[IRL Adventures] SWF19: Marlon James Festival Prologue

Yep. I still got more of these lined up! YOU’RE JUST GONNA HAVE TO DEAL! Or maybe read them and enjoy them because that’s the only reason why I thought to share them.. ☹️

Marlon James is SUCH a good orator, you’re gonna wanna at least skim through what I got!!!

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moderated by Mrigaa Sethi

What constitutes a story and who gets to tell it? In a world that is simultaneously globalised and fractured, how can one use language to reclaim conversations and identities? Man Booker Prize winner and festival headliner Marlon James, author of Black Leopard Red Wolf and A Brief History of Seven Killings, ruminates on the power of language and stories in considering diversity and representation.

NB: This is a summary of his speech via the notes I took, which are not complete! It really was a great speech and I’m sad I wasn’t able to record the whole thing, if just for myself. 😢

Opening Speech

Our language still divides us. Is there one definition of “good” English? We are constantly falling behind race and class lines that we didn’t even draw.. Cultural colonialism is the definition of inferiority. Nobody has called a regional American or English accent broken. Language is full of contradictions. How do we redefine and reclaim it?

I used to think Jamaican patois was broken, like it needed to be fixed. My accent meant I spoke “lower” English, I felt ashamed and felt that English was something to aspire to. I learned colonial English. But British English is just mongrel German. England after all, was a bunch of straw houses and backward ideas, where they crapped where they ate until the Romans arrived. 😏

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What constitutes a story and who deserves to write it? Burroughs said, There is no such thing as should in what should a writer write.

Fantasy looks forwards and backwards. If you’re still thinking of your characters as “other”, you’re not writing well.

Nobody has a problem when appropriation is done well. It’s an attack on expression. Not censorship at all. Instead of getting into it, I ask questions. Like, why don’t we have these problems in crime novels? The Wire had one non-white writer. What are the crime writers doing that the rest of us are not? 

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We can still use language to include. We can speak different tongues and hope you still get what we mean. For example, there are several myths telling the same stories about dragons. How do we tell better stories? How do we come to this language of our own?.. We resist the tyranny of genre. Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany defined trans and queer stories decades ago. There is no such thing as too many stories – we make room for more. 

How do we find a language of our own? By listening to the voices that were always there. Just to listen to the stories that come out of your own mouth.


MS: Are there stories you’re nervous about telling?

MJ: I don’t think so. Not anymore. After writing SFF that could open to licesnes like toys, etc – I’m not scared of SHIT. 💪🏿😎 I approach each story with fear. I still think, this is the one that will flop.. I knew I was over it when I wrote a nonfiction essay about my mother – I’m still terrified she will read it. The stories that hit close to home are the stories that are still difficult for me. Making up a story that’s close to him hits me a lot harder than writing an essay about it. 

MS: How long did it take you to research for A Brief History of Seven Killings?

MJ: It took 2 years of research to create the 70s and 80s slang glossary for A Brief History of Seven Killings. I was listening and studying people and being curious of worlds and words.. The reclusive author is a myth!! Ok well. HP Lovecraft was, but his dialogue was horrible. Of course he had no friends!! 😆 

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MJ: You gotta be curious about writing yourself. Get over that self loathing or excessive self love – both are rooted in shame. You wanna be self curious and be that same way about your characters.

MS: It’s about finding a voice that may have been there all along! In regards to getting rid of the Anglo voice, how did you access that voice?

MJ: I had to shut up. It was a struggle. The Book of Night Women was all in patois and I fought against that voice every day. A lot of issues were solved by reading though – The Colour Purple, Huckleberry Finn, Trainspotting.. I was on the side of my voice winning, so I had to learn in a slow and hard way. But I still had the problem that people thought the language that came out of our mouths wouldn’t appeal to the world. 

MS: But now the demands of the language are different in Black Leopard Red Wolf.

MJ: Yeah, I’m still writing in English, it’s a tool like any other language. I just had to conjugate in a different way. One character only speaks in present tense, the counting system doesn’t go above 10.. The trick is to twist it around. Language is very malleable. When I heard, “It was hard getting over the language”, I go Thank You 😁. 

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MS: What was the research process like? Because colonialism interrupts myths. Just because a story is old doesn’t mean the person for whom they’re written for would want to claim them.

MJ: Some myths I read were about female circumcision and I hate how barbaric it is, but that’s what they were about. Just because they’re old or part of the culture, doesn’t always mean they should be embraced. The same discernment that is applied to Western stories should be brought to our own. Otherwise you’re reading in an unsophisticated way. 

MS: How does pop culture fit in? It’s a twin obsession you have with myths, different but the same.

MJ: It’s all myth making. I’m still really into it, reading myths and making them. Myths are the original stories and religions. A lot of it is from growing up with comics. At some point you can tell I read too many Marvel comics.. They’re a superhero team (Black Leopard Red Wolf) and it’s pretty much X-Men.. My background in fantasy is not really fantasy novels, it was comics that make believe. And a lot of my sensibilities come from that. I didn’t grow up with literary fiction because I couldn’t afford it. The category for what books I read was “Next”. I didn’t care what it was. Jackie Collins and James Joyce are in equal importance for me. 

MS: Who is your favourite X-Men?

MJ: Storm. (Everyone cheers 👏👏👏) 

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MJ: Thank god I didn’t say Wolverine. 😏

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MS: Can you speak more about the post-post-colonial instead of just post-colonial?

MJ: I think we are still in the post-colonial to be honest. I think we are still processing it, like with shade-ism.. There is also this inheritance of lust: An immigrant who finds home in neither place, a person who just doesn’t assimilate. What if you don’t fit anywhere and what if everywhere is agitating? What if you don’t come to peace with it? It’s a new narrative.. Why not tell stories for stories sake? A post-post-colonial novel is My Sister the Serial Killer. It’s just about her sister the serial killer. These novels are ones that  can stand on their own framework.

MS: Is there an additional pressure from former colonies to continue that kind of writing? Not doing what is expected by you by a white audience or publishing industry? 

MJ: I didn’t actually find this in America, and the Brits are so tired of it. Another Howards End must we? 😩 

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MJ: I like that though so I’m not knocking it.. Like My Sister the Serial Killer would have never been published before and although things have changed, some mentalities are still there. 

MS: Black Leopard Red Wolf was the right book at the right time. With the rise of Afrofuturism and speculative fiction, especially after Black Panther.

MJ: Well. A black leopard is a black panther.. 👀 But I wasn’t trying to ride on their coattails.. Ok maybe a little.. 😏

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MJ: Until Black Panther had the success it had, people thought it would be a niche film. And a lot of us still thought that too. It was in danger of being relegated to genre or pigeonholed. Readers are more open than we think now. It helped that it was a comic film with that muscle behind. I still think that kind of diversity door will close. It has before. John Singleton died this year. When Boyz n the Hood came out, there was such a boom of black films by black men. It was supposed to be a door that was opening but it shut. It’s different now because we want to open our own damn door!! A book like My Sister the Serial Killer was a street lit sensation in Nigeria. A certain kind of pandering doesn’t have to happen anymore. So things have changed even though we are still struggling for more change.

MS: Is there a struggle to explain the self, like self pandering?

MJ: Nope. I don’t think so anymore because it results in a certain kind of story. Few novels are worse than a Jamaican novel pandering to a non Jamaican. Nobody talks like that!! It’s a culturally false result.. All this pandering and it didn’t get you a best seller. If you’re gonna write or express something, why not be the most you can be. 

MS: There’s this issue in Singapore of the pressure to speak standard English instead of Singlish. It’s hard.. There’s a lot of nervous criticism about it. What’s a good way to be critical if everyone is free to tell their story well? In literature and politics at large, being critical is weird. It’s either none at all or call out or cancel culture. 

MJ: Yep, there’s no in-between. People still think criticism is one way or another to see if it’s good or bad. It’s a lazy view of criticism, there’s way more than that. It’s just a form of reading. It’s how close and deep am I reading this work. What is it saying and not saying to me? When I hear, I don’t like this, I go, I DON’T CARE! It’s a lazy response. There’s a lot more to talk about. Reduce criticism from its own narrowness.

MS: Can you talk more on the good versus bad? How do you decide if it’s done well, if you’re not saying it’s good or bad?

MJ: I’m not a critic of cancel culture really. It’s like, who has it exactly cancelled? Louis CK is still getting a check. Terry Richardson is still at work. Hopefully R. Kelly is gone – I never liked him. 

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MJ: The thing about cancelling someone is a personal decision. I’m not keeping you in my life, so bye. It’s a critique on someone that’s just speaking truth to power.

MS: What’s the most humbling critique on your own work?

(TW: rape) MJ: In A Brief History of Seven Killings there’s a scene where Nina is in a car with the cops, and she thinks she’s gonna be raped and she’s like, get it done and over with. Someone came up to me and said, I counsel women about rape and trauma and nobody says that. And I learned from it. It’s something I take seriously.. I saw the last Mad Max (Fury Road) millions of times. He (George Miller) did the work. How do women respond to trauma even if they don’t know it is? And it’s just a car race! It’s the most feminist film in decades


What has been James Baldwin’s impact on you?

MJ: As a non-American black person I was totally down with white supremacy, like, you don’t need white people to happen for colourism. There was this essay on his mentor, I can’t remember exactly but it was on the idea that people need community. One being vigilant and hopeful.. There’s also footage of him where he’s in San Francisco and telling black students that there will be a black president. And the kids were like, nah not gonna happen. But they were all around to see that.. How he manages to be absolutely clear about what was wrong but convinced that we could fix it stuck with me. He was fiercely critical and fiercely hopeful.

Can you speak on how English is your only language, but you don’t own it?

MJ: No because nobody owns English, not even the French own French. They haven’t done anything interesting with it in nearly 300 years. It’s interesting how much is taken from other languages.. It’s very easy to exclude people with language. It’s a toolbox that people should use.. Younger people are taking languages for granted like, this is mine and that too. Language is no one thing. Every writer that approaches it gets to shape it. Fictional languages are your own product. That conflict can result in interesting literature but can be paralysing too. There’ll be more things to be fearful of while writing. 

Can certain topics be only told by “Own Voices”?

MJ: Many of these topics have been covered before but haven’t been as widely read, so the knee jerk response is, nobody cares till the white guy did it. Which is the wrong approach and I believe that anyone can tell any story. You just have to do the work, even if you still get slammed for it. It’s not a situation where there are stories forbidden for people to tell.. I have a problem with the word shouldn’t. I hate it more than should. You can write the story in your head but you have to do the work. Or I will slam your ass. Do the research!! Writing is an act of empathy. So many novels fail that. You have to care about people and listen. No good novelist is a bad listener. Readers also have a responsibility to read more. 

Would you consider setting a piece of fiction in your own life?

MJ: I dunno. Maybe? So many friends who started writing, started close to home and I’m the reverse. I go far away. At some point I guess I will, but I gotta write more fantasy. Writing can be a homecoming. 

What makes you want to write fantasy? And what is the hardest thing about crossing the gap?

MJ: It was a fight I had with a friend. In around 2010 or 2009 ther casting for The Hobbit came out and I was like, Oh lord here we go again. An all white cast. Why is there no diversity in the cast? And my friend said Lord of the Rings is British. I said, Lord of the Rings isn’t real

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MJ: You can do what you want. Nobody would care about an Asian Hobbit. I said, keep your damn hobbit.. It sent me on a mission to read. But where were my myths?.. I’m scared the whole time, I’m just too stupid to stop. The transition didn’t feel like one to me. I didn’t have time for literary snobbery because I couldn’t afford it. The real and the fantastic are commonplace. Reading Gabriel García Márquez was like a homecoming. It was easy because I was always doing that and in reading I never set up those walls. 

BYE BYE FOR NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


“Even now I'm not really sure which parts of myself are real and which parts are things I've gotten from books.” - [Beatrice Sparks] Go Ask Alice 🍃☕

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