Wolfe at all?

Marlon: Yeah, I’ve read The Book of the New Sun, which I think is a compilation of two other books.

Luke: There is a scene in one of his other books [The Claw of the Conciliator] where the main character is this executioner who goes around doing these public torture and executions. There is a line in the middle of the book where the character says something like, “Well I did lots of executions, but I’m not going to describe them to you because why would you want to know about them? I’m not going to give you cheap thrills,” which, I’m not sure if I have a point here, but I think it speaks to this.

Marlon: Well if the writer is writing a character who is a narrator, then that character has to make some choices. I don’t always show explicit violence although I do believe in it. Violence should be violent, and sex should be sexy. These are things that happen, and humans are going through it with a mix of other things. I’m not always a big fan of off-stage events. I think sometimes it can be incredibly subtle. I think sometimes the effect of something can be more important than the thing. I think also sometimes it can be a cop-out. Sometimes it is a failure of nerve. However, when I wrote my second novel which is about slavery [The Book of Night Women], people kept asking, “Why does it have to be brutal? Why is it so hard to read?” I said, “You know what? It might be hard to read about a whipping, but it is probably not as hard as being whipped.” It is hard reading about suffering, but probably not as hard as to suffer. It’s not just in fantasy. I think that we should see photos of school shootings. We should see these children’s bodies. Because in the absence of seeing these things, the death of a child becomes a concept that everyone—not just right-wing people in American politics can opt out of dealing with.

Luke: I understand.

Marlon: It’s not supposed to be easy to move on from a shooting of a child. No. You are not supposed to move on from that. I think particularly in America, this idea of ‘You are violating them,’ or ‘That’s too much,’ or ‘You’re not being sensitive,’ is wrong. I’ve met parents who have lost their children killed in school shootings. They want you to see that. Think of back to the 50s: Had Emmett Till’s mother not made the decision to show America her son’s brutalised face, I’m not sure civil rights would have happened. Certainly not as it did. It’s not enough to know the details of his death. We needed to see his brutalised face to understand what it means, when men drag someone behind a car until his face is ripped off. The point is not to make people numb, but to show people that damage doesn’t just happen, it is inflicted, and there is a cost. I could be more explicit, but I choose not to. I do think that if the reader is disturbed, even horrified, even appalled then you are doing something right. But if the reader gets numb, then you have gone into pornography.

Luke: From my point of view, I felt that you stayed on the right side of that balance.

Moving on, one of my favourite parts of writing fantasy is mixing together real mythology and mythological creatures with my own creations. You mentioned this earlier, so I’m curious to know which of the creatures in your book are drawn from mythology and which are your own creations.

Marlon: That is a good question. Honestly, very few of the characters are totally my own. I didn’t want it to be. I’ll put it another way. It has become so blurred that I would have to really sit down and think about it to answer that question. Because just as Tolkien drew on elves and faeries and goblins, I wanted to draw on creatures established in myth, because well, myth was reality once. Like leopard being a shape-shifter. In a lot of African cultures, the were-creatures are not wolves or dogs but the big cats. A lot of it was me pulling from fantasies and mythologies that I didn’t know. There was so many of these characters that could become hybrids, like shape-shifting hyenas, all a part of African tradition. These are characters that are already part of our cultural landscape in Africa. To make them come alive, to keep them going I thought was a really interesting thing to do. The things that ended up being invented were the worlds and some of the cultures, but it would be extremely difficult for me to show you the line between what I invented and what I found.

Luke: How did you construct your magic system? Is there a magic system, or were you prepared to leave it quite loose for the narrative?

Marlon: I think there are rules. I certainly read a lot about divination and fetish priests, and what they consider witchcraft, because from European eyes it is all witchcraft and devilry. Whereas in their eyes, one thing might be witchcraft, but the other is most certainly not. Again a lot of that comes out of the research. For example, the Sangoma in the book, who gives Tracker a lot of his powers are shaman. They are in opposition to witches. But what does that mean when calling women “witches” has always been a way for men to attack and kill women? Which is not to say evil doesn’t exist, because it does. In some traditions it is still even encouraged. In 2019 people are still killing children.

Luke: Every now and then you still read a story about albino children being killed for magical purposes.

Marlon: Yeah. A lot of those systems about witchcraft and the supernatural comes out of the origin narratives. I had to read those as well. Just as a lot of European witchcraft and magic comes from ancient systems, quite a lot of them Judeo-Christian.

Luke: And the opposite. Quite a lot of witchcraft was about the church trying to brand what the people were already doing as wrong and evil.

Marlon: I didn’t want to sort of pull witchcraft out my ass and write something with it. I wanted it to come from something established. It is a fantasy novel, but again I also wanted to write a novel that for the characters in it is not fantasy.

Luke: Even in the book itself, there is a mix between the real powers of the characters and their superstitions. Magic is very real in your world, but I sometimes felt that some of what the characters did was superstition as opposed to the magic that worked.

Marlon: But it was important to me that the reader looks at the magic as if it were real. I think one of the ways that magic gets written in western literature is from the assumption that it doesn’t work, or that it is weak or false, which is not true. Hell, if you go back to say, the Bible book of Exodus, and Moses’ plagues you’d see that the text never said Egyptian magic didn’t work; it simply claimed Moses’ magic was stronger. Meaning other powers were real. Sure, Aaron turned his staff into a snake, but the Egyptians turned theirs into snakes too.

Luke: That is fascinating. Years ago I met a guy from New Zealand. He was writing a historic novel about Maori people. He was trying to do exactly the same thing, writing their rituals and traditions as if they were real and would have an effect.

Marlon: The thing is that they are real. Most of us, even though we’ve never been in a church, grow up Calvinist. The idea that these other worlds are real and these other crafts are real is something we don’t want to equate ourselves with believing in, even though the books that we read always claim that it is. So if you are going to write a novel about the Maori you have to write it as if everything they believe is true. I’m not going to write about a shape-shifter in a way that makes you go, “Look how unrealistic this is, let’s gawk at the shape-shifter.” Everybody that enters leopard’s world goes, “Oh another shape-shifter. Whatever.”

Luke: Quite early on when Tracker is telling a story about a group of were-lions who’ve captured a princess. The lions are not treated as the remarkable part of the story, the remarkable part of the story is Tracker tricking them. That is the part that he is interested in telling.

Marlon: Yeah. I think, for those of us who grew up in the west, there is a whole layer of unlearning we have to do. To write about these stories in the way they should be written. You don’t want to write a novel set in the east and it screams the west all over it. Hell, you don’t want to write a novel set in Turkey that just screams London.

Luke: Yeah, Edward Said will come back from the grave to get you.

Marlon: Yeah. That is one of the things that has ruined fairy tales.

Luke: How so?

Marlon: Because so much Christian moralising has entered them, that wasn’t there before. It tied into a world that we don’t want to revisit because it is primitive, or maybe we are afraid of it. I didn’t want to write a novel where, despite it being set a hundred or thousands of years ago, it screams 2019.

Luke: I just wanted to say that I love the way you have bought African cultures into fantasy. Are there any other world cultures that you would like to see tackled by other writers?

Marlon: I think a lot of them already are, but it is just that those books need to be translated.

Luke: Ahh the 3% rule.

Marlon: Most of my exposure to Chinese fantasy has been watching wuxia films. I want to read the books. I heard that House of Flying Daggers was a novel. I haven’t got it yet, but I want to read it. I want to read more books where the world view is so different that it is not influenced by Christianity. I want to read a good novel about the Maya, the Aztec and the Toltec, but from their world view. I don’t want to read a book that just goes, “Oh look how brutal their sports are.” I want it from the view that these are taken for granted and normal. The great thing about fantasy is that you can revisit and invent at the same time. Or you can use it as a way of talking about right now. It is such a malleable medium. Everybody has their belief system, everybody has their myths, everybody has their flood narrative, almost every culture I’ve come across has the giant serpent eating its own tail. Almost every culture has a dragon. I want to read how different all these things are, but I also want to read, and I think this is going to happen, that all these stories stem from the same story. Ultimately I think that is what we are going to discover.

Luke: Lastly, can you recommend three books that have been an important influence on your work.

Marlon: Do you mean in general or on this work?

Luke: Interpret the question however you want.

Marlon: That is a good question. I’m trying to choose one book from the hundreds that are speeding across my head. One is Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra. The big influence that it had on me was the story that tells a story that tells a story. That novel is particularly brilliant in the way it does that, particularly in the human and non-human characters. What else would I say? I would say Hell Boy by Mike Mignola, possibly my favourite ever comic. I would also say A Stranger In Olondria by Sofia Samatar.

Luke: Thank you so much for your time. I’ve learned a lot here.

Marlon: Absolutely.

Read our review of Moon Witch, Spider King

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