A Very Brief History With the Talented Mister Marlon James

A Profile by Herb Boyd

Marlon James

One evening last September, after getting off the A-Train in Harlem, as I walked toward the exit at 145th Street, I noticed a young man with dreads sitting on a bench, presumably waiting for the next train. What caught my eye was a Strand shopping bag beside him overflowing with books.

A black man with books, particularly a bunch of them from my favorite bookstore in New York City, warranted more than a passing glance. Furthermore, he looked familiar.  

The closer I got to him the more familiar he looked. Why it was the author Marlon James!

I was stunned to see him sitting there like any one of the homeless folks who frequent the station. I had met him for the first time a week or two before when we were panelists at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2014.

In fact, he was the moderator, and it didn’t appear to be his métier since the topic was of non-fiction with Greg Grandin, an expert on the works of Herman Melville, and I as the discussants. Even so, he held his own with probing questions about Melville and Malcolm X.

Before that event I had heard of Marlon from a friend, Kurt Thometz, an antiquarian with a bookstore in Upper Manhattan. The bookstore was on the bottom floor of his brownstone and in the back he had a room, a bed and breakfast unit that Marlon often used whenever he was in town.

After the panel we promised to stay in touch, but I knew that was just small talk, so, we bade each other farewell and went our separate ways.

So, you can imagine my amazement to see him in the subway, hunched over a book, waiting for a train. 

I greeted him and at first he seemed puzzled, trying to figure out who I was. His recognition of me did not arrive fast enough, so, I reminded him of our shared Brooklyn event. There was a brief smile, a kindly nod, and I realized that I was an intruder who was interrupting his reading.

Kurt had told me that he was a voracious reader and, when he wasn’t reading, he was busy working nonstop on one of his books. I had read none of his books. In fact, but for his praise, I may not have ever paid them attention.

Given his overwhelming raves, I decided I would get his latest book A Brief History of Seven Killings, (Riverhead Books, 2014). I got it on my Nook from Barnes and Noble and, since I was in the process of completing my own book and preparing to teach my class at the City College of New York, began reading it intermittently.

Always, in the spring, when I teach a course on “The History of Harlem,” I take my students on a tour of the community. One of the stops on the tour is Kurt’s erstwhile bookstore, where they are permitted to browse his vast collection and purchase a book or two, if they so desire. 

Kurt is a raconteur and storyteller of the highest order—he can beguile and mesmerize any group of students. Last spring I took the students there when Marlon happened to be in town, on a temporary break from his teaching duties at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

He came in the middle of Kurt’s presentation, sat for a moment and then scurried to the back of the store to his room.

Later, after Kurt had finished and the students were preparing to depart, Marlon came from the back and, so it appeared, sat down to chat. 

He’s not a great talker, especially not with strangers, so, getting him to discuss his writing is challenging.  Having read portions of his lengthy novel—it’s more than 680 pages—I wanted him to expound on some of the characters in the book, many of them hitmen assigned to kill a character he calls “The Singer,” obviously, the great reggae musician Bob Marley.

Here’s a short passage from A Brief History of Seven Killings about Demus, one of the potential hit men.

“Me is a wicked man, me is a sick man,” Demus confesses to his solicitor in the heavy Jamaican dialect that populates the book, “but me would never join in this if I did know that he want to rub out the Singer. This hurt me brain worse than anything ever hurt me before. All me now don’t sleep. I lie in my room with my eye wide open hearing me girl snore in her sleep.”

Perhaps I should take a moment here to contextualize Demus’s dilemma. In 1976, Marley was wounded by gunmen who invaded his home in Kingston, Jamaica.  His wife, Rita, and his manager, Don Taylor, were also seriously wounded. 

Despite his wounds, Marley performed at the planned concert two days later. It would be two years before Marley set foot again in his home country. Marlon uses this incident as the central theme of his book, while delivering a boatload of history and information on gangs, violence, language, and politics. 

Demus is just one of more than 75 characters Marlon summons, many of whom are based on actual people, though most are composite figures. Whether real or imagined, most have full chapters devoted to them and their intentions.


At the Brooklyn Book Festival, where he was a main presenter, he had another obligation. He gave a lively discourse on the prevalence of violence in A Brief History of Seven Killings.  As the title suggests, hardly a page is turned that isn’t chocked with some sort of violence or murder.

During our moments together, there wasn’t much time to talk about the creative process, though he did make it clear about how much time and research went into each of his books.

As for the violence, he has explained that in several interviews, “I didn’t want to fall into a pornography of violence but I think violence should be violent.” On that the reader is not shortchanged.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is by no means brief nor is it an easy read.  Not only is the length intimidating but the Jamaican lingo is sure to leave many readers bewildered.  Even so, Marlon has filled this epic story with so much intrigue and brio that you are soon swept up in it, willing to sail along with a raft of thugs with nothing but larceny and murder on their minds.

During one session with Kurt and another colleague George Preston, a noted Africanist and curator, I listened as they rhapsodized about the book, dissecting characters, grappling with the convoluted plot, and expressing unabashed exuberance over the sizzling passages of imagery. 

Clearly, they’re not alone in their enthusiasm for the book. When Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times can drop heavy praise on the novel, it’s almost equivalent to Oprah Winfrey’s stamp of approval.

“It’s like a [Quentin] Tarantino remake of The Harder They Come but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner, with maybe a little creative boost from some primo ganja,” Kukutani wrote in one of her more illuminating paragraphs. “It’s epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex. It’s also raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting — a testament to Mr. James’s vaulting ambition and prodigious talent.”

To this literary brew mix in a little Doctorow and Jimmy Cliff and some Tarantino mayhem and you’re partially there.

And from whence has sprung this prodigious talent?  Well, Marlon was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970, so he was a mere tot when Marley was negotiating a détente between Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, two political candidates for Jamaica’s leadership (who figure so prominently in the novel.)

He earned a degree in literature from the University of the West Indies in 1991 and a master’s in creative writing from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania in 2006. John Crow’s Devil, his first novel published in 2005, anticipates the latest one in its setting in Jamaica, where there is a spiritual contest between religious rivals. Though American readers will find it hard not to think of Jim Crow. Four years later he published The Book of Night Women, and again the number seven is invoked, only this time they are slave women plotting a rebellion.

John Crow is mentioned in connection with Demus toward the end of the book, when he is being hunted by Rastas.  Demus was left “swinging from a tree in the John Crow Mountains, the john-crows already gone with his eyes and lips.”  Eventually, nearly all the hitmen and foot-soldiers suffer a similar fate, though they failed to exterminate “The Singer.” (Marley died of brain cancer on May 11, 1981, in the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami.) 

Marlon is the product of middle class family—his mother was a detective and his father a lawyer—but there is little about him that radiates such a privileged background. It was a household with dinner talk that must have rubbed off on the fervid imagination of young Marlon. He dresses in black leather, his left ear adorned with a ring, and he walks with a quick pace, his dreads flapping across his well-developed shoulders.

I was surprised to learn he is gay, a fact he disclosed in a “coming out” piece in the New York Times. In this long confessional, he recalled his anxiety with his homosexuality and thought seriously of suicide.

Homophobia in Jamaica, according to a recent study, is almost as pervasive as hemp.

“At 28 years old, seven years out of college,” Marlon wrote, “I was so convinced that my voice outed me as a fag that I had stopped speaking to people I didn’t know. The silence left a mark, threw my whole body into a slouch, with a concave chest, as if trying to absorb impact. I’d spent seven years in an all-boys school: 2,000 adolescents in the same khaki uniforms, striking hunting poses, stalking lunchrooms, classrooms, changing rooms, looking for boys who didn’t fit in. I bought myself protection by cursing, locking my lisp behind gritted teeth, folding away my limp wrist and drawing 36-double-D girls for art class. I took a copy of Penthouse to school to score cool points, but the other boys called me ‘batty boy’ anyway — every day, five days a week. To save my older, cooler brother, I pretended we weren’t related. At home, I lost myself in Dickens’s London, Huck Finn’s Mississippi River or Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. One day after school, instead of going home, I walked for miles, all the way down to Kingston Harbor. I stopped right at the edge of the dock, thinking next time I would just keep walking.”

Rather than keep walking, he kept writing. And to some degree that homosexuality took a creative turn in A Brief History of Seven Killings through the Weeper’s narrative though Marlon has disputed any connection between him and the character. Some of Marlon’s most vividly seductive writing unfolds around one of the Weeper’s sexual episodes. Witness this one: “He back in my mouth before I can say, bad man don’t kiss. Sucking my tongue, moving his lips over my lips, tongue on tongue, dancing it and making me do it back. He is making me think like a faggot.”

I wondered if any of those distressing critical moments circled back on him when he heard he had won the Man Booker Prize, among the most prestigious and richest of his many awards.

I fired off an email to him, but, knowing, Marlon, I expected no response. (I did hear from Ta-Nehisi Coates after he read my review of his book Between the World and Me, and, like Marlon, he’s flying high, and, taken together, they should be inspiration for a number of struggling black male writers. See Robert Fleming’s essay in these pages.)

So, the young man I saw bent over a book on the subway, was now the darling of the literary world, and rolling in dough. The interviews rained on him like the fusillade of bullets intended for Marley’s body.

Now, rather than the Levi’s and loose shirts hanging outside his tight pants, he was sporting a tux with a bowtie, holding aloft his treasured prize.

There’s also a photo of him with Kurt’s cat in the The New York Review of Books, something I learned from Kurt, after asking if he had heard from the esteemed author. 

“I hear from him all the time,” he related in a phone conversation. “In fact, they just had a Marlon James Day in Minnesota.”

The whole state? 

“Yes, the entire state,” he said.  “And, from Facebook I saw where he was in Brazil.”

Marlon is riding an incredible crest of adulation and celebrity, the kind of sabbatical he probably never dreamed of.

But there’s little time for dreaming for a writer in demand, and it’s reported that he’s in the midst of completing a project for HBO. If it’s a dramatization of his novel, then the network’s viewers are in for a treat that will have all the makings of “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” with an undulating reggae soundtrack.

I can’t wait to see Demus, Weeper, and Josey Wales on the screen. 

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