at Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai International Lit fest.
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November 21, 2021
Slightly edited. Reproduced by permission.
The Jamaican writer Marlon James talked with Shalini Puri at the 2021 Mumbai Lit Festival. James’ novels have achieved both critical acclaim and bestselling status. His monumental third novel, the 700-page A Brief History of Seven Killings, written almost entirely in Jamaican Patwa or Creole, won the 2015 Caribbean OCM Bocas Prize and the Man Booker Prize. He is the only Caribbean author other than V.S. Naipaul to have been awarded the latter. His new novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award. It is the first in the Dark Star Trilogy, an epic quest story set in a mythic Africa. The second novel in the trilogy is due out in February 2022. James is currently working on Get Millie Black, a TV crime drama series for HBO and UK’s Channel 4 set in Jamaica. Now living in the USA, James has also written and spoken widely about race, LGBTQ experience and rights, and the politics of diversity in Jamaica and the US. In 2019, he was featured as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
In conversation with Marlon is Shalini Puri, professor of Caribbean, postcolonial, and world literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. Her teaching and publications span memory studies, indentureship, slavery and incarceration, social movements, and environmental humanities.
Their conversation today touches upon the dynamism and range of Caribbean and other postcolonial Englishes, the search that led to James’ current trilogy, the importance of myth, debates about cultural appropriation, the stakes in writing across differences and inequalities, and Marlon’s advice to writers.
SP: Marlon James, a very warm welcome to you and to our audience.
MJ: Thank you so much.
SP: Congratulations on your new trilogy, Dark Star, and on the 2015 Man Booker Prize for your previous novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. I don’t know many writers more versatile or prolific than you.
SP: Your novels span historical fiction, realism, speculative fiction, fantasy epic, and they are typically six or seven hundred pages long.
SP: I think they are an ad for Kindle editions. [Laughs]
MJ: Oh my god, I need to try that actually.
SP: Yeah, you should. So it’s really hard to introduce your work in a few words, so for our short 40 minutes, I think the best introduction to you is you. Could you kick off our conversation by reading for maybe a just a couple of minutes from your work so that our audience can hear you? And if you’d like to contextualize the passage, feel free.
MJ: Sure. So this is one of the characters, his name is Demus and he’s one of the boys who were in the plot to kill Bob Marley. He’s actually one of the boys who end up showing up… And this is a scene of him the night before. He’s not exactly having… conflicts, but he’s being weighed by all these internal demons and this is the night before they go about doing the thing that will change Jamaica’s trajectory, everybody’s life. So this is him. He says:
This is how bad man wake up: never go to sleep. I wasn’t sleeping when Funky Chicken [that’s the name of one of the characters] with the heroin shakes start to walk over in him sleep saying Leviticus, Leviticus, Leviticus over and over. Me never did sleep neither when Heckle run over to the window and try to push himself out. Bam-Bam sleeping but he sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall and the whole night he didn’t move. Me dream awake, about the brethren who leave me poor on Caymanas racetrack. Me make the heat rise up in me like a fever then take it back down and make it rise again. You can do that the whole night. Last night Josey take me aside and say the man come back from Ethiopia two nights ago. This is how you can make a thing you lust for keep you awake.
This is how you know most man in the room too young. Not an hour after they fall asleep they start moaning and mumbling and if you is the fat man from Jungle, you call out a woman name three times. Dorcas or Dora, me can’t remember. Only young man get wet dream. Heckle in the corner sinning. Only young man can sleep with all the burden crushing down on two shoulder like God just get tired of carrying burden and throw it on you.
I, I didn’t sleep. I not even sleepy. [A Brief History of Seven Killings]
SP: Mmmm. Thank you, thank you so much. That is quite a feat. I think both The Book of Night Women and A Brief History are almost entirely written in Jamaican Patwa or Creole, and I just give thanks that the publishers recognized its importance.
MJ: [Laughs]. They didn’t with Book of Night Women. It went around to 16 publishers, only one took it.
SP: Wow, wow. All writers in the audience should know the story of your first book and its 78 rejections.
MJ: Yeah. It was. It was really rejected 78 times–– John Crow’s Devil. But I think what people think sometimes is after that it was smooth sailing ahead. I’m like no. [Laughs]. The second novel was also rejected by every major publisher except one. And yeah, it’s come a long way and I hope writers like me help did some of that. But it took a long time. I remember a publisher who shall remain nameless––Viking UK–– [SP and MJ both laugh] told me would I consider rewriting Book of Night Women in Queen’s English, basically make it a Jane Austen novel. I’m like, Jane Austen already wrote her novels, so why would I do that? [Laughs].
SP: Do you hear any similarities between Patwa and Indian English or Hinglish?
MJ: Oh, absolutely. Which is probably why I read so many Indian novels. I think one of the things we have in common… I was talking, funnily enough, to an Indian and a Sri Lankan writer about this, about our struggles with standard English. The standard English we learned was a very servile and verbose English. We basically learned the butler’s English, you know. English language taught us a lot of things––like it taught us to be cheeky––but it didn’t teach us irony. And I have a feeling the reason why the British didn’t teach us irony is ’cause they know we’d start laughing at them. But there was, and we talked about that, the struggles with so-called standard English, the struggle with what do with the voice that’s in our own heads, the language coming out of our own tongues. And I think that for a writer like me, I look all over the “commonwealth” for how to deal with that. It means reading and re-reading Arundhati Roy. It means reading and re-reading All About Hatter. It means reading Midnight’s Children and Shame to just figure out how do I liberate this really stultifying tongue. So in that sense, Indian, Sri Lankan and Nigerian novels became really important.
SP: Yeah. It’s interesting when I was reading Brief History, and also I think some of the struggles around it, I was also thinking about Indra Sinha, Animal’s People, and Sea of Poppies …
MJ: Mm-huh, Amitav’s book.
SP: … because they also do the same kind of inventive literary renditions of Indian English with all its vitality––and that kind of pairing of dwelling in pain and incredible expressive energy and insight.
MJ: Yeah, but there’s also something that we should take a little credit for. I think we saved English, honestly. You know, I think Indian English, I think Jamaican English, I think Nigerian English in its ways, it saved English. I think it brought with it a dynamism that the language on its own just wouldn’t have survived and funnily enough sometimes the place you see that the most is actually England and the way in which the English English has evolved. And, honestly, it wouldn’t have happened without us.
SH: Yeah, one of the things that Ghosh says is that every word in Sea of Poppies is now in the Oxford English Dictionary…
SP: … so it is that kind of expanding of the language that I also see so much in your work. Okay, I have one other question before moving into a discussion of your newest work. And that is: in A Brief History, you make a mischievous reference to V.S. Naipaul. And Naipaul is probably the best-known Caribbean writer in India––though I’m hoping that you and some other Caribbean writers will change that.
SP: So could you just briefly talk about what you see as Naipaul’s literary significance or shadow?
MJ: Well, I think his literary significance is that he brought a clarity and a maturity and a sort of a ruthless … ruthless is the wrong word, but I’m going to use it anyway … a kind of a ruthless sort of clarity and simplicity to our literature. I also think Naipaul at his best can enter a situation and in a very quick time judge it correctly, judge it perfectly––when he’s on. Which is why he may be the rare fiction and nonfiction writer where both genres are pretty equally matched in terms of brilliant works. You know, at the same time, when his prejudices get in the way, he misses the mark way off. It’s funny, I was writing an introduction for a Toni Morrison novel that’s coming out next year––and one of the things I talked about was language and how in a response to the kind of over-fluid and servile English that we learned, that he certainly learned (if you read a novel like To Sir, With Love you hear it), Naipaul went too far the other way. There was this mission to erase all lyricism from his work. There’s a big difference between In a Free State and The Mimic Men. There is almost a kind of a self-shame at work. How can we erase the sing-song of our mothers or our aunts or the people in the street or the way in which we brought musicality to literature, how can we erase all of that to this kind of astringent prose? And I think that to me is the consequence of a sort of a self-shame: that it did lead to an over-astringent kind of English.
SP: And it’s specially pronounced in his non-fiction, I think, it’s implicit in the examples that you chose.
MJ: Yeah, because I think it can lead to really powerful clarity, which it did in Middle Passage. But it can also go completely off-base, like Area of Darkness.
SP: Yeah. Mimic Men, Middle Passage, … Yeah, absolutely.
So moving to your newer work, I wanted to ask you: You move from two or more novels that are very grounded in a place that is unmistakably Kingston, Jamaica, at different moments in time––very textured kind of accounts of everyday life in Jamaica––to your newest work set in Africa that’s not as closely tethered to a particular place. So I wondered if you could talk a little bit about why you chose to set it in Africa, and why you used the genre that you did. What work did that genre do for you?
SP: And perhaps read a little bit from that novel also?
MJ: Well to me, funny enough, it didn’t seem as dramatic a break from the previous works. Not that they’re all in a continuum but that I knew that eventually as somebody interested in these kind of literatures––in African literature, in folk literature, in folk music, in folklore and myth–– that eventually I was going to end up here. And the first time I ended up looking at African myths and legends it wasn’t to write a novel, it was just to find a kind of a ground zero for me that was not slavery. Because even in the ways in which I learned history, the origin narrative was the Middle Passage, and, you know, it wasn’t enough.And I think it creates a kind of––for me, at least––a sense of running around headless. So initially it was a fact-finding mission. It was, you know, how can I find our myths and legends? I know all about Greek myth. I know all about Norse myth. I know enough about Norse to consult on Thor––not that I did that, but I could. [Laughs]. And there is something about our mythologies that we sometimes take for granted. And even taking mythology for granted is one of the benefits of mythology. And what I mean by that is, you know, Margaret Atwood was once asked “how can you tell that humanity hasn’t changed in a thousand years?” and she says “check the mythologies.” And she’s right. But then I found myself going but I, I don’t have mythologies to check. And without them there’s a sense of a part of my own humanity that I don’t have that, say, a British person does. I was giving a speech, a speech attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien a few years ago, and I mentioned that the average British person probably doesn’t think about King Arthur much, but King Arthur is crucial. Because King Arthur and Camelot reinforce the idea that Britain was always civilized, which is of course far from true. Britain was one of the most backward places in Europe. The Romans got there and they were astonished by the barbarity and brutality. But Camelot gives them a ground zero from which they can do Rule Britannia.
MJ: … When I, I don’t have a Camelot. Or at least I didn’t until I started doing these books. I mean, we can talk about how mythologies are also used to, you know, bring about oppression, but they also create a sense of self. And I went looking for that. Which is a very long-winded way of saying I didn’t go to these things to find, to write, a novel, but in looking for them a novel happened. I just saw these stories and couldn’t leave them alone. And it took a while before it started to be shaped into a book, and it took a while before the book shaped into a trilogy. In looking at all these stories, characters start to appear in my head, and… Most of my books start that way, where characters show up and just won’t leave. And usually I can only get rid of them by writing about them. And that’s sort of what happened. And of course, when you’re writing a novel this way, there’re four or five if not ten false starts ’cause there is “oh, that’s not the story,” “oh, that’s not the story” until you finally hit a character and go, “oh, this is the one I want to spend some time with.” I write 10 pages and I want to go more, and 20 and I want to go more. And that is what happened with Black Leopard. And in terms of a trilogy, I realized I wasn’t done, I wouldn’t be done with the story once I finished the first one. But I didn’t realize it was a trilogy until I remembered films like Rashomon, ’cause I knew I wasn’t interested in doing a part one, part two, part three. What I was interested in was three different… let’s call it three different versions of the same story. So different characters tell us exactly what happened and that’s what made the process exciting to me––knowing that the next character will tell something completely different than what the main character tells in Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
SP: That’s a really beautiful, just a beautiful, account of what drew you there. Marlon, would you read a little bit from it, just a couple minutes?
MJ: Actually, I wanted to read from the sequel if that’s …
SP: Sure, anything from the trilogy.
MJ: Yeah, so this is a sequel called Moon Witch, Spider King. You can see I’m already marking it up. And the one thing I would say about Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that the character Sogolon is basically the villain. And in this Sogolon is the hero, the heroine, and this is a passage that will tell us why. She’s called the Moon Witch. She was called the Moon Witch in Black Leopard as a slur, and, you know, it was used against her––and she did some really questionable things in Black Leopard. So this is a scene that may challenge what people thought about her in Black Leopard. She’s wounded and she’s on a bed and she’s being taken care of by a woman, an old woman, and at this point she wakes up and somehow all these women show up.
More women come into the room as it get lighter. And still more women, or perhaps I was seeing them all for the first time. You don’t remember me, one of them say. She wear a band around the eyes that her husband take away from her. After you right the wrong done to me, the women teach me how to see, with my fingers, my ears, and my nose, she say as she paint clay on my skin with grace. After my father kill my mother he take to going after me, say another. The night you come, he was heading to my sister’s bed. You don’t know me, for then I was no woman, say yet another. I call each of those
women my sisters since then, you remember us? The girls kidnapped in that caravan. They was taking us out to sea to sell us off as wife and concubines. We was seven and eight. Each night they take away one of us to test the goods and that girl would never return. That night you swoop down on we roof was the night I know the gods didn’t forget us.
“Every woman in this room touched by the Moon Witch, step forward,” the Nnimnim woman say, and every woman in the room look at me and approach the bed and surround it. They take their time and let the quiet shuffle do the talking. Some look like faces I supposed to remember, some look like faces I used to know. Many of them old, some of them older than the child they was when they see the Moon Witch. Woman with the gele of the East on her head, woman with the ighiya of the South on her. Woman in white like
nuns, woman in rainbow like Queens. Mother and daughter and sister and woman with no one. Woman with one eye, one ear, one leg, no legs, woman other women holding up. Ghosts of women who come back from the otherworld to see the Moon Witch, and a crabby one who say, Boy she did love that silver. Some with mouths pack to the brim with words, some nodding quietly, their eyes saying We see you, sister. Woman who steal a touch of my shoulder, woman who grab my hand until another pull my hand into theirs. They pack the room right up to the doorway, and still more was outside, waiting to squeeze themselves in. A girl worm through them to touch me and say, They couldn’t move my mother, so she send me. “Moon Witch still flying through the trees,” say another. “Now plenty women righting wrong. Plenty in North and South saying, Moon Witch, she is me.”
SP: Gotta stop a minute to take that in.
MJ: [Laughs] I usually pause there, and I wrote it.
SP: Just beautiful, just beautiful. I mean, one of the things that the way you just described how the books in the trilogy are different versions of the same story makes me think about is how this kind of ability to write across or write out of different points of view really characterizes a lot of your work, right? I mean, there’s a similar kind of move in A Brief History of Seven Killings.
SP: Where you have how many characters?
MJ: Oh my god …
SP: Or how many narrators?
MJ: I can’t remember. It may be anywhere between 50 and 70.
SP: Okay, yeah, so I remember. A lot! So I wanted to ask you a question because one of the things that I really admire about your work is this ability to write these different points of view: different genders, which is there even in Night Women; Kingston’s inner city gang members; work written not only in the Caribbean but also in Africa. So really writing across just huge kinds of differences, and so the question that I actually have for you is what do you think about the ways that the term cultural appropriation is used these days?
MJ: You know it’s funny, I don’t know if people made a big fuss about cultural appropriation in literature until writers like Lionel Shriver started to talk about it. And I don’t know what exactly brought that about since writers have always been writing in different identities and they’ve always written in different genres. I don’t know if it’s a situation where the concern about cultural appropriation was a way of masking that they didn’t want to be scrutinized. I think if you are, you know, a white woman from Brisbane and you want to write about the Maasai, you absolutely should. But at the same time your artistic right to write something doesn’t escape you from criticism. It almost seems like this whole thing about cultural appropriation is just an attempt to not be critiqued. I think one should write what they want but at the same time you should be scrutinized in the ways in which you fail to do so. I think you have a right to write everything, but the critic also has a right to criticize everything. What is happening, I think, is there is a certain kind of laziness when we’re doing these things, and if you’re gonna write about a character, if you’re gonna write about somebody who’s not you, you have to ask yourself are you writing a character, are you reflecting, are you embodying, hell, even if you’re observing a character––or are you just projecting your fears and desires on them and reacting to it? What does that mean? It means the black people in Heart of Darkness, it means just about any woman in any video game ever created, including whatever is going to be created today. These aren’t women. These are 6-foot Amazons with 44 Double D bosoms with 15 degrees but can somehow run in 8-inch high heels. That’s not a woman. That’s the projection of a desire that you literally do this to all day [imitates playing video games with hands]. And we do that. We do that in fiction, we do it all the time. You know, when a lot of white writers write about Africa, are you embodying or are you just projecting your fears and desires? Is that why I can see all these dimensions to your antelope but only one to an old woman? So the term cultural appropriation I find not useful in literature––even for people who commit it, because it ignores that it’s a failure of imagination. That’s what we’re talking about when people accuse a white person of writing wrong. They’re not saying you shouldn’t write an Indian character. We’re saying we’re coming after your failure of imagination, we’re coming after your failure of humanity, we’re coming after your failure of empathy. And, you know, those are serious considerations. And I think too often writers go “oh, we’re just being attacked.” No, you’re being criticized. Hell, sometimes you’re being ridiculed for your character is stupid. There’s a book–– I can’t remember the name of it––it’s set in China and the person never been to China, and they have a character, and I can’t remember the name, but one of my Chinese friends came to me and go ‘Does she know she named the guy ‘favorite dog’?’
MJ: [Laughs] She had no idea and of course in her arrogance and ignorance she didn’t check. The last thing I’d say about that, about cultural appropriation, is has anybody ever wondered why we rarely level that accusation at the crime writers? Because the crime writers, the crime writers do the work. In America there’s a whole religion around The Wire as the greatest TV show of all time, that no show has captured urban poor black life like The Wire. Only one writer on The Wire was black.
SP: Yes. Right.
MJ: So the crime writers of which I’m very much in awe, the crime writers do the work. The genre writers, the good ones, do the work. Historically that has not been true. Historically the fantasy writers were the worst offenders.
SP: Yeah, yeah. What I’m hearing you say is basically don’t be lazy; do the work. Do the work, for example, also in historical fiction. But V.S. Naipaul can in what he says be just as objectionable and miss the point as the white woman that you’ve described writing–– and there’s no cultural appropriation involved there. It’s a failure of work and a failure of vision. But one of the things that just struck me is that, you know, you said it’s a critique of laziness, and I think that’s right, but I’m also wondering if there’s something potentially a little bit lazy about the charge of cultural appropriation …
MJ: Oh, yes. Oh, absolutely.
SP: … you know? In the sense that there must be––or we need I think to develop––a vocabulary so that we can distinguish between cultural appropriation as being fundamentally to do with inequality, tokenism, exploitation, profiting off somebody else’s stories, and so on, and writing across difference as a form of imaginative labor, right, that can be a basis of solidarity.
MJ: Well, we’ve always profited from writing across cultures and so on, we’ve always done it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. As I said, I have no problem against a good book, regardless of what it is. Which is why my suspicion (this is my theory)––was that… I’m trying to try to find an analogy that would explain what I’m saying… I’m not sure people started screaming cultural appropriation before people afraid they would be called that started to sort of get defensive before without reason. Here’s a bad analogy. There’s this artist who sampled a Marvin Gaye song and before Marvin Gaye’s estate could sue, they sued the estate as a countersuit. And the estate was basically you know we wouldn’t have even heard of this had you not countersued us to a suit that we did not launch. So of course the people who [sued]… they lost, and the point was you started a fight where there wasn’t one. So now I’m gonna go oh hold on, maybe there’s something here. And I have a sneaky suspicion that’s what happened with cultural appropriation. I think the problem with that is that sometimes you bring a sledgehammer to what needs a scalpel.
SP: Beautifully put. I was just going to say it’s a blunt tool but that’s beautifully put.
Actually, I wanted to shift gears a little bit and I wanted to ask you about suspense in your writing. There’s that amazing first line of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which says “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” Which of course immediately makes me want to know. And your earlier novel, A Brief History, is about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, so it’s clearly at one level a whodunnit––or it’s got that component to it. It’s also got that Cold War plot where you see the moment of making the violence that we now associate so much with Jamaica. And somehow when I learned that your parents were both in the police force,
it’s like something clicked for me, because I was like, Marlon just somehow lives, or he knows what it’s like to live inside detective fiction. So that’s one thing, but I also feel that you’re doing something different with detective fiction and I wanted to just ask you what it is about the sensibilities of detective fiction or suspense that appeals to you, what does it help you do, and how are you redirecting the genre?
MJ: Yeah, I came from a family of detectives [smiles], but I also do think–– I’ve said this before in several interviews–– I do think writing is a form of detective work, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I teach memoir and I teach essay, and one of the things that students are doing which they’ve never had to do is excavate their own lives and interrogate their own lives, and I think those are two things I still do with fiction: I excavate and interrogate. Which is one of the reasons why I think most of the times my novels, I think all but one of my novels, are in first person, because I’m very curious about how we think and how our minds work and what are we up to. And I look at characters as mysteries to solve and as this kind of onion where I have to keep peeling, peeling away layers until what I find surprises even me. You know, sometimes people ask do I know what the outcome of my characters and novels would have been, and I’m like I had absolutely no clue, because I am excavating and interrogating as I go along, and I’m surprised sometimes. I love it, all the times I’m surprised by what my characters do. And I think a really good mystery is something that continues to surprise you. If you can tell who did it from the beginning then it’s clearly not a mystery. If you could tell why people operate the way they do, then it’s not. And I think it’s not just growing up with a detective who could always tell me who rob their work, rob their purse, and who did it (because we have different styles of stealing), but it was also detective fiction, whether it was Sherlock Holmes or Raymond Chandler or, even growing up, whether it was Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, and I never let go of that. Even now when I’m writing literary fiction I start to think what’s the mystery that’s to be solved here. As for suspense, it’s the same thing, you know. I have very very mixed feelings about Charles Dickens, but I do think his motto “make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait” is something that I still follow and I still believe. I don’t have it written down on my wall but it usually is. “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” To me, you know, we’ve written millions of words on the purpose of the novel and I’ve never seen any purpose more profound than those three lines.
SP: Yeah. You know one thing that’s occurring to me about the way you’re talking about fiction and suspense and surprise is that in that business of “sniffing out stories,” as Tracker puts it, you also get at a number of underrepresented points of view and untold stories.
But I’m seeing now that we have some questions from the audience, so in our remaining 10 minutes, I’ll share a couple of them with you. Here’s one: You said you have had to unlearn a lot of what you learned studying literature for your bachelor’s degree. What did you have to unlearn?
MJ: Well, one thing I had to unlearn was that whenever dialect appears it’s for comic value, that dialect is something that you should use as a sort of a seasoning, an exotic seasoning. And dialect has no business being exotic seasoning in a Jamaican novel or an Indian novel or a Nigerian novel. And I had to relearn that. I had to trust that the voice coming out of my own mouth was worthy of literature. And also the people. You know, to read all this literature that was a foundation for my identity––not my identity but certainly my learning as a writer––we’re talking great novels––Tolstoy, Dickens, Jane Austen, all of that––but to read them is to also be outside of them. You know, I think identifying with a character is something that may be overblown, honestly, as a form of literary merit. But at the same time it does something to you, I think, constantly reading about snow that you’ve never seen or values that you don’t have, or people who don’t look like you. And so, again, when people like me appear in those works, again it wasn’t a character, it was a projection. So I think if I’m gonna for example call Heart of Darkness a legitimate work of fiction–– and it is––I also have to realize that the erasures in it are flaws and I think that there’s nothing wrong… a great work can be a flawed work. I think the failure of humanity in a lot of these books, you know Sanditon or even Mansfield Park, which, yes, is a masterpiece but in the way in which it treats people from the colonies or the islands, it’s a failure. It’s a failure of empathy, it’s a failure of nerve, and I think that I had to unlearn the idea that I should just take these books as untouchable masterpieces. My lit teacher said it. She says if this book wasn’t a classic, we wouldn’t be teaching it. I’m not, you know, I’m not necessarily attacking a book being a classic but I think a book should be interrogated and I think if we’re gonna read, we should read, and we should read correctly, and I think that I got very far studying “English literature” without knowing that.
SP: So speaking of interrogation here’s a question: Given your own strong opinions about various books, which you have aired in a series of podcasts with Jake Morrissey, what is your relationship with critics? Do you read reviews or do you look for feedback from a close group of close friends?
MJ: [Laughs] … The thing about reviews is by the time reviews have come out, the book has already been written, and you know, I’m as human as everybody else. I keep telling new writers, okay, read like three or four, then stop. For lots of reasons. One, a review is a conversation between readers. You know, one of the things I really resist doing for example is criticizing my friends’ work once it’s published because one, they’re gonna really value my opinion, and two, I’m gonna give them a criticism of something they can’t fix. You know, the book is out there, so why am I saddling somebody with that kind of complex about something they can’t fix anymore? I’m not helping that friend. If two, three books later we want to talk and I go hey, you know what I was thinking about that book you wrote four years ago or three years ago, I think that’s different. You know? I very much respect criticism, but I also sometimes recognize that criticism sometimes doesn’t get what I was trying to do. So I expect a healthy dose of skepticism in a critic but I also have a healthy dose of skepticism in how I read criticism, because even that in itself has a loaded history, you know? People are still, you know… Personal enemies of writers are still writing their reviews, it’s kind of ridiculous [Laughs]. But funny enough my main criticism with criticism is actually more academic––in the sense that too often what I see is a plot summary instead of review––particularly when it’s non-fiction. But I think, yeah, if you’re going to be a writer you have to realize that this is a conversation that must happen, that, whether it’s praise or damnation, this is what happen. Ultimately the thing I love about criticism is that it reminds us that books are worth fighting for but they’re also worth fighting over.
SP: Yeah. So here’s another question. You are now a celebrity, a black celebrity in the U.S. How do you feel about that? Do you inhabit this label comfortably?
MJ: [Smiles] You know, the cool thing about living in New York is that people really don’t care. I also like to tell myself well, you know, book celebrity is not real celebrity. I’m not Taylor Swift, you know?
MJ: I mean I’m not whatever is the famous Chris this week, you know? But, you know, at the same time I do think that there is a weight put to what I say that probably wasn’t there before and there are things that I would have done, even say seven years ago that I wouldn’t do now. I don’t necessarily think it’s about fame. Like I don’t publicly start fights with writers, I don’t necessarily publicly trash somebody’s work … whether or not the work deserves to be trashed or not… but I I realize that there is a difference actually between bluntness and tact. And I learned that. … The funny thing about I guess becoming more well known is that your circle actually gets smaller, not bigger. And so, you know, I recognize that but also I’m glad I’m in a place where I can be very, very anonymous. It’s very humbling realizing, you know, contrary to what I might think, you know a lot of people don’t read, and they’re quite fine, they’re quite fine with that. [Laughs]
SP: That’s interesting.
MJ: Yeah, and also you know the friends I knew when I was four years old are still the friends I have now and they are very good at being constantly unimpressed with me. [Smiles]
SP: Well, Marlon, I think we’re drawing to the close of our time… In about a minute, do you feel like telling us what is bubbling next? I have a feeling it’s not haiku. [Smiles]
MJ: No, but it is certainly this book [holds up a copy of Moon Witch, Spider King] which is coming out in February. So this is what’s bubbling, really. Other than that, I’m very excited actually about the introduction to the Toni Morrison novel that I wrote. Toni Morrison is pretty much a guiding star for me. When I was writing this novel two books were on my desk the whole time: Beloved and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. So, yeah, there’s that, but also just getting this book out there and working on the final volume of this trilogy, which I think I’m just going to go straight into.
SP: Wow. Wow. Well, thank you, Marlon. Thank you for the gift of your writing and for your time today. And to the audience, thank you for joining us and thank you for your questions. I hope you will put off whatever else it is that you’re supposed to be doing and read Marlon’s novels. You won’t be able to put them down.