An African Game of Thrones


The Booker Prize winning Jamaican author Marlon James is making the rounds promoting his new book, the first in a trilogy, and I thought it might be of interest to the club. The most in-depth article I've seen was this one from The New Yorker. Here's the article:

And I pulled out a little bit of it to give an idea what to expect from the book:

Several years ago, after a frustrating argument with a friend about the all-white cast of “The Hobbit,” James had an impulse “to reclaim all the stuff I like—court intrigue, monsters, magic,” he told me. “I wanted black pageantry. I wanted just one novel where someone like me is in it, and I don’t have to look like I just walked out of H. P. Lovecraft, with a bone in my hair, and my lips are bigger than my eyes, and I’m saying some shit like ‘Oonga boonga boonga.’ Or else I’m some fucker named Gagool and I’m thwarting you as you get the diamonds.” Though James is well versed in the recent flourishing of speculative fiction from the African diaspora, he still sometimes talks about the Dark Star trilogy as though there were nothing comparable in the world—partly because when he first dreamed up the project, several years ago, it felt truly oppositional, and partly, perhaps, because he still has a tendency to see himself as an embattled rebel, even as the world has begun to celebrate him. He wanted to write a black fantasy novel that would succeed with a literary audience, too, the way that Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” had, in 2004, winning a Hugo and getting longlisted for the Booker. “So I did as Toni Morrison said, and I decided I would write the novel I wanted to read,” he told me.

For two years, he researched African history and mythology, constructing the foundation for a fantastical vision of the continent that would invert the monolithic “Africa” invented by the West. He drew on oral epics, like the Epic of Sundiata, which some people believe was the basis for “The Lion King,” though the filmmakers have called it an “original story,” while admitting some parallels with Shakespeare. (“I felt like these stories had been stolen from me,” James said at Comic Con. “People say that ‘The Lion King’ is based on ‘Hamlet.’ Please.”) He read legendary monster tales, like those about the Inkanyamba, a South African serpent with a horse’s head, who causes summer storms. He made notes on the grammar of African languages, to inflect the book’s prose. He briefly considered doing a historical series, an “Ethiopian ‘Wolf Hall,’ ” but then reverted to his dream of writing fantasy that honored the African diaspora. He wanted to build a “vast playground of myth and history and legend that other people can draw from, a pool that’s as rich as Viking or Celtic lore,” he said.

He sketched his new world’s geography. (The maps that appear in the book are his work.) He made a list of characters that kept getting longer. There would be a quest to find a boy, he decided, and a motley group of seekers: a Moon Witch, a mournful giant, a perceptive buffalo. He wondered if the Aesi—a man with “skin like tar, hair red, when you see him you hear the flutter of black wings”—ought to narrate the story. Then he started thinking about a character called Tracker, a hunter with a nose that can suss out the details of a man’s life in an instant—the spices in his kitchen, the last time he washed—and track a woman to another city with just a whiff of her shirt. Tracker would be sullen and resentful, reserving his gentleness for a group of deformed children, called mingi, whom he meets through an “anti-witch” called the Sangoma.

Here's an interview with him on CBC:
In which the author reads an excerpt or two.


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