May 28, 2009

"It is not just a matter of knowing history so that you don't repeat it. It is that you are headless without history."

Booker Prize Winner Marlon James

Poets and writers come to the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica from every corner of the world, and still the overpowering voice in the fiction readings belongs to a native son from down the road in Kingston. Marlon James, in his second novel, The Book of Night Women, has conjured a teen-age female narrator, also a green-eyed black-skinned heroine named Lilith, and a blood-curdling conspiracy of female slaves in Jamaica in the year 1800. Their mission is to burn, kill and destroy a merciless slave plantation with the same rapacious cruelty that the British masters (and a very Irish overlord) use to run it. The Book of Night Women is not so much a historical novel as a very modern elaboration of violence that strips the souls of people. You feel you’re not just reading it; you’re becoming a witness to sexual, verbal and physical ferocity that scars and reduces everybody; and then you’re a witness also to love — unnamed, but exquisitely articulated — where you least expected it. “I didn’t want to let anybody off the hook in this book, including the victims,” Marlon James remarks in our conversation. There’s a writer here with a book and a “dynamism of spoken language” that are very much for us and our world.

One of the concerns from critics was why in such a forward-looking time I was writing a backward-looking novel? You know: “Black is the new president,” “we’re post-racial” and all of that. There are a lot of answers to that, and not just the very typical one, that you need to know your history and so on. But I wasn’t writing a historical novel. There are many ways, I hope, in which this novel is in dialogue with the President. The first is the ownership of language. The story is old, but the idea of telling a story in the voices of the people who went through it is still a pretty new thing. The idea of a slave’s story or the story of urban poverty being in the voice of the people who experienced it is new, and it’s pretty radical when you look at the British West Indies. The first publisher to see The Book of Night Women was a British publisher who turned it down. And her request to me was to reconsider writing it in the third-person in standard English. And what struck me there was that even in 2007, people still refuse to have stories told by the people who experienced it, in a language that breaks standard English, that accepts lyricism, that breaks words here, that joins words here. It is a slavery novel but it is also a novel that acknowledges the dynamism of spoken dialect English. And owning it…

I didn’t want to let anybody off the hook in this novel, including the victims. And I think that it is something that had to be said. It’s too easy. I always say it and I say this sometimes when I lecture: if blacks accuse whites of denial, then blacks could accuse themselves of myth-making — that that there were all oppressive whites and all oppressed blacks. So that is why the idea of slaves owning slaves is so painful for some people to read. It’s a fact; it happened. Slaves themselves became the masters after the rebellions. I knew I could have written a very black and white story and probably still have been praised for it, largely–it must be said–out of guilt. I know I could have written about horrendous white masters beating poor slaves and have gotten away with it. To me that is intellectually dishonest. I think the more humane thing, but also a dialogue that has more to do with what is going on now, is one that recognizes all the ambiguities: that even such a dark world is still pretty gray…

It is not just a matter of knowing history so that you don’t repeat it. It is that you are headless without history. And I don’t think it is being taught enough. If I thought it was being taught enough I wouldn’t have written the book… Toni Morrison has said she writes the books that she wanted to read but could never find. And I agree with that totally. There is certainly a rich tradition of slave narratives and so on, but it is still not enough. Even the most enduring and the most lauded works about slavery tend to be about American Slavery– like Beloved. And Caribbean slavery was such a radically different thing: it was so violent. You can’t help but be hyper-violent when you are talking about West Indian slavery. And it is not even the violence itself, but the uncertainty that makes it even more violent…the slaves were not beaten into submission, they were very proud warriors from kingdoms who were just defeated in war. They were prisoners of a war of sorts, not necessarily victims who were waiting to be captured. And when you put that in a mix with people who come from Britain, mostly men, who are being thrust into this world where anything goes, it is bound to be explosive. And I think that story hasn’t been told enough.

Marlon James in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

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  • Just finished listening to The Book of Night Women. It is a phenomenal novel & a phenomenal performance by Robin Miles. The brutality is hard to take but I wouldn’t have missed this novel for anything.