Standing-room only was an understatement for Marlon James’ April 30th one on one session at #bocas2016: the rafters of the Old Fire Station fairly echoed with the excitement of hearing the 2015 Man Booker Prize winner speak. Would he dispense gold nuggets of literary wisdom from his pan? More than a handful of attendees were fresh-faced (or slightly more grizzled) writers themselves, and their unvoiced, collective question du jour might certainly have been: how did you do it, and is there room on your success tour-bus for me?
2016 wasn’t the first time James has been to Bocas, but certainly the first time he’s walked into a Bocas event with so much victor’s row swagger tucked beneath his belt — and yet, in a candid, laughter-peppered chat with festival foundress and director Marina Salandy-Brown, James’ points of reference remain humbler than one might expect.
For one thing, James is keen to keep on doing the work. When asked by Salandy-Brown which of his trinity of novels remains his favourite, he responded, “Usually my favourite novel is the one I’m working on now… if my characters are covering the same things I think they’ve covered before, I tend to get bored.” The Booker win hasn’t vaulted his sense of importance to deity-level, either. James still thinks of the prize as the provenance of his own Booker favourites: Salman Rushdie; Alan Hollinghurst; Iris Murdoch; Ben Okri.
Salandy-Brown steered her questions to James both playfully and perspicaciously, including gentle challenges to his previous Bocas addresses. Reminding him of his keynote at the Trinidadian arm of the 2013 Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, Salandy-Brown asked whether A Brief History of Seven Killings answered the anti-nationalist provocations he’d then posed. James was the first to cop to a nuanced reading of his EWWC address, signalling Kei Miller’s rebuttal as fodder for illumination:
What emerged from these and other questions, posed both by Salandy-Brown and eager members of the audience, was the fact that James’ relationship with Caribbean spaces remains razor-sharp with curiosity. Screen adaptations of A Brief History of Seven Killings are paramount to James, and he rejected even the notion of sloppy handling of his script-in-progress: “I don’t want somebody who doesn’t get Jamaica doing it.”
Traditional methods of storytelling are the first thing to get interrogated in the Jamesian approach to shaping his world: “I don’t rely on visual language as an aesthetic – I’m a lot more interested in the Caribbean through texture, smell and sound,” he said. James credited his citation from England’s Royal Society for the Blind as an especially meaningful accolade. They’d signalled him out, he proudly reflected, for not relying on a visual narrative to feed his storylines at every turn. It’s these awards, one senses, that might be more important to James than the obvious ones.
Returning to Jamaica, he quipped, was a good way to stay humble: “Yeah, you won the Booker, but do you know Rihanna?” is exactly the sort of question that tilts the scales of self-perception back to zero! Resisting the cult of celebrity matters to James, who pointed out with good-humoured honesty that, come October, a new Booker sovereign will be crowned. Amidst the fanfare, he said, acts of spirited creative interpretation of his work continue to matter deeply. He praised 3canal’s interpretation of scenes from The Book of Night Women, mounted in his honour at the Big Black Box to ceremonially end #bocas2016’s Where There’s A Will tribute to Shakespeare.
James held forth openly and animatedly on inspiration; plotting A Brief History of Seven Killings; the success and merits of genre fiction, and several other creative arenas. His biggest round of applause in an hour crammed with fervent handclappings, however, came when he shared the triumphant outcome of his personal battle with writing patois. Earning access to the multitudes of authentic speech on the page didn’t come easy, James said: “You have to write the novel with the voice that’s true to you, that’s true to the voice inside your head.”
Own English! Mess with its standards! This was James’ rallying cry, topped off with a victorious soundbite that’s been circling the airwaves ever since:
Future wordmakers, plan accordingly.
Blog by Shivanee Ramlochan, Photos by Marlon James.