Marlon James’ Winning Entry into Afrocentric Fantasy

Bill T. Jones and Marlon James in conversation on February 3.
Ian Douglas/ New York Live Arts

New York Live Arts, on February 3, hosted this season’s last installment of its well-received series “Bill Chats,” featuring an open conversation between NYLA artistic director and acclaimed choreographer Bill T. Jones and award-winning fiction writer Marlon James.

James, a Jamaican-born Brooklyn resident who teaches literature at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, has authored four novels, including “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize, and “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” an epic fantasy novel set in Africa that James has described, in a now famous quote, as an “African ‘Game of Thrones.’”

“Reading your work, I’m always amazed,” Jones said. “My God, this guy really knows pop culture, and American pop culture! Why is that?”

“Well, because I am not American,” replied James, 49, who is tall, bearded, dreadlocked, and appealingly wry. “So, I do what everybody who is not American do” — he intentionally code switched into Jamaican patois, what some on the island prefer to call nation language — “we watch American trash.”

“You watch America and trash America, or you watch America and trash?” Jones said, teasingly.

“Yes,” James responded.

The audience laughed at the comic exchange.

“I have always been a pop culture nerd,” James said in seriousness, adding that he was once a music writer in Jamaica. “My theory about this is: when you grow up in a former British colony, culture is twice removed from you. Meaning, one, we could never afford it, and, two, for the most part it is considered something like putting on airs. It took me a long time to realize that Shakespeare wasn’t stuffy, for example.”

James recounted how as a child growing up in Jamaica he voraciously read any literature he could lay his hands on, whether stuffy or trashy. When he somehow came across the Jackie Collins novel “Hollywood Wives,” he read it in one sitting. “I got up the next morning, looked myself in the mirror, and said, ‘I’ze a man now!’”

Just as Collins’ book was made into a television series, James’ “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is on its way to the screen. The rights to the book have been bought by actor-turned-producer Michael B. Jordan for screen adaptation. With “BLRW,” Jordan, who starred in the box office smash “Black Panther,” launches his own production company, Outlier Society, under the aegis of Warner Bros. Entertainment. James will serve as an executive producer on the adaptation.

“I’ve always been devoted to fantasy and that can be a tricky thing when you’re a Black person,” James said.

He spent more than two years researching the history and traditions of the regions of Africa upon which to base the narrative and characters of “Black Leopard, Red Wolf.” Yet, he said, his influences also encompass American comic books like “X-Men.” The idea to write an Afrocentric fantasy novel, James said, came from an “argument over the casting of ‘The Hobbit.’” When James denounced the lack of racial diversity in the cast, his interlocutor responded that it was irrelevant in the imaginary world created by the author J.R.R. Tolkien. In the end, James recalled, he said, “You know what? Just keep your damn ‘Hobbit!’” and embarked on the writing of a narrative that satisfied his own cravings.

“It felt like a homecoming to me,” he said about this, his first writerly venture into the fantasy genre.

One question mark remained in the negotiations with Warner Bros., he said. “How queer are we going to keep it? That was the elephant in the room.” The jury is still out, so to speak.

“Are you an Afrofuturist?” Jones asked, referring to the cultural and intellectual movement engaged in interpreting technology and science fiction through African frames of reference.

James fell pensive for a moment before answering, “You have to look forward and back at the same time. Because all our problems are in the present.”