How Marlon James Reimagined African Folklore to Craft His Intoxicating New Fantasy Novel

Marlon James

Marlon James. Mark Seliger

For three years, as a child growing up in Jamaica, Marlon James did not have a TV set. Instead, he spent much of his waking life reading beloved British authors like E. Nesbit, who specialized in fantastical worlds, and Enid Blyton, who created tales of derring-do in which groups of children solved mysteries during school vacations, sometimes with the aid of a parrot. There were comics, too, and fairy tales, and later on, the hefty best sellers of Leon Uris and James Clavell.

“Those books are so problematic now,” says James with a laugh. “Actually, they were problematic then, because there were lots of parts where I winced, but they were tons of fun. And because I didn’t know when the next book was going to turn up, I gravitated more to big books and stories that go on for a little bit.”

Subscribe to Observer’s Entertainment Newsletter

He also adored “the bawdiness and sexuality” of Shakespeare. “To me the extreme in it was the language, and I’m still blown away by how expansive and raw it is.” The language, he says, is the strongest argument for why Shakespeare penned Shakespeare. “They’re incredibly vulgar plays,” he says. “Clearly a working-class dude wrote them.”

You could play a fun game connecting the dots between James’ childhood reading and the tumult of references in his new—and very big—book, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a mesmerizing fantasy that includes necromancers, river witches, conjoined twins, shape-shifting hyenas, eaters of human flesh, trolls, a “very smart” buffalo, a deranged killer monkey and Ekoiye, a “whore who loves civet musk.” There’s also a secret door into another realm and a giant talking cat—the black leopard of the story—though we’re a long way from Narnia. And even Harry Potter might decline the cloak of invisibility in this tale: the wet, cool skin of a river sprite pulled up around the body.

James has called his fourth novel, the first in a projected trilogy, an “African Game of Thrones,” but that doesn’t do justice to its humor, its ribald sexual escapades, or the depth and breadth of its ambitions. Set in a mythological Africa, it’s a genre-crossing epic with an unreliable narrator that upends the tropes of Western literature. Even our familiar association with night is dramatically rearranged.

“Twelve midnight is the noon of the dead in the book, and in a lot of African myth, but on this side of the earth people attach so many negative connotations to it,” says James. “We think of evil and the witching hour, but [in African mythology] the noon of the dead is when your ancestors are up and you get to hang out with your cool uncle who you haven’t seen since he died 15 years ago. It’s a wonderful time, especially if your parents are no way as cool as your grandparents.”

By contrast, in a lot of African storytelling it’s twelve noon that you have to watch out for. “A lot of the monsters, the vampires I came across, have no fear of day, so I had to shift my thinking and dismantle my association with night and dark,” says James. He does something similar with the color binary associated with race by virtue of deploying more lyrical ways to depict shades of blackness—“skin light as dried clay,” for example. It’s that kind of elevated, unlazy way of describing the familiar that makes James’s work so vigorous. Of all the commendations he has received, he was happiest with a notice from The Royal Society for the Blind for his Man Booker Prize–winning third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings.

“They particularly appreciated that I didn’t depend on visuals all the time,” he says. “If I was born blind, unless you tell me, I have no idea what you’re trying to say about that little black dress. And all those connotations you are placing on the color red? Lost on me.”

Marlon James

Marlon James. Mark Seliger

His books are also pungent with the odor of bodies. A witch in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, for instance, smells of “lemongrass and fish, blood from a girl’s koo and the funk from not washing her arms or feet.” The central character, Tracker (the red wolf of its title), has a superhuman nose, so aromas play an outsize role.

“Literature should be sensual and endlessly sensory,” says James. “I like books that make me feel like I’m emerging from a fever, like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon or Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. You’re hearing it, smelling it and touching it. And getting that commendation from The Royal Society of the Blind was a reminder that there’s more to a literary experience, more to a sensory experience, than what it looks like. That’s too easy, and it’s not enough.”

Such virtuoso storytelling—showcased in a series of sprawling, cacophonous novels—has made James one of the most adventurous, exciting and celebrated authors working in America today. Like those of his cherished Dickens, only with more viscera, his books are a bubbling stew of deceits and betrayals, false turns and chance connections, and the ill-conceived plots of fallible men. He cites Henry Fielding’s 1000-plus-page picaresque, Tom Jones, as an early influence, and, like Fielding, he’s not shy about length or labyrinthine plots. In an age of distraction, James demands attention to the page, but you surface from his novels as if from a prolonged acid trip. They change your perception of the world because they create a world entire.

The sheer number of voices in A Brief History of Seven Killings was an astonishing feat of ventriloquism. Like Black Leopard, that work had humor, sex and stunning scenes of violence, but it was also a crash course in Jamaican politics, including the geopolitical machinations of the U.S. and the pernicious influence of racism even within black societies.

Most men who look like me in Jamaica are still looking for a light-skinned wife so they can get lots of light-skinned children,” says James. “You don’t need white people around for white supremacy. You really don’t.”

Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. Pablo Gerardo Camacho

It was a more typical space of exclusion—Hollywood—that got James thinking about Black Leopard, Red Wolf, after the all-white cast of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was announced. “I got tired of the question about inclusion, and then the backlash against asking for inclusion,” he explained on a recent episode of The New Yorker Radio Hour. “I thought, I’ll just build my own damn universe.

That his universe is a mythological Africa, and that its Frodo also happens to be queer, only serves to elevate James’ feat of daring. “Even as I was writing, I kept thinking, OK, what’s the movie deal I’m not going to get because Tracker’s not down for the ladies?” says James, laughing. “Black Leopard and the Red Wolf are both queer, but from the moment the novel started to take shape I just knew they always were, and I have to be true to the story.” James did, in fact, cut a deal— Michael B. Jordan’s production company Outlier Society and Warner Bros. just snatched up the film rights to Black Leopard (James will serve as the executive producer of the adaptation).

There were gay characters in A Brief History of Seven Killings, too, but that book was set in 1970s Jamaica and ’80s New York, when AIDS was emerging. Because for this effort James is writing about a precolonial Africa steeped in folklore and myth, homosexuality has largely shed its stigma. He takes us back to a time when to be a shoga man wasn’t a pejorative.

“I remember talking to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie years ago and she was saying that everybody knows the ‘two aunts’ living at the end of the road, and that African society, through history, has always allowed space for queerness, allowed space for sexual fluidity, certainly, and allowed space for multiple genders, until a bunch of white preachers from America showed up and showed them some fetish porn and said, ‘They’re coming for your children.’”

Tracker and Black Leopard certainly find no shortage of ass while cutting a swathe through a series of perilous kingdoms in search of a lost child who may or may not be dead. The one time Tracker is challenged for being a “boy-fucker,” he retorts, “Most time is the boys who fuck me. Hark, but there was this one, best in many a moon, so tight believe you me I had to stuff a corncob up to ease the hole.”

That kind of raunchiness percolates through the book. Shape-shifting hyenas “look like the head of a dog pushing out of the asshole of a cat walking backwards.” When they first meet, Leopard teases Tracker: “You either speak through your ass or fart through your mouth.” James concedes that the line was probably something he picked up and filed away in childhood, but the humor was also a corrective to the depiction of Africa in so much of Western writing. “You’d think nobody has ever farted, or nobody has ever made a joke about it,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in writing either noble or ignoble savages.”

 

Marlon James

Marlon James. Jeffrey Skemp

James also revels in rejecting binaries. His characters are complicated, messy and never pure. Some have committed acts of horrendous brutality. You root for them nevertheless.

“We need our villains to be more dimensional,” he says. “I still think the ancient Greeks are the only people who truly got human nature because a Shakespearean tragic villain like Macbeth kills a lot of people, but a Greek villain probably killed ’em and ate ’em, and then fed your child to you. And this is still someone who is going to be given multidimensionality, agency and the capacity for change, whether or not it’s change for the good. These are horrendous people that you have to view through a three-dimensional lens, and that’s the thing the Greeks always insisted on.”

He continues, “It’s like when you come across a racist in a film. If she’s a woman, she’s also the town slut. If it’s a redneck, he probably beats his kid. I’m like, ‘Where are the well-thinking, compassionate intellectual racists who love their children and take out the trash?’ Where are those? Because those are the ones who are making my life hell.”

There is prejudice in Black Leopard—giants are loathed, for example—but the real challenges have more to do with characters coming of age, and learning to know themselves. The existential dilemmas of Tracker, in particular, can sometimes feel like our own inner voices.

Lost in the Darklands, where elephants are ghosts and giraffes are the size of house cats, he is taunted by whispering trees: “You have no purpose. You are a man loved by nobody. When you die, and soon, whose life will be all the poorer with you gone? Who will grieve you? Who will remember to forget you?” Depending on your state of mind, you may wonder if the trees are talking to you, too.

With writing, you have to remember that characters are human, and humans surprise and humans disappoint,” says James. “I write men who fail the expectations put on them. I think masculinity is an expectation and it’s a role, and in a way it’s a drag—a drag in the sense of performance and that it’s a pain in the ass. Especially in the Jamaican context, so much of masculinity is performance, so much of it is makeup, and I’ve always been curious about people who are caught in that and who play that and fail at it, or for whom it becomes undone.”

As for Tracker, James warns that in African myths the trickster is often the narrator, leaving it to the reader to decide what is true and what is false. Book two of the trilogy will reprise Black Leopard‘s story, but this time from the perspective of Sogolun, the moon witch. “Her version of events is going to be so different,” James says. “People are going to get attached to these characters. So you better gear yourself up for some disappointment.”  

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is available now through Riverhead Books.

How Marlon James Reimagined African Folklore to Craft His Intoxicating New Fantasy Novel