By Nathan Ress
Kicking off the 2016/17 Babel Writers Series sponsored by the Just Buffalo Literary Center, Marlon James came to kleinhans Music Hall this past Wednesday 19 October. James is a gay writer born in Kingston, Jamaica, the son of two police officers in a country where homosexuality is illegal. James now lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and teaches literature in St. Paul. His most recent novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings was published in 2014 and has won the Man Booker Prize, a prize awarded to the best original novel written in English and published in the UK.
James approached the lectern to overwhelming applause and carried himself with a very comfortable and light hearted demeanor as he spoke to the audience, cracking more than a few jokes. His talk focused on his own development as a writer as well as a person. He quoted the author Cormac McCarthy, saying “Books come out of books,” and spoke about the many books that made him into the man and author that he is. He cited such works as Shame by Salman Rushdie, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, and North China Lover by Marguerite Duras as books that drew his own works out of him.
James also spoke about how books helped him to find himself as well as accept and live for the person he was, specifically Sula by Toni Morrison. He cited a few specific lines that “floored” him and changed his worldview, showing him to live for himself. James encouraged individuals to be “not self conceited or self hating, but self curious,” a lesson he himself learned while growing up with literature.
Similarly, James spoke about a great deal of literature set in other countries that helped him relate to his own. He spoke of a torn and impoverished Jamaica and how he saw similar lands in various novels he read. He was able to recognize the strife and struggle in these novels as something that he lived with every day.
Much of the rest of James’ talk was focused towards other creative writers, talking about the way he creates characters and the thought process that goes into his writing. His work A Brief History of Seven Killings, features over ten different narrators, and James spoke about how he separates their various voices in his head. James’ advice to writers was to make their characters “resonate” with readers, no matter their station in life. He also spoke about his struggle to portray female characters in his novels, and how he learned to write them by reading female authors, learning how these authors think.
Following his individual speech, James sat down with an MC to answer questions written by audience members on index cards. Questions here included ones asking which books he read and reread, politics, Jamaica, Bob Marley, and the value of studying English in college. Regarding studying English, James staunchly defended studying the subject, and humanities in general, citing its universal usefulness, and benefits to the person.
James has been called a “Rebel Novelist,” but he himself said he feels “more inspired by rebels,” admiring those who are able to stand up for what they believe in, those who hold to their principles and virtues.
After his stage time, James signed autographs and had brief conversations with a great many individuals. The auditorium had been nearly full to capacity and James walked off stage to a standing ovation.
The next reader in the Babel series will be Laila Lalami, an author born in Rabat, Morocco who now lives in California. She will be speaking Wednesday 9 November at Kleinhans music hall.