As the 1976 general election loomed, crime and violence on the streets of Kingston took on a political dimension. Large areas of the city, controlled by rival gangsters, divided into factions supporting the ruling socialist government of Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP) and their conservative opposition, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP). The US, fearing another communist republic in the Caribbean, sent in the CIA to infiltrate and influence events. Attacks by the rival factions worsened, and the police cracked down with draconian force. More than 800 people were killed – cops, innocents and those on both sides of the conflict.
Marley agreed to perform a peace concert in December, endorsed by Manley but it was a dangerous time to be identified with either party. On December 3 1976, armed men stormed Bob Marley’s Kingston mansion, and shot the singer, his wife and his manager. Marley escaped with minor wounds; his wife Rita and manager Don Taylor were seriously injured, but survived.
He was half white, he was never really black, and he spoke terribly,” says the author. “He was seen as a disgrace, and people forget it. In 1976, Rastafarians were one of the most violated, persecuted groups in Jamaica. They could be beaten within an inch of their lives, or detained for two years, just for being found in a ‘proper’ neighbourhood. It’s ironic that I have dreadlocks now,” he adds, “ – that my father lived to see it.”
Marlon James’s parents were both in the Jamaican police (“my mother went all the way to detective, my father became a lawyer”). He was only six at the time of the assassination attempt but he remembers the atmosphere of fear that it generated. “Everybody heard about it. Marley was untouchable, so if he could be shot, anybody could be shot. I knew my parents were scared, even if I couldn’t understand why. There was a sense that anything could happen.”
The story is told through the disparate voices of many characters. James introduces us to teenage gunmen, gangland enforcers, ghetto “dons”, politicians, groupies, music journalists, CIA men and even the ghost of a murdered politician lamenting that no one listens to the dead any more. The book moves beyond the attempt on Marley’s life, beyond his death from cancer in 1981. James follows his characters into the cocaine trade and to New York in the Eighties, where Jamaican gangsters enjoyed a reputation for extreme violence.
Papa Lo, James says, is loosely based on real-life gangland don Claude Massop, who was killed by Jamaican police in 1979; his character Josey Wales on Jim Brown – real name Lester Lloyd Coke – who was at least partly responsible for the rise of violent Yardie drug culture in America and Britain. Brown was facing extradition to the US on drug-related charges when he was burned to death in his Kingston jail cell in 1992.“Most of the characters are composites,” says James, “I had somebody write to me who said, I know you’ve said that, but I’m sending you this. And he gave me a two-page list of all the characters, and who they were. But for the most part, the characters really aren’t based on individuals. Jim Brown, for instance, would never have tolerated a gay gang member like Weeper, and he was not tall and Chinese-looking.”
James’s white characters, such as CIA station chief Barry DiFlorio and Rolling Stone journalist Alex Pierce, presented a further challenge – “could I write ‘the other’ without falling into the same exoticism trap that white guys writing about black characters fall into? There was a danger of that, the ignorant, racist white guy, the cultural tourist white guy, the white guy who always says the wrong thing, they’re just as bad as the black stereotypes.
This is the second book I’ve read recently that’s narrated by ghosts.
Some of our group really enjoyed it, some didn’t finish it and some struggled but found it worthwhile to persevere until the end. Many thought that it was like a kaleidoscope that didn’t quite come together.
Did the author have an eye to this being made a film?
The equation of guns and penises is acute – especially the occurrence of erectile dysfunction when there isn’t a gun. To what extent is the swaggering machismo the legacy of feeling emasculated by slavery and neo-colonialism and when does this cease to be an excuse for extreme violence (which happens more in New York than in Jamaica in this book) ? Or are we being racist for asking this question?
The meeting of Weeper with John John K seemed contrived.
One section reads like James Joyce’s Ulysees – no punctuation.
I hadn’t, before, realised what the ‘batty’ meant in ‘battyman’. Nor that ‘bombocloth’ is a used tampon. ‘Pussyhole’ is a guy who does not behave like a man or a backstabber.
The list of characters is a good idea but why aren’t they in alphabetical order? Or, at least, in the order in which they appear? I got confused between the male Kim and the female Kim – the identity of ‘Kimmy’ towards the end of the book is crucial. Some liked this shape-shifting character who appeared under three names: Nina, Kim and Dorca.
Ultimately, these characters are seen, by the powers that be, as dispensable nobodies who tell their story but who are worth nothing.
This book provoked a wider, philosophical discussion about the legacy of slavery, neo-colonialism, individual responsibility and the lessons of social history.
Part of an interview with the author:
“I wanted to give my characters desires, dimension, contradiction. With the CIA, there’s a very global sense that they are the ‘bad guys’. I wanted to write about the inner lives of these men instead.”
James is gay; not a simple thing to admit openly in Jamaica at the time. I ask him if he identifies at all with the gay character in the novel, the murderous, literature-quoting gangster Weeper. “I don’t know if any of me found its way into that,” he says. “But it was very important to me that there were gay characters in the book – to reflect the gayness and hypocrisy in Jamaica.” For a period, when he was still in Jamaica, James tried to have a straight relationship. It gave him a sense of validation, he says. Did he have to leave Jamaica to explore his sexuality? “Not so much explore,” he says. “But simple things – you might want to walk down the street and hold somebody’s hand one day. When you grow up in a homophobic country, you’re sitting on a timebomb.”
The book never refers to Bob Marley by name. He’s just “The Singer.”
Why did you decide to keep him offstage like that?
One, I didn’t want it to overwhelm the story. And also, certainly by 1976, he was already a symbolic figure, even in Jamaica. He was an international icon. When he got shot, most people didn’t even know he was in the country. I wanted to sort of define him by what he symbolizes. It’s just like calling someone The Prophet, I guess. Marley was different in terms of what he meant than what he was.
The multi-vocality of the book is just stunning. How did you choose and formulate all these different voices? I have an image of a spreadsheet.
There was a spreadsheet that went into it, there really was! It was the only way to keep track of everybody. And I have to, because if I don’t I’ll start playing favorites with characters.
I knew from the beginning that it would be a book that was told by its characters, that me as an author had no need to appear at all. The only time I appear in that book is as opinions that Nina Burgess [a sex worker character] has, especially about Jamaican society.
I liked the idea of the multiple viewpoints, which is something I got from Faulkner. And even Orhan Pamuk! It’s something you see sometimes in celebrity biographies, actually, where it’s a group biography of different people, adding in their different things. It’s also something you see in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, the many people hovering around a single event.
I was also inspired by Gay Talese’s famous article “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold,” which is probably the closest to what I was thinking. Like him, I was hovering around a major subject. But I was more interested in the people around him. By seeing how they saw him.
Were you concerned, in using a lot of dialect, that you might put readers off?
I’ve never had problems with American readers. It doesn’t surprise me that the first reviewers that have criticized the language were British reviews. Which has struck many people as strange because between Jamaica and Britain, there’s still a postcolonial thing. It’s still pretty pronounced, just not with me! http://www.gq.com/story/marlon-james
Preacher says there is a god-shaped void in everybody life but the only thing ghetto people can fill a void with is void.
When a gun come to live in the house the woman you live with treat you different, not cold, but now she weigh word, measure it before talking to you. But a gun talk to the owner too, telling him first that you can never own this, that outside is plenty people who don’t have a gun but know you do, and one night they going come like Nicodemus and take it. Nobody ever own a gun. You don’t know that until you own one. If somebody give it to you, that somebody can take it back. Another man can think is for him even when he seeing that is you control it. And he don’t sleep until he get it ’cause he can’t sleep. Gun hunger worse than woman hunger for at least maybe a woman might hungry for you back. At night me don’t sleep. Me stay up in the dark shadow, looking at it, rubbing it, seeing and waiting.
The problem with a book is that you never know what it’s planning to do to you until you’re too far into it.
And why the fuck you people always assume black people so stupid you need to teach them things?
Click of treat?
If a man call himself Rasta today, by next week that is him speaking prophecy. He don’t have to be too smart either, just know one or two hellfire and brimstone verse from the Bible. Or just claim it come from Leviticus since nobody ever read Leviticus. This is how you know. Nobody who get to the end of Leviticus can still take that book seriously. Even in a book full of it, that book is mad as shit. Don’t lie with man as with woman, sure I can run with that reasoning. But don’t eat crab? Not even with the nice, soft, sweet roast yam? And why kill a man for that? And trust me, the last thing any man who rape my daughter going get to do is marry her. How, when I slice him up piece by piece, keeping him alive for all of it and have him watch me feed him foot to stray dog?
I remember last year at these peace treaty parties that spring up in West Kingston like head lice, a Rasta trying to give me a reasoning about who is carrying the mark of the beast. Nothing set a Rasta on fire more than talk of “Armagideon.” So the Rasta say,
—Yow me no buy nothing that no fresh, brethren, because everything in package now carry the mark of the beast. You know, them code number in the white box with the black line.
I was trying to watch this man who was checking out my woman, looking warm under the streetlight while people dancing around her, some man from the Eight Lanes who didn’t know that this woman’s ring finger marked. No need to worry—she already know how to deal with that kind of man—she deal with them harder than me. But that’s the thing about Rasta reasoning. Even when you know it’s total fuckery from the start to end, it still have a hook to it.
—Barcode? I say. But barcode have whole heap of different number, and me sure me never see 666 yet.
You saying you look?
-But is for ram goat, brethren. Check the reasoning. Nobody in Jamaica have the power of the beast. Them just nyam wha the beast feed. You no notice that all the time the number start with zero zero zero? That be some decimal science. Whole number and natural number and double number. That mean all the number on all the code in all the world add up to 666.
Doesn’t matter if you tell him, doesn’t matter what you tell him, by the next day he forgets. He can’t remember anything since around April 1980. So he remembers his children, he remembers hating my wife because of an argument they had the same day it happened, but every morning the kids are this surprise we sprung on him. And to him Mom died two years ago, not six. He also doesn’t believe it when you explain all this to him and, I mean, why should he? Who wants to be devastated every morning? At least thank God he doesn’t remember that either. I mean, you saw how he walked right past you, somebody he just spent the whole day with. In the fucking Bronx.
Why go to Africa when it would profit you more to work together for a better life in Jamaica?
How do you bury a man? Put him in the ground or stomp out his fire?