Marlon James at the Zurich Literature Festival
On the 11th of July, the 10th edition of the Zürich Literature Festival kicked off, starting with an evening with award winning author Marlon James at the Kaufleuten Klubsaal in central Zürich. James was warmly welcomed by a packed house, in a fun and accommodating venue that offered a much needed respite from the day’s heat.
There were readings of his work both in German and English: the German readings from the newly released translation of the first book of the Dark Star Trilogy: Black Leopard, Red Wolf was read by Thomas Sarbarcher, followed by a reading by James in English from the second book in the Trilogy: Moon Witch.
The discussion was moderated by Etrit Hasler, and the event was followed by a concert by Zeal & Ardor.
Having heard so much about Marlon James and his work, I was very excited to hear that he would be participating in this festival, and a huge thanks to the Literaturhaus for providing Tracy Hope and I tickets, as members of the Writers in Zurich Community.
Now normally, I would absolutely not take any time to go see a Literary Fiction author - but this was a special case . As a reader, I find most of what is categorised as literary fiction obnoxious - do I really want to read a story about some jerk driving through wheat fields trying to find his soul? No, I do not. Not now, not ever.
But Marlon James, who sees himself as a writer of literary fiction, is something else entirely. His books are a wonderful mixture of exciting story-telling and compelling characters, and considering their size can also double up as weights for your home gym. His writing is as prolific as it is shocking, and unsurprisingly, seeing him in person, he did not disappoint. The conversation was a fun mixture of writing wisdom, funny anecdotes and nerding out on the love of Science Fiction and Fantasy … cocktails in hand a good time was had by all.
Who is Marlon James?
Born in 1970 in Kingston, Jamaica, Marlon James’ is an acclaimed novelist whose books have been translated in more than 20 languages. Among the many awards he has received, in 2015, he was the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (Fun fact: This book is anything but brief. When James started writing it, he had set a goal for himself that it would be short. At just over 700 pages, it wasn’t quite as short as he hoped…). In 2019, he launched the Dark Star Trilogy - his first foray into Fantasy Fiction. Each volume in this trilogy tells the same story from the point of view of a different protagonist, set in a fantasy world in Africa. He jokingly once said in an interview that the books are Game of Thrones meets Black Panther, and much to his surprise, the description stuck.
Fantasy Fiction & the African Epic
“The Child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” - Black Leopard, Red Wolf
James’s goal when writing fantasy, while providing himself the usual allowances given in this genre, was turn the usual fantasy tropes upside down. No clear cut good versus evil, no golden child to save the world, no giant armies and epic battles that will decide the fate of all things. Instead, just a bunch of characters, with all their flaws and foibles, stumbling along in this fantasy world he created, trying to survive and do whatever it is they are meant to do.
For this trilogy, he looked away from the Western inspired fantasy epics that dominate the landscape. Instead, he found inspiration by looking at African storytelling and the oral tradition. He chose to mirror the complexity and beauty of this tradition all while showcasing its complexity. In this manner of storytelling, it is the listener, or in this case, the reader, who has to decide who is the actual hero, and what is good, bad or even acceptable throughout the story. No clear good or evil… there just is. The one absorbing the story is the one who will decide.
On Tony Morrison’s Beloved ( which is written with the same idea in mind): “ if you’re going to accept Beloved as a hero you’re going to have to accept that murder is an act of love. Are you ready for that?”
James joked about how his switch from literary fiction to fantasy fiction was probably career suicide. But much like his previous work, his focus was the characters.
“If a book is going to work, characters have to become people. That’s why all but one of my novels is written in the first person. They do become people and they take over the book/story.”
When reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Tracker’s (the protagonist) voice is as clear as day. We may not trust him, and we probably don’t even like him, but he feels and acts for the good and bad that does him in a way that feels real. We know it’s him - and not the author trying to be him. He, like all people in the real world, is flawed.
To help him do this, whenever he’s about to start a new novel, James goes back to re-reading the Greeks. Be it the Ilyad or Medea, he loves going back to classical literature because:
“the Greeks were the only people who could accept how beautiful and how horrifying we were, sometimes in the same sentence.”
The ridiculousness of the literary hierarchy
James spoke openly about how in the literary community there is a lot of judgment about fantasy and the fictional worlds in which these stories exist, but he was quick to quash this idea. World building is extremely complex and for an “imaginary” world to truly work and connect with the reader, characters must be firmly grounded in reality - making decisions and having conversations that seem realistic taking into account the world they live in. As an example, he spoke about the social realist novel as the example of where what is supposed to be seen as realistic and thus somehow superior, is actually just not.
“Often these novels are about very mediocre men who are not cute but somehow manage to have a wife and two mistresses. They achieve nothing, and there are no black people in their world. They live this middling experience that they think is major. These types of mediocre men do not have Kate Moss as girlfriends in real life, but they always do in these books. And this is supposed to be ‘realistic fiction’ - when in fact, these books are more fantastical than Snow White.”
And so much more …
From his love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, his clear instructions to what parts of his book his mother is allowed to read (and how Caribbean moms deal with success in general if you’re not a married with children), to his attempt at avoiding a TV producer that led him to writing a TV series that will come out next year, James shared so much with the audience that it was very hard to capture with writing an even longer review. All I can say to conclude is that this was an extraordinary way to launch the Literature Festival, and through his chat inspired many of us not only to read his work, but put pen to paper. What more could you ask for?
Note: Big thanks to Chris Corbett from the Writers and Illustrators of Zurich for the photos from the event.
In this photo: Chris Corbett, myself and Tracy Hope
About the Author
Alnaaze is a writer, humanitarian, and public health advocate living in Switzerland. Whether it’s through her work with international organisations or through her writing, her goal is to amplify and unite: to make the world see that those considered as “other” are not so different after all, and that in the end, life and experiences are universal. She is a co-writer of the non-fiction anthology: "50 Amazing Swiss Women: True Stories you Should Know About", and co-editor of the Keeping It Under Wraps anthology series, where her essays appear. She has also published short stories, essays and poetry in various online magazines.
Photo credit: Bronwen Richardson (Insta: @island8)