Entertainment & Arts

Author shows off the real Jamaica through Bob Marley shooting

Image copyright Jeffrey Skemp
Image caption Marlon James now teaches in the US

Marlon James is the first Jamaican-born novelist nominated for the Man Booker prize. A Brief History of Seven Killings uses the true story of an attempt on the life of Bob Marley to explore the turbulent politics of Jamaica in the 1970s.

The book contains everything from CIA men fearful of a Communist takeover to an American music journalist desperate to interview the "reggae superstar of the world". But James says his next book will be even more ambitious.

It's eight years since Marlon James left Jamaica. One day, he admits, he'll reach a point where he can no longer write convincingly about the island where he grew up and which still fascinates him.

"But I haven't reached that point yet. Partly it's why A Brief History of Seven Killings ends in the early 1990s: I was born in 1970 so the story starts in a time I can just about recall. Even so, there was a whole lot of research involved. But probably I couldn't write about Jamaica as it is today: it's changed in the years I've been in America.

"But the Jamaica of the 1970s was a place I needed to get down on paper. There was a hell of a lot going on."

Lethal clashes

James now teaches English at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota. Seven Killings is his third novel and had excellent reviews both for its audacious structure and for its insight into a part of the world which seldom features on bestseller lists.

The author will discover on 15 September if the book has made it to this year's Man Booker shortlist. The winner will be announced a month after that.

The big talking point of Seven Killings has been the elements he's borrowed from the life of Bob Marley - specifically the incident in December 1976 when a group of would-be killers shot and wounded him, his wife Rita and his manager, Don Taylor.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Bob Marley was shot at in 1976

It's thought the attack was politically-motivated. Marley was about to take part in a concert in support of Prime Minister Michael Manley. The 1970s saw lethal clashes between Manley supporters and gangs linked to the opposition Jamaica Labour Party.

No one died but Bob Marley quit Jamaica and spent the next two years in Britain.

In the book Marley is referred to only as The Singer.

"My basic ambition was to make sense of the '70s in a third world country. The Marley angle was a great way into the whole era. But as a man he was and still is an icon: I wanted to keep it that way. Unless you knew him personally Bob Marley's not a flesh and blood person and by not using the name I could keep that distance."

James says the cliched view of Jamaica tends to be "plantation and ghetto".

"But there are plenty of people like me who were raised very middle-class, in the suburbs. That's not something you find much on screen or in stories. You can't reduce Jamaica to one sentence and I wanted to show that."

The narrative ranges from the Caribbean to the USA. Critics have praised James' skill in telling a complex story through a tangle of narrators, each talking convincingly in his or her own style in short chapters.

Among them are the ghost of a dead politician, the island's CIA station chief, an American music journalist (who some have suggested is based on the young Cameron Crowe) and a group of violent gangsters. Each character has to speak in a distinct way, from heavy Jamaican patois to the Queen's English with the slightest of Caribbean lilts.

"Distinguishing between someone who grew up in middle-class America and a Jamaican rude boy isn't so tough," says James.

"But there are four Jamaican gangsters all from similar backgrounds. Making each of them talk differently wasn't easy. But this is my third novel and by this stage you need to stretch yourself as a writer. As a teacher of English literature I knew not to fall into the trap of just rewriting my second book.

"And there's a very Jamaican joke going on underneath. Jamaicans can be really obsessive about how other Jamaicans speak. Often they are convinced only they are speaking the language properly. A tough guy from the ghetto might think that just as much as a well brought-up convent-school girl. In Jamaica proper speech is tied to class: if you can speak properly you're a proper person."

The author's been praised for breathing life into his female characters as much as the men.

"But I don't think it's hard to write across gender and I've done it before," he says. "What's harder is the age gap. A 50-year-old middle-class white American male doesn't talk like a middle-class white American male who's only 30."

'African Long of the Rings'

Critics who liked Seven Killings have invoked cinematic reference points as much as literary antecedents. The influence of Quentin Tarantino has been spotted and the book's been optioned by HBO as a possible series. A pilot script is ready.

"If it gets made, eight episodes would be nice. That's what True Detective had in a season," says James.

"But I have always felt a huge influence of cinema on me when I write - sometimes more strongly than literary influences. I hate it when you feel a writer using a novel to audition for a screenplay or to get a movie deal. But the language of film is important to me.

"A film can pull off vividness and economy at the same time. It's something which is much harder for a writer of prose. We usually just whip out the metaphors and over-dress a scene. I tell my writing students a sunset doesn't need their help. It's gorgeous by itself and can do without a pile of adjectives thrown at it. So there are some advantages to a movie."

It may be that a cinematic influence is evident in a new novel which Marlon James has begun.

He's unwilling to reveal much, saying at first only that it's a fantasy novel. But then he relents a little, saying it's "something like an African Lord of the Rings".

A Hobbit-style fantasy may appear a big departure from what James has written so far.

Yet A Brief History of Seven Killings has shown he can handle a long, episodic structure and a big roster of characters. Marlon James plans to leave behind entirely the cliches of "plantation and ghetto" and create a world, as Tolkien did.

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