June 20, 2024

Exclusive interview with novelist Marlon James

The university had planned to welcome novelist Marlon James as a part of this year’s Gerhold Lecture Series in October; unfortunately, the event had to be canceled due to a slew of flight delays that kept the author from arriving on campus in time for the event to take place.

The English department has tentatively rescheduled James for the Gerhold Lecture on Feb. 15. Luckily, though, the Chimes was able to exclusively interview James via phone call before his scheduled arrival to campus in October. 

James is a Jamaican writer whose novels often feature settings in either Jamaica or Africa, and readers of his novels often wonder as to the intent or meaning behind those settings. Many readers and literary critics wonder if these settings directly reflect James’s writing philosophy.

“As a writer, most parts of my writing tend to go back into periods of history while trying to excavate my own past or my people’s past, or even just people who have been erased. I think that history books tend to be about famous people or the rulers, the kings [and so on] and not about how everybody else lived their lives or how they were affected by history,” James said. “Most of my books explore the people who are affected by history, but who don’t really make the history books. It really is me trying to understand a postcolonial society.”

When describing Jamaica, James was unbiased in his opinion on the country:

“I think Jamaica is everything that people think it is and absolutely nothing that people think it is. I think that Jamaica is a country that is far above its weight, culturally; but, it is still trying to shake off the yoke of history, even in 2022. And I think that makes us very self-determined and makes us very, very creative–stunningly creative,” James said. “Sometimes I am even surprised at the cultural mark that Jamaica continues to leave in the world. But Jamaica also has issues that it needs to grow beyond and get past if it is going to be a great generation.”

James’s passion for Jamaica and its unheard voices also became clear during the interview:

“Louise Simpson the poet won the Pulitzer. Michelle Cliff, Olive Senior, Mervyn Morris, Patricia Powell, Patricia Duncker; all of these writers have written fantastic and brilliant novels. Patricia Duncker’s Hallucinating Foucault is taught in nearly every gender studies class. We’ve always had writers who’ve had a big influence on American writers, even if they’re not well-known. They are all brilliant and they all have books that deserve more readers,” James said.

Marlon James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Photo courtesy of the Booker Prize Foundation.

In 2015, James won the Booker Prize, the UK and Irish version of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, making him an internationally-renowned novelist. The monetary award for winning the Booker Prize is 50,000 euros.

“[The Booker Prize] didn’t [affect my writing]. It affected my bank account, which is great; but, at least in terms of what I write and how I write, it didn’t affect me at all,” James said.

Many readers of James’s novels describe his writing style as “genre-fluid,” and he himself has outlined to the New York Times the variety of book genres that he has enjoyed reading over the course of his life. 

“I wasn’t a genre snob because I couldn’t afford it [growing up]. I read books that people left laying around, books that people gave me, books that I could steal and books that I could borrow. You know, the only category that I really had for reading a book was that it was ‘next.’ There was stuff that I learned to appreciate in all those books, and that is the same approach that I have to my writing: ‘everything but the kitchen sink,” James said.

Although James is also well-known as a part of the LGBTQ+ community, he does not see himself overly self-inserting into his work.

“I don’t deliberately insert myself into my writing, but I see aspects of myself all over it. Some of my characters say things that I know I would have said, or they process something, judge people or observe people the way I would have. So, to say that I am completely separate from my writing, I think, is maybe a little bit false,” James said. “At the same time, I am not necessarily interested in inserting myself in my stories; probably because I’ve been writing journals since I was 16 years old. I’m already a character in my journals, so I don’t know if I need to be a character in my novels. But, in terms of worldview, a lot of my characters do share my worldview.” 

If you are interested in reading one of James’s novels, check out the complete list on his website. The rescheduled Gerhold Lecture Series James will be in the spring semester on Feb. 15. 


  • Trinity Langbein

    Trinity is a senior English Literature, Creative Writing and Spanish triple-major. She enjoys all things humanities and loves to learn about different cultures.

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