Marlon James Embarks on an African Mythology-Inspired Epic

Posted by Cybil on January 31, 2019
Marlon James is the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, based on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976, as well as the author of two previous novels, John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women.

His latest book, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is the first volume in the planned Dark Star Trilogy, a saga that pays homage to African history and mythology. In it a band of mercenaries—including a witch, a talking buffalo, a giant, a shape-shifter, and a bounty hunter named Tracker—are hired to find a lost boy with mysterious significance to the king.

James spoke to Goodreads contributor Janet Potter about the limitless possibilities within African mythology, the science fiction that influenced him, and what the success of the movie Black Panther might mean for his book.

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Goodreads: This novel draws from African mythology and folklore for some of its settings and characters. Can you give a broad overview of which branches of African mythology you relied on most?

Marlon James: The first thing is, I think a lot of people aren’t aware that some of the stuff they think isn’t African actually is. Like Brer Rabbit is African folklore. Sometimes there are aspects of African folklore that people are familiar with, they just don’t know it’s African.

That said, a lot of what I was drawing from was Central and West African mythologies. Those that sort of predate Christianity, certainly, and predate Islam. These are still legitimate religious systems. If you’re [into] Cuban Santeria, they’re still worshipping orishas. But mostly I went from all over the continent; I wasn’t trying to stick to one region. As a fantasy novelist, as opposed to a historical novelist, you get the pleasure of traveling all over the African continent and sinking into all these amazing stories and mythologies and religions and folktales.

I think part of that, too, is growing up in the diaspora, growing up as a descendant of slaves, some of these stories we knew of in a certain way, but we’ve lost where they came from. So a lot of stuff I’m writing was Akan, or Asante mythology, lots of Igbo, but also lots of Southern African mythology. The one thing they all had in common was they were sub-Saharan. I think part of the problem of people trying to reclaim African history and culture is that they think the only thing that happened in Africa was Egypt. A lot of it is just history I stumbled upon, stuff that I knew in one way, stuff I knew a little bit of but didn’t know what the context was.

And mostly it was just looking for a rocking story. Let’s not forget all the simple pleasures of reading about witches and monsters and fairies and goblins. Dashing knights and royal families. We all like a saga, and I think part of this was me looking for sagas.

GR: Is Tracker based on any mythical figure or is he an original creation?

MJ: Clearly I’m being inspired by a lot of things, but he did kind of emerge fully formed. His ancestral home, the Ku village, was hugely influential on the tribes in the Omo valley, in lower Ethiopia, upper Kenya. He was definitely descended from and influenced by the Mursi and Hamar tribes, but ultimately characters just show up in my head. I have to wait months, sometimes years, to figure out what they’re trying to tell me and what the story is.

He showed up the way a lot of characters do. They show up, but I don’t know who they are or what purpose they serve, and a lot of times I don’t realize they’re supposed to be the main character. That also happened to me in my second novel, where the main character, Lilith, showed up as a supporting character in a chapter and she pretty much took over the book—over my objections, by the way. I was like, I’m not writing about you, shut up. And that’s what happened. This character was going to be a minor character in somebody else’s story. At some point something clicked; I became more interested in his story. How did you get a guy like Tracker who tries so hard to not have a story? He tries so hard to not believe in anything. He’s like, I’m a drifter. He stands for nothing, fights for nothing, defends nothing, believes in nothing. That is what made him fascinating to me.

GR: Tracker reminded me of Ranger from The Lord of the Rings in some ways. The name, obviously, but also their itinerant, mercenary existence.

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MJ: Although he’s not a king. Spoiler alert, for those who haven’t read the book.

GR: Exactly. In other ways he’s the anti-Ranger. He’s never making wise speeches, he’s not heavy-laden with meaning. This book is already drawing comparisons to The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones. Were you conscious when you were writing it of trying to stake out a different territory from those books?

MJ: I wanted to stake out a different territory, just in the sense of my own discovery. I’m clearly a fan of The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones. I’m devoted to sci-fi, which means being devoted to European sci-fi, because Eurocentric sci-fi is just what was available. I don’t care, I take stories wherever I can get them. I’ve read nearly every Icelandic saga. I’m obsessed with Vikings, I’ve always been.

So I am still influenced not so much by Tolkien as I am by what influenced Tolkien. And that’s where he was good; he was like a gateway drug. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and so on because they made me read Icelandic sagas. I remember once I told somebody I was a huge fan of Toni Morrison, I’ve read everything she’s written, and they said, Have you read everything she’s read? Because of Tolkien I read the Saga of Sigurd and Gudrun. So in a sense, I became influenced by their influences.

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GR: As you based parts of the story on mythology, did you ever feel constrained that your story had to go in certain directions dictated by mythology?

MJ: No, because so much of African mythology is so radically different. The queer element, the non-binary, the gender fluidity, the varieties of sexual experiences—all of that is the retro element in the book. There’s nothing new there; that’s what Africa was until a bunch of white preachers told them it wasn’t.

The stuff I uncovered in my research was endlessly surprising, endlessly refreshing, endlessly new. When I realized that African vampires have no fear of daylight, that blew my mind. It was like, Wow, the things I can do with a story where a vampire can run around in day.

Far from limiting, it opened up all these ways of possibility, because I think it’s not hampered by some of the things that hamper a lot of early and mid-20th-century fantasy. It’s hugely influenced by Christianity, including The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and you’re held by that. You’re held by the noble hero, everyone has to be on a mission, the magic child shall lead them. You realize that it can also be a pretty narrow field.

The African mythical universe was closer to Ancient Greek and Greek mythology. I read the Greek tragedies before I write every book. I reread The Orestia, I read the Roman poems, I read Ovid, I read all these things, because that sort of mystical animistic, very pagan kind of world is a lot more fluid, a lot more sensual, quite frankly a lot more sexy, and just more wide open to possibility.

My problem was too many directions to go, not too few. That was also a kind of madness. I was like, Wow, you can do anything. Give me back my good ole Christian restraint.

GR: The book takes place in a fictional world, and while the setting isn’t contemporary, it’s not clear what specific time it took place in. Considering that, how did you decide what the dialogue would sound like? Did you want the characters to sound historical? How did you find their idioms?

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MJ: Well, the setting in time was tricky, mostly because most of our timing is still Roman. If I was really going to put it in a period, it would have been post-Bronze Age, right before Iron Age. But, ultimately, I realized that in terms of time frame it’s closer to Star Wars, not historical fiction.

In terms of language, there are certain realities. The fact is, I grew up in Jamaica, I live in America, I speak English, and English is what I write in. I wasn't about to exoticize any African language. I wasn't going to turn Wolof into Elvish.

But what I found that really worked was staying in the language that I write in, but looking at the things like grammar and conjugation and various things that are from other languages. For example, one of my characters, Sogolon, her verbs are always present tense; no matter what tense she’s speaking, the verb is always present tense. That’s how we speak in Jamaica, and we always thought it was this backward English. We don’t say “he went”; we say “he did go.” He’ll be going soon, “he soon go.” The verb remains the same. So some of the characters always speak in present-tense verbs, some of the characters don’t distinguish between male and female. I took from the ways in which they structure words and sentences.

GR: Are the maps in the book based on actual geography?

MJ: To an extent. Some of those maps I actually took from actual atlases and just turned them upside down. Again, I’m really trying to let go of the European way of seeing the world. It was me taking maps and drawing my own territories and so on. It was ultimately all imagined.

GR: At what point did you see Black Panther?

MJ: I started writing this in 2015, so I had already finished first and second drafts. And then I had to see it to make sure my world doesn’t look like theirs and they’ll think I ripped it off.

GR: Do you think the success of that movie will make your book seem more accessible to a white audience?

MJ: Well, yeah, because I still think a lot of people think stories about black people that don’t have a white savior, or at least a white victim in it, mainstream America won’t pay attention to it. I think a lot of people are happy that Black Panther was such a success, but if it had only been a success in black communities, they would have said, See, it’s a niche film. But it’s not niche, it’s a mainstream film. That said, I know there are people who are paying more attention to what I’m doing because of Black Panther.

It’s not just me, it’s Tomi Adeyemi or Nnedi Okorafor—people writing before Black Panther happened. If this is what brings greater attention and scrutiny, then yeah, I think it’s a wonderful thing. It helps that it’s a good movie. I think it’s a moment whose time had come. The ideas we have about what Americans want to see, I think we need to rethink all that and stop selling readers or viewers short.

GR: What other books do you recommend in that vein?

MJ: If people haven’t read My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola, they really should. African literature—hell, magical realism—could not happen without it. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is fantastic. N.K. Jemisin doesn’t need an introduction. Nalo Hopkinson was a huge influence, Midnight Robber, Skin Folk. If people haven’t read Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren, they really have to; that was a huge influence, particularly in terms of identity and gender and sexuality and how do you evoke those things. Of course, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which has now become science fact.

GR: What can you tell us about the second book in your trilogy?

MJ: Well, I can give clues on the second book. This is not a trilogy in the sense of part 1, part 2, part 3. It’s more like Rashomon, where different characters are telling the same story from their perspective. So part 2 is being told by Sogolon, who is kind of the villain of part 1, but she’s telling part 2. So prepare to completely revamp everything you think you know. And part 3’s a surprise.

GR: What were your favorite books growing up?

MJ: Mostly comics—X-Men, Teen Titans, Spider-Man, Batman. Novels were pretty hard to get, so I would end up reading a lot of novelizations of films, like Empire Strikes Back for me was a novel, Star Trek: Wrath of Khan was a novel. I grew up reading lots of really commercial fiction like Shogun and so on, but primarily comics.

GR: What have you read lately that you recommend?

MJ: I really like Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. I thought it was a masterpiece. I’m still a little shocked by it. I’m always suspicious when people write about kids, particularly adolescents. When it’s funny, it’s side-splittingly hilarious; when it’s sad, it just breaks your heart.

GR: What are you working on now?

MJ: The sequel to this book.

Marlon James' novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf will be available on February 5. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Lucas (new)

Lucas Sounds like just the type of fantasy fiction I'm craving for these days. I'm so looking forward to this.

message 2: by Leanna (new)

Leanna Awesome interview!

message 3: by Leif (new)

Leif Quinlan "Brief History" is one of the best books of the past 25 years without question - the kind of book that affords an author I'll-read-anything-they-release cred. I pre-ordered this book months ago myself and can't wait to take it on a week-long snowboarding trip in late February. The New Yorker did a terrific profile on him last week as well

message 4: by Mehmet (new)

Mehmet I wish works created based on mythologies to be successful in developing a universal language allowing peoples of the world to understand each other better.

message 5: by Berto (new)

Berto Great interview, I can’t wait to read the book. I am gonna be that guy that points out the character in Lord of the Rings is named Strider, not Ranger.

message 6: by Valerie (new)

Valerie I can't wait to read this book. Neil Gaiman is signal boosting him. The same way he signal boosted Catherynne Valente. So I know this book is going to be very good.

message 7: by Bara (new)

Bara Valerie wrote: "I can't wait to read this book. Neil Gaiman is signal boosting him. The same way he signal boosted Catherynne Valente. So I know this book is going to be very good."

The way he talks about his book tells me he's not just self-promoting to get sales but he's a storyteller to the bone. I believe the book is going to be captivating.

message 8: by Gracelyn Tonge (new)

Gracelyn Tonge Can't wait to read this. I grew hearing stories from my grandmother who was born in the late 1890's. They were based on Anansi type stories.

message 9: by Beverly (new)

Beverly Oliver Another black writer and reader interested in the Vikings. Wonders never cease! I'm adding Marlon's books to my want to read shelf.

message 10: by Myrna (new)

Myrna Great interview! I am looking forward to reading this; I've been a mythology fan since I was a kid, as well as a sci-fi and comic book fan. This should be right in my wheelhouse.

message 11: by Megan (last edited Feb 09, 2019 06:35PM) (new)

Megan Anyone who sings the praises of Skippy Dies has earned my trust.

message 12: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Brown Great interview. You Go Bro!

message 13: by Wendy (new)

Wendy Goerl I was really getting in to this, and then I come to "Eurocentric sci-fi is just what was available"
Does this guy have no exposure to manga, or manhwa (lots of fantasy, there). Does he truly think no one's taken from Indian or aboriginal Australian myth? Or is he just one of these "brothers" that labels everything that is not (BLACK) African as "European"?

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