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Marlon James writes Jamaican epic

It’s around 3 p.m. on Oct. 1, the biggest day in Marlon James’ career ― if not his life. His third novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” hit bookstores with more buzz than a swarm of bees.

James is on his phone with prominent Jamaican blogger Annie Paul, who has just published her interview with him online. The blog post, in which James discusses his novel about the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Kingston, has upset editors at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, each of which has a story on James coming out soon.

“Can you please take it down?” James asks Paul, no sign of panic or upset in his voice.
Author Marlon James laughs at the David Bowie cake his publisher sent him at a reading of his new book “A Brief History of Seven Killings” at Common Good Books in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Renee Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)
Author Marlon James laughs at the David Bowie cake his publisher sent him at a reading of his new book “A Brief History of Seven Killings” at Common Good Books in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Renee Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

She wonders why anyone would care about her little blog in Jamaica.

“It’s just for a little bit,” he says. “It’s an embargo thing.”

Reluctantly, Paul agrees.

“All right, cool,” he says, signing off. “The Times, I’ve worked with them ― they always have to be first.”

The media storm is all about “Seven Killings,” a nearly 700-page novel published by Riverhead, a Penguin imprint. The press is sending James on a multiweek national tour to support a work that blunt New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called “epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex.”

Novelist Russell Banks has been similarly effusive, saying that “Seven Killings” is “scary and lyrically beautiful ― you’ll want to read whole pages aloud to strangers.”
“A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James (Riverhead)
“A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James (Riverhead)

The book is “an indispensable and essential history of Jamaica’s troubled years,” said Publishers Weekly.

Make no mistake: “Seven” is no easy airport read. The novel, which James has been thinking about for decades and which he completed over the past four years, radiates from the Dec. 3, 1976, assassination attempt on Marley, the reggae superstar. Two days after dodging most of the bullets, an injured Marley headlined a peace concert in Kingston, the Jamaican capital, standing between the leaders of the two political parties like, he would later say, Jesus between the two thieves.

James uses the assassination attempt as a touchstone to create an imaginative, Joycean mosaic of social history that pulls in a dizzying cast of characters.

“Seven Killings” takes place in 1970s Jamaica, where the CIA, intent on Jamaica’s not becoming a socialist country, armed rival political gangs that would morph into the posses that ruled parts of New York and Miami in the 1980s and 1990s. There are spies, gang bosses, politicians, musicians, lovers and dreamers.

James’ first novel, “John Crow’s Devil,” was published by small, independent Akashic Press. He moved to Riverhead for “The Book of Night Women,” a novel set in the 19th century and told in a woman’s voice. That one has been optioned for a film, but it didn’t approach the rapturous reviews that make “Seven Killings” a breakout book for the 43-year-old author.

The fit professor

James has the physique of the track runner he once was (his specialty was the 200 meters, although he could not cut it in the land of Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce). To tame his dreadlocks, he sometimes wraps his hair in a bandanna. And he inspires awe in his students at Macalester.

It seems that he has been living for this moment. On his official publication day, as he bounds into his rented loft atop the Midtown Global Market in south Minneapolis, he is greeted by a blast of bright light coming in large windows that give a panoramic view all the way to St. Paul. Framed posters and photographs of primitives and nudes cover the walls, along with framed album covers ― Hendrix, the Stones, Grace Jones. It’s the kind of place where Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Bowie would feel right at home.

James sits at a table and flips open his MacBook Air to see what all that fuss is about. He clicks on the article in the Times, hoping aloud that he hasn‘t used up his 10 free stories this month. The author photo strikes him first.

“That’s the one they chose?” James says. “I thought I was smiling; I’m not that serious.”

His phone buzzes constantly, and there also are dings coming from his computer indicating social-media updates from friends and followers. He switches to Facebook, and exclaims as he sees who has posted on his page: “Victor Chang!” he says. “He was my first writing teacher at UWI,” the University of the West Indies.

As he reads, he pauses to address a question of language that comes up about this work. The book is told in voices from a wide strata of Jamaican society, from slang and Patwa to the queen’s English. Patwa, he says, is not some dialect of English or, worse, “broken English,” but its own language.

“It has its own rules, grammar, everything that a language needs to function,” James says. “True, it’s not written down, but not every language is written.”

“Seven Killings” is James’ imaginative attempt to make sense of his formative years. He was born in 1970, two years before Michael Manley swept to power, promising a Sweden-style socialist paradise. On the other side was American-born Edward Seaga, often referred to as CIA-ga. More than a thousand people died in political violence that brought Seaga to power in 1980. Manley returned to power from 1989 to 1992. 

By Rohan Preston

(Star Tribune (Minneapolis))

(MCT Information Services)