Marlon James on his Book Prize novel, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf”.
If there’s one person you want to talk to in the midst of a pandemic, it’s probably a writer of speculative fiction – someone whose imagination is as wild and gnarled as the Wild and Gnarled times. Fourth novel by Marlon James, “Black leopard, red wolf“, The Times’ first prize winner Ray Bradbury for science fiction, is his first foray into fantasy, but it retains the epic reach and familiar kaleidoscopic quality of his Booker Prize-winning novel,” A Brief History of Seven Killings ”- a brain-blasting sensitivity that demands (and rewards) the reader’s focus and dedication.
Told by a man called Tracker, whose supernaturally sharp nose got him to work as some sort of bounty hunter, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is also a distinctly Jamesian entry into the fantasy canon. The book, the first in Dark Star’s planned trilogy, is rooted in African mythology and driven by a strange desire; it expands the genre it enters, asking us to continue to expand our reality and explore our relationship to the very idea of truth. Here’s our edited conversation about destroying gender walls, dystopia as pandemic realism, and the prospect of global pop culture domination.
So we’ll start with a question that is usually not very busy: how are you?
Everything is fine, I guess. I was reading that militias in Maine were blocking the roads and forcing people they think were visitors to stay in their homes. I’m like, “Wow! We’re at “The Walking Dead” and we don’t even have the zombies yet. “
You once said in an interview, about wanting to write speculative fiction: “We are reaching the end of what realism can express. But it’s hard not to feel like life has become totally surreal.
It absolutely does, and it’s surprising how convenient it is. The thing with dystopian fiction is that we focus on the horrors of it, but we never focus on the inevitability. I was watching “Handmaid’s Tale” last night, and every time I watch it I say “But it could really happen.” I come out of [the] evangelical church. I know the people who are working to make this happen!
I don’t think we can put that wall between us and dystopian fiction anymore. I don’t think you can read it the way you read historical fiction, where we are separated from it by reality.
Now is a great time to read the original speculative novel, Mary Shelley’s “The last man. “Funny enough, that was a bane – I was like, ‘Shit, girl. The original dystopian novel is right! And if there ever was a time to read “Moby Dick”, it’s now. I am not talking about the plague; I am talking about how our government is responding to it. We are going in this ridiculous direction. You want to understand the world, you have to put on your “Moby Dick”.
“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” introduces African mythology to white Western popular consciousness. You’ve done a lot of research for this book. What things did you find exciting and fresh?
One of the things that I found very exciting was the older attitudes towards homosexuality and otherness. I didn’t go looking for it, and was quite shocked and happy to find it. The whole idea of different genders and so on – I’m so glad people accept these other identities, especially trans identities, but at the same time, all of you. late. When you read these mythologies, some of these people have 14 genders!
The book also does a lot of work in getting the reader to wonder if they can trust the story they are reading. Why was this interesting for you?
The point is, older audiences were a lot more picky, and they brought a lot more skepticism, intelligence, and wit to a story than we do. We hardly bring anything other than our eyes. In many African stories, for example, it’s a trickster telling a story. So they are already saying it clearly: I am not a reliable narrator. The act of defining the truth becomes something for the reader to find out.
Who are the writers who inspired your work? Who is in your speculative fiction canon?
I read everyone. But as for the writers who made me think I want to do that – although it took years to do it – a lot of Nalo Hopkinson. The very idea that the stories in my garden could be a source of fantasy blew me away. A lot of fantasies for me wouldn’t be called fantasies. They would probably be called more realistic magical, but to me, they are fantasies. For me, Toni Morrison is “Song of SolomonIs a magical realistic novel.
Sometimes it’s very difficult for some writers, writers of color, and queer writers, and so on, to write the story that is in your head on paper. The writers who will be on your permanent shelf tend to be the writers who redefine what is possible for you.
There’s also something that maybe didn’t seem like a blessing to me when I was young, but I realize it now: I don’t have gender snobbery, because I couldn’t afford it. . If you asked me, what kind of book have I read? Whatever the following book. God bless you if I have a Virginia Woolf, but the next novel will be Jackie Collins, whom I adore. The only requirement I had for a book was that it be the next one.
Speaking of reading, you get an award named after Ray Bradbury. Did you read it growing up? What did his job mean to you?
There is so much of his work that has been adapted for film and television, so he’s always been part of my pop culture universe. Ray Bradbury represents to me a world of shameless wonder, and the idea that speculative history can always tell us as much about the human condition as any other type of history.
Michael B. Jordan is working on the adaptation of the Dark Star trilogy that begins with this novel. Will Marlon James ever be as important a part of pop culture as Bradbury?
As a pop culture kid I’m like, “Hell yeah. Bring it on. I still have my ‘Star Wars’ figures. But also, part of me still doesn’t believe it, still finds it shocking that in terms of storytelling, our time has come. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is not just an African story or a black story. It’s a strange story. And the idea that the time for this story has come is startling. I still have to pinch myself to believe it.
If that means we’re opening up again, or expanding the idea of what makes up a story, then I totally agree. My favorite thing to watch now are Korean zombie movies – “The Kingdom” and “Last Train to Busan”. Just those stories that are both familiar and foreign at the same time, what you would expect from any great story. Every great story is ultimately both: totally familiar and absolutely foreign.
Romanoff is a writer and author of several novels for young adults.
Los Angeles Times Book Award: Keren Taylor, Innovator Award
Los Angeles Times Book Prize: Namwali Serpell, Art Seidenbaum Award
Los Angeles Times Book Prize: Maria Popova, Science & Technology
Los Angeles Times Book Prize: Steph Cha, Mystery / Thriller
Los Angeles Times Book Award: Walter Mosley, Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award
Los Angeles Times Book Prize: Emily Bernard, Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose
Los Angeles Times Book Prize: Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, History
Los Angeles Times Book Prize: Ben Lerner, fiction
Los Angeles Times Book Prize: Emily Bazelon, Current Interest
Los Angeles Times Book Prize: Eleanor Davis, Graphic Novel / Comic Book