Marlon James Builds A New World From Old Stories In 'Black Leopard'

Feb 5, 2019
Originally published on February 5, 2019 11:04 pm

Marlon James could have chosen to write about anything after his last novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings; that kaleidoscopic account of Jamaica won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. So there were a few gasps when the author revealed that his new book would be what some people dismiss as genre fiction.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an epic fantasy quest — full of monsters, sex, and violence, set in a mythic version of ancient Africa. "The whole idea that you get to the age where you outgrow fairies and witches and wonder and so on, to the point where people who like that are considered kind of immature and nerdish — has always struck me as pretty ludicrous," James says.

This book overflows with that sense of wonder — nightmares from African folklore jump out of every page, monsters that might be unfamiliar to readers of Western mythology. "So, there's ipundulu, who's the lightning bird," James explains. "Then there's adzi, and adzi is also a blood-sucker, but what adzi does is that he changes into a swarm of bugs and then the bugs attack you and the bugs drink your blood."

Other elements of the story are more familiar — there's a ragtag group of questing adventurers, including a moon witch, a sad giant, an intelligent buffalo, and the narrator, known only as Tracker, who can sniff out anyone, anywhere. They're looking for a missing child — but James gives away the child's fate in the very first sentence of this book: "The child is dead. There is nothing left to know."


Interview Highlights

On why he gave away the child's fate

I've always been more interested in whydunnits than whodunnits. I find whodunnits frustrating, because I usually figure it out by the tenth page. But whydunnits, it's a bigger question, it's a more involved question. You know, I don't want to know that you got a divorce, I want to know why your marriage fell apart. That's the question that always leads to the longer and the more complicated answer. "Why?" cannot be answered with a one-word answer.

On the unreliability of Tracker's narration

That's a very African way of telling a story. I think in the West we're a little too obsessed with the idea that a story told must be truth. We're obsessed with the authentic version, the director's cut ... whereas in African storytelling, a lot of African storytelling, you already know that the trickster is telling you the story. An Anansi story, we already know ... the trickster spider, any story one should take as a grain of salt. It doesn't change how much you enjoy the story, but it does put the burden of belief on you, the listener or the reader than on the person telling the story. I have no duty to tell it true or not. It's your job to judge if I'm lying or not.

I wonder if we're all faced with the things that Tolkien was faced with, where we have these big questions and the world right in front of us isn't answering them. - Marlon James

On how he learned African mythology

I grew up with some, I grew up with Anansi stories and I grew up with my grandfather telling me stories — sometimes it would be the same story with one tweak the next day. Despite their very very best efforts, Europeans didn't totally destroy the African in the slave. But of course, I didn't know nine-tenths of what I wrote about — so I had to research it, I had to do some detective work. African mythologies, African histories, African legends, African epics that have been translated so far — you know, most of those are on par with any "Beowulf." I had some very clear ideas about the type of story I wanted to tell, but as much as I can talk about Africa, I grew up in the West. A crisis for me is, who's my favorite Charlie's Angel? So yeah, a lot of that I had to learn, and a lot of that I had to discover.

On placing the book in the current context of fantastical works by black creators

I wonder if we're all faced with the things that Tolkien was faced with, where we have these big questions and the world right in front of us isn't answering them. If I want to talk about what it feels like to be displaced and lost, I might have to set myself in a fairy-tale New York. If I'm talking about larger-than-life evil I don't understand, I have to bring in monsters. But I also think that all these writers are responding to erasure — they're responding to never being in a narrative, or if we're in a narrative it's a certain kind. If we're in the Americas, for lots of us, certainly for me, ground zero was slavery. And I rarely learn anything beyond that. And it's important that we know slavery and we understand it ... but if I continue thinking the origin of my story, the origin of the story is colonialism and slavery, then eventually I'm going to feel as if I'm nothing more than a displaced person. So I think that's one of the things — to actually tap into the original narratives, to tap into this sort of reservoir of stories. I think every society needs its myths, it's what tells us who we are. So if I come from a people who didn't have them, I'm going to start searching for them and trying to make some up.

This story was produced for radio by Jolie Myers and Noah Caldwell, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Marlon James could have chosen to write about anything after his last novel, "A Brief History Of Seven Killings." That kaleidoscopic account of Jamaica won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. So there were a few gasps when the author revealed that his new book would be what some people dismiss as genre literature. "Black Leopard, Red Wolf" is an epic fantasy quest, full of monsters sex and violence, set in a mythic version of ancient Africa.

MARLON JAMES: The whole idea that you get to the age where you outgrow fairies and witches and wonder and so on, to the point where people who like that are considered kind of immature and nerdish, has always struck me as pretty ludicrous.

SHAPIRO: This book overflows with that sense of wonder. Nightmares from African folklore jump out of every page. These are monsters that might be unfamiliar to readers of Western mythology.

JAMES: So there's ipundulu, who's the lightning bird. Then there's the adzi, and adzi is also a bloodsucker. But - but what adzi does is that he changes into a swarm of bugs. And then bugs attack you, and the bugs drink your blood.

SHAPIRO: Other elements of the story are more familiar. There is a ragtag group of adventurers who set out on a quest. The crew includes a moon witch, a sad giant, an intelligent buffalo and the narrator, known only as Tracker. He can sniff out anyone anywhere.

They're looking for a missing child, and Marlon James gives away the child's fate in the very first sentence of this book. It begins (reading), the child is dead. There is nothing left to know.

JAMES: I've always been more interested in whydunnits (ph) than whodunnits. I find whodunnits frustrating because I usually figure it out by the 10th page.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JAMES: But whydunnits, it's a bigger question. It's a more involved question. It's - it's, you know, I don't want to know that you got a divorce. I want to know why your marriage fell apart.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JAMES: That's the question that always leads to the longer and the more complicated answer. Why cannot be answered with a one-word answer.

SHAPIRO: And this book is told by an unreliable narrator, a man who's being held prisoner. And the whole thing feels like it comes from an oral storytelling tradition. There's no omniscient exposition, which makes it a little less reliable. We don't know whether to believe what we're being told.

JAMES: And that's a very African way of telling a story. I think in the West, we are a little too obsessed with the idea that a story told must be truth. We're obsessed with the authentic version, the director's cut, the...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JAMES: ...This is the legit version, whereas in African storytelling, a lot of African storytelling you already know that the trickster is telling you the story. An Anansi story, you know, the trickster - we already know...

SHAPIRO: Anansi is the famous character from African mythology...

JAMES: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Who is the trickster storyteller.

JAMES: This trickster spider. Any story, one should take with a grain of salt. It doesn't change how much you enjoyed a story, but it does put the burden of belief on you, the listener or the reader, than on the person telling the story. I have no duty to tell it true or not.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JAMES: It's your job to judge if I'm lying or not.

SHAPIRO: You didn't grow up with African myths and legends. You grew up in Jamaica. So tell us about how you learned this mythology and how you became well-versed in it.

JAMES: Yeah, I grew up with some. I grew up with Anansi stories, and I grew up with my grandfather telling me stories. Sometimes it would be the same story with one tweak the next day. So, you know, it's - despite their very, very best efforts, Europeans didn't totally destroy the African in the slave. But of course, I didn't know nine-tenths of what I wrote about. So I figured I had to research it.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JAMES: African mythologies, African histories, African legends, African epics that have been translated so far - you know, most of those are on par with any "Beowulf."

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JAMES: I had some very clear ideas about the type of story I wanted to tell. But I'm - as much as I can talk about Africa, I grew up in the West. A crisis for me is, who's my favorite Charlie's Angel?

(LAUGHTER)

JAMES: So, yeah, a lot of that, I had to learn. A lot of that, I had to discover and do some detective work.

SHAPIRO: In the world of literature, for a long time, the gatekeepers have rewarded people who write about traditional nuclear families and middle-class crises. And you're writing about blood and sex and monsters...

JAMES: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...In a literary way. Do you think that we're in a new phase now?

JAMES: Man, I hope so.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JAMES: It's - it's - it's the same type of thing that - that, you know, ended up infecting a lot of American fiction with this sort of obsession with the great American novel. I mean, what a ludicrous idea.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JAMES: But it won't - it won't die.

(LAUGHTER)

JAMES: It's weird saying people are looking for news stories 'cause in a lot of ways, these are old stories.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JAMES: And I think we're rediscovering them and also just finding new ways of telling them. I think also in the time that we're in and in the politics that we're in and the society we're in and the ways in which societies is turning into these very strange and sometimes nightmarish shapes that we start to look at, quite frankly, nightmares.

One of things that I found myself on a - on a - on a search-and-find thing - and it was - it was a research that led it, was writing about sexuality in a book...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JAMES: ...'Cause there's lots of queerness. Main characters are queer and it deals with queerness and gender identity and gender fluidity and all of these things. And I think some mother reading it might think I'm trying to score some intersectionality points.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JAMES: And the funny thing is, that's the oldest element in the book. That was - that was - that was shocking to me, that in some societies, gay men were actually praised 'cause they're the only men allowed near brides-to-be. I mean, some of these tribes have 15 genders. And nobody doubted these roles until, you know, a bunch of American preachers showed up and told them, no.

SHAPIRO: Marlon James, could I ask you to take a step back and sort of situate this book in the moment that we're living in? Because it feels like, in so many different genres of entertainment, there is this flourishing of high-end kind of black surrealism and fantasy...

JAMES: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...Whether that's "Black Panther" or the latest season of "Atlanta" or now this book that you've created, which I know you started working on before either of those things came out.

JAMES: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: What's going on right now?

JAMES: It's - I wonder if we're all faced with the things that Tolkien was faced with, where we have these big questions, and we just - the world right in front of us isn't answering them.

You know, if I want to talk about what it feels like to be displaced and lost, I might have to set myself in a fairytale New York. If I'm talking about larger-than-life evil I don't understand, I have to bring in monsters. But I also think that all these writers are responding to erasure.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JAMES: Yeah. They're responding to never being in the narrative, or if we're in a narrative, it's a certain kind. If you - if we're in the Americas, for lots of us, certainly for me, ground zero was slavery. And I rarely learn anything beyond that. And it's important that we know slavery and we understand it. I think it's something that's still actually under-discussed. But if I continue to think that the origin of my story, origin of - of the story is colonialism and slavery, then eventually I'm going to feel as if I'm not, you know - I'm a - nothing more than a displaced person.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JAMES: So I think that's one of things to actually tap into the original narratives, to tap into this sort of reservoir of stories. And I think every society needs its myths. It's what tell us who we are. So if I come from a people who didn't have them, I'm going to start searching for them and trying to make some up.

SHAPIRO: Marlon James, thank you so much for talking with us.

JAMES: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: His new book is called "Black Leopard, Red Wolf."

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG GORANSSON'S "WAKANDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.