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Marlon James talks about the roots of Black fiction

Marlon James’ New York Times bestselling novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” has been compared to the world-building works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Marvel Comics Universe, but his writing and sense of story have a different sense of purpose than both of those fantasy franchises.

“All my novels have always had supernatural, magical, unexplainable elements,” says James. “I think part of this was searching for my own mythologies. As a Black man born in the diaspora, our ground zero tends to be slavery. And surely there is more to Blackness and Black history and Africanness than that.”

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is, in James’ words, “an old story of the lone hunter, the lone wolf on a mission and interacting [with] a strange land.” It seemed like a departure of styles for James, who spoke more about his writing at the Festival of Books and was also winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize. The author calls his journey into speculative fiction an “evolution” and not so much a genre changeover as a way to reconnect to storytelling.

This week’s lineup in the virtual Festival of Books 2020 features conversations with Natalie Portman, Kevin Kwan, Marlon James and Maria Hinojosa.

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“I wanted to write a story that goes back to the original myth, the original storytelling. Which is why it was important for me to write a novel that can be read aloud. The original stories were told, they weren’t read. I found myself wanting to go right back to the ground,” says James.

“If you’re in rock ‘n’ roll, eventually you have to go to the blues.”

James is part of a surge of interest in Black writers of speculative fiction, including N.K. Jemisin, the winner of three consecutive Hugo Awards, and a revival of the late Octavia E. Butler, whose “Parable of the Sower” is on bestseller lists again. In this oddly apocalyptic year at the intersection of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, it seems an ideal moment for Black writers to come to the forefront of the genre.

“When we get faced with big questions, we go back to the myths. We go back to the old stories,” says James.

“It doesn’t surprise me that so many Black writers are going in these directions. Looking at both past visions and future visions to explain the present. We’ve always done it, and we’ve always found a way to reconnect with that.... It’s one of those foundational things that tells us who we are.”

The transition from the realism of “A Brief History of Seven Killings” to “Black Leopard,” the first in a planned fantasy trilogy, invokes James’ varied influences. From Margaret Atwood to Mike Mignola to Stephen J. Cannell, from writers in his native Jamaica to comic books, James couldn’t pinpoint just one thing he enjoyed or read because he liked it all.

“That’s how I grew up. I don’t have genre snobbery or literary snobbery because I couldn’t afford it. The only category I needed for a book was that it was next,” says James.

“When you have that attitude in literature, you end up reading everything.”

Below is the entire panel spotlighting James, winner of the inaugural 2019 L.A. Times Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction and a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award, as he joined UCLA Afrofuturism professor Tananarive Due at the Festival of Books.


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