Thursday, October 22, 2015

Marlon James and the Man Booker Prize: A Caribbean Perspective

Marlon James
The Caribbean is my birthplace and my current home, so it's with more than a soupçon of pride that I read the news last week that the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2015, the biggest UK book award, is none other than Jamaican Marlon James. The winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is the first by a Jamaican author ever to be shortlisted. James joins Trinidad-born VS Naipaul who won in 1971.

James's path to glory is frighteningly familiar: we hear variations on this story in the publishing world all the time. As a gay man in a violently homophobic country, he could not just "be himself" and his dark nights of the soul brought him close to ending it all. "I knew I had to leave my home country — whether in a coffin or on a plane," he writes in "From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself", a March 10, 2015 essay in the Times. Despondent after receiving 70 rejections for his first novel, John Crow's Devil, he deleted the story from his hard drive, recovering it at the urging of a writer friend. It was finally published in 2005 and became a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and a New York Times Editor’s Choice. His second novel, The Book of Night Women (2009), 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 (2014) won the fiction category of the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature before going on to win the Man Booker.

The Caribbean region has had its fair share of writers who have won prestigious international prizes, including the Nobel Prize in Literature (Trinidadian novelist VS Naipaul in 2001, St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott in 1992, Saint-John Perce of Guadeloupe in 1960) and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Trinidadians Earl Lovelace, VS Naipaul and Lawrence Scott, Jamaican Erna Brodber, and others). Several others have been shortlisted. Then there are the diasporic Caribbeans, usually children of Caribbean migrant parents, such as Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy who between them have won the Man Booker, the Orange, the Whitbread and others.

The region is always inordinately proud when our people "make it big" in the wider world, for a number of reasons. Even though the Caribbean archipelago stretches almost two thousand miles from the Bahamas in the north to Trinidad, Guyana and Surinam in the south, most of the nations are mere flyspecks on the map when compared with the rest of the English-speaking and -writing world. The population of the entire region can probably be encompassed in one major metropolitan city, so in terms of numbers alone, the odds appear to be against us when it comes to winning major prizes.

There's more than just geographical fragmentation at play in the region; there's also the legacy of a historical reality where multiple races, ethnicities, religions and languages were all thrown together in the sink-or-swim scenario of colonization that involved dehumanizing systems of slavery, indentureship and genocide with all the attendant social and psychological fallout. Our history is ever with us, as evidenced by the deep-rooted insecurities, shaky identities and the persistent need for external validation. We battle our complexes on the cricket pitch, on the soccer field, in academia--and in our literature.

The history aside, the complications aside, there's the simple delight in seeing yet another of "ours" receive high accolades for work exceedingly well done. Good job, Marlon. We in the region are very proud your achievements and your contribution to our rich literary heritage.

~Liane Spicer


Jewel Amethyst said...

I haven't read his work, but I'm very proud of a Caribbean man winning such a prestigious prize. I do hope it inspires Caribbean writers to keep writing and more Caribbean readers to start or keep reading.

Liane Spicer said...

I haven't read his work yet either, Jewel, although The Book of Night Women has been on my wish list for some time now. Anything that inspires people to read more and to write our stories is a good thing.