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Marvellous Marlon

Published: 
Thursday, October 22, 2015

“Lawd a mussy Brudda Big Stones, look see we troubles-na say is nuff pressure de IMFsters nailin Jamdown ‘tween rock an more rock, now nasty sodomite from Minnehapless come win big battyman lickracha prize and shame we for de whirl.” 

“True dat Deacon Stiffpole, is habominashun an fiya in he bombarass, only washin he stink mout pon de righteous an Rasta. Wha yuh say? Me na read dat book. Me na read, punto final. Book only good fi battyman, is dat self mek im loss he nature an cyar fine de right hole.” 

“Seen Brudda Stones, an de prize only fuh nasty sodomite an all dem denizen of de darkess recess of the abscess pon we glory. Hear it nah-Man Booker prize. Dat is devil own business. Lawd a mussy mek he come back inna Jamdown an we go show he rod of correckshun, de fiya an de brimstone, cho!” Marlon James’ Man Booker win presents the Caribbean with aspects of itself, which might conveniently be swallowed in the latest fuzzword “hybridity”, now tripping off lips. It covers a multitude of sins, omissions and meanings we’re still avoiding. James might well be considered a hybrid—born and raised in Jamdown but only free enough in his sexuality after migrating to America in his late 20s to become his own man and produce his monumental win. 

His prodigious book A Brief History of Seven Killings, whose main narrative focus is the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley, is definitely hybrid, switching from what some European critics are still calling “Patois” to High-Brown Beverly Hills chat, to the Afro-American slang appropriated by cynical CIA operatives or the flat monotones of their frustrated women, and the Spanglish of the Cuban counterrevolutionary Dr Love.

But hybridity aside, there is much in the 688-page champion, its writer and the reception of its win to give us all pause, not only for celebration but some reflection. (the title itself, resonates with both dark humour and echoes of colonial narratives). The Man Booker prize, with its £50,000 (half a million TT$) price tag, runs a close second in prestige to the Nobel Prize for Literature.

From the Caribbean, only Naipaul got there before in 1971, which is an interesting point of departure, as both he and James have uneasy relationships with their home territories; Naipaul for what has been read or misread as betrayal, misanthropy or even racism, James for his (until very recently discreet) “otherness”. 

Naipaul has remained unapologetic but James spoke magnanimously of both Jamaica and the Caribbean after accepting the prize, saying he hoped it would focus attention on the new generation of regional writers who are “writing about contemporary society, beyond politics and colonialism, we’re exploring gay issues, humour, comics…” Significantly the metropolitan judges found their “unanimous choice” as offensive and disturbing as those in Jamaica, who have probably not read the book. Chair of the judges Michael Wood acknowledged that: “some of the content might be too much for some readers. A lot of it is very very funny,” he added. “It is not an easy read. It is a big book. There is some tough stuff and there is a lot of swearing but it is not a difficult book to approach.” 

Now there’s the difference, a metropolitan audience, it could be argued, do not have to negotiate with the defensiveness which has marked official responses to James’ win in Jamaica. 

The metropolitan audience can focus on the text itself, rather than any distractions about sexuality, which is a pity for Jamaica as Seven Killings presents a multi-layered overview of itself during a crucial period when it became a flashpoint of World Youth Culture and revolution, the emergence of Rasta and reggae, the Cold War clash between America and Cuba and many of the issues facing the former British West Indian colonies. 

So far there has been no official recognition (unless I missed it, in which case belated apologies) that a son of the soil has triumphed in a fiercely competitive sphere. The Jamaica Gleaner, in its editorial last Thursday gave brief almost begrudging congratulations: “And so it is, too, that we celebrate with Marlon James, who this week won Britain's prestigious prize, Man Booker Prize for literature, becoming, officially, the first Jamaican writer to do so” before quickly asserting “Others, however, depending on your definition of Jamaican, have come close and have won other major global prizes for literature.” Andrea Levy and Zadie Smith (first generation Jamaican-English writers) who apparently know how to keep their pum pum business out of the spotlight receive fulsome praise.

They say Harold “Sonny” Ladoo, our unsung Trini novelist, was killed over a land dispute, although others in McBean Village, Couva still whisper he was offed for shaming the village in his hilarious Yesterdays. If in one sense, art holds the mirror to society, lets’ pray our small village prejudices and ignorance don’t prevent us from engaging with James’ brilliant epic and recognising the inspiration its win is for every aspiring regional writer.

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