Like one of his own novels, Marlon James’ life has traced an improbable trajectory — from Jamaica to Minnesota to a glittering London hall where on Tuesday he received one of the literary world’s most prestigious awards.
“This is so sort of ridiculous,” James said in accepting the Man Booker prize for fiction at a ceremony carried live by the BBC. “I think I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and it didn’t happen.”
James, 44, lives in Minneapolis and teaches literature at Macalester College in St. Paul. He won for his epic 2014 novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” which revolves around the attempted assassination of reggae icon Bob Marley.
James became the first Jamaican to win in the prize’s 47-year history.
At nearly 700 pages, “Seven Killings” is no easy airport read. The novel, which James had been thinking about for decades and took four years to complete, uses the attack on Marley as a touchstone for a dizzying mosaic of social history with a wild cast of characters — CIA spies, gang bosses, politicians, musicians, lovers and dreamers.
The Man Booker jury found it “an extraordinary book,” Michael Wood, the chair of judges, told London’s Guardian. “[It was] very exciting, very violent, full of swearing” but with plentiful touches of humor and humanity. “It was a book we didn’t actually have any difficulty deciding on — it was a unanimous decision, a little bit to our surprise.”
The six finalists for the $77,000 prize included two Americans: Anne Tyler for “A Spool of Blue Thread,” a domestic drama set in Baltimore, and Hanya Yanagihara for “A Little Life,” about four male friends in Manhattan and the childhood abuse suffered by one of them. The other finalists were British writers Tom McCarthy (“Satin Island”) and Sunjeev Sahota (“The Year of the Runaways”) and 28-year-old Nigerian Chigozie Obioma for his debut novel, “The Fishermen.”
“So much of my literary sensibility was shaped by winners of the Man Booker Prize,” James told the Star Tribune days before the ceremony. “It’s something that was remote to me and I’m just honored to be in the company of these great writers.”
A diet of comics and Prince
James grew up in a suburb of Kingston. His mother was a police detective and his father, who died in 2012, a judge.
“We were the Cosbys, or saw ourselves as such,” he said last year. “My childhood was pretty boring.”
He was into comics and music — not reggae, but Prince and Madonna and 1980s bands such as Men at Work — while reading everything he could, from novels and poetry to Rolling Stone magazine. That craving for things global helped form his wide-ranging aesthetic.
He worked in advertising in Jamaica for many years while nurturing his ambitions. In 2001 he participated in a workshop at the Calabash Literary Festival in Kingston and emerged with what became his first novel, “John Crow’s Devil.” It won wide attention when it was published in 2005. His second novel, “The Book of Night Women” (2009), a violent but lyrical story set on a 19th-century sugar plantation, cemented his reputation.
“The Booker says what we knew, and that is Marlon is one of the best writers in the world,” Jamaican novelist Colin Channer, co-founder of Calabash, said Tuesday. “This brings the prestige and light to a lot of what has been going on in our little country, which the musicians have known all along.”
Working on HBO series
Dozens of people die in “Seven Killings,” a Quentin Tarantino-esque work that covers the world of drugs and political violence from 1970s Kingston to crack houses in 1980s New York.
It is being developed as an HBO series. James, who is on sabbatical from Macalester, has completed the screenplay for a pilot.
“We have a director attached, but we can’t announce it yet,” he told the Star Tribune.
James spent countless hours composing the book at coffee shops in the Twin Cities, where he moved in 2007 to teach English at Macalester. He said these sometimes raucous haunts were crucial in helping him hear the voices of his characters, especially those who speak in Jamaican dialect, or “Patwa.”
In accepting his award Tuesday, James acknowledged reggae musicians for being “the first to recognize that the voice coming out our mouths was a legitimate voice for fiction and poetry.”
The author has a full plate when he returns from London, including speaking engagements Oct. 29-30 at the Hopkins Center for the Arts as part of the Hennepin County Library’s Pen Pals series.
His win brought an outpouring of kudos across social media, and expressions of pride from colleagues.
“I’m ecstatic and on a certain level, disbelieving” said Macalester President Brian Rosenberg. He said a communitywide reception, and perhaps a ticker-tape parade, is being planned for Oct. 28.
“This award,” said Rosenberg, “is by many measures the most prestigious literary prize in the world. And Marlon is very deserving.”