Marlon James: Risk the Epic

In modern pop culture, fantasy epics reign as a dominating genre, both critically and commercially. Book series, such as “A Song of Ice and Fire,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and “The Wheel of Time,” catapulted to the top of the worldwide fantasy canon, yet these stories focus on a singular demographic. A singularly privileged demographic. 

However, author Marlon James contradicted this systemic pattern with his acclaimed African fantasy epic “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” released in early 2019. Combining fantasy, history, and African mythology, the first novel of his planned trilogy follows a gifted mercenary on his wild quest to track down a missing child.

Although James is a self-proclaimed fan of sci-fi and fantasy, the first book of his Dark Star Trilogy is a marked departure from his first three novels. His debut, “John Crow’s Devil,” follows two rival priests during a biblical conflict in a Jamaican village; his second novel, “The Book of Night Women,” revolves around a slave revolt in 19th century Jamaica. 

James catapulted himself into literary fame with his third novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” This historical epic follows a decade long journey across borders and perspectives, which crescendos with the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. In 2015, A Brief History of Seven Killings won the prestigious Man Booker Award for fiction, and James became the first Jamaican author to do so. 

However, some readers have criticized the level of violence in his books, finding paragraphs of gruesome detail too much to endure. James largely brushes these complaints aside. Controversy and questions have followed James his entire life, and he’s made it clear that squeamish readers aren’t his target audience.

A native of Kingston, Jamaica in the 70s, the author lived with his mother, a detective, and his father, a lawyer, who both introduced their son to literature. As James went through school, he faced constant bullying for his sexuality. His classmates outed him as gay before James even realized himself. To avoid this discrimination, James resorted to fantastical books and his own creativity, often staying in his room on weekend nights to read and write. 

After he graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991, James attempted to blend into Jamaican culture. He got a job in advertising, joined a church, and tried to have a girlfriend. Yet, he couldn’t force himself through a life of pretending. “I just realized that I wanted to get rid of the guilt […] So I’m like, ‘What if I get rid of the church?’ And that worked fine.” 

Again, feeling the need to escape, James returned to writing. He soon finished his debut novel, which received 78 rejections before being published.

Now, James uses his literary fame as much more than a platform for his own accomplishments. In frosty Minnesota, he teaches Creative Writing at Macalester College, since he moved to America in 2007. He also participates in literary panels on Facebook, James freely commentates on the discrimination people of color face. 

He’s spoken out against the effort of publishers to push People-of-color authors to write for the older white woman demographic, the abuse of power by American police, and Jamaica’s troubled history with homosexuality. 

Much like his work, Marlon James is an epic man. His story spans across countries, through discrimination, and into well-earned success. And a writer can’t be afraid of conflict. They work with it. James writes and lives by his own quote: “You have to risk going too far.”

-Jake McClain