October 2014

Marlon James

Jamaican lament

In 1976, two days before the Smile Jamaica concert to promote political unity, armed gunmen walked into reggae star Bob Marley’s house at 56 Hope Road in Kingston and began shooting in what was a failed assassination attempt. In prize-winning author Marlon James’ groundbreaking new novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, the attack becomes a centerpiece of a blistering commentary on Jamaican society in the 1970s and its inextricable links both to Cold War politics and to the drug wars of the 1980s.

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In 1976, two days before the Smile Jamaica concert to promote political unity, armed gunmen walked into reggae star Bob Marley’s house at 56 Hope Road in Kingston and began shooting in what was a failed assassination attempt. In prize-winning author Marlon James’ groundbreaking new novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, the attack becomes a centerpiece of a blistering commentary on Jamaican society in the 1970s and its inextricable links both to Cold War politics and to the drug wars of the 1980s.

I was in elementary school when both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were shot, yet I think of those events as seminal to my childhood. Likewise, you were 6 when Marley was shot. Do you remember the assassination attempt at all?
I do remember it as a kind of seminal event. When I first heard he had been shot, I remember thinking, he’s in Jamaica? Because by then Bob Marley was the guy who did things in foreign lands, not here. He wasn't on the charts, or on TV, so he wasn’t a part of daily popular culture. But you could hear it in the tone of adults around you that a line had been crossed. Also this: a sense that if this man, beloved by both political sides could be attacked, then we were all sitting ducks. The event did take the sense of security from everyone, even Jamaicans who never had to think about that before. If neither money nor celebrity could protect him, what was going to happen to us?

What kind of research did you do for this novel?
Tons. Over the four years it took to write this novel I had four researchers helping me. There were so many things, people, events, etc to learn about. The Cold War. The history of the CIA. Third world politics. I went through back issues of High Times, Ramparts, Playboy, Penthouse (for research!) and Rolling Stone. Bob Marley books. Rolling Stones tour books. Artillery specs. 1970s slang. 1980s Police blotters. 1990s crack house investigations. Manuals on how to disappear and build a new identity. Source materials. Interviews with actual drug users so as to distinguish between a heroin and a cocaine high. At one point I worried that had the FBI subpoenaed my laptop, I would have had some serious explaining to do.

Papa Lo and Josey Wales are extremely aggressive and violent characters. Yet they are also described with much empathy. What is it like to create characters like these?
I like difficult characters. As a writer they are the only people I want to spend any time with. Especially in those moments I find them despicable. Which is not to say it was easy at all. It’s never easy writing about brutality and violence, nor should it be. But I was also careful, I think, not to explain it all away with pop psychology. These are just not good men. But they are still complex and contradictory. Sometimes depth means not good and bad, but bad with shades of worse. Either way you have to make your characters three dimensional, regardless of who they are and what they do.

Your previous novel took place in the 18th century, vs. the 20th-century setting of the new book. What are the differences in writing a historical novel when the history is within living memory?
Not much. Both needed considerable research. The problem with writing about an event that you were a part of is that your experience is still only one person’s point of view. Other viewpoints, other perspectives become crucial. Especially if it turns out that the event was something that you have no firsthand knowledge of. And given that I was 6 in 1976, that’s pretty much everything.

"The problem with writing about an event that you were a part of is that your experience is still only one person’s point of view."

A Brief History is very honest about the sexism and homophobia in Jamaican culture. How has Jamaican society changed in this regard?
I would love to say that this has changed, but you’re only one YouTube video or one newspaper editorial away from being reminded that not only have things not changed, but in some ways they are worse.

This story is told by so many different characters—gang leaders, agents, reporters, politicians, girlfriends—yet we never hear from Marley. Why is his perspective not included in the novel?
Even before his death, Bob Marley’s presence in Jamaican life was symbolic. One argument was that this was exactly what made him dangerous, that he now represented an ideal for independence, self-assertion, even nationhood. It was very important that I kept that in the novel, that even on a day-to-day level, Marley was a symbol, almost an allegory. In that sense he had to disappear. Also, we’re talking Bob Marley. He could have easily stolen the show in a book that not really about him.

Music is so obviously key to this novel—if you were making a soundtrack for it, what songs and performers would you include?
There’s a playlist on Spotify! But the book is told in real time, over three decades and actually spans four. It skips countries as well. Crucial to the soundtrack would be what Jamaicans were listening to—not what was on the radio, or on the foreign charts. So let’s start with deep roots reggae without the “rock” sheen: Dennis Brown, Mighty Diamonds, and The Congos. But you would have to go even more “street,” closer to what the characters in my novel were listening to: Big Youth, Dillinger, Michigan & Smiley, U-Roy, I-Roy, Sister Nancy, the beginnings of dancehall. The novel then skips to New York for the beginning of hip-hop, so Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, and Run DMC, but also Cybertron and Man Parrish. Some early dance (M/A/R/R/S), some beat fusion (Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full remix), Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance and then a return to Jamaica in time for Dancehall/hip-hop to top the charts: Super Cat, Buju Banton, Lady Saw and Capleton.

What other Caribbean writers do you think American readers should be reading?
Oonya Kempadoo, Pauline Melville, Kei Miller, Sharon Millar, Roland Watson Grant, Simone Schwarz-Bart, Louis Simpson, Patricia Duncker,

Marley’s music continues to motivate disenfranchised people around the world. What do you think it is about his music and life that still inspires people?
I think people hear a simplicity in the message of freedom, self-determination and triumph after struggle. Simple enough and universal enough that girls in Kabul can form rock bands inspired by him. That said, it’s also because of these things that people miss just how sly and inventive he was. “Kinky Reggae” is as libidinous as any Stones song about sex. “We and Them” nailed class hypocrisy years before rich kids started to buy the Legend album. But most of us are here for the message and the grooves, and next to Marvin Gaye, Marley was the only artist who figured out how to make hard messages go down sweet.

A Brief History is so intense and so brutal—what did you do to relax while you were writing it?
I read Jo Nesbo.

 

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of A Brief History of Seven Killings.


A version of this article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings

By Marlon James
Riverhead
ISBN 9781594486005

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