The name Marlon James is now and forever etched indelibly in history as the very, first Jamaican novelist to win Britain’s acclaimed Man Booker Prize.
“Oh my god, oh wow,” James said as he walked to the podium after being announced the winner for penning a fictional novel titled “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”
“This is so sort of ridiculous I think I’m going to wake up tomorrow and it didn’t happen.”
“Jamaica has a really, really rich literary tradition. It is surreal being the first. I hope I’m not the last and I don’t think I will be,” James said after accepting his prize from the Duchess of Cornwall the former Camilla Parker Bowles, wife of Prince Charles in London, England .
Asked about how it felt to be the first Jamaican to take the prize, James said “I hope it brings more attention to what’s coming out of Jamaica and the Caribbean.”
However he added that in order to write such a compelling story he had to leave the island to write an honest book.
“It was a novel of exile … I needed that distance, I needed that sense of maybe there wouldn’t be consequences.”
He said the book was the riskiest novel he had written and in terms of subject and form winning the prize was “affirming.”
“I would have been happy with two people liking it.”
The 44-year-old Kingston, Jamaica-born writer clinched the coveted prize earlier this week becoming the first from that nation to win the prize in its 47-year history.
The book has been described to be “a raw, violent epic that uses the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 to explore Jamaican politics, gang wars and drug trafficking.”
Jamaican history reveals and is relayed in James’ fiction that on December 3, 1976, weeks before the general election and two days before Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica concert to ease political tensions, seven men from the tough West Kingston area of the capital city stormed his uptown-located 56 Hope Road home with machine guns. Marley survived the attack and went on to perform at the free concert but left the country the next day and stayed away for two years.
“This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. It is a representation of political times and places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami,” Michael Wood, the chairperson of the five-member judging panel said.
“It is a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about. It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times.”
He praised the book’s “many voices” saying it contains more than 75 characters that spoke to a myriad of interpretations ranging “from Jamaican slang to Biblical heights.”
He said: “One of the pleasures of reading it is that you turn the page and you’re not quite sure who the next narrator will be.”
Wood described it as the “most exciting” book on the shortlist.
He said the novel was “full of surprises” …“very violent” and “full of swearing.”
Wood, professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at Princeton University, said it had quickly dawned on all the judges that James had to be the winner and there was no need for a vote.
He added that the decision to decide James’s 680-page epic took less than two hours and was unanimous.
“The call was easy but the distance was small.”
Other judges said James’s stylistic range and his unflinching exploration of violence, cronyism and corruption decided their vote.
First awarded in 1969, previously, the Man Booker competition was restricted to novelists from Britain, Ireland, Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth nations. Last year, when the prize was opened up to any novel written in English and published in Britain, competition for the award grew fiercer.
First there were 156 novels entered in the prestigious competition.
The field of contenders narrowed to 13 and finally, the shortlist named six of the best writers.
This year’s shortlist included a diverse representation of authors — British writers, Tom McCarthy and Sunjeev Sahota, Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler and fellow American writer Hanya Yanagihara along with the youngest nominee making his debut as a writer, 28-year-old Nigerian Chigozie Obioma.
“We are delighted by the diversity of the list but it is an accident.
We were not looking for diversity,” Wood explained.
“It suggests the novel is alive and well in different places.”
In the end, James’ third novel snatched the historic win for Jamaica.
At a ceremony at London’s Guildhall, James said he was so certain that he would not win that he did not prepare an acceptance speech.
“I’m not an easy writer to like,” he said, referring to his experimental style.
Receiving the award, he explained that a huge part of the novel had been inspired by reggae music.
“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 poetry.”
“I kept running into dead ends with the stories until a friend of mine said, ‘Why do you think it’s one story?”
It was then he realized that Marley — who is referred to throughout as the Singer in the nove l— was “the connective cloth that held all the narrative threads together.”
“Funnily enough, Marley was a character in most of these stories and I didn’t even notice,” he said.
James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970, and studied literature at the University of the West Indies. He worked in advertising for more than a decade, as a copywriter, art director and graphic designer. He said he inherited his father’s love of literature explaining that the two of them often recited Shakespearean soliloquies to each other.
James committed four years to penning his prize-winning novel and in accepting the accolades dedicated the award to his late father.
James took a writing workshop in Jamaica, and after migrating to the United States enrolled in a writing program at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania.
His first novel, “John Crow’s Devil” was published in 2005 by Akashic Books and centers on two rival preachers in a Jamaican village in 1957.
His second novel, “The Book of Night Women,” published in 2009, is about a Jamaican woman named Lilith who is born into slavery on a sugar plantation in the 18th century.
In an interview at the awards ceremony, James said he first envisioned it as a short crime novel. Instead, the story morphed into an epic tale that spans decades and continents, weaving together the stories of real-life people, among them Cuban exiles, Jamaican politicians and C.I.A. operatives.
The fictional history novel was published in the United States by Riverhead Books LAST year and received extraordinary praise-worthy reviews.
James now lives in Minneapolis and teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul.
In addition to the prestigious award James received a check for $77,000 and another $5,000 for being among the shortlisted finalists.
He also received a specially bound edition of his book. The achievement solidly places James in the trailblazing position no other Jamaican-born author has ever maneuvered.