Holy shit! was Marlon James’s reaction on Facebook to winning the 2015 Man Booker prize in mid-October. With those two words he summed up the prevailing zeitgeist of his novels which fluidly run the gamut from the sacred to the profane. In Jamaica the literati exhaled in relief as the Man Booker judge laughingly produced A Brief History of Seven Killings saying “It’s MARLON JAMES!”
Most of Jamaica remained unaware but only till news time when all or most of the island’s radio stations and news websites carried the news. Nationwide radio actually led with the story and hte next day’s Gleaner had it on the front page. I felt it should have headlined every single newscast here but Justine Henzell, one of the founders of the Calabash Literary Festival, the gamechanger that gave James his springboard, pointed out that this was actually real progress, that 10 years ago the Booker victory might scarcely have been mentioned on the news in Jamaica let alone headlined it.
Justine is right of course. RJR radio’s Dionne Jackson-Miller held a 40 minute discussion on Marlon and the Booker and I was part of a shorter one on Nationwide News with noted columnist and academic Carolyn Cooper and Ingrid Riley, Marlon’s best friend. You can listen to the audio of the latter below.
I still found it bothersome that both TV stations buried James’s victory way down in their newscasts as if this wasn’t as incredible and joyous an achievement as any of Usain Bolt’s electrifying runs. On a TV newscast I watched on the evening of the literary coup, Marlon’s Booker was considered less important than a story about Mexican investors–Charisma–investing in the Jamaican hotel industry; a run-of-the-mill story about politics in Portland; a protest by the supporters of Member of Parliament Patrick Atkinson and a story about tertiary education and how it should be free according to the Leader of the Opposition Andrew Holness. Clearly the news in Jamaica is dominated by politics and business, two of the worst performing sectors in the country. Go figure, as the Americans say.
It is sad and telling that even once in a blue moon Jamaica’s two premier TV stations couldn’t bear to put the astonishing story of a local writer winning the most important literary prize in the English-speaking world front and centre. How often has a Caribbean person won the Booker? The only other writer to have done so is VS Naipaul. And we boast of being a cultural superpower? There needs to be a sea change in the way news is conceptualized and produced in Jamaica. Why is there so much focus on the inane trivia that politicians inflict on us? And hit or miss business ventures that never seem to improve financial conditions in the country?
It is widely believed that the muted response to James’s win may also have to do with something as immaterial as his sexuality. Marlon James is the first prominent Jamaican to have openly ‘come out’ as gay and this may have put a spanner in the works for some people. The tweet below is typical of the prevailing sentiment of some:
Im A Big Deal @NigelBigMeech
The man all gay to mek it worse suck unnu mumma and stop tweet bout him pon me TL yere.
On the other hand Head of the University of the West Indies’s Economics Department Damien King tweeted that James’s Booker win was hardly something for homophobic Jamaica to celebrate:
Considering [that] our shameful intolerance drove Marlon James from Jamaica, his winning the Man Booker prize is hardly a proud moment for us.
James’s sexuality wasn’t the only thing that some Jamaicans found irksome. The fact of Marlon James’s location in the diaspora and what this implies is an irritant for many. The Jamaica Observer penned a somewhat querulous editorial praising James for winning the Booker while at the same time taking issue with the proposition his success has raised–that most good writers are forced to flee the rather limited literary provinces of the Caribbean if they want to fully develop their literary talent. Asking “Is exile really a necessity for Jamaican writers?” the editorial stated:
…being in exile abroad situates writers far from their subject matter, their home, their friends and creative compatriots of their own nationality and culture. Given the perceived advantages of exile and the downside of self-imposed exile, the question is: Are Jamaican writers choosing exile or are circumstances here forcing them into exile?
On Facebook Darryn Dinesh Boodin offered a cogent answer:
Writers have always traveled and worked from foreign countries Joyce lived in Italy..Conrad moved to England..Hemingway lived in Cuba. this romantic idea of ‘exile” seems kind of silly in an Internet world…when Marlon James learned he got nominated for the booker he posted it on Facebook…the internet is the new Paris in the 20’s…in his article for the times Marlon James wasn’t talking about leaving Jamaica to become a writer..he was taking abut leaving Jamaica in order to be happy..
It wouldn’t be the first time the vexed question of ‘offshore’ Caribbean writers has come up. In 2000 another writer from the Jamaican diaspora, Colin Channer, took issue with the idea that he was in ‘exile’, a word frequently used to describe Caribbean writers based in the UK and the US. According to Channer the physical distance of diaspora-based writers from the country they were writing about in no way vitiated their ability to represent it convincingly; moreover he charged, locally based writers had been negligent in plumbing native terrain for the untold stories that littered it. In a combative speech at CARIFESTA 2000, in St Kitts Channer addressed his literary ‘elders’ saying:
I understand why you would feel that our work would be enhanced if we were able to write while looking out the window on the landscape whose mud was used to make us… But elders I must remind you of something. I was there in Jamaica in the seventies…Where were all our novelists then, the big men, with the big names, and the big positions when the gunmen burned down the Eventide Home, and bun up the old lady them? Where were they when the army murdered some ghetto yute at the Green Bay firing range after enticing them with offers of guns?…where were they when dem shoot Bob Marley?
Uncannily, a whole 15 years before James’s Brief History Channer had identified Marley’s shooting as a story worth retailing but in the year 2000, at the turn of the century, Marlon James wasn’t yet on the horizon to prove Channer’s point, spectacularly illustrating that you didn’t have to reside at Ground Zero to evoke it or channel it. His ability to work Jamaica’s tortuous history and wring from it a story so vividly capturing the terror and permanent state of emergency many Jamaicans inhabit, once again highlights the issue Channer had raised, of what academics call ‘the politics of location.’ These are questions that also haunt two other young giants of Caribbean writing, the Dominican Republic’s Junot Diaz and Haiti’s Edwidge Danticat, both resident in and writing from locations in the United States.
Curiously, exile and location were also central to a Facebook spat generated by an article James published earlier this year in the New York Times magazine titled “From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself” in which he described the stifling sense of illegitimacy he felt as a young gay man growing up and living in Jamaica. The subhead of the article, “I knew I had to leave my home country — whether in a coffin or on a plane,” provoked Trinidad-based gay activist Colin Robinson to comment on Facebook that he was exhausted and enraged by the ‘reductionism of the exile narrative.’ “I’m sorry, but we need other narratives of the queer Caribbean than die or leave,” he fulminated. “What about those who stayed and struggled?”
In a similar vein the Observer editorial interpreted James’s statement about needing to leave Jamaica as somehow reflecting a slight on locally-based writers. Jamaica’s homegrown writers are just as good the editorial seemed to imply. The kneejerk tendency to defend the ‘local’ or ‘fi wi’ writers and intellectuals in this manner is a misguided impulse and is precisely one of the reasons why serious writers are forced to migrate.
This tendency also fails to recognize the glaring similarity to Jamaica’s great athletic tradition which depended for many years on local athletes going abroad to train and prepare to compete at the global level. For a long time Jamaica did not have the infrastructure locally to produce the world-beaters you see today, which took time and resources and a lot of help from home and abroad to develop. The talent was there but it had to go elsewhere for its maximum potential to be extracted.
Had the local powers-that-be grudgingly insisted that home-grown talent was just as good as those who left and shone on the global stage, instead of systematically putting in place the necessary coaching and training facilities required, there would not be a Shelly-Ann Pryce or an Usain Bolt today or there may have been, but they wouldn’t be home-grown. Just because there are one or two exceptions in the Caribbean, and Martin Carter of Guyana is an outstanding example of this, it doesn’t mean that a Marlon James could have just as well stayed in Jamaica and won the Booker. To argue that is to fail to recognize the difference in scale between the achievements of a Kei Miller or a Marlon James and the far more modest achievements of writers, artists and intellectuals whose ambitions were local or regional rather than global (and by this i mean writers who assume their audience is local or regional and therefore au fait with Caribbean culture and language whereas one with a more global orientation might cover exactly the same ground but in such a way that outsiders or newcomers are not excluded. And while doing this they’re aiming to compete with the world’s best, not merely the island’s best, or the region’s). As James himself said in a 2006 interview I did with him: “If you’re not competing against Norman Mailer, why bother?…I’m not one of these I-write-for-my-people-first-and-everybody-else-later thing.”
It is incredibly difficult to write a story that rings true at home while at the same time making itself eloquently understood to readers outside the culture. This has been James’s big achievement and one of the reasons he won the Man Booker. In the same interview we also discussed the question of language and how to be true to Jamaican Patwa without compromising meaning and interpretation. Keep in mind that this is from a 2006 interview recorded while James was writing his second novel, The Book of Night Women:
Maybe I should put it in the context of all the stuff we were talking [at the “Writing Life” conference] about dialect and Creole, and there’s a slight objection to standard-englishising the B-word — but in the book I’m writing now, a character says “bloodclaat,” which is a Jamaican bad word. And if I spelled it “bloodclaat,” non-Jamaicans would get a sense that this is an expletive, and Jamaicans would go, yeah, that’s the word. But I changed it to “bloodcloth,” and a friend who’s Irish read it and said, what’s up with all these expletives tied to menstruation? Why is a female bodily function a bad thing? So she nailed it, which she wouldn’t have gotten had I said, let me play — let me just go — let me spell phonetically and write “bloodclaat.”
The finest editorial on Marlon James’s Man Booker came from the Stabroek News in Guyana and reminds us that his win was not just a Jamaican achievement but a coup for the whole region. Titled Jamaica’s Booker the editorial said:
A Brief History of Seven Killings, James’ complex, humorous, uneven foray into politics in the Manley years, is entirely Jamaican, but its success ought to be celebrated throughout the Caribbean. James’ exuberance, his confident yielding to the temptations of what another James famously called the “loose, baggy monster” of a large novel, is suggestive of how far West Indian fiction has advanced in recent years, not least in its use of literary registers and devices that used to belong, almost exclusively, to writers serving large, foreign (predominantly American and European) audiences.
Speaking at the Bocas literary festival in 2012, James lamented the musty notion of a Jamaican or West Indian novel (villages, religion, stock characters) and said that younger writers, like himself, ought to tackle contemporary life and wrestle, unashamedly, with the region’s racial, sexual, and political questions. Then, having warmed up with two historical novels, he delivered.
This brings us back to the critique leveled by Channer that local writers seem unable or unwilling to plumb the hardcore realpolitik of the ground they write from in bold and innovative ways focusing instead on easier material and conventional forms unlikely to make an impact outside the local arena.
The question of why the writers or activists who ‘stayed and struggled’ aren’t leveraging their own stories, narratives embedded in local history and culture, to international attention remains a moot one ripe for analysis. They are certainly beginning to do so although it remains difficult to attract mainstream attention while based in the Caribbean. For Marlon it was reading Shame by Salman Rushdie during the years in Jamaica when he belonged to a charismatic church that made him realize that the present was something he could “write his way out of.” This son of parents who were both officers of the Jamaica Constabulary Force promptly set about doing so and the rest is history.
As in the case of Marlon James and his Brief History of Seven Killings there were writers and books in India before diaspora-based Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children but their scope and ambition was slimmer and much too conventional to make any impact internationally. Midnight’s Children broke the mould of the kind of novel that was possible in and about the subcontinent and Indian writing was never the same post-Rushdie, his success and example opening the floodgates to decades of Indian dominance in English-language writing. This will likely be the case in the Caribbean as well. For this James’s vaulting ambition and example must be celebrated and imitated rather than grudgingly disparaged or undervalued.