When Marlon James was a kid growing up in Jamaica, there weren’t a lot of books around. “You read the books you could get,” he says. “You read the books your friends no longer wanted. The books you could find in a pharmacy.” Sensibly, the young, book-hungry James, when faced with a choice of volumes, would choose whatever book was the longest. “That way you could spend that much more time with it.”
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the adult, much-decorated author James should write big books, most recently Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first volume of a trilogy that promises to be vast not only in literal pages (this first book contains 640) but also in scope, ambition, and geeky, exuberant universe-building.
“I still love the idea of being swept up by something for such a long time, and of being, in some ways, changed when it’s done,” he says.
James, who is 48, has lived in the United States since 2007, and now divides his time between New York and the Twin Cities, where he teaches at Macalester College. The world first heard of what would become Black Leopard, Red Wolf soon after James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, a violent, kaleidoscopic account of modern Jamaican history. He told an interviewer that he was now at work on an “African Game of Thrones.” As elevator pitches go, it was hard to beat, the kind of idea that, once spoken, seems instantly inevitable and full-born, all the more so once the success of Black Panther revealed the appetite for thoroughly realized black worlds.
Growing up, James had heard fragments of African mythology that had survived generations of diaspora to remain alive in Jamaica, but he was far more familiar with European folklore. “I probably know more Scandinavian epic sagas than the average Scandinavian,” he says. The trick now was not only to dive into the vast reservoir of African history and legend but also to emerge with a tale that was itself distinctly African. “I didn’t want to do what would basically amount to a European fantasy novel in blackface,” he says.
James began with a year of immersion, covering the walls of his office with research. One imagines it was a strange place to visit: “I had pictures of African landmarks. Pictures of castles. African emperors through history. Fortresses in Ethiopia. And monsters! Magical, evil witches!” James gave himself permission to roam freely among these influences. The result is a book that takes place in an ancient Africa of the imagination, just as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones depict ancient Europes of the same: Ethiopian mingi (children traditionally thought to carry curses) share the page with sangomas (South African healers); real ancient cities meld seamlessly with invented man/ leopard changelings. All of this with the occasional sly Joan Didion or Rolling Stones reference.
The story of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is told by a character known as Tracker, a damaged soul with an extraordinary gift of smell who has been hired to find a lost boy. In classic epic tradition, he is joined in this mission by a band of misfits. They include a giant, a witch, that man/leopard, and a charismatic buffalo, though James does as much to subvert the idea of a fantasy “fellowship” as he does to honor it.
Tracker, says James, is a version of the trickster character found as the narrator of many traditional African folklore stories. Tracker is also gay, making Black Leopard, Red Wolf not only an African epic but, more quietly and perhaps more revolutionarily, a queer epic. It was a decision that gave James, who is himself gay and has spoken movingly about the homophobia of his home country, some pause. “But then, in doing research, I realized that in a lot of African cultures queerness, gayness, even non-binariness were always there, until a bunch of TV preachers showed up and told them, ‘This is wrong.’ In some ways, writing about queerness and Africa is reclaiming an ancient spot.”
James is now working on volume two of his trilogy, which, like the third, will revisit the same events of Black Leopard, Red Wolf through the eyes of a different character. Is it at least easier to research this next book, having already done the office-wall-covering for the first? “Well,” says James, “this new book starts three hundred and fifteen years before the first one. So it’s back to the drawing board.”