Before last week, the most I had heard about Marlon James was praise for his 2014 novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, which won the Man Booker Prize and seemed to me like one of those books that I would always plan but ultimately fail to read. However, after seeing the author read from and discuss his newest novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I am set on changing that.
Last Wednesday, James was interviewed by Tom Benn, crime writer and UEA lecturer, at the Spring Literary Festival. The two discussed the question of genre in James’s work, as well as the duties of writers when it comes to representation in their work. James has a very likeable personality and is an entertaining and intelligent speaker. Discussing his opinion of where he falls in terms of genre, having been dubbed an author of “literary fiction”, James declared that “literary fiction writers don’t do the work all the time”, meaning that they often only write what they know, which leads to groups being under-represented. He subsequently praised genres such as crime, fantasy, and chicklit, pointing out that the latter, despite its issues, was the only genre to consistently portray women in employment, a point that I had not considered before.
A major point that was discussed was that of gender and sexuality and their place in literature, in his home of Jamaica, and in his newest novel, the first of a fantasy trilogy inspired by African mythology. When discussing the ways in which African culture treats homosexuals, James referred to it as knowingly ignoring their existence, yet simultaneously accepting them into the culture. This was a huge influence on Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which uses fantasy to explore masculinity. The two titular characters are queer, a fact that James says has been ignored to a degree by his readership so far.
This lead James to discuss intersectionality in literature, referring to authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Roxane Gay, and Toni Morrison as inspirations on how to depict race and gender. It was clear when listening to James that he was passionate about what he was saying; he spoke of his own experience as a queer person of colour, and when discussing genre mentioned his personal relationship with literature, saying that fantasy books were not readily available during his childhood, leading to his taking inspiration from older texts and stories. This was made clear by his reading from the novel; the scene he chose, depicting an Alice In Wonderland-like queen examining the first white man she has ever encountered, evokes myths and legends, and treads a fine line between what is sensual and laughably funny. Indeed, this encompasses the tone of the evening: a balance between the incredibly witty and thought-provokingly serious.