Marlon James (novelist)

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Marlon James
Marlon James at the 2014 Texas Book Festival
Marlon James at the 2014 Texas Book Festival
Born (1970-11-24) 24 November 1970 (age 48)
Kingston, Surrey County, Jamaica
Alma materUniversity of the West Indies, Wilkes University
Literary movementPostcolonialism
Notable worksA Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James (born 24 November 1970)[1] is a Jamaican writer. He has published three novels: John Crow's Devil (2005), The Book of Night Women (2009), and A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Now living in Minneapolis, James teaches literature at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.[2][3]

Early life[edit]

James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to parents who were both in the Jamaican police: his mother (who gave him his first prose book, a collection of stories by O. Henry) became a detective and his father (from whom James took a love of Shakespeare and Coleridge) a lawyer.[4][5] James is a 1991 graduate of the University of the West Indies, where he read Language and Literature. He left Jamaica to escape homophobic violence and economic conditions that he felt would mean career stagnation.[6] James himself explained, "Whether it was in a plane or a coffin, I knew I had to get out of Jamaica".[2] He received a master's degree in creative writing from Wilkes University (2006).[7]


James has taught English and creative writing at Macalester College since 2007.[8][9] His first novel, John Crow's Devil – which was rejected 70 times before being accepted for publication[10] – tells the story of a biblical struggle in a remote Jamaican village in 1957.[11] His second novel, The Book of Night Women, is about a slave woman's revolt in a Jamaican plantation in the early 19th century.[12] His most recent novel, 2014's A Brief History of Seven Killings, explores several decades of Jamaican history and political instability through the perspectives of many narrators. It won the fiction category of the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature[13] and the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, having been the first book by a Jamaican author ever to be shortlisted.[14][15] He is the second Caribbean winner of the prize, following Trinidad-born V. S. Naipaul who won in 1971.[16] James has indicated his next work will be a fantasy novel, titled Black Leopard, Red Wolf.[17] It will be the first in a series.



Themes in James’s work span from religion and supernatural to sexuality, violence, and colonialism. Often, his novels display the struggle to find and identity, whether it be as a slave or in postcolonial Jamaica.

In The Book of Night Women, James challenges the traditional slave narrative by presenting a protagonist (Lilith) who approaches her enslavement with complex duality, despite the constant description of antagonism between slaves and masters on a plantation in Jamaica. She hates the masters, but much of the novel deals with how she “aspires to obtain a privileged stature within plantation society by submitting to the sexual subjugation of a white overseer, Robert Quinn”.[18] This is additionally challenged by Lilith and Robert’s “love”, leading the reader to question the limits of love and relationships. James intends to have readers root for Robert and Lilith, but then catch themselves, as Robert Quinn has a reputation as a brutal, violent overseer—even ordering Lilith to be severely whipped. The situation for the reader is further complicated because Quinn is Irish, another population that was looked down upon during the time period. While this at times brings him sympathy, his whiteness overshadows his Irishness. Additionally, the novel explores the complexity of what it is to be a woman, with some characters having deep connections to Obeah and Myal spiritualism. The female slaves are portrayed as strong-willed and intelligent, while the male slaves are often portrayed as weak, thoughtless, and even traitorous. "Rape, torture, murder and other dehumanizing acts propel the narrative, never failing to shock in both their depravity and their humanness. It is this complex intertwining that makes James’s book so disturbing and so eloquent".[19] The novel "defies hegemonic notions of empire by pointing out the explosive and antagonistic relationship between colonizers and colonized."[18]

In his other works, James takes on other time periods in Jamaica, while keeping consistent in his portrayal of violence and brutality. In John Crow’s Devil, his first novel, he explores postcolonial Jamaica through a religiously-charged, archetypal battle of good and evil. His characters in this novel represent, through their archetypal portrayals, many facets of humanity including hope. Despite the particular setting, the novel "conveys archetypal situations that reside in the collective unconsciousness."[20] Additionally, this piece of Caribbean gothic reveals the power of guilt and hypocrisy both in a person and in a community, and generally reveals truths of human nature. The ghosts of colonialism are more subtle, but the instability and struggle for identity is clear to the reader.

His most recent novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, portrays an “often angry account of postcolonial society struggling to balance identity and a burgeoning criminal element.” [21] The novel has 12 narrators, contributing to the "excess" that Harrison explores in her article "Excess in A Brief History of Seven Killings." She explains, "James's rejection of a purely nationalist tradition, like that of other authors in his cohort, concretizes his critique of the ways nationalism distracts us from the increased deregulation of global capital and its production of material inequality around the globe. This disruption of privileged tropes in the interest of turning attention onto the transnational forces that structure inequality helps to explain James's use of "a poetics of excess." His experimentation with form functions to rework now familiar paradigms and themes that have been central to the literary imagination of postcolonial realities for a little over half a century."[22]


James's influences include authors as well as musicians. In his acceptance speech for the Man Booker Prize, James explained "The reggae singers Bob Marley and Peter Tosh were the first to recognize that the voice coming out our mouths was a legitimate voice for fiction and for poetry."[23] In other words, these singers empowered other artists such as James to create. In his popular essay "From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself" published in the New York Times Magazine, James describes reading Salman Rushdie's "Shame": "Its prose was so audacious, its reality so unhinged, that you didn't see at first how pointedly political and just plain furious it was. It made me realize that the present was something I could write my way out of."[2]

Tone and style[edit]

James’s work carries a unique style, often referred to as disturbing, brutal, and violent, leading him to be compared in one review to Quentin Tarantino, who is known for his excessive use of violence in his films. James does not hold back in his graphic descriptions of sexual and violent acts, which contributes to the raw nature of his writing. “James does not set out to entertain, he does not want readers to be entertained by shocking events: he believes they should be rightly horrified…”[21] His work is challenging and lyrical, and he often uses Jamaican Patois in dialogue, and often uses multiple dialects for different characters. His style strays from traditional and expected Caribbean Literature by "creating wild and risky new possibilities for thinking about the region's place in our contemporary reality."[22] James has stated that he commits offences in his writing that he would not allow his students to commit, “such as writing seven-page sentences."[21] James’s writing has been compared to Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.


Reception of James’s novels has been conflicted—the same elements that some critics find to be strengths, others believe are his weaknesses. The conflicting nature of how readers and reviewers alike stems from reactions to the often upfront brutality juxtaposed with the mechanical elements James uses to tell his stories. One critic writes, “The linguistic and stylistic excess which dominates A Brief History of Seven Killings both elevates it and burdens it."[21] Another reviewer explained, "I have had conversations with fellow Caribbeanists and students in which they have used terms like "orgiastic" and "masturbatory" to describe James's writing."[22] When reviewing The Book of Night Women, another critic explains “Rape, torture, murder and other dehumanizing acts propel the narrative, never failing to shock in both their depravity and their humanness. It is this complex intertwining that makes James’s book so disturbing and so eloquent."[19]

Awards and recognition[edit]


  1. ^ "Man Booker Prize for Fiction Winner: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James",, 14 October 2015.
  2. ^ a b c James, Marlon (10 March 2015). "From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  3. ^ Kimberley Richards, "Marlon James Becomes First Jamaican Winner Of Booker Prize", Huffington Post – Arts & Culture, 14 October 2015.
  4. ^ Arifa Akbar, "Marlon James: 'I don’t believe in PG violence’", The Independent, 14 October 2015.
  5. ^ Chris Harvey, "Marlon James interview: 'I didn’t want to fall into a pornography of violence'", The Telegraph, 13 October 2015.
  6. ^ "Why Marlon James had to get out of Jamaica to win the Booker prize", The Guardian,15 October 2015.
  7. ^ Marlon James: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle.
  8. ^ quote Archived 3 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine.: A professor of literature and creative writing at Macalester College, he divides his time among Minnesota, New York, and Jamaica.
  9. ^ "Marlon James, Assistant Professor English", Macalester College.
  10. ^ "Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James 'in exile' from Jamaica", Channel 4 News, 14 October 2015.
  11. ^ John Crow's Devil: Marlon James. Books
  12. ^ Troy Reed, "The Book of Night Women" (review), HNR Issue 48 (May 2009). Historical Novel Society.
  13. ^ "Top three books named for 2015 OCM Bocas Prize" Archived 5 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine., NGC Bocas Lit Fest website, 31 March 2015
  14. ^ a b "The Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2015 shortlist is revealed" Archived 25 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine., The Man Booker Prize website, 15 September 2015.
  15. ^ "Jamaican writer makes history", News Americas, 15 September 2015.
  16. ^ "OCM Bocas Prize winner gets world’s biggest literary award", Daily Express (Trinidad), 14 October 2015.
  17. ^ Liptak, Andrew (12 December 2015). "Marlon James's Next Book Will Be 'African Game of Thrones'". io9. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  18. ^ a b Ozuna, Ana. "Feminine Power: Women Contesting Plantocracy in The Book of Night Women". Retrieved 15 June 2018.
  19. ^ a b Glover, Kaiama L. "Book Review | 'The Book of Night Women,' by Marlon James". Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  20. ^ Madore, Joel (2011). "Jamaican Signatures: An Archetypal Analysis of Marlon James' John Crow's Devil". Journal of Caribbean Literatures. 7: 69–75 – via EBSCO.
  21. ^ a b c d Battersby, Eileen (2016). "Booker Winner Marlon James Tops Tarantino for Body Count". Contemporary Literary Criticism. 405. Retrieved 15 June 2018 – via Gale.
  22. ^ a b c "Excess in A Brief History of Seven Killings « Post45". Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  23. ^ Ulin, David L. "Marlon James' powerful mix of influences and cultures lands him the Man Booker Prize". Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  24. ^ ArtsBeat, "National Book Critics Circle Finalists Are Announced", The New York Times, 23 January 2010.
  25. ^ Dayton Literary Peace Prize - Press Release Announcing 2010 Winners.
  26. ^ "Minnesota Book Awards, Past Finalists and Winners by Year"
  27. ^ "Eight Outstanding Jamaicans Awarded Musgrave Medals". Jamaica Information Service. Retrieved 5 February 2015.
  28. ^ "National Book Critics Circle Announces Finalists for Publishing Year 2014". Critical Mass (NBCC blog). 19 January 2015.
  29. ^ The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. "Winners by Year"
  30. ^ "Top three books named for 2015 OCM Bocas Prize" Archived 5 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine., NGC Bocas Lit Fest website, 31 March 2015.
  31. ^ Tim Masters, "Man Booker Prize 2015: Marlon James wins for A Brief History of Seven Killings", BBC News, 13 October 2015.
  32. ^ Mark Brown, "Marlon James wins the Man Booker prize 2015", The Guardian, 13 October 2015.
  33. ^ Anita Singh, "Booker Prize 2015 winner Marlon James: 'I almost gave up'", The Telegraph, 14 October 2015.
  34. ^ Natasha Onwuemezi, "Marlon James wins Green Carnation Prize", The Bookseller, 9 December 2015.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]