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Marlon James: 'I wonder if they've got the wrong guy'

STRIKE A PROSE: Marlon James with the prestigious literary prize

WHEN Marlon James’ novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was awarded the 2015 Man Booker Prize in October, much of the media coverage noted that the author was the first Jamaican to win the prestigious literary prize.

The fact that the award-winning novel was inspired by events in Jamaican history – specifically, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley – perhaps served to highlight the novelist’s Caribbean connections even further.

Still, James doesn’t consider his personal achievement a victory for his country of birth.

“I don't know if I look at it that way because I'm not representing Jamaica,” says the US-based author. “I love my country but I'm not exactly a walking tourist board for it. But if [the win] turns people's attention to other great writers that are coming out of the Caribbean, that would be great.”

Does James think he may offend fellow Jamaicans – many of whom are extremely patriotic – by saying he doesn’t consider himself a representative of the island?

“I wouldn't care,” says the author, whose previous novels are John Crow’s Devil (2005) and The Book of Night Women (2009).

“I mean, everybody who is achieving great things is in some way representing a country. But I'm not working for the tourist board. And I think there's the danger of becoming a bit of a walking jingle if you're not, first and foremost, true to your art.

“The best way for me to represent Jamaica is to do my best work and hopefully that's what I'm doing.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that the author doesn’t jump at the chance to declare himself a Jamaican representative with a hearty ‘yeah mon’.

Aside from his desire to avoid tokenism and focus on his art, James’ relationship with his country of birth has been somewhat strained.

In a powerful article that he wrote for New York Times earlier this year, James recalled the emotional turmoil he experienced growing up gay in Jamaica.

Though he kept his sexuality a secret for years, he recalled his fears, writing in his article: “I was so convinced that my voice outed me as a fag that I had stopped speaking to people I didn’t know.”

At the age of 28, seven years after graduating from the University of the West Indies, James felt as though he had “reached the end of myself.”

So desperate to hide his sexuality, he turned to the church and masqueraded as straight, even telling a woman that he’d tried to date that “the real reason I had no interest in a relationship was Jesus.”

All too familiar with issues of homophobia in Jamaica and the country’s controversial buggery law, which makes it a criminal offence for men to sleep with men, James wrote: “Whether it was in a plane or a coffin, I knew I had to get out of Jamaica.”

He moved to the US in 2007 after being offered a teaching job and has remained there ever since. Residing in Minnesota, has the author reached a place of peace having left Jamaica? And would he ever return?

“As a writer, you’re never at a place of peace and I hope I never get there or I’ll have nothing interesting to write about,” he laughs. “As for Jamaica, it is what it is. I don’t live there and I don’t plan to live there, but it’s still home and I have as much right to be there as any Jamaican.”

Though the country had its first public gay pride event this year, James doesn’t feel there has been enough significant development in terms of equal rights for the island’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.

“Some things have changed but not enough. I think the buggery law really needs to be repealed. Not because it’s immoral but because it’s a sign of colonialism – it’s Victorian.

“That’s the thing with a lot of those laws; they don’t show that you’re moral or that you’re showing any sort of fortitude. They show that you’re still basically bowing down to a dead woman. [Queen] Victoria is gone – she really is! So holding on to these laws comes across as almost a cartoon version of colonialism. Britain has moved on – the mother country has moved on. Let it go.”

Finally comfortable in his own skin, James is now experiencing literary fame and the fanfare that comes with being a Man Booker Prize winner.

“In Minnesota, they had a Marlon James Day,” he laughs. “The governor made a proclamation, I got a plaque and there was a big party!

“With things of that enormity, it's very hard to process it. You feel honoured and overwhelmed and you sometimes wonder if they've got the wrong guy! But it's been great.”

Asked if he thinks his win will mean less anonymity for him when he travels overseas, he laughs: “I don't know. It's probably more likely people will mistake me for a reggae musician.

“That happens all the time – people think I'm in a band but they're not sure which one! I'm used to it now.”

A Brief History of Seven Killings is out now, published by Oneworld Publications

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