October 27, 2006

Five Questions With Marlon James

Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1970. His debut novel, John Crow's Devil, was an Editor's Choice in the New York Times Book Review and a finalist for both the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He lives in Kingston.

1. On your blog you've written about the books you read while writing John Crow's Devil. Which recording artists were you listening to while writing the novel?

What a great question! I actually scribble the names of albums I am listening to in the in the upper left corner of my manuscripts. More than anything else I was listening to Secret South, from this extremely Gothic country-rock band called Sixteen Horsepower. I've never heard anything like it in my life. Not just the pre and post rock sounds coming from the record, (think O Brother Where art Thou) but the way in which the singer was both so hopelessly attracted yet horribly repelled by the Old Testament God he was singing about. It reminded me that even in the midst of Christian dogma there was an awful lot of magic. I had to track the band down to use their lyrics in the book. The line at the beginning of Chapter Three: “You say you say it coming yea, But still you did not flee" comes from that album. Who else was I listening to:

Captain Beefheart
I was also listening to Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. My book's first quote: 'Three Little Children with doves on their shoulders/ They're counting out the devil with three fingers on their hands" comes from that album. Trout Mask Replica sounds like the ramblings of a deranged, defrocked Southern Baptist preacher and the band sounds like lunatics all making their own record at the same time. Not for the fainthearted, of course, but probably one of only two times I thought rock music genuinely approached poetry, which leads to...

Patti Smith: Horses. I throw this record away every year. Every time I listen to it I can hear her saying "I'm at 10 and you're still at 4, so step up," to which I shrivel up in cowardice and throw the record away. But then I always buy it back with two months. The rest: Bjork: Homogenic, Prince, Sign O' the Times, John Coltrane, Blue Train, Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain

2. How did you come up with the name Gibbeah?
My friend, Pastor Ché Cowan gave it to me.

3. In a review of John Crow's Devil in the Caribbean Review of Books , Lisa Allen-Agostini states: "Unlike Scott, who celebrates sexuality as a tender, joyful, sacred gift, James casts it as sinful." Is this a fair assessment? 
In the context of the book, yes. Sexuality occupies a curious space in Jamaican life and when religion is added to the mix, the results can be devastating. It's such a strange thing. Our expletives are all tied to female body function and the first name that children give to sex is "nastiness," at least when I was a child. And yet we go to the other extreme as well, casting sexuality as something we cannot control and find all sorts of kinky outlets for it. We are an extreme version of Victorian morality couched in hypocrisy, which is why fornicators can call homosexuals perverts. We also couch sexuality in shame and secrecy and as a result, things that function best in secrecy, abuse, incest, bestiality thrive. I'm surprised we have not produced a Jack the Ripper yet, or perhaps he's only killing poor women. We do look at sexuality in all its forms except marriage as sinful and yet we revel in the version of sex that we particularly enjoy. This is why deacons can molest students and 9 year old boys can molest 6 year old girls, resting in the security that everybody will keep it hidden. I wonder where all this will lead?

4. John Crow's Devil has an unusual construction--it begins at the end.What were the reasons behind this aesthetic choice?

Because we naturally wait for hindsight to make sense of stuff. At least I think so. I try not to, but it happens. I always liked the beginning of Sunset Boulevard. I also like how in the Greek tragedies the fact that we know the fate of the character doesn't help our anxiety one bit. It's the road to ruin that fascinates me, the journey if you will. Destinations are beside the point. That said I did not think the book was as abstract as people think. I still consider myself a Victorian, actually, I'm just bored with the linear. Hopefully one day I can write something like Cortazar's Hopscotch.

5. What does the term "magical realism" mean to you and what role does it play in your work?

Magical Realism. It means freedom. Quick explanation. I've always considered myself a realist and the very first thing I wrote revelled in the dirt and grime and body fluids (OK so I haven't exorcised that one yet) of the real world. I even finished a novel in that style. But then I read Salman Rushdie's Shame, about the sisters Chunni Munnee and Bunnie who live by themselves in a sort-of castle in the land of Q. I'm sure I have the details wrong, but the point is, here was a novel unconcerned about time or place, that rebuilt itself when it wanted to, killed characters off by first warning that it was about to do so and making a mess of everything that I thought was good fiction. I can't remember when I was so appalled by a book. Or when I was so convinced that this was what I wanted to write. I think the reason why so many writers of the diaspora whether African or Latino ( Marquez considers himself a Caribbean writer by the way) write about the magical is because we took those original Gods with us even if we no longer recognise them by name. A spirit world exists whether we acknowledge it or not and 400 years of Christian indoctrination will never change that. I just never dreamed that magical realism was going to be my ticket to literary freedom. To live in the Caribbean is to believe the unbelievable. It also means to retreat into the fantastical to live with reality ( we all daydream too much don't we?)

I don't know if I'll write every book that way, but I do find something sublime in the ridiculous.

6. What makes you laugh?
Old uptown upper middle class women who are horrified! horrified I tell you that I wrote such a filthy book

Next Monday. In My Own Words: Donna Weir-Soley, author of First Rain.

Next Week Friday. Five Questions With Sandra Castillo, author of My Father Sings to my Embarassment.

Over the next few weeks, I'll also be posting at Caribbean Beat Blog with Nicholas Laughlin, Georgia Popplewell, Tracy Assing, Jeremy Taylor, and Nola Powers. So look for me over there, nuh?

Links: Marlon James



Anonymous said...

just passing through...will be getting myself a copy of that book soon!

Anonymous said...

just passing through...will be getting myself a copy of that book soon!

BLUE said...

i encountered your poems years ago when i was reading books for a contest, and really dug your work. now, i'm so happy to discover this blog. thank you for all that you're doing.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Blue,
Gald to be found, again!

One Love,

Anonymous said...

RE: Question 3

James has really touched on an important issue here. That "hypocrisy" is something I've witnessed often (although my family is of Vincentian origin). Sexuality is always given such a dirty connotation when one is a child, but it's obviously learned from adults who would prefer to keep the subject silent. Calling it "nastiness" is really a hope that by degrading the act publicly, a youngster will turn away from doing the "nasty" in secrecy.
Mixing sexuality and religion is definitely an unsettling subject to many people as James has mentioned. All one has to do is refer to the debate over the "Song of Solomon" by churches and scholars.

Great interview.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Mar,
It is quite unsettling and given the issue of racism suurounding Black sexuality, it is even more troublesome.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is what writers like Marlon do--they ask questions that everyone wants to ignore. And if as Maud Newton ( http://maudnewton.com/blog/) has pointed out that Marlon still can get a paperback deal for his highly lauded novel, then what gives?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this simple series which delivers insightful answers. I'll stay tuned for more. It's a great introduction to Caribbean & diaspora authors. -Jeff