A Literary Halloween with Marlon James


It was certainly worthwhile, on a rainy and dismal Halloween Day in Chicago, trekking downtown to listen to Jamaican novelist Marlon James speak about his Man Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings in particular, and the writing process in general. As part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, the cavernous hall in the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue wasn’t exactly the best venue for an intimate chat with James, but his interviewer, the Trinidadian poet Roger Bonair-Agard, did manage to ask some amazing questions which led to a stimulating literary discussion.
Bonair-Agard asked if James was influenced by Greek tragedy and poetry in his writing, and the answer was a definite affirmative. James mentioned that he reads the Greek classics before plotting and writing a new novel. He seeks getting insights into human frailties, and James believes that much can be learned in this area by perusing Homer, Sophocles and Aristophanes. From these writers James explores “what people do when they are in desperate situations, and what the consequences of their mistakes are.”
The context of A Brief History of Seven Killings is the failed assassination attempt of singer Bob Marley in 1976. James, who was born in 1970, remembers listening to Jamaican radio reporting on it as a young boy of six. Marley, who died of cancer in 1981, remains a mythic and revolutionary figure to James, and the author who got his information about Marley through radio and television in his childhood, writes about “Marley as in a news report with a series of ten second sound bursts.”
After the presentation, I rushed downstairs to get a good spot in the book signing queue. When it came my turn, I chatted with him briefly about my time in Jamaica in 1968, but there were at least sixty other people behind me when we shook hands and I walked away.