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Marlon James is best known for writing literary fiction, including “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. But his latest book, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” draws on a lifelong love of comics and fantasy. James sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss why he still seeks "a sword and some sorcery" and the importance of seeing oneself reflected in narrative.
Now: a new fantasy novel, the first in a forthcoming trilogy set in a mythic Africa.
Jeffrey Brown brings us the latest entry on the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.
It's part of our Canvas, our regular arts and culture series.
In the writer Marlon James' Brooklyn apartment, African masks he's collected over the years, superhero toys.
So here, your love of comics.
Yes. When I was growing up, I gobbled up so many comics and graphic novels.
And lots of books, including the comics and fantasy stories he's long loved.
The Jamaican-born James is best known for his literary fiction, including "A Brief History of Seven Killings," winner of the prestigious Man Booker Award.
Now comes "Black Leopard, Red Wolf," a tale of magic, shape-shifting characters, bloody battles and fantastic adventures, familiar in some ways, but through a less familiar lens
It's almost like an African "Arabian Nights," in that it's a story about stories.
What happened? This man is telling you what happened, and he gets very digressive along the way, telling you all other sorts of stories, other sorts of folktales, because, if you read stuff like "Arabian Nights," a story leads into a story leads into a story leads into a story.
I have seen you describe yourself as a fantasy nerd. What did that mean?
It means I read everything. Even my vocabulary of sci-fi cinema, I realized, wasn't even cinema. First time I saw "Return of the Jedi," I was like, oh, my God, I have never seen this. And I know everything about that film…
… because I have read the books, I have read the movie tie-ins and I read the comics. So, even my cinematic language was books.
It was reading whatever I could get my hands on. And, usually, that's stuff like comics or, again, "Dragonslayer," which, again, was a movie tie-in.
A lot of the crucial books, like "Lord of the Rings" and "Dune," I read as an adult. Whatever had words and I could get, I would grab it and read it.
What was it and what is it about the fantasy genre that grabbed you and made you want to write one?
I never took kindly to the idea that you outgrow the magical and the surreal and the fairy tale. And I still don't.
And I have always found it weird that you're supposed to get the point where you mature beyond Brothers Grimm. I never did that. I never…
You're supposed to grow up, right?
Grow out of it?
I never had that literary puberty. And I don't want it either.
And I think, because of that, I have always still — I never let go of that, always wanting that fantastical. So, I mean, I will watch even bad fantasy films. I don't care. Just give me a sword and some sorcery.
I think, at some point, though, I did start to react to people that may being not included or erased.
People like you?
You know, black people, people of color being erased from those narrative — or not even being in them in the first place.
And there's a part of me that always wanted — always wished to see just one, somebody like me in a story with dragons and elves and so on.
There is a thrill, particularly when you are young, to see somebody like yourself in a story. There is. And it's something you notice when there's the absence of it.
The stories that went into this book from African mythology, from history, where did you find it all?
Everywhere, including online. Thank God for the Internet.
Old folktales. I found recently translated epics, and historic — history books written now, and the recent archaeological finds, sources.
And as a novelist who has written historical novels before, that's something that's just part of the work. I mean, I will read the ship logs. I will read the tax records. I want to read the original information and inform my own story.
You're clearly playing with language in many different ways. So where does the language come from?
It comes from everywhere.
A lot of it is being Jamaican. The thing is, I'm not — I'm not from the continent. I'm not from an African country. And my literary sensibility is as much shaped by Amos Tutuola as it is by Charles Dickens.
And I wasn't going to lose that. That's who I am. And that's how I write.
At the same time, I'm writing a novel that is trying, at least attempting to put forward a vision that is not European and is not influenced by European values, not even by a European counting system.
So the dilemma is, how do I use this language I know, English — that's what I write in, that's what I speak — but try to come up with something that is very foreign?
It has to read — if anything, the novel has to read almost like an English translation than English.
So, for example, some characters speak only in the present tense, even when they're talking about the past, which is also very Jamaican. All our verbs in Jamaican English stay present tense, regardless of tense.
I thought that was just bad English.
And fantasy does give me the freedom, the kind of playground, to mess with — not mess with — to play with all of that, but also to be true to the structure of languages.
Did you think much about who this is intended for, who the audience is? I mean, you have mostly had a literary following, I think, right?
So, is this for the — is this fantasy for the literary lovers?
Or — and what about fantasy lovers? Will they think it's too literary? What…
You know what? I still think I write for everybody. I put a lot of trust in the reader, which is — I will say, yes, there are parts where you might feel you're out without a paddle. Don't worry. The current is coming.
So, I still think I write for everybody.
You are giving the world a trilogy, right? You think people still have the attention span to read it, stay with it?
Well, my theory is that all those kids who read "Harry Potter" are grown up now, so they have already read 900-page novels.
So, it's an odyssey. Of course it's episodic, but also something that has a sort of a through-line. And if nothing else, there are good battle scenes.
All right, "Black Leopard, Red Wolf."
Marlon James, thanks very much.
Thank you for having me.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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