Singapore Writers Festival: Booker winner Marlon James on writing the 'African Game of Thrones'

Jamaican author Marlon James will be delivering the Singapore Writers Festival prologue and plans to speak about the importance of literature to the world.
Jamaican author Marlon James will be delivering the Singapore Writers Festival prologue and plans to speak about the importance of literature to the world.PHOTO: MARK SELIGER

Before Jamaican author Marlon James hit the big time - he won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and is following that up with a groundbreaking fantasy trilogy dubbed "the African Game Of Thrones" - his first novel, John Crow's Devil, was rejected 78 times.

It may come as a surprise to know that even today, in the midst of literary stardom, he still has problems getting his work published.

"You pay a price for writing the novel in your head," says James, who is 49 this year, over the telephone from his home in the United States. "Some people don't think anybody wants to hear that voice.

"You can compromise and write something you think people want to read or you can listen to the voice in your head and your heart. It's harder and there will be far more rejections, but ultimately, the reward is greater. I believe that a good book will find its readers."

His fourth novel, the epic fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf, published earlier this year, met roadblocks with British publishers whom he says thought it was "too literary to be fantasy and too fantasy to be literary", being "a tricky new book featuring protagonists they've never seen before, in a world they've never seen written, in a language that's hard for them to understand even though fantasy novels are riddled with invented languages".

James makes use of Jamaican patois in his writing - he does this with remarkable polyphonic effect in his sprawling 2014 novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, which made him the first Jamaican to win the Booker - and says it took years to make the "coloniser's tongue" his own.

"To come to terms with the voice in your head and bring that down to the page, that's a very revolutionary act," he says. "Your internal language, the language of your heart and spirit, is as important as anything you learn in grammar class. I did not become a writer until I figured out that voice."

He will be delivering the Singapore Writers Festival prologue and plans to speak about the importance of literature to the world.

It is his first time in Singapore, a country he has long been curious about since its founding premier Lee Kuan Yew visited Jamaica to study how it transitioned to self-rule in 1962. "He took those lessons back to Singapore and I wish we'd taken some lessons from him because Singapore developed so much faster and better than Jamaica did."

James, who is in a relationship, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to parents in the police force. He loves reading fantasy - it is one of his two favourite genres, the other being crime - but did not see himself represented in its stories. "I wanted to see characters in as rich and large a world who look like me."

 
 
 

This is the world he strove to create in the Dark Star trilogy, of which Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first book.

It is peopled by fantastic beings plucked from African mythology - the flesh-eating Asanbosam; shape-shifting were-leopards and hyenas; the Ipundulu, a vampiric lightning bird, and more.

He decided to compare his trilogy with Game Of Thrones, the TV series based on George R.R. Martin's cult fantasy series A Song Of Ice And Fire, because of the way Martin wrote decidedly adult novels that refused to leave make-believe behind.

"I think that's very important, especially with the kind of prejudice sci-fi and fantasy get in the industry, where they still believe the social realist novel is the mature novel, that a novel with magic and demons is infantile. Which is ludicrous."

James, a "diehard fan" of Game Of Thrones, was not happy with the show's last season, which aired in April even though Martin has yet to finish the books.

"I thought it was too rushed. One of the amazing things about Game Of Thrones is how much they take their time. It was quite revolutionary for its pacing. But in the final season, it forgot its secret strength. Still, it left me even more excited for what George is going to do next."

James himself is not one for rushing. He spends years preparing for his epic novels - he researched Black Leopard, Red Wolf for three years before he wrote a single sentence - to achieve a level of immersion that will enable him to write straight from start to finish.

"An author is basically a journalist for imaginary people," he says. "I need to feel like I'm in a real space and that I'm reporting on it. I have to know the streets, the back alleys, the taboos, the religions, the day of the week it is. That takes an extreme amount of time."

Film rights for Black Leopard, Red Wolf have been snapped up by American actor Michael B. Jordan and Warner Bros.

But James plans to be "hands off" with the adaptation as he is busy with the next two books which, like Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon, will tell the same story from two more perspectives.

The first book is narrated by Tracker, a mercenary tasked with finding a missing boy. The second, Moon Witch, Night Devil, will be narrated by Sogolon, an old witch who is Tracker's sometime-ally, sometime-nemesis. The narrator of the third book is as yet a mystery.

"I'm never going to step in and tell the reader who's telling the truth. There's a lot of responsibility I'm throwing back to the reader."

His novels are not easy reads. Their length and complexity aside, critics often remark on their graphic violence, though he maintains that "there is far more violence happening in the first 10 minutes of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film than in all my books put together".

"In Hollywood action films, there are tons of violence, but no suffering. Which makes no sense because getting shot hurts. We're so used to violence and suffering, we don't realise when something is excessively violent.

"It's not a normal thing, killing people. It should reverberate, it should disturb you (in fiction) as it does in real life. I don't flinch from the fact that violence is violence."