Exclusive: Jamaican Author Marlon James Talks Storytelling

The Book of Night Women is the second novel by Jamaican author Marlon James; its engrossing story winds through the complex bonds and intrigues of an 18th-century Jamaican sugar plantation. At the center is Lilith, an orphaned girl whose birth has been expected by the Night Women, a remarkable sisterhood comprised of slave women who share books, songs, and plans for revolt in their nocturnal meetings. After the jump, James speaks with our sister publication Boldtype about reckoning with the past and the powers of the storyteller.

Boldtype: One of the most arresting aspects of this book is the narration. How did you arrive at the decision to tell it in this voice? If the voice chose you, how did it introduce itself?

Marlon James: For me, novels always begin with characters, random people who simply show up one day to live rent free in my head. The narrator showed up first, but back then she wasn’t the narrator. In fact, the book was supposed to be about her, until she started telling Lilith’s story. And even then, it took me a while to trust her voice. The first few drafts of the novel were all in 18th-century King’s English, and in the third person, but that voice drove me to a dead end on page 45. The narrator simply insisted on telling the story, and I simply insisted on not listening, for lots or reasons — one being that I wasn’t sure anybody would stick around for such a long story being told in such a voice.

But you can’t write what you think people will want to buy; you have to do what you think is your very best work, or at least what scares you the most. For me, that was a story being told by the person created to tell it. And even then, it was hell just packing up and getting out of her way, especially when she kept writing Lilith into corners that would take me weeks to get her out of. Fiction can be a fight between author and narrator, especially if the narrator is nothing like you.

BT: The novel centers on its resilient and creative female characters, specifically those that make up the group of Night Women. What drew you to write about the experiences of women under conditions of plantation slavery?

MJ: One thing I’ve discovered about my writing is that the first character that appears in my story is never the character the story is going to be about. Sometimes their only use is to get you to who you’re really supposed to write about. This is not always a good thing — in fact, it’s frustrating as hell. Night Women began as a story about a British Commander banished to Jamaica. One day, he investigates this woman whose stories just weren’t adding up, and the next thing I knew, there it was: a 500-plus-page novel about this woman. I’m still not sure how it happened. I’ve been obsessed with Sula and Song of Solomon for years, so that might have had something to do with it. (I used to carry around a copy of Song of Solomon all the time, just in case I met Toni Morrison.) I also had lunch with an African poet two years ago, when I was between drafts, and we spoke about how matriarchal West African society was, how women decided when and where to plant crops — agricultural scientists in every sense of the word; women who made the decision between abundance and starvation — and how the line of succession was always through the oldest daughter. This left me wondering, what if a group of women formed this kind of sisterhood, this power center on a sugar plantation, and what if nobody knew about it? There’s also this myth that house slaves had it better than field slaves, which was never true. We do to them today what we do to anybody we think has it better: confuse living well with having stuff. On some plantations, if the mistress so much as sneezed at dinner, the cook would be whipped to death.

BT: The Night Women possess much occult knowledge, which includes forms of magic like Obeah, but also reading and song. Did you envision magic and storytelling as existing on the same spectrum, and, if so, how were they alike and different?

MJ: It’s funny, I set out at first to erase all magic from the novel, because I didn’t want to be seen as a magical realist. But storytelling is magic. Even realistic fiction is the act of conjuring an idea. Magic and storytelling, certainly as it appears in this book, were two ways of exercising power. Obeah was a sinister means of destroying enemies, and bush tea a way of curing sickness or bringing sickness down on a slave or master (another reason why house slaves had it bad). More often than not, it was nothing more than the power of suggestion, but an obeah curse could cripple an estate. At the same time, the women, at least some of them, came to realize that reading was a greater power. Reading allowed them entry into secrets about white plantation life that they would have been shut away from otherwise. By reading words, they also read the people that wrote them. Homer, the head slave, pretty much read her way to the top.

The book itself is about books: the novels of Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and Daniel Defoe; and the very act of storytelling is an act of power. There’s an African proverb that goes, “Until lions tell their stories, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The storyteller gets to decide who is the hero and who is the villain. The storyteller gets to ignore good and justify evil. Our version of events and of people are shaped by what historians tell us. It stuns me that there are people out there who still think the Raj was a great thing because it gave India a railway. But that’s because Indians weren’t allowed to tell their own story. My first impression of Africa came from H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, with Alan Quartermaine, so I needed no help convincing myself when I was younger that slavery was a good thing. Sure slaves had it bad, but I was the well-off kid watching the “We Are the World” video, not the starving kid in it.

BT: Which other authors do you feel your work is in dialogue with, and why?

MJ: It’s set in 1801, but I do think of Night Women as a contemporary novel. For one, what’s more contemporary than reckoning with the past? There’s still much to explain, sort out, and come to terms with. If there’s one thing the so-called post-colonial novelists knows, it’s that the obstacles set up 50, 100, 400 years ago are still the ones most stubborn — not just because the story is so old, but because it’s never been really told, or not told well or told enough. I just read a memoir about an African nation that was beautifully written, but there wasn’t a single black human in it. I walked out of a panel last year because it was about Africa’s past and future, and there wasn’t a single black African novelist. Even now, nearly every film about Africa is about the guilt-ridden white man’s experience of Africa. Sometimes I think every generation gets the Heart of Darkness it doesn’t deserve, so sometimes I feel that writers like me are on a mission just to get our voices out. Take out the 200-year difference, and Lilith’s story is not that different from Kainene’s in Half of a Yellow Sun, to the extent that here is another woman whose story would have remained untold had we not decided to tell it. Without Adichie, we would have gotten the Cry Freedom version. I think writers like Adichie, Junot Díaz, and Kiran Desai are telling stories that are still being told the wrong way by the wrong people. The real villain in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Trujillo. There’s an entire lost generation of men and women all over the commonwealth who turned out exactly as Jemubhai did in The Inheritance of Loss. Who’s writing the novel about the Colón Men of Panama? The Caribbean Vietnam veteran? The trick for all, of course, is not to get consumed by history. I’m still trying to figure that part out.

BT: We really enjoyed your writings on music on your blog. What were some of the songs and albums in the air as you wrote this novel?

MJ: I don’t get silence. I don’t trust it. So I always have something on when I write. My first novel was written under the spell of Björk and Chocolate Genius. For The Book of Night Women, I was listening to D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Radiohead’s Kid A, the Roots’ Phrenology, Tom Waits’ Alice, Miles Davis’ Nefertiti, Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh, Peter Gabriel’s 2 (Scratch), Meshell Ndegeocello’s Comfort Woman, and lots, lots, lots of Prince. Right now, I’m listening to the great lost album of the 2000s: Q-tip’s Kamaal the Abstract.