Jamaica, Gangs, Guns, and Black Hobbits: A Talk with Booker Prize Winner Marlon James

Filmmaker Storm Saulter talks with the author about his new book 'A Brief History of Seven Killings,' which adapts true stores of the island's underworld.

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Dec 4 2015, 5:05pm

Photo by Jeffrey Skemp

Jamaican gun crime has declined significantly since 2005, when the island had the highest murder rate per capita in the world, at 1,764. Still, the streets in the country are wild, with 2015's murder count at 1,107 as of November 21. The lion's share of the victims are young disenfranchised men from areas such as Spanish Town, a neighborhood in St. Catherine Parish where organized crime has a heavy influence on the day-to-day lives of the poor.

In 2013, the leader of the notorious St. Catherine-based Clansman gang, Tesha Miller, was jailed in the US for illegal entry after going on the run from the law in his home country. Since then, there have been many clashes between the guys who want to take control of the group. Miller's own brother was killed in such a fight earlier this year.

Tesha Miller

Miller is set to be released from US custody in January 2016, which has Spanish Town residents feeling twitchy. He is such a feared figure in the neighborhood that when his imminent release was mistakenly reported earlier this year, Jamaican police asked residents to remain calm and assured them they had a plan for Miller's return.

An important factor in Miller's power and reputation on the island are his alleged connections to people high up in the Jamaican establishment. This narrative of street gangs with ties to the government dates back decades, most famously to the 70s when there was nigh-on civil war in Jamaica, with the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) recruiting street gangs to help them sway voters, dividing areas of the ghettos up into orange (PNP) and green (JLP), with gunfire crossing from one area to another.

Gang leaders, known as dons, would have their soldiers virulently encourage their constituents to go to the ballots on voting day. In return, the dons were allowed go about their business (mainly drugs, and these days lottery scamming), largely unbothered until they stepped out of line too much.

This story of street life and government corruption is one of the main themes examined in the incredible writing contained in the recent Booker Prize Winner Marlon James's book A Brief History of Seven Killings. The book adapts true stories of Jamaica, including the shooting of Bob Marley, gang politics, drugs, and how politicians often become embroiled in the underworld of the island. It then personalizes these stories, creating new characters based on figures such as Marley and Lester Lloyd Coke, who started the Shower Posse, a street organization that controlled a garrison at the Tivoli Gardens housing project in Kingston. Jamaican-born Marlon is a good friend of his fellow countryman, Storm Saulter, a young filmmaker from Negril whose 2013 film Better Mus Come explored a similar story. Both are brilliant pieces of work, so we taped a phone conversation between the two men. They talk about success, black Hobbits, gangs, guns, and Marlon being an openly gay man in what a lot of white people love to call "the most homophobic place on Earth."

- Andy Capper

Filmmaker Storm Saulter

Storm Saulter: It's great to talk to you, my friend. How have you been since winning the Booker Prize?
Marlon James: I'm actually really shocked and overwhelmed by winning that prize. When you look at the people who have won and then gone on to win the Nobel Prize and all these other prizes, it's really pretty astonishing when you hear my book was the unanimous decision. Even walking up to the podium I felt like someone else was walking up. I'm like, Oh, my god. Do not fuck this up; people will realize you shouldn't be here .

What are you working on next?
My next novel is actually part of a fantasy series based mostly on African history and mythology. I just got tired of all these discussions about the diversity in sci-fi and fantasy—people complaining about why there isn't a black Hobbit. They say, "Well, Lord of the Rings is European." And I'm like, "Err, Lord of the Rings isn't real."

I'm just tired of that fight. I'm like, you want to keep your Vikings, keep your damn Vikings. I'm gonna go in another direction and focus purely on African stories because they have all of our monsters and our witches and our beasts and our mad kings and plotting princesses and magnificent cities. It'll be an invented kingdom and probably more magical realist than fantasy. But it's me trying to write a story based totally on African origin.

That's powerful, and it's amazing how fresh that work will be to the world. As a storyteller you're always looking for that place full of new possibilities, new archetypes.
I'm not necessarily doing something particularly new. For one, there are many African writers who are already writing these kinds of stories. My argument is that the African imagination can be grounds for any form of work. I'm not trying to write history. I'm not trying to get to this accurate African story any more than Lord of the Rings is some accurate Celtic story, or the Thor comic is accurate Norse. I'm just arguing that there is enough in the African literary imagination that you can spring off into any direction you want, including superheroes.

As source material.
Yeah. This is how "Beowulf" and Celtic lore and the stories of the Norse kings were a base for Lord of the Rings, and you can clearly see the influence. That is how I plan to use African myth and history.

I was thinking about parallel worlds between the 70s, 80s, and present day Jamaica. The singer, Bob Marley, like the sun, would have been a center of energy with all these elements moving around him—including the two political parties and their constant scheming to maintain power. Bob was a polarizing figure. Do you think there is anyone else who has come along and had that kind of influence on the Jamaican populace? Who would the singer be in this era?
That's a good question. On paper Vybz Kartel is the most fascinating figure we've had in decades. But he hasn't really made that many great records, and now he's embroiled in a whole heap of stuff, including a murder conviction. But he is fascinating. Look at the ways in which he is contrary, look at the way in which he turned skin bleaching into a kind of performance art. I'm not saying he should be a hero, but you don't have to be a hero. The Rolling Stones were the "bad boys."

I wanted to talk a bit about Jamaica's hyper masculinity and the homophobia that comes along with that, but also the irony of it all. I remember going to a party called Fully Loaded, and you could tell that lots of dons and gangster types were rolling through in their flashy cars and clothes—it was a place to be seen. What stood out to me was that the toughest guys were always dressed in like pink suits with their pants stopping way above the ankle. It was a strange parallel between how tough you are and how effeminate you are at the same time.
It's funny you bring that up. As an experiment, go on YouTube and find any group of Jamaican men dancing, any video. Cut the sound and start to hum Madonna's "Vogue" and see what happens. It's amazing. I remember an American choreographer who used to go to Passa Passa [a street dance in Tivoli Gardens] every Wednesday night. I said to her, "You always observe the women, how come you don't observe the men who are always making up new dances?" She said, "The men are too delicate, it's too intricate. It's almost like watching traditional Indian dance," or it's like watching vogueing because Jamaican male dancers vogue. The thing is, the dance floor was always a place to get your sexuality fluid. And that ties into a very African aspect of our culture, because that sexual fluidity on the dance floor through performance, in footwork, that's a part of our African identity, too.

I know that you've wanted to adopt your work to the screen, and now it's being optioned by HBO. Are you excited about how that's going?
I'm super excited about it. It wasn't hard for me to adapt to the screen because I really love that language. Ultimately I'm a voice guy, and the novel is driven by voice. Yes, there is a lot of thinking, but it's really more talking. So writing a script isn't necessarily hard for me. I don't think I'm a very cerebral writer even though I spend a lot of time in people's headspace. My stories still have to move, they still have to have momentum, things need to happen. I'm still very much a big plot guy.

And you can live with characters for a long time in episodic television as well. You can go really deep with them, which is exciting.
I think that's how I ended up making a long novel because I didn't want to let go of these characters so quickly. I ended up following them for 20 years. Also each of these scenes is one day, so the coiled intensity of that moment and living in that moment is something more you can expand on in film.

'A Brief History of Seven Killings' by Marlon James

One of the first times we met I asked you who your favorite filmmaker was and you said Wong Kar-wai. I was really surprised by that, because he is my favorite filmmaker too, and it's pretty rare that I can have a real convo about his work. What is it about Wong Kar-wai's films that you love?
I think that he is really good at telling these internal, almost closed-off stories in these really big situations, these really big environments. It's interesting seeing a big city reinforce a claustrophobic drama like in Happy Together, which, with all due respect to Brokeback Mountain , is the greatest gay film ever made. But he does Buenos Aires in a way where you know this story couldn't have happened anywhere else.

What I love about Wong Kar-wai's work is the air feels thick—not thick in a muggy way, but you can feel it, you're living in it and you're floating in that space. I also love how he treats his characters. I see a connection to some of your characters in that he has the same ones reappearing in different films, but they are at very different points in their lives. They seem like totally different people, to the degree that the viewer can barely recognize it's the same character from the last film. I was interested in your character Nina Burgess and how she seems to be living different lives but is essentially on a single trajectory. Can you talk about that?
I knew I was telling a story that was dominantly male, and I wanted a female character. I didn't think Nina was going to survive the whole book, but she actually is the survivor of the whole novel—she makes it until the very end. One of the things I am really interested in is the afterlives of people who go through an instantaneous traumatic event. I would love—and probably would do it—to check in on 9/11 survivors 20 years from now.

Nina never really rebuilds, but she sort of reels from a single event and it takes her through these different mutations over decades, and the thing that is guiding all these mutations is fear. It's a desire to change to the point where she doesn't even realize it anymore. I just wanted to write somebody who was a survivor.

But also Nina comes close to having my worldview, and certainly my view on the hypocrisy of race and class in Jamaica. One of my favorite scenes to write was when Nina comes across an old schoolmate at the Terra Nova Hotel, and the person is talking about how the Timex watch Nina has on is something she would've given to the maid. As someone who is not from uptown but spent a lot of time in uptown culture, I came across that type of woman and that type of man all the time.

I'm happy you pointed out that scene. That kind of social energy uptown and the whole class divide that is really magnified in Kingston and the different Jamaicas in thought and behavior, I feel it's very much at the heart of what ripples out from Jamaica. To me it's the most pressing space to explore, because that's really what runs Jamaica.
I come from that as well, where I have the education and school background to pass as "upper middle class," but I never had the money. Nobody wants to talk about how race and class intersect in Jamaica. Everybody says it's not a race thing, it's a class thing, which is true to a point until it becomes utter bullshit.

Because I have worked with Jamaicans whose entire social circle is white. I'm like, "how do you do that without deliberate effort?" I went to a party once in either Norbrook or Cherry Gardens, and the only other black people there were the women having sex with the Irish guys from Digicel. Either that or the person going, "Would you like me to freshen up your drink?" All the Jamaicans there were white or at least Lebanese Syrian passing for white, which became a running joke in my book. So the idea that race doesn't figure into the class argument, if that's true then that might have been some of the most incredible coincidences in history; that somehow just by coincidence everyone at this party is white but it's all about class. I mean, come on. And Nina was a great character to expose all of it.

I made a film that was set in the 70s looking into the experience of a single individual in a dark moment in Jamaican history, which is the same moment that you are describing in parts of your book, and people responded to that. From the reaction to Better Mus Come I've been encouraged to do more work in that way, but I'm really interested in trying to expand and look into other areas of our culture and history. But I'm always interested in how people are hungry for the darkness. Do you think people are just naturally drawn to darkness, or do they expect to hear a certain type of story from a certain place?
I don't know if people are drawn to darkness. It's funny, because when the Booker judges were responding to why they picked Seven Killings, a lot of them talk about how it's dark and violent, but it's also funny and they actually thought the humor is what was most impressive. I think a horror film, for example, for it to scare you it has to seduce you first. For darkness to grab a hold of anybody it has to seduce you, and I think the great thing about film, art, and books is that you can end up living vicariously through lives that you wouldn't want to spend much time with otherwise. I remember in 1991 all of these homeless kids in LA, their anthem was Metallica's "Enter Sandman." And when asked, "That's a song about a kid being killed in his sleep. Your life is so horrible, why would you like this song?" They would say there is a warmth in coming across something darker than what you live in and there's a kind of thrill in knowing that there's an outcome that's even darker than yours.

There are people who tell me they could never handle the experience of reading my novel, and I'm like, "Yeah, but I'm guessing your experience is slightly better than the people who had to go through it." Like: "I can't read a novel about slavery. It's too bad I cant handle it!" And I'm like, "Yeah, but you probably handle it a little better than the person who was a slave." People who don't respond to so-called "darkness" have to check themselves a little bit.