JD Douglas meets Marlon James at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Marlon James. Photo by Jeffrey Skemp

Marlon James was in conversation with Ekow Eshun at the Southbank Centre, 25th February 2019

Marlon James walked on stage with the casualness of entering a private green room. The main event had arrived with ease and in the most unassuming manner. He sat without looking out and it would be another two minutes before he realised the house was full.  Total adulation oozed from his expectant Bibliophiles. Even then he was not fazed.  Marlon James the Rock Star.

He introduced his new novel, Black Leopard Red Wolf, as the first of three fantasy books, portraying the same events from different perspectives. It is a mixture of myth, fantasy and history coming together to explore what happens when a mercenary is hired to find a missing child.

Some would have read his work, or at least reviews of his work. Others his interviews, often in the New York Times. Not forgetting the famous Madison Gardens marketing man hyperbole. Believe the hype it’s real.

This was the occasion to go beyond what we have been fed, what we think we know, what we suspect might be going on between the ears of Marlon James. What would be removed from the file that reads, “perception un-corrected becomes reality.”

Ekow Eshun asked Mr James to read from his latest opus.  Two seats to my left a bespectacled, thirty something, cradled her hard cover version of Black Leopard Red Wolf, already bought, like a Catholic with a bible in Sunday mass. Marlon James had her enraptured like a sinner in the presence of an evangelist.  Marlon James the Evangelist.

Mr James proceeded to read a few paragraphs from his latest opus. This was the forum, where questions that are not answered by reading an author’s work can be explored. Exploration on structure and craft would indeed be offered by Marlon of the hefty dreadlocks.

Ekow asked what starts the foundation of his novels. No it is not plot, but the characters.   He explained that character is most important and that they control the narrative of his stories. He explained that in one case, a minor character, just redefined itself in his head and ended up centre stage in the novel. Yes character is not only the thing but king.

His mischievous smile when discussing the subject of his character’s actions, reminded me of an observation in my preview. That his characters appear in print, as if they are auditioning for their life to be made into a Hollywood biopic.

With a confession, he substantiated the assertion. His words gave life to the observation. When talking about his approach to behaviour and the actions of his characters, he believes that violence should be violent and sex should be full on. Hence the often extreme actions of his characters. Marlon James the Creative Writer and Instructor.

A teacher friend had joked that she was tempted to read Marlon’s work with a note pad to be reminded of what is going on.  Many of a thing that is said in jest, is born in truth, or to use one of his quotes, ’if it nar go so, it go near so’.  His confession that his floor at home is totally covered with notes and the paint of his walls have become layers of post-it stickers, brought a knowing smile to the many creatives in the audience.

This is what many came to hear; how he is structured; how he is able to create those voluminous novels that tax our imagination. Mr James feels that his readers should be challenged. Given his assertion that his books found their readers, he may have a point.  These are works that were turned down time and time again in his early days.  First book, seventy times. Second book, sixteen times.

His writing career has had great moments of irony.  A publisher who turned down one of his early manuscript’s remembered him some fifteen years later because the work had made an impression on him. Marlon James the Satirist.

Most writers have a core, a centre from which their outlook and world view is informed. Their spiritual centre. For Mr James it is Africa. He casually teases about his ‘road to Damascus’ conversion on concepts like Europeans as light bearers and originators.  Illustrated by the observation that Beatrix Potter’s many animal characters and in particular, Peter Rabbit were the Anansi and Brer Rabbit characters originating in the Akan language of Ghana. Marlon James the Pan- Africanist.

When questions were thrown at him, his answers demonstrated not so much what he thinks, but how he thinks. Such a device can endear an audience, even if you do not buy totally into the point of view.  The building block of a thought process, once painted in one’s mind is hard to ignore. It’s akin to an intellectual slight of hand. Marlon James the Magician.

He was asked about writer’s block.  His form of inspiration is to listen to music while writing.  Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. Well slightly unfair – he listens to music while writing all the time.  He believes like the song writer Don Black, (Born free, Diamonds are Forever, Ben, Walk Away) who said, no writer should think that the concept of writer’s block exists. He is a fully paid up member of the club that believes you just do it.   Marlon James the Motivator.

There were moments of lightness to pad the intensively listened to Mr James.  His anecdote of a critic with a stereotypical romantic view who asked, “how does it feel to write yourself out of the ghetto by the power of the pen,” brought derision.

Mr James is a middle-class boy whose mother is a detective and his father a lawyer. They were both into books. Marlon’s own near compulsion to read literature is evidenced by the wide range of writers he can reference. He is far from ghetto gangster. As he joked, “my father drove a Volvo.!”  Marlon James the Myth Buster.

Ideas and observations were explored in relation to Marlon James the person.  Here is a man who seems open to possibilities, regardless of dangerous consequences. You felt he was being as truthful as he could in his engagement with the audience.

His honesty in admitting that as a young writer he was more interested in the size of his first cheque than small change and legacy, was refreshing.  Marlon James the Creative Confessor.

He is beyond proud, as he puts it – being queer.  When his birth country Jamaica is accused of being the most homophobic country, he reminds his audience of Russia and its attitudes towards the LGBT community. Marlon James the Truth Bearer.

This was an event where you were inclined to be more inquisitive. There were two ideas, I felt were worth further exploration in and context.  He mentioned the notion of a white boy going to the blues – the application of a practicing creative looking for truth at its source. The second bone of contention for me is that Black/African historic writing pre 1980 should be treated as suspect.  Students of the Jamaican American J.A. Rogers – the journalist, author and historian, who have challenged prevailing ideas about race and mapped African achievement would take a challenged position. John Henrick Clarke, whose obituary read, ‘one of the greatest historians of the 20th century’, stand as a counter point as well. Ivan Van Sertima and Yosef Ben – Jochannan, prove evidence from the debating club exist.

The evening ended with many still holding their hands up – in a final chance to ask their questions.  Ekow ended his duties by reminding everyone that copies of Black Leopard Red Wolf would be on sale, with the great man more than happy to sign.  As I left the auditorium a forty- strong line, credit card at the ready, had already gathered.  Waiting no doubt to touch the hands of the ‘Pope’. Miss bespectacled, thirty something, passed me by. Rushing for the door. Her book now kissing her coat. She glanced at the now fifty- strong queuing with one look. Her face said it all. “Welcome to Church.” The Church of Marlon James. 

Marlon James is the author of the titles: Night Women, John Crow Devil, A Brief History of Seven Killings and Black Leopard Red Wolf.

JD Douglas is a writer, poet, director, and critic. He is the script writer of the following plays: Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame, JA Story, Reet Petite-the Jackie Wilson story, Chatham Conversation, Black Heroes of Kent, Swing Time at the Palace, Toussaint, The Life of Muhammad Ali and Samuel Coleridge remembered. The Great Debate.

Books: Caribbean Man’s Blues, Paul Robeson; A Portrait

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