Marlon James and the Power of Myth

Brazos Bookstore was lucky enough to host Marlon James for his new fantasy epic, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Our buyer, Keaton (a staunch fan of the book, and of James in general), sat down with James to talk about the book, myth-making, identity, and colonialism.

Brazos Bookstore: I’m always interested in the impetus and research that goes into the composition of any novel--how history, culture and the real world influence its creation. Can you tell us a bit about what led you to write BL/RW?

Marlon James: A bunch of things. Arguments with people about European fantasy and sci-fi, which I love, but I think at one point I got tired of the whole argument about representation. You know, me arguing about why there aren’t more diverse characters and casts and stories, and them pushing back that it’s a European story and so on. And I thought, instead of continuing to try to come to their party, maybe I should have my own party. So, there’s that.

But there’s also that I’ve always been fascinated by myths and origins, all of them. I’ve read the Greek, Norse, Chinese, Celtic myths and so on. And I don’t think people realize how important your mythologies are to your civilization.

Margaret Atwood once said, “humanity hasn’t changed in 1000 years, and how do you know? By checking the myths." And that’s great if you have myths to check. But if you are the descendent of slaves, then you don’t have any. Not really. Before I even thought about writing a novel, I was just sort of going back and researching and learning these stories, because I wanted to know them. And in researching them, the novel almost started writing itself.

I had characters and situations, but what I didn’t have was a way of telling the story and exactly what story I wanted to tell. I didn’t really know that until I had all kinds of characters and false starts telling the story; then a friend of mine told me about a TV show that switches points of view. And that idea struck me as really fascinating – what if I had a series of books where it’s the same story, but every story was a different point of view? And that’s how it started to come together.

You know, a lot of fantasy novels are mostly about the fates of kings and queens and the effects on the ordinary people are filtered down. And I had that as well and wasn’t getting anywhere with it. Then one day, I just took my notebook and turned it upside down. And it suddenly made sense. I thought, no, let’s not start in the courts, let’s not start in the throne room, let’s start in the street. Or in my case, a prison. Then the story starts to grow and grow and grow, and eventually it reaches those parts.

BB: So, when it all started coming together, was it always the voice of Tracker who was going to be the initial narrator of the trilogy?

MJ: Yeah. By the time I figured out I had a story, I knew he was the one who was going to tell the first one. He was a minor character in some of the older drafts that I tried writing, because I still thought I was going to find some king or queen or noble on who the story was based. But when I realized that story wasn’t going to happen, it’s almost as if he was there waiting for me to notice him. And he ended up being a really fascinating character – at least for me – to write about.

BB: I find it interesting that you mention how important mythology can be. I myself grew up in a Greek family, and I was raised with a lot of those myths. Between Greek mythology and my mom’s Stephen King books, that’s what made me love writing and reading. And there is such a rich tapestry of folklore from all over the African continent throughout BL/RW. Much of it unfamiliar to a Western audience. Sangoma from the South, asanbosam from the West, bultungi from the North and East, and much more. What are some of the sources you pulled from for this vast mythical menagerie?

MJ: I researched everything I could get my hands on, whether African myths of origin or African monsters on the internet. History books, anthropological books about what we know about different tribes and different people--like the Dogon, or the Yoruba, or the Ashanti--particularly from pre-colonial, even pre-Islamic Africa. But a lot of these characters are mixed and merged, just as how a character from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones might be a hybrid of things that come from Celtic or Norse mythology. So, I took pretty much from everybody. I wasn’t going to stay in any one region. I think that’s one of the things about fantasy is that it does allow you to sort of mix and match, and accept and reject, and build on things or take one thing and put it in a completely different context.

The research did lead to a lot of interesting things too, like it seems most of the shapeshifters – the were-creatures – in African myths tend to be cats and not dogs. There’s no werewolf. There’s the wereleopard and werecheetah. But I’ve read so many things and pulled from some many places, I don’t think I can identify one specific source.

BB: That’s another really interesting thing about mythology. There are so many connections between different cultures, so many similarities while each is still so particular to its own. Like faeries for example, appear in BL/RW that are very prevalent in Irish or Celtic mythology.

MJ: Yeah, it kind of leads to two types of theories –– that we all stem from the same place, because we all have flood myths or images of that giant serpent eating its own tail; or humans are just way more similar than they may think, that even apart we still conjure up the same stories, we have the same fears, and we respond to the same fears and desires and monsters and heroes.

BB: We are all kind of particular and universal all at the same time.

MJ: Mm-hmm.

BB: BL/RW is definitely a work of full on epic fantasy that has drawn – I’d say sometimes lazy – comparisons to the work of George RR Martin and JRR Tolkien. It’s almost as if any fantastical work of fiction involving monsters, swords and sorcery from other ethnic cultures are thought of by Western critics as derivative right out of hand. For example, going through catalogs recently there’s a work of epic fantasy coming out of India that was sold to me as “Game of Thrones in India.” So, I’m just wondering how you feel about these comparisons personally?

MJ: If a comparison helps someone describe a work, I think that is absolutely fine, as long as it’s not portrayed as some kind of copy. Like I wasn’t about to do Games of Thrones in brownface. I hope that the aspects of the book that make some people call it similar are interesting as opposed to just a lazy comparison. You know, it was very interesting to go back and see what kind of reviews Game of Thrones got, what it was compared to. So at its best, it’s a signifier that we’re in the world of fantasy and make-believe but we’re not letting go of adult concerns. At its worst, it’s probably just lazy shorthand from journalists.

BB: I’ve read a little about your experience with the “ex-gay” movement in your native Jamaica, and, while homophobia and misogyny are destructive plagues in almost every culture, they are unfortunately prevalent in many parts of Africa and the African diaspora (e.g., the horrific laws in Uganda). With that in mind, how important do you feel it is that the protagonists of BL/RW are formidable gay warriors and powerful women?

MJ: For me, the sexuality is actually the most retro element in the book. That was one of the pleasant surprises of doing the research: gender fluidity, queerness, homosexuals, lesbians, non-binary identities –– none of this is new to Africa. Throughout these countries, all those identities and orientations have always been there and they’ve always flourished. Not that everybody was so open-minded necessarily, but the atmosphere of hatred and scorn, the atmosphere of inflicting violence and trying to exterminate these different peoples, didn’t really happen until a bunch of American preachers went to Africa carrying all sorts of nasty porn videos and started telling evangelical Christian Africans, “these are the people who are coming for your children.”

As my friend, the novelist Lola Shoneyin, said when asked if Africa would ever be ready to accept gay rights. She said Africa was born ready until a bunch of TV preachers told them that they weren’t. So, a lot of the problems with homophobia in Africa, and certainly where I’m from, are stoked by the church. And because it comes from the church, it’s seen as instantly legitimate.

But if anything –– and I’m sure this will come up when I do visit African countries –– I want people to know that none of this is new. None of this is me trying to score points for intersectionality. I’m just following the research. I’m just connecting back to an older kind of continent that was so far ahead in these things. I mean, people are thinking they’re just now learning “they” as a pronoun. Please, African tribes have been using “they” for 4,000 years. I mean, we can talk about the origins of homophobia in these countries, but it’s interesting that a lot of these countries are former British colonies.

BB: Oh yeah. I absolutely think that sexual repression from colonialism has left remnants in these countries, and once they’re free they are putting their independence together by scraps. And the scraps that are left after colonialism contain these ideas.

MJ: Yeah. But I think also that European colonizers also brought other elements like rape and cultural domination and oppression, and those things have also helped demonize queerness and different identities and difference. You know, “us and them” is a classic colonial trope. So, there are other aspects to it. But for me, it was actually quite reaffirming as a queer person that if you connect to the really old age in Africa, I could probably be walking around holding a guy’s hand and nobody would have cared.

BB: There is so much great literature by authors from the African continent or from first/second generation immigrants coming to American readers recently, such as Chimamanda Adichie, Chigozie Obioma, Jennifer Makumbi, and Yaa Gyasi, to name a few. Who are the writers you are most impressed by from this current “African Renaissance”? And which relatively unknown authors do you think are the most deserving of a broader audience?

MJ: Well, if we’re going to talk about the African Renaissance, we also have to talk about the diaspora and the Caribbean Renaissance too. But there are still tons of people. We talk about Chigozie, and he and I were nominated for the Booker at the same time. Who else can I think off the top of my head? Maybe Sofia Samatar. It’s one of those things where there are so many answers, you can’t get one out. Some of the people I know who are coming out with really great books –– Namwali Serpell is coming out with The Old Drift. Wayetu Moore’s book came out last year; it got some attention but it should have gotten more –– She Who Would Be King.

BB: Lastly, are you a leopard or a wolf?

MJ: Oh man! Am I a leopard or a wolf? I always liked shapeshifters, so I’m going to go with leopard. [laughs]

BB: Awesome!

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (The Dark Star Trilogy #1) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780735220171
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Riverhead Books - February 5th, 2019

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