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Marlon James on Writing, Marley and Obsessions with Chatting Bad

Marlon James delivered the 2016 Bob Marley Lecture

One of the important weapons in the arsenal of any DJ worth their salt is the fluent self-praise that he or she can ram dancehall and cork party. As the audience spilled over the sides of the Undercroft at the University of the West Indies Mona, it was evident, that no self-praise required, Marlon James is a literary reggae star, who can indeed ram a session.

Singer D'Burns brings the spirit of Marley through his musicThe session in question was the Annual Bob Marley Lecture, Friday, February 12, 2016. So it was more talk than music, although the music was brought by the L’Acado Drummers and later D’Burnz who did renditions of Marley. The talk revolved around music and the ways in which the spirit of Marley came to infuse and guide the creation and direction of James’ celebrated A Brief History of Seven Killings, the book that explores the near assassination of Bob Marley while delving into crevices of Jamaican society not often explored in our fiction.

So although 19 is not usually the number one rages about, (16, 18, 20 and 20 get all the applause) the 19th staging of the Annual Bob Marley Lecture, was certainly one for the history books, as one of the island’s currently most celebrated artistic figures spoke about the influence of our most iconic.

Dr. Sonjah Stanley Niaah, director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies which stages the lecture, explained that a series of incidences, more serendipitous than coincidental, led to James’ selection to deliver the lecture. Niaah explained that, initiated in 1997 by Professor Carolyn Cooper, the Bob Marley Lecture has generally had a wide scope that has stretched from Marley to reggae and Rastafari as well as other issues in Jamaican society.

The lecture, dubbed ‘Writing Down History: How and Why’ was James’ first public engagement in Jamaica since his historic October 2015 win of the Man Booker prize, which, as described by Dr. Michael Bucknor, head of the Department of Literatures in English at the UWI, Mona, is “the biggest rhatid prize for literature other than the Nobel prize.” Dr. Michael Bucknor delivered an eloquent and entertaining introduction

Bucknor’s entertaining yet informative introduction to James provided biographical facts, details of James’ other literary achievements, as well as the writer’s relationship to the department of Literatures in English, of which he is a graduate. Bucknor amused the audience by pulling on comments from James’ lecturers which pointed to his potential as well as truancy from classes. 

Bucknor also highlighted, that James’ writing deserves and has deserved the serious attention it has gained. He described James as “a writer of distinction” whose “heart of creative darkness” can be disturbing as he (James) “ventures into the nether regions of our psyche”. 

“I take comfort in the fact that he was recognized a yard, long before he was recognized abroad,” Bucknor said. 

James’ lecture contained insight into his writing process, the role of Bob Marley (who is identified as ‘The Singer’ in A Brief History of Seven Killings) and other elements of Jamaican culture featured in his work.

Dr. Sonjah Stanley Niaah head of the Institute of Caribbean Studies shares the stage with JamesThough he laughing argued that he wouldn’t want to call A Brief History a historical novel as it would then imply that he was old, he spoke to the value of exploring and writing the past. 

“A huge part of it was me trying to come to terms with the ‘70s,” James said, explaining how the novel came to be. “The ‘70s of my parents and grandparents,” he continued, noting that his experience of the era was more marked by childish fixations rather than the surrounding political tensions.

He described his resulting exploration of the 1970s in the novel as a case of looking at the past to find guidance to the future. 

“It’s the present tense that’s fixed. The past keeps changing because it is about who is writing the history,” James said.

This process of writing down the history, he explained required the multiplicity of voices that emerged in the text, which features some 75 characters. 

He explained that the story also dictated the emersion of all the multiple voices. “One voice can never tell Jamaica,” James said. “There are probably about 15 Jamaicas in Jamaica, and we’re such a small place.”

Time and again he returned to the issue of language in Jamaican culture, noting that it is tarnished by a legacy of shame and continues to mar the cultural landscape. James argued that Jamaicans are obsessed with “how the other person ‘chat bad’” and use English as though it is our master, rather than the other way around. 

Each of James’ books has been written in Jamaican Creole, flying against the grain of Jamaican conventional wisdom, which dictates that this would make them unreadable. James pointed out that the shame around speaking Jamaican was one of the major issues in the society. 

“For God’s sake get over the shame of speaking it,” James said.

Though Marley’s and reggae’s presence in the book has often been explored, James also brought to the fore the role of Reggae in legitimizing Jamaican Creole.James autographs his book for film make Franklyn 'Chappy' St. Juste

“Reggae is what gave my generation of writers the right to write with the voice that actually come out of our mouths,” James said.

Describing Marley as a significant cultural force, whose philosophy and spirit continues to steer from beyond the grave.

“Even in death Marley is pointing to the issues we should really be looking at,” James explained. He pointed out that he had originally intended to write a short crime fiction piece, and it wasn’t until much later that the Marley figure entered the story.

“It is not coincidental that the second Marley entered the novel it gained focus.” James said, noting that Marley worked as a spiritual force in the novel that echoed his role in Jamaican society. “Marley nailed the hypocrisy and contradictions of this society,” he said.

“For me, in particular, he [Marley] has been a big light in my work and I think that we as Jamaicans are still coming to terms with the greatness of the man.”

The statement is probably one that will be echoed at some point in the future in reference to James.