LargeUp Interview: Marlon James on “A Brief History of Seven Killings”


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LU: It’s a work of fiction but, for some people, this novel is a reality of the past and present. You have said that “If people read this book expecting a history lesson, they are bound to be disappointed and confounded.” But, for me, a lot of the stories touched closed to home, that stuff I heard and saw as a child, which I really never understood growing up, until I got into my 30s. The story of the characters Buntin-Banton and Dishrag is really the story of Burry Boy and Feathermop, Papa Lo and Shotta Sherriff are Claudie Massop and Bucky Marshal. I also realized that we are a really traumatized people. Talk a little about that.

MJ: We are shell shocked, we are still shell shocked. One of the reasons why I went fiction is because I didn’t want to tell a biography. Most of the people involved in this are dead, so they wouldn’t be able to talk to me. But I also wanted the freedom to sometimes merge characters, to sometimes take characters in a different direction. It’s still a novel, and there’s still a certain element of invention and an element of the fantastic to it. But at the same time, I think a novel is like the lie that tells the truth. By taking away any obligation to real people, I can really go into what’s going on. I don’t even call [the Kingston communities] Tivoli Gardens and Mathews Lane, it is Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes. It’s hard to describe, but as writer that frees you to really go deep.

I already have people telling me that [the character] Peter Nasser is [former Jamaica PM] Edward Seaga, right, but Eddie Seaga is in the book. Is Peter Nasser an actual politician? Yeah! He is a composite of a specific politician type, there wasn’t one Peter Nasser in the JLP, there were about ten. The Peter Nasser character doesn’t have Eddie Seaga’s ambition or his ear for culture. Whatever you want to say about Edward Seaga, no one can knock his ear for culture.

LU: Maybe you can explain what is the Jamaican obsession with Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads such as “Big Iron” and “El Paso”? And corny, sentimental groups like Air Supply?

MJ: Well, essentially it is storytelling. For the same reason Ray Charles loved it, we like the stories. But also it gave a lot of people the ultimate badman archetype. Nobody [is] badder than a cowboy with the two guns. It’s like when Alexander Bustamante used to walk around with his two guns in the holsters—it’s a very masculine, macho, bad man archetype. At the time, at least until the early 70s when Clint Eastwood took over, and it was still half a cowboy—Dirty Harry was just another cowboy— it provided a template. These are boys with no fathers. These are boys with no sort of masculine role model, so they take it from Hollywood movies, they take it from the Gunfighters Ballads music. We love ballads, that is why a badman will listen to Celine Dion. Violent people love sentimentality because violence is a kind of sentimentality, too.