STIR­RING IT UP

On the eve of his Aus­tralian ap­pear­ances, Booker win­ner Mar­lon James tells Rose­mary Neill why he chal­lenges the pre­vail­ing pub­lish­ing aes­thetic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

Just weeks after he won the Man Booker Prize, the world’s best-known fic­tion award, Mar­lon James let rip about the pre­vail­ing prej­u­dices and pref­er­ences of the lit­er­ary scene. The Ja­maican author, whose Booker win in Oc­to­ber made in­ter­na­tional head­lines, was him­self in­cu­bat­ing a fresh batch of news sto­ries.

In a provoca­tive Face­book post, the 45-yearold Ja­maican writer claimed au­thors of colour were be­ing put un­der pres­sure to write nov­els that ap­pealed to older, mid­dle-class, white women. James ar­gued fic­tion that was “as­trin­gent, ob­served, clipped, wal­low­ing in its own mid­dle-style prose and pri­vate en­nui’’ had be­come “porn’’ for cer­tain high-pro­file pub­li­ca­tions. “And though we’ll never ad­mit it,’’ he wrote, “every writer of colour knows that they stand a higher chance of get­ting pub­lished if they write this kind of story.’’

Re­sponses on the so­cial me­dia site ranged from ring­ing en­dorse­ment — “white women are the next white men,’’ riffed one user — to a sting­ing ri­poste from US author Robb For­man Dew. A for­mer Na­tional Book Award win­ner, For­man Dew said James’s post was “in­sult­ing and of­fen­sive to all women writ­ers’’. She added: “You need to name the writer or writ­ers, those bored, white el­derly women, whose writ­ing you think of as ‘ porn for cer­tain mag­a­zines’. Other­wise you’re sim­ply sound­ing grandiose, whiny, petu­lant and like you’re about 15 years old.’’

In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with Re­view, the lat­est Booker Prize win­ner doesn’t sound like a teenager; in­stead, he em­pha­sises how his Face­book com­men­tary was tar­get­ing a pub­lish­ing aes­thetic or archetype, rather than in­di­vid­ual au­thors. The tell-it-like-it-is writer, who will ap­pear at the Syd­ney and Bris­bane writ­ers fes­ti­vals next week, says he wrote his con­tentious post after US author Claire Vaye Watkins penned an es­say claim­ing fe­male writ­ers had to pan­der to older white males in or­der to be pub­lished. “I thought, ‘That’s in­ter­est­ing be­cause writ­ers of colour feel that they some­times have to pan­der to white women; that there is a sen­si­bil­ity that this is a pri­mary au­di­ence, 60 per cent of the read­er­ship au­di­ence, and when some­body says your book is not ac­ces­si­ble, they mean it is not ac­ces­si­ble to white women.’

“When peo­ple [in pub­lish­ing] say, ‘I don’t see an au­di­ence for your book’, they mean, ‘We don’t think white women will read it.’ It’s some­thing no­body re­ally says but ev­ery­body knows. Re­cent in­dus­try fig­ures have proved this point.’’ The author of the 686-page Booker-win­ning epic, A Brief His­tory of Seven Killings, adopts a con­cil­ia­tory tone as he speaks down the line from Min­nesota in Amer­ica’s mid­west. Now based there, James has re­tained his dis­tinc­tively Ja­maican ac­cent, with its volup­tuous rolling Rs and al­most mu­si­cal up­ward in­flec­tions.

“No­body’s in this busi­ness to be racist,’’ he points out. “No­body is in this busi­ness to not be fair or di­verse. But there’s no ques­tion it hap­pens. Ask any writer of colour about the dis­cus­sion about their book cover. Ac­tu­ally, [this trend] even sells white women short, be­cause they’re read­ing my book, they’re read­ing all sorts of re­ally in­ter­est­ing fic­tion. We have this idea of this lit­er­ary but not par­tic­u­larly ad­ven­tur­ous reader who can’t han­dle vi­o­lence or doesn’t want to go into a deep dis­cus­sion about race.’’ It’s “an aes­thetic we need to talk about’’, he in­sists.

In the past, James has said this aes­thetic was “prob­a­bly’’ the rea­son his de­but novel, John Crow’s Devil, was re­jected an ego-shriv­el­ling 78 times be­fore it was pub­lished in 2005. In a rue­ful tone, he im­plies that he again en­coun­tered this over­pow­er­ing “mid­dle-style’’ sen­si­bil­ity when try­ing to pub­lish his sec­ond novel, The Book of Night Women, about a re­bel­lious fe­male slave born on a Ja­maican sugar plan­ta­tion in the late 1700s. “My pre­vi­ous novel,’’ he says point­edly, “was ac­cepted by River­head [the Amer­i­can pub- lisher of A Brief His­tory of Seven Killings] but it was re­jected by ev­ery­body else. Even with slav­ery, we do want our story put in a very sort of man­i­cured and dis­tanced and some sort of palat­able way or, to bring back that word, ac­ces­si­ble — which is a pretty lu­di­crous thing to say about atroc­ity.’’

Need­less to say, James’s lat­est novel has a pro­foundly dif­fer­ent aes­thetic to the prose style he feels has come to dom­i­nate con­tem­po­rary fic­tion: there are far more than seven mur­ders in A Brief His­tory of Seven Killings. The novel opens in Kingston’s vi­o­lence-sat­u­rated ghet­tos in the mid-1970s; just a few pages in, we meet Bam-Bam, a child gang­ster who has wit­nessed the mur­der of his par­ents, in­clud­ing the sex­ual as­sault of his fa­ther. He com­mits his first mur­der at 13. “Me did want it more than any­thing,’’ says this un­der­age killer, who has al­ready told us that “killing don’t need no rea­son’’.

James draws heav­ily on real events and on Ja­maican Pa­tois (a widely-spo­ken Cre­ole) for his nar­ra­tive. Ini­tially, the novel re­volves around the at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion of reg­gae su­per­star Bob Mar­ley in Ja­maica in 1976. Mar­ley, his man­ager and Mar­ley’s wife, Rita, were shot by sev­eral gun­men two days be­fore the singer was due to give a con­cert that was meant to be a rec­on­cil­ing and defin­ing mo­ment in the deeply po­lit­i­cally di­vided coun­try. Mar­ley — re­ferred to as The Singer in James’s story — re­cov­ered (as did the other two vic­tims) and gave the con­cert, but fled the coun­try af­ter­wards.

The at­tempted mur­der of one of the 20th

Mar­lon James ex­pe­ri­enced re­jec­tion be­fore recog­ni­tion

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