On Tuesday, October 13th, Marlon James became the first Jamaican writer to win the Man Booker prize for fiction for his epic reggae- and drug-infused novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” inspired by an attempt to kill reggae star Bob Marley in 1976.
The 686-page novel tells the story of a gang of cocaine-fuelled ghetto kids armed with automatic weapons who tried but failed to kill Marley in the Jamaican capital Kingston before he gave a peace concert. It uses Jamaican patois, Harlem slang and liberal doses of scatological language.
“I’m not an easy writer to like,” said James, 44, who lives in Minneapolis. He said he had decided to give up writing after one of his books was rejected 70 times, but eventually it was published and he was able to put the voices he heard in Jamaica into his work. “The reggae singers … were the first to recognise that the voice coming out of our mouths was a legitimate voice of fiction …that the son of the market woman can speak poetry,” he said.
Accepting the award from Camilla, the Duchess of Cambridge, at a ceremony in London’s Guildhall, James said: “I just met Ben Okri [who won for The Famished Road in 1991] and it just reminded me of how much of my literary sensibilities were shaped by the Man Booker prize … it suddenly increases your library by 13 books.”
He dedicated his win to his late father with who, he recalled, he used to have Shakespeare duels with as a boy. “Who can have the longest soliloquy … just imagine a father and son in a Jamaican rum bar.” James said he hoped his win would bring more attention to Caribbean writing but he admitted he had to leave Jamaica to write the book, it was “a novel of exile … I needed that distance, I needed that sense of maybe there wouldn’t be consequences.”
He said it was the riskiest novel he had written, in terms of subject and form and it was “affirming” winning the prize. “I would have been happy with two people liking it.” Author and academic Michael Wood, chair of the five judges who selected James’s book from a shortlist of six titles, said the sprawling work had impressed the entire panel. “The excitement of the book kept coming, I think, and we just felt it didn’t flag, and on re-reading it just got better,” he told reporters.
According to Wood to reporters, he was sure his mother would not have been able to get through even a few pages of the book, but he recommended it to readers who want to try something different. “It may be controversial but only if you simply extract the swearing and drugs and stuff from the context,” he said. “It could well be that it’s not so controversial.” The prize, which in its 47-year history previously has gone to Salman Rushdie, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee, carries a top cash award of 50,000 pounds ($76,000), but more importantly can be a huge shot in the arm for book sales.