Sun | Mar 18, 2018

Gleaner Honour Awards: Marlon James - A story of determination

Published:Friday | January 20, 2017 | 12:00 AM
John Crow's Devil, written by Marlon James.
Jamaican author Marlon James holds the award after his book 'A Brief History of Seven Killings' was named winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize 2015 for Fiction.
Marlon James

'A man of superb strength and character' is an accurate way to describe Marlon James, distinguished writer in residence and associate professor of English at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota.

The Book of Night Women, John Crow's Devil, and A Brief History of Seven Killings are evidence of his ability to use scenes and dialogue to paint dramatic and bold pictures and explore topics, openly and honestly.

James' work gives life to the hidden shadows of his homeland Jamaica, tucked behind tourism advertisements and postcard images. He describes himself as a fiction and non-fiction writer, noting that his "fiction focuses on Jamaica's hidden and untold stories" and his non-fiction, presented in the form of personal essays, "on his journey from childhood to present".

Jamaican Patios plays a major role in James' work.

"It is very important for me and for Jamaicans to remember that the voice that we actually speak is more than enough to tell our stories, that there is no such thing as standard English, nor is there any such thing as 'broken English'," said James.

"Broken implies something that needs repairing and Patois needs no repair. If anything, it's standard English that's in trouble."

His first novel, John Crow's Devil, was rejected 78 times by publishers. "Honestly, I did give up. I threw the manuscript away. I still remember rejection number 78. It was a card that simply said 'Not for us'."

This hit him hard.

"If it wasn't for the Calabash Writer Workshop, hosted by Justine Henzell, Kwame Dawes and Colin Channer, I wouldn't have tried one last time."




Now, looking back, James has learnt a lot from that experience; most importantly, "never, ever destroy your work, no matter how bad".

As a writer, he was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for John Crow's Devil, which was also a New York Times Editor's Choice. His second novel, The Book of Night Women, won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award.

A Brief History of Seven Killings won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction - one of the world's most important literary honours - making him the first Jamaican to win the coveted award.

James admitted that there are in fact some aspects of writing - "the really crucial ones" - that he cannot teach. "I cannot help you make your book come alive; that comes from reading, and having that experience happen to you."

For his outstanding work, Marlon James is the recipient of the Gleaner Honour Award (Special Award) for Arts and Culture.