Culture is a constant changing force – Marlon James

Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970. His first novel “John Crow’s Devil” was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s prize and was finalist for Los Angeles Times book prize. He was at the Book and Arts Festival in 2013, where he spoke to OYELOLA OGUNRINDE on Caribbean narratives as it relates to Africa

Part of your narrative has been the connection between the Caribbean and Africa. Can you talk about that?
The thing about being a black person in the Caribbean or in the new world is that slavery is the ground thing. It is the beginning of history. Pre-history is something we have to reclaim, that is why some black people came back to Africa. It’s a symbolic reclaiming – what was taken from us during slavery and what have we gotten after slavery and which has shaped us. Part of it is about identity, though my first novel is not set about slavery, but it is still about it. Another thing is that there is inter-racial problem in Jamaica and even America. I don’t know if it is real in Nigeria. Blacks are also trying to get lighter and lighter till they become fully white. All of these are shaped by the history of slavery. It is a theme.

You are a storyteller and writer. Have you been curious about tracing your root?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I think you almost can’t help it, especially when you run into friends from Ghana or Nigeria, you realise that we have so many things in common. Sometimes I think there is too much danger in looking back. You still have your society to reckon with, the idea you have to know your past. I know we tend to look at the diaspora issue at the same time but as a writer I don’t always want to because even in novels there is a means of writing and fact checking your work – what is the mythology of East Africa history, West African history – trying to struggle with all these histories and balancing it with the present.

Do you agree with those who say the history of the people prior to western civilization should be forgotten?
Not everybody remembers the Iceland saggers. I know more about writing stories than the average Swedish person because I am interested in stories. Stories die all the time; some stories disappear. I wonder what will happen to our stories that we got from the African tradition which must be kept. If we are concerned about these stories, we should write them; it doesn’t matter if they are good or bad written stories. I think people who are concerned with our stories disappearing should write it because if you wait for someone to write it, it might as well disappear. Also there is this burden always saddled on writers which comes to the word ‘Should.’ I tell myself that there is nothing that I should do or I should not do. I think people often confuse writers with historians and this is not right. A writer shouldn’t be saddled with what he should write and what he shouldn’t write, because the form of writing should be free.

Has the culture and way of life of a people affected the way their stories are written?    
It is because the culture gave you the language and the perspective in which you tell your stories from your point of view. I think it just happens. When writers make a deliberate decision, you can tell when they write out of what they know. I say this because I’m a lecturer .What I like to teach the younger generation is that they look at culture as a tool which might offend the older generation. I know my Jamaican culture, but I also write from hip-hop. There is too much cross culture also going on in the net. I think being a gatekeeper on culture you realise that the culture we are preserving was learnt from other cultures. Culture is a constant changing force.

How has the response of your novels outside Jamaica been?
The response has being amazing, most especially from Africa because all of us still want to retain dialogue between the countries of the Diaspora and the countries of Africa. I found out this in the way Africans reacted to the book “Night Women.” The African in the Diaspora still looks at his history looking at the conversation before Christopher Columbus came to Africa.

What course do you teach in the University?
I teach in a college in St Paul. It is a college which has students from all over the world. I teach Creative Writing. It’s really funny because students from Africa who come to the University don’t come to tell stories or be a writer; they come to learn how to do business so they study for courses like Economics. So my classes are usually 99 percent white. Why are they leaving Senegal to come to America to be a doctor or study Economics? There is a lot at stake. I don’t decide for them. Decisions have been made for them before they arrived America. They are spending a lot of money. There is no advanced country who has achieved so much without contributing to the Arts. What I ask students who I am privileged to talk to is whether the course they are pursuing is really what they want or if they are forced to do it, because of their parents or the society they come from.

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