TOPICS > Arts > NewsHour Bookshelf

Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James on the voice of reggae

January 4, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
Marlon James, author of "A Brief History of Seven Killings," is the first Jamaican writer to win the Man Booker Prize. James sat down with Jeffrey Brown at the Miami Book Fair to discuss his story, set in the 1970s and '80s, of an attempted assassination of Bob Marley, and how reggae music influenced his writing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the most prestigious international literary awards is the annual Man Booker Prize.

Marlon James, a professor of English at Macalester College in Minnesota, is the first Jamaican writer to win for his novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”

Jeffrey Brown talked to him at the Miami Book Fair in November.

JEFFREY BROWN: This novel is set in a Jamaica you grew up in, right, in the 1970s, ’80s? A violent time.

MARLON JAMES, Author, “A Brief History of Seven Killings”: Yes.

It was a violent time, but it was also a time of a huge explosion in Jamaican culture. And, funny enough, 1976 is in some ways responsible — or the 1970s is in some way responsible for my writing career, because the whole idea of writing in the voice of the people, writing in the voice that comes out of my own mouth is a reggae concept. And it’s something that also came out of the 70s, which is not to turn a blind eye. It was a horrible time a lot of the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: But pick up on that. Reggae influenced so many people in terms of music, but it influenced your ear, the voice?

MARLON JAMES: Yes, not just — there’s quite a few Caribbean writers, the poets first, certainly, but the idea that you — the voice of — the voice that was in your mouth, which has always been called broken English, as if it needs to be fixed, could be used to tell very complicated things, stories that have no resolution, characters that you can’t just dismiss or outright condemn, not falling into this kind of Stepin Fetchit kind of comedy.

It was something that reggae did. And that was also something that came out of the ’70s. It’s sort of taking cultural ownership of your own voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: The plot revolves around an attempted assassination of Bob Marley, but it’s not a fictional biography of Marley.


JEFFREY BROWN: It’s just in the background.

You didn’t want to do that. You wanted to set it with him in the center, but then everything else.

MARLON JAMES: Him in the center, but spinning — but the story is really about what’s going on around him.

JEFFREY BROWN: You like that sense of being in history, but not right in the history that we read in the history books? Yes.

MARLON JAMES: Yes, and it’s been something that has been a concern of mine from my first novel, this sort of interior history of Jamaica, because it starts off being about a bunch of men and women in the whole periphery of Marley, but then it goes on to talk about the Cold War and how the ’70s created the ’80s, and then how we’re still reeling from that and making sense of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: You talked about writing for a sense of sight, for a sense of smell, that kind of sensory perception that comes — you feel that in your writing?


I feel that it’s something that I teach and something that I have been very sort of deliberate about, because I think we overly on sight, and there’s more to it than that. A writer who is really good at invoking all the details is Sebastian Junger. And he will sometimes nail all five senses in the first 50 words. I don’t even know if he is doing it consciously. So, when…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. But you’re doing it consciously.

MARLON JAMES: I do it consciously, because I do — I am a very — it’s funny, because I’m actually a very — I’m not a mechanical writer, but I’m a mechanical writing teacher.


MARLON JAMES: And you know when people say, I felt like I was there?

What they are saying is, you unlocked all five senses. And I think, for example, smell carries memories, smell carries nostalgia. When was the last time a book made you taste something? And I think this is really, really important for this sort of immersive feel, especially, in my case, where I am taking them into really negative territory and really dark areas.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it’s not just paint a portrait that I can see. It’s put me in there.

MARLON JAMES: It’s putting you in there.

If you’re going to have food, cook it or at least let me — to smell it. What does the paint smell like? I was speaking to the Royal Society for the Blind in England. And they were giving me a special sort of recognition for the book, because it focuses on all other senses.

Someone who is visually impaired can still get a full sense of the novel, as opposed to so much of it being locked out from them because we’re writing so much on sight. A person who has been blind all his life has no idea what red means.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So how do you write red, right?

MARLON JAMES: That’s a question I ask my class. Tell somebody who has been blind all their life what red is. What is — describe red.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So do you know the impact of winning the Booker?

MARLON JAMES: Man, I have no idea.

It’s nice seeing it on the bestseller list. I’m not complaining.


MARLON JAMES: I really hope it makes people more curious about Caribbean lit, and beyond Caribbean lit.


JEFFREY BROWN: Which is very rich in a way that we don’t know.

MARLON JAMES: It is very rich.

And even when we talk about rich Caribbean lit, we tend to talk just about English-speaking. Cuban lit has never needed anybody’s help. There’s great literature coming out of Puerto Rico. There’s always been great literature coming out of Haiti, Suriname. The Dutch Caribbean also writes, and, also, some great new novelists coming out of Barbados and Jamaica.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”

Marlon James, thank you. And, again, congratulations.

MARLON JAMES: Thanks for having me.