Podcast • May 28, 2009

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 ...

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.

Podcast • March 18, 2009

Obama & Hip Hop: The Transracial Drumbeat

Adam Bradley is talking about the President of Flow — about how 30 years of hip-hop (“the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world”) laid down the rhyme-and-rhythm track for the Age ...

Adam Bradley is talking about the President of Flow — about how 30 years of hip-hop (“the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world”) laid down the rhyme-and-rhythm track for the Age of Obama. Add this to the open-source mix of Obama ingredients, along with the “black prophetic tradition” of church and civil-rights history:

Part of it is that sense of swagger… the confidence with which Barack Obama carries himself and the fluency he brings, across racial lines… You listen to Barack Obama’s speeches from 2004, and you hear consistently the drumbeat of the common good, a broader understanding of race.

So that dogged trans-racialism — I am not going to say that he is post-racial, because he is very much someone who takes us deeper into race, rather than away from it — defies some of the binary ideas of Black and White that a lot of black political figures over the last several generations have used to consolidate power. That is his “threat,” and maybe also a place we can see him picking up on hip-hop, a movement that has on it a clear association with black identity, but from its birth, was multi-racial, was about community across racial lines: Latinos, White hipsters of lower Manhattan coming together with hip-hoppers to create this new form.

There is a new American reality out there. We’re only starting to catch up with hip-hop in that regard. We are just catching up to where hip-hop has already been. Barack Obama manifests that.

Jay-Z has a line on that song, “My President is Black,” in which he says, “My president is black/ in fact he’s half white/ So even in a racist’s mind he’s half right/ So even if you got a racist mind its alright/ My president is black but his house is all white.” There is so much joy in that, and so much behind the correction that Jay-Z is giving to Young Jeezy’s line of “my president is black.” Adding that half-white element is so fundamental to understanding how Obama works.

A lot of people, Shelby Steele in particular, have thought about Obama as a kind of bargainer — a Bill Cosby, or better yet, a Heathcliff Huxtable for American politics in the twenty-first century: someone who is identifiably black and yet curries favor with whites, or at least makes them comfortable and unburdens them of some of their sense of guilt… I think that this misses some of what Obama does and what Obama can do in part because of his biraciality. There is a way that he has the capacity to bridge the divide, not in an artificial way of placation, but as a genuine embodiment of himself. Because he has already had to do that in his own life, his own personality.

Ralph Ellison has that phrase, “the completion of personality.” What we have seen, and we are able to witness it in [Obama’s] memoir, Dreams From My Father, in particular, is a child of mixed racial origins and a lot of mixed connections with the Black and African sides of his origin, nonetheless finding his way, stumbling his way, toward a sense of wholeness. And maybe, just maybe, he can help this country do the same thing.

Adam Bradley in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 11, 2009

Adam Bradley makes a polished case for the rough diamonds of rap and hip hop. It’s “new-school music but old-school poetry,” he says, solidly founded not only on African oral tradition, black “signifying” and word-play artists like Muhammad Ali (“the first heavyweight champion of rap”) but also on the ancient sounds of strong-stress English poetry back to Beowulf.

Bradley was raised both classical and hip: home-schooled in Salt Lake City by a grandmother who fed him Shelley and the Romantic poets; and night-schooled by a big brother who led him through town. In his Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, you can feel Bradley’s valiant drive to justify the sound of rap to two exacting influences: the queen mother of “close reading” who taught him at Harvard, Helen Vendler; and the fussiest of all authorities on jazz, Ralph Ellison, whose posthumous novel Three Days Before the Shooting Adam Bradley had a large hand in re-editing. Bradley wants to show the rest of us how to hear hip hop as, love it or not, the poetry that speaks for and about the real universal civilization of the 21st Century…

My big question is still: what’s the chance that hip hop will return to us someday as art of genius, with the majesty of Count Basie in Sweden in 1962? Or this recent rearrangement by a string quartet in Paris of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” from 1959?