The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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FEB 2022 Issue
Books In Conversation

Marlon James with John Domini

Marlon James
Moon Witch, Spider King
(Riverhead, 2022)

Fame sits easy on Marlon James, who remains as affable and articulate a companion over coffee as he was 10 years ago. I was just finishing The Book of Night Women (2009), his magnificent second novel, when I found him through Facebook. There I appreciated his smart-mouthed takes on the US, as a queer Jamaican relocated to Minneapolis, and we enjoyed a few get-togethers in real life. In 2014, however, A Brief History of Seven Killings rocketed James to London for the Booker Prize and to Hollywood for negotiations with HBO. He became harder to reach, naturally, and since then still another film project has started production: the adaptation of his subsequent novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019).

Like all his fiction, this novel explores the past—but it goes further back, to medieval Africa, while wholeheartedly embracing fantasy. There are bat-winged monsters and trans-dimensional portals; the book is the first in a trilogy, what the author calls, “an African Games of Thrones.” Now we’ve got the second in the set, Moon Witch, Spider King, and James himself has slowed down a bit, settling in Brooklyn with a writer partner. We’ve met again a couple of times, and for this interview we worked in a variety of media, both text and voice.

John Domini (Rail): Let’s start at the granular level, with rhetoric. Moon Witch, Spider King runs over 600 pages, and it’s swaddled in mysteries, but it exerts tremendous urgency. It opens with an imperative, “See the girl,” reiterated and echoed throughout. Moreover, everything we hear from this girl, Sogolon, unfolds in her distinctive patois, one free about grammar and tense while also coining fresh constructions. Naturally, the language recalls the first in the trilogy, Black Leopard, and especially Book of Night Women, also from the female perspective. Still, the sentences crackle like never before, making me think of Zora Neale Hurston at hurricane force. What can you say about developing this style?

Marlon James: It’s interesting that you bring up Book of Night Women, because that was the first novel where I embraced the idea that a work of fiction, of literature, could use our own tongue. If you grew up in a former British colony, that’s something you need to learn. You’re raised to think that your patois is a broken English, below that, beneath that—needing to be fixed. So long as I walked around thinking I spoke a broken language, this got in the way of my writing. I believed our patois was something less than the standard English we learn as Jamaicans, or as Sri Lankans, or Kenyans. Yet standard English is an inert, stale thing, conservative in that it conserves the status quo: the version spoken by “the help” a century ago. That language hasn’t evolved much, and it wouldn’t have at all without the influence of patois, Jamaican or otherwise, but those were my choices: either work in my own language—and even to call it a “dialect” is selling it short—or work with something inert and stale. The Book of Night Women was the one where I really broke free. Then, jumping to this novel, and its patois, I can say I had to go back to the drawing board, and play with the rules of “standard English.” I had to think about, for instance, how in Wolof [a language native to Senegal and Gambia] the verbs are all present tense. It’s a funny thing, because it’s the same around Kingston, and that’s another way I found my language backward. But that’s not it at all, but rather an aspect of our native tongues that survived the slave ships. So when I use the same in Moon Witch, Spider King, it’s a return, maybe a reclamation, of a language that came to me more or less instinctively. Not just in Jamaican patois, but also in Wolof, there’s no “went,” there’s “he did go,” or “he don’t go”; there’s even “he going go,” for the future. Of course, I’m not working in any African language, but nevertheless, my job became to get as far as I could from the stale old English imposed on me—and I expect Hurston had to distance herself in the same way. Honestly, there’s nothing standard about standard English.

Rail: Speaking of permanent present tense, I think of your protagonist Sogolon, more than 150 years old and supernaturally spry. The woman’s richly layered, moving through a number of identities. At one point she’s starving and helpless and then, not much later, she’s possessed with devastating magic. She’s no flat picaresque, either, as deep family feelings count among her motivations. Can you share how this amazing chameleonic creature was constructed?

James: Man, if you’re in a Marlon James novel, you were constructed haphazardly. People in real life, you know, don’t reveal themselves in a sequential way, starting with the A of their lives and taking us to Z. They tell us half-truths, tell outright lies, and then contradict themselves two days later, and so you take all of that and put it into a novel, one in which character dictates development, inevitably you end up with a many-layered work. The character won’t leave the novel the way she entered it, and in the case of Sogolon, tracking her changes set me two tasks at once. I wasn’t just trying to discover her, the same as with any character, but also I needed to counteract the initial perception of her, shaped in Black Leopard, Red Wolf—by someone who’s an enemy. With that in mind, I had to return to one of my core beliefs, that writing a novel is detective work. The good characters like Sogolon aren’t created, that is, but rather they let you bit by bit into their lives. With an African protagonist, it’s especially tricky, because in an African story you can’t 100 percent trust who’s telling it, but I did know a thing or two about this woman going in. I knew she’d seen more than a century of life, seen both the best and the worst, while others had seen her as both everything and nothing, and her skin would’ve been toughened. Also I wanted, down on a very basic level, an old Black woman kicking butt and taking names. You understand, I wanted to usurp what’s been the province of male characters. White males too, most of them, but I wasn’t trying for a simple response to European fantasy, either, just take that business and do it in brown. No, I had to seek out this shadowy figure Sogolon, way in the back of my head. That’s one of the reasons my novels are so long, too. I mean, it says something that the first page I drafted for Moon Witch is now page 384! Her clues didn’t reveal themselves in anything like a linear way. [Laughs] It can be maddening!

Rail: Your detective work on Sogolon must’ve included research into African history. She shares the name of an ancient West African queen. So too, while you’ve mentioned Game of Thrones as an inspiration, but this struggle for the throne owes more to the tales of Mali’s Lion Kings, during Europe’s Renaissance. Of course, yours isn’t a novel like Maryse Conde’s Segu, straight historical fiction. Still, I’d like to hear how such research figured in your invention.

James: Recently I came across a photo of the first press copy of my Brief History of Seven Killings, from fall of 2014, and I discovered another book in the photo: a book on traditional African ceremonies. To see that reminded me that I was looking into this kind of material back before I had any idea that I might write about it. I was reading such stuff not for research, but for, well, selfish reasons. I’d become aware that there was a sort of void in my intellectual life, even in how I see the world. It’s hard, I think, for white Americans and Europeans to understand that void—what it’s like to grow up without a mythology. Yes, in African American culture we have folklore, and some of it’s fantastic, but folklore isn’t mythology. You know, I spoke at Oxford not long ago, the Tolkien Lecture, and my subject was the way a person like me can never take mythology for granted. I brought up King Arthur, the legends of Camelot. I doubt the average British person these days thinks much of King Arthur—why would they?—but they still walk in that mythology; they still enjoy a powerful sense of authority and entitlement. This has a lot of sources, but among them is this vision that Britain has always embraced civilization and chivalry. None of that’s true, of course, if Arthur did exist he was some kind of primitive warlord—no fan of bathing, even. Still, the Arthurian fantasy remains central to present-day British reality, whereas someone like myself, looking into my own origins, those always come down to slavery. In the home, in the schools, slavery is Ground Zero. So those of us out of the African diaspora, we’re just not walking in the same world as most Europeans. When Margaret Atwood observes that human nature hasn’t changed in a thousand years, she adds that for proof, we should check the mythology, but someone like me has no mythology to check. All of which is just a long-winded way to say that I started the research behind this novel without doing it for a novel. As I got into that learning, though, stories started to happen; I’d say that my reading started to rewrite me. The things that came up went beyond any one book. For instance, people have questioned the queerness in Black Leopard, they’ve called it a modern invention, but in fact it’s the fiction’s most ancient element. Ancient Africa, my research showed me repeatedly, found many ways to value, even to cherish, our many different sexual identities and orientations. In short, I never had to invent, not in that way, not when research gave me such a wealth of material. The crucial thing, rather, was not to perceive that wealth with a Eurocentric gaze; it wasn’t just a matter of acquiring information, like picking up African jewelry, but of teaching yourself how to look at that information. For example, I needed to reevaluate the notion of a trustworthy narrator, or when to use present tense, both points I mentioned earlier. I mean, how could I take anything told me by Anansi the Spider as the truth? The spider’s always the trickster, and I had to accept that reality, to live with it, just as these societies I was trying to recreate lived with the reality of their myths and gods. Anansi was never merely a legend, in old Mali.

Rail: Ancient Mali also featured the legendary libraries of Timbuktu, which may have held 700,000 volumes. In Moon Witch, I daresay you’ve got almost as many, though the documents can take unusual form. One crucial record is written on a linen scroll and wrapped around an imprisoned queen. Then, too, Sogolon has a kind of madman teach her to read. Still, she does learn, and by story’s end she speaks, what, three languages? Four? In any case, these skills figure as a kind of alternative magic. What about this, your combination of wild fantasy and quiet book learning—even the study of signs?

James: Actually, I hadn’t thought of this till you asked that question—but this is the second of my Black female protagonists who, in the midst of uncertainty and violence, learns to read. Lilith, the lead character in The Book of Night Women, does the same, and honestly, I didn’t even realize the connection until now. Clearly, I’m still obsessed with literacy, even with reading itself. As Jeanette Winterson observed once, “reading is an act of free will, and it’s a private one, that’s why it’s so scary and dangerous”, and my books all at some point or another evoke that act, its impact. Certainly, when Sogolon learns to read, she becomes more scary and dangerous. So I’m saying that combination you speak of, “fantasy and book learning,” that too must be something I’m obsessed with, though just why, I’m not sure. My own history as a reader is nothing so strange, certainly I was never kept away from books, though they could be hard to come by. Still, for some reason I’ve always felt, when I’m deep into a good book, even the wildest, most imaginative thing, that I’ve been let into a secret history. After all, the material may be a fantasy for me and other readers, but it’s not a fantasy for the characters. For them, even the strangest turn of events is still something to endure, and perhaps even learn from. And that’s what I want for my own books, that feeling that they offer a secret history, a world they lived in, and on top of that, I want the same for my characters.

Rail: On the other hand, Sogolon spends decades outside language, among jungle wildlife. There she bonds with gorillas, and elsewhere, in cities, she communes with lions and other creatures. Similar connections turn up in several characters, and go beyond that of a “spirit animal”; there’s metamorphosis and the exchange of messages. Lately a number of writers have tried on other species, but I daresay no one’s set loose such a menagerie, and I don’t see it as a result of your Kingston upbringing. What you can say about all the animal life here, either its sources or its uses?

James: You know, my books are always a surprise to me. Of course I have some idea of where they’re headed, but as I said earlier, much of the journey depends on the characters, their discoveries and contradictions, and so I had little idea what would happen to Sogolon when she ended up living among the animals, accepting them as her neighbors and friends, even her family, in a ruined city reverted to rain forest. I did know I had to avoid the trap so common in non-fiction, something a few critics have pointed out, in which you’ve got multidimensional lions, let’s say, but the men and women are just one-note. I mean, you’ll have a warlord who’s a stock villain but, man, check out the character development on that giraffe! I didn’t want a long episode of National Geographic TV, and I also didn’t want to fetishize the wildlife, making them “spirit animals.” My animals have their psychology: they’re cantankerous, they’re horny, or “in heat.” [Laughs] They’re greedy and selfish, which is another way of saying, a gorilla is always a gorilla; a giraffe, a giraffe. And Sogolon, at that point, she needed that kind of genuineness, that kind of nakedness. She needed beings who would never surprise, never disappoint, and she got it. As far as the animals are concerned, she’s either part of the community or part of the space, nothing more. So the whole episode depends on leaving these creatures to their own devices—which also allows Sogolon, in a weird way, to be most herself. Even though she’s a woman on a mission—more than one mission—and a woman with children and a family, it’s not coincidental that she spends the most years of her life, a huge chunk of time, in this space of stasis, near sleep really, an experience of sameness, but at the same time not monotonous. It reminds me of the notion that animals have eternal life, because they have no concept of death. That’s actually not true; elephants, for one, clearly understand death and grief. Still, I get how the constancy of animals is reassuring in our ever-changing and tumultuous world. We like the constancy of pets, of cats and dogs, and while the animals in my novel are not pets, not at all, they allow Sogolon the freedom to be anything or nothing. It’s as if she’s the animal.

Rail: Well, the idea that some being can exist as both all and nothing—that raises the stakes. Looking over the trilogy so far, I notice its fine recurring epithet, “Fuck the gods.” In fact, Moon Witch goes further; its gods are “petty” and “foolish.” Also, the two figures described as gods, roughly female and male, prove deeply flawed, just as Sogolon’s superhuman gifts don’t free her from torment. The narrative does raise a cry for justice, the enslaved people revolt, but here we’re not in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth, where justice is the ruling concern. Rather, this is the world of Ovid and Oedipus, in which fate sets traps and our lives’ meanings could be lost forever, rather like the boy your characters are seeking. How does that sit with you?

James: Hm. You wonder why folks find mythology so fantastical, when it’s been my experience that, outside of most Judeo-Christian parables, the gods of myth are all too human. They may have powers, and they may deign to bless you, but more often they’re petty and even infantile in how they wield their magic. That was as true for the Viking Thor as for any thunder god of Africa. Hm, two things: First, if you’re living with such a notion of the Divine, extreme not only in terms of power but also in terms of pettiness, of all the flaws we know too well, if your people grew up with the Icelandic sagas, or with hero stories of West African, or most of Greek myths, then you tend to be very no nonsense. Such a cosmology makes people deeply practical, with a firm grip on the world, a clear sense of human nature, in a way that eludes so many contemporaries across the West. There are things the Greek tragedians understood and explored about the grimmer aspects of humanity that we have yet to, in Euro-American society, because we don’t have the guts, we don’t have the fearlessness. In fact, I have the sinking feeling that we’ve lost it, by shunting this fantastical world of flawed gods to the nerds. I think again of Margaret Atwood, her claim that how mythology proves human nature hasn’t changed, and I’d suggest such ancient fantasy takes us closer to reality than today’s so-called social realism. I’m not knocking such novels, I love Jane Austen, but I object to the idea that once an author brings in witches and fairies, they’re leaving humanity behind. That’s never been true of any society in history, and certainly not of storytelling. You know, I lived through the 1990s, and I saw how even the stories on television were ruled by two fantasies; you were either a fan of Felicity or of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, of those two, Felicity may seem more realistic, but it follows one of the oldest, silliest fallacies of film and TV, namely, “He who’s prettiest makes the rules.” Now, that’s more fantastical than elves! [Laughs] By contrast, the vampires and demons of Buffy felt much closer to the truth of the teenage years, in which, for instance, a girl can’t stop worrying about her boyfriend. Will he ruin me? Call me out as a slut? The risk is real, it’s one of an adolescent’s first and most dangerous bargains, and for Buffy, the guy doesn’t just turn out to be an asshole—he’s a mass murderer! See, that’s the kind of intensity, of extremity, we humans have always used to map our emotions, to measure our highs and lows, but it often seems now like we’ve lost the gift, or the courage. We’ve instead come to rely on a sort of lesser intelligence. If there’s one thing writing this novel has taught me, has shown me, it’s all that we’re at risk of losing.


John Domini

John Domini contributes regularly to the Rail. His latest book is a memoir, The Archeology of a Good Ragú.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

All Issues