Shape-Shifter: A Profile of Marlon James

Kima Jones
From the March/April 2019 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Marlon James and I have met before, many times, but never in Los Angeles. A Facebook update this morning informs me that James’s favorite city in America is L.A. I’m waiting for him in the lobby of the Line hotel, Koreatown’s very hip, very industrial, very dope—to quote its enthusiasts—singular travel destination, but I’m worried about the noise. Elevator jazz is playing overhead, and the aqua-blue couches and glass dining tables are packed with folks just like us talking about business deals, and art, and literature, and vastness, and coffee roasters, and Hollywood. When he arrives we sit at the far back of the lobby, away from the bustling entrance. I ask, “Why is Los Angeles your favorite city?” and he says “ha” in the new way we’ve all come to share the sentiment: being reminded that hundreds, sometimes thousands of “friends” and “followers” are reading the minutiae of our daily lives, even if they don’t click Like or leave a comment. The practice is popularly known as lurking. I call it research. “I still think art can happen here,” he says. “New York has museums, but museums aren’t culture. Museums are a graveyard for culture. If I am this year’s Patti Smith, I cannot go to New York, but I can still go to Los Angeles. There’s a sense of possibility here. Kendrick, and Anderson. Paak, the Black Hippy movement, Kamasi Washington, all of that is Los Angeles.” He turns the question on me, and I don’t even need to think about the answer. I love the desert, the mythos of the Western frontier, the apocalypse. “I’m going to die in the desert,” I say, and we both briefly acknowledge the setting sun, pink with hints of orange, bouncing off the backs of buses moving slowly down Wilshire Boulevard, before getting down to business.

Marlon James.  (Credit: Sara Rubinstein)

I ask him a question about the world since Donald Trump when he lets out another hearty laugh. Hearty laughter and Facebook will become a theme of our two and a half hours together. “That’s usually a question I get from the foreign press,” he says. James doesn’t take a breath between sentences. “The most powerful aspect of fascism is that nobody knows they are sitting in fascism when they’re in it. Trump is disruptive, but he’s not transformative. We’re going to see more literature coming out of this administration than coming out of 9/11. 9/11 was instantaneous. We’re not even sure how to process this yet.” I’m reminded of the tense, private conversations I’ve had with friends since the 2016 election: reviewing our savings, taking on extra work, scaling back, canceling vacations. We’re sure that the worst of the recession is on its way, and none of us are prepared to survive it. Forget talking about the bizarre, carnival-like press conferences; no comment on the sitting president’s outrageous ideas regarding climate change; I don’t bring up the migrant children in detention centers. I’m still anchored to the end of James’s last sentence. He’s right, I can’t even process the daily news. In the name of self-care, unplugging, unwinding, getting over and getting through, I close my app like everyone else. 

I’ve sat down with James many times before, so I know his cadence. We’re talking about novelists now, and apathy, and James is about to bring his point full circle. “Every book is political. Not political is politics,” he says. “I’m not on a mission, but I think a writer has to talk about what’s in front of them, even when writing about shape-shifting creatures.” 

Marlon James is the author of four highly acclaimed novels. His first, John Crow’s Devil, which was rejected seventy-eight times before it was published by Akashic Books in 2005, went on to be named a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. His follow-up, The Book of Night Women (Riverhead Books, 2009), won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Minnesota Book Award and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction and an NAACP Image Award. His magnum opus (to date), A Brief History of Seven Killings, won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, and the Minnesota Book Award. 

His new novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, published by Riverhead Books in February, is the first book of an epic fantasy trilogy about Tracker, a hunter known widely for “his nose,” who is tasked with hunting down a mysterious boy who hasn’t been seen in three years. Tracker, who some have called a wolf, finds himself working with a ragtag band of hunters, some human and others supernatural, including a shape-shifting mercenary named Leopard, all searching for the boy. As Tracker and his group move closer to discovering the boy’s location and true identity, they come under attack by enemies near and far. Weighing in at 640 pages, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is in many ways the novel that James was destined to write. While much of the media hype has been focused on the fact that James wrote an epic fantasy, I am intrigued for all of its other riches: This is James’s first book that is not set in his native Jamaica, his first book about empire. I would argue that James has never been more free. Though he read African mythologies and epics for three years before writing one word, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a testament to his own make-believe. “I really wanted to geek out and write the story I wish I read as a kid,” he says. “I am writing the stories that I want to read about Jamaica. I wrote the stories that I wanted to read about Jamaica.”

Mic drop.

The Man Booker Prize win catapulted James to international stardom. With the win, he joined the “one-name club,” composed of those writers and artists whose legend has no ceiling and no floor: Jesmyn, Edwidge, Colson, Zadie, Toni, Hilton, Jamaica, Gwendolyn, and now Marlon. With that kind of glory comes fame: Melina Matsoukas, the visionary, two-time Grammy Award–winning director of music videos, films, and television shows (most notably Issa Rae’s Insecure on HBO), is leading the adaptation of A Brief History of Seven Killings for Amazon Studios. 

After such a meteoric rise to the heights of literary fame, I am curious about whether his approach to writing this new book was different from the others. “All my books start with trial and error,” he says. “There were four or five versions that I tried. This is the one that worked. I was talking to Melina [Matsoukas]—do you know her?” he stops to ask me. It was my turn for hearty laughter. Of course I know Beyoncé and Solange’s personal director. We have brunch all the time. He returns the laughter. “Well, we were talking about Showtime’s The Affair and the changing perspective. That’s when it occurred to me that Tracker could tell this story, but if you want to believe him, that’s your business.” How perfect, I thought. The Black woman director adapting your most critically acclaimed novel is also talking shop with you about your draft-in-progress. This is some kind of psychedelic, neon-haired P-Funk dream that could only happen in a Black Los Angeles where Black people not only know the future, they are writing and directing it. 

Still, James is modest in discussing his success. “I write the kind of books where if people don’t say, ‘Read it,’ people don’t read it. God bless those people who can write best-sellers. I don’t write great white saviors; my books are pretty nihilistic; things don’t end well, and I think something like a Booker Prize got more and more people to read my work. It’s hard for literary authors, for authors writing people of color.” James is standing for his ovation, but he’s also aware that every pair of hands in the auditorium counts. 

“Yeah, but what about the bad parts?” I ask. There’s rarely a story this enchanted without a poison apple. 

James is only the second Caribbean winner to win the Booker, following Trinidad-born V. S. Naipaul, who won the award in 1971. “It also changed the kinds of scrutiny I get,” James says, “which brings us back to Facebook. Any little thing I say on Facebook ends up in the Guardian and international media, but it hasn’t made me less outspoken.”

James is referring to two particular instances here but offers no further elaboration, and I don’t prompt him to say more. In November 2015 James responded to novelist Claire Vaye Watkins’s five-thousand-word Tin House essay “On Pandering” that would rock the Internet for weeks. In it Watkins discusses motherhood, misogyny, publishing, and pandering, which she refers to as performing for the imaginary white, male audience. “I have been writing to impress old white men,” she wrote. For as much as “On Pandering” does do, there is so much that it doesn’t do: It doesn’t consider the lives and journeys of writers of color, it doesn’t consider that her readers are people of color, and it doesn’t hold white, female publishing gatekeepers accountable for continuing to popularize and publish a very particular type of literature again and again. James wrote on Facebook: “While she [Watkins] recognizes how much she was pandering to the white man, we writers of colour spend way too much time pandering to the white woman. I’ve mentioned this before, how there is such a thing as ‘the critically acclaimed story.’ You see it occasionally in certain highbrow magazines and journals. Astringent, observed, clipped, wallowing in its own middle-style prose and private ennui, porn for certain publications.” The Guardian would go on to say that James “slammed” and “blasted” the publishing world in his retort, but James did what Black people do every day: He pointed at what was standing right in front of him and called it out for exactly what it is. 

Fast-forward two years and James would find his Facebook posts in the news again. On June 16, 2017, a jury acquitted officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of thirty-two-year-old Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, just north of Saint Paul, where James has lived for more than a decade. Castile, an employee of Saint Paul Public Schools, was shot seven times. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, live-streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, and one can see Officer Yanez still pointing his gun at Castile’s dead body. Reynolds’s four-year-old daughter is in the backseat. 

The Washington Post picked up the story following James’s Facebook essay-post “Smaller, and Smaller, and Smaller,” written the day after Yanez’s acquittal. Though James is one of the most famous people in Saint Paul and one of the most recognizable, he carries the burden of not appearing “too big” or “too close” (a phrase coined by comedian Dick Gregory in 1971) to white people but especially to police officers. He points out that while some Minnesotans want to “rebrand this state as North,” in reality, North is merely a romanticized concept in race relations. This is where I press James for more. We talk about living in this country, in the world as Black people, as writers, as people who travel frequently and observe everything. I bring up Garnette Cadogan’s groundbreaking essay “Walking While Black” and James nods in recognition. “Garnette’s piece made me think about how I don’t know how to stand still. Talking about Philando Castile, I don’t know if I should stand up and get shot, read my phone and get shot, blink and get shot. I don’t know what actual physical activity I can do, including standing still, that I can do and not get shot.” 

“And Tracker?” I ask, thinking of James’s protagonist roving through forests, mountains, and enemy territory with bands of people after him.

It’s obvious that James has thought a lot about his newest protagonist and state-sanctioned surveillance and violence. “It’s important for Tracker and Leopard that shape-shifting is a pleasure, and it’s a nature, a survival, but not in the same way. They’re not being monitored and watched. They don’t have a city system and a state working against them.”

At this point we take a few moments for ourselves to clear the air of the weight of Black death. Thankfully James has one of those urgent texts that happen when you land in L.A., and I need more water. 

When we return to the table, James is laughing. “It’s amazing that people think I am outspoken on Facebook, because I still feel like I have to hold back. I feel if I really, really said what I want to say, I could still be deported,” he says. We are laughing again partly because that is both a half and whole truth, and as Black people we are on the inside of it: It is true that James will always say what needs to be said, and that’s the source of his authority and mastery, and it is also true that James lives with the everyday threat of harassment, deportation, and violence, if someone in power decided to make it so.

“Are you ready to talk about this novel finally?” I ask. Beaming, he claps his hands and pumps his shoulders a few times like a beautiful, broad-shouldered athlete being interviewed after a victory. “Ready!” he says with a smile. 

James explains that break dancing, Labelle, Star Wars, and Jamaican fashion magazines of the eighties and nineties were his first experiences of futurism. I want to know what appeals to him about genre, specifically. Any close reader of James’s work will tell you that A Brief History of Seven Killings, which delves into three electrifying decades of Jamaican history around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, is pretty genre-defying itself. It is clear that James has a fondness for crime and mystery, an admiration threaded through all four of his novels. “Most of the books I read when I was younger were fantasy, comics, crime, and children’s books, and children’s books themselves are usually all of those things. Part of it is growing up in the Caribbean.” Here, James paraphrases Gabriel García Márquez: “Living in the Caribbean is wilder than the wildest fiction.” James credits his grandparents and his favorite aunt for his love of imaginative fiction. “Stories you’re told as a kid are always fantastical. I’m growing up in Jamaica, and I’m in a Jamaican pharmacy, not even a bookstore, you’re not going to find Moby-Dick. You’re going to find a novelization of Star Trek. Even my sci-fi fantasy cinema language is not the movies; it’s the books I read. It’s very dime-store, very pop comics; quite frankly it’s whatever got dumped in the third world, and I gobbled up all of it. I mean, I read Superman III as a book.” He returns to his love of Los Angeles briefly and says, “L.A. is the place where genre fiction exploded with the two genres I like the most: sci-fi/fantasy and crime. The crime novels of L.A. have a wider campus than anywhere else.”

James wants readers to be “exhausted” by the time they finish Black Leopard, Red Wolf from putting the full story together for themselves. “I realized reading all of the African epics, the awesome complexity of these narratives and how much intelligence that they’re expecting from the reader. People are more complicated than simple story; the gods are more complicated than that. They expect you to have the intelligence to navigate the treacherous waters.” And James flings us directly into turbulent, unreliable waters in Black Leopard, Red Wolf. He forces us to second-guess Tracker, Leopard, the entire cast of characters, and ourselves. While most epic fantasies look to the hero-crusade model, James knew from the outset that his trilogy would do none of that. “Respectability politics is Black people playing Anglo. It’s tying to a value system that I have no interest in writing about. I wasn’t interested in writing a sci-fi movie in brown face. Firstly, if you’re interested in African storytelling, realize that the trickster is telling the story, so the whole sense of authenticity and authority that we attach to storytelling—throw that out of the window. I knew I was going to write a hedonistic, queer, selfish character. I’m not interested in inner nobility. That’s a European, Christian narrative from the Crusades.”

And the novel is gay. “Gay gay,” James adds. We’re both reminiscing about our time as baby queers who weren’t yet out. I tell him about my times riding the train from Poughkeepsie to basement parties in Brooklyn where money was collected at the door by a dyke elder, bottles of Heineken were for sale in the kitchen, and we were left alone to grind against each other for hours in the dark. Ladies only. James chimes in, recalling his own closetedness and coming out.  “I was in the Bronx with the Jamaicans,” he says, “and I’d take the 5 train to Barnes and Noble, to Union Square. Just to walk around. Just to be out. Our built-in desire to shape-shift is always there.” James scoffs at the notion that an African epic can’t also be queer. “The novel is super fluid and super sexual because Africa is fluid and sexual. Pansexuality, queerness, nonbinary is not new to Africa. White people like to think it is.” Being queer doesn’t mean that someone isn’t problematic, and Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s Tracker isn’t without his problems. He’s a misogynist, but unlike other authors, James takes his character to task. “It was very important to me that Tracker is called out on his sexism. I’m not having that.”

Before our time together comes to an end, I tell James that he can’t get away without talking about process and craft. James is a tenured creative writing and literature professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul. When I ask him how he managed to write another 600-plus-page book, he scoots closer to me and shows me his iPhone screen. He opens his gallery to dozens and dozens of panoramic photos of his office wallpapered in bright index cards and sticky notes, mostly pink, yellow, and green. He shows me maps of various African dynasties and the map of his own new novel that he designed himself. I can see that besides being meticulous and organized, he’s simply happy that someone asked him about craft—for once. Before closing his phone he gives me a final observation on craft: “People disregard plot because they’re not really that interested in their characters.”

We get up to hug and ask the lobby attendant to take our photo together, though we’ll see each other soon: The very next night, on the rooftop of the same hotel, Riverhead Books and Entertainment Weekly will throw a party for him. The Los Angeles Times will be there, Roxane Gay, Carolyn Kellogg, the who’s who of literary L.A. 

James will be standing in the center of the room, dashing in a traditional Arabic black thobe with a high slit on one side, his thick hair pulled back, a composed celebrity. There will be two signature cocktails, a large spread, and heaps and heaps of praise for what is sure to be this year’s blockbuster book. Every guest will be greeted at the door by James’s team with the question, “Are you a black leopard or a red wolf?” When I arrive and it is my turn to answer, I scan the room for James and lock eyes, blow him a kiss, before turning to his team and saying, “I am both.” 


Kima Jones is a poet and prose writer living in Los Angeles, where she owns and operates Jack Jones Literary Arts, a book publicity company.