Months before Marlon James won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, the Jamaican author, and Macalester College professor, embarked on a new novel, the first in a trilogy already garnering comparisons to fantasy master J.R.R. Tolkien.
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Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an epic that combines fantasy, historical fiction, and African folklore. It plunges readers into Iron Age Africa, where Tracker, a hunter with an exceptional nose, is recruited to find a missing boy.
As the search gets underway, the story winds through antiquated cities and vivid landscapes, introducing readers to a ragtag bunch of characters that include a human flesh-eater, bloodthirsty hyenas, giants, mermaids, witches, trolls, conjoined twins, and a shape-shifting man-animal. Graphic violence and sexuality are par for the course in this dark escapade.
James didn’t set out to write what he has playfully called an “African Game of Thrones”; the characters simply “showed up” in the summer of 2015. “The only pressure I bring when I’m telling a story is how to tell it,” James says. For Black Leopard, Red Wolf, that meant having the trickster tell the story, a long-standing tradition in his homeland.
“There are lots of aspects of African culture that European slave masters didn’t manage to whip out of us, and one was the oral tradition,” he says. “Nobody in Africa has to be taught the lesson of the unreliable narrator. The unreliable narrator tells 90 percent of the stories. You already have to view the narrator with a skeptical eye. That I knew and grew up with.”
Like a lot of people, James discovered the genre of fantasy in childhood through fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and tall tales told by his grandfather and mother. “I guess there comes a stage where people put that aside. I never hit that stage. I’ve always loved fairy tales. I still read them,” he says.
Fairy tales led to mythology. By age nine he knew ever Greek and Roman god. He also fell in love with historical novels (especially the medieval ones) and comic books. “It was kind of a hodgepodge of whatever I could find, whatever I could borrow, whatever I could steal, whatever I could buy with my little money,” he says.
But little of that avid reading helped James with the historical aspects of Black Leopard, Red Wolf. He did a lot of addition of research to get the all-encompassing world of his characters just right. Along the way, he came upon some surprises.
“In the book, there’s quite a bit of queerness and gender fluidity, which sounds like me trying to be modern or trying to score some intersectionality points, but those are actually the oldest elements in the book,” he says, noting that Africans have been using gender-neutral pronouns for 4,000 years. And yet, “a lot of African countries are actually quite homophobic, which is quite surprising, given their history.”
Fantasy has been used as a vehicle for sociopolitical commentary before, and it certainly crept into James’ new novel, though not deliberately. Female genital mutilation comes up more than once in the book. “It’s still a hot-button topic in a lot of African countries,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to make a statement, but the lead character Tracker says, ‘Either you believe the gods made no mistakes, or you’re correcting God’s mistake. So choose.’ Which is bound to be a political statement, but I didn’t set out to be that. It’s just inhabiting him and thinking about it, it seemed like a natural response to me.”
Rather than write an odyssey that unfolds over three books, James will retell the same event from three different eyewitness accounts, one in each book. This structure fits with the African version of storytelling where there is no one true version of a narrative.
“I think in the West, and partially because of Christianity, we’re obsessed with truth. We’re obsessed with this being the true story,” he says, offering examples like the director’s cut of films or authorized biographies. “All these things that we need to vouch for the truth of it. African storytelling didn’t need all of that. Truth was something that you had to define. If I tell you a story, you have to decide if it’s true or not. If you end up being deceived, that’s your problem.”
When asked if this fresh approach to fantasy will set a new standard for the genre, James exclaims, “Oh my God, I hope not, ‘cause then all the pressure will be on me!”
Will the Dark Star trilogy open the door for more writers of color to publish in the fantasy genre? “The door’s already open,” he says.
And he just walked through it with aplomb.
The Thread Live: Marlon James
7 p.m. Wednesday, February 13
$25-$30; $50 VIP
$25-$30; $50 VIP