Marlon James hopes you don’t believe everything he writes. The Jamaican novelist and winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize will publish the second book of his Dark Star Trilogy later this month, Moon Witch, Spider King. If you haven’t read the first book in the fantasy series—the 2019 National Book Award finalist Black Leopard, Red Wolf—James insists that is perfectly fine. Each book in the trilogy is narrated by different characters recounting the same series of events: an eclectic group of mercenaries takes on a dangerous search to find a boy whose existence threatens their world. Inspired by African storytelling, each narrator describes this quest and the mythical African-inspired world they traverse very differently, leaving readers to decipher what is true and who to believe.

“We reach for the fantastical to explain things that we can’t explain in the real world. We reach for allegory, myth, and tall tales in order to understand ourselves.”

In a conversation with Boston Review fellow Nate File about his new book, James discusses what he thinks fuller representation can do for Black readers, why people are drawn to stories about power, and how taking your mythologies for granted is its own kind of privilege.

Nate File: When Black Leopard, Red Wolf first came out, you joked that this trilogy was like an African Game of Thrones. That took off as the elevator pitch for the books, but they’re really very different. Do you regret making that joke?


Marlon James: No, if for no other reason than it got people to pay attention to it. But also, I’m inspired by this idea that you don’t have to let go of the world of make-believe to tell a serious story. This idea that persists in fiction and in storytelling that realistic fiction is the grown-up genre and that fantasy is child’s play, even though fantasy, at a certain point in our evolutionary history, was considered fact. At one point, Zeus was a fact. For a lot of people, Shango is a fact. Game of Thrones supported the idea of telling a story that is decidedly adult—although I have no problem with teenagers stealing this book—but retain the fantastical and even the supernatural. It liberated how I always wanted to tell a story but never felt I could.


NF: Why do you think things shifted? When did fantasy become inappropriate for adults?


MJ: Christianity had a lot to do with it, and it still has a lot to do with it, because we look at fantastical things as inherently demonic. We’ve been burning women as witches for centuries. And, for better or worse, the rise of the nineteenth-century novel reproduced some of those ideas where things that go bump in the night are things that children believe in.

“A lot of us are practicing Calvinists. We tie virtue to reward, and we have this idea of what truth and honesty are.”

Margaret Atwood said once that human nature hasn’t changed in a thousand years, and the way you know this is to check the mythologies. I agree. I think that we reach for the fantastical sometimes to explain things that we can’t explain in the real world. For Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, only the fantastical could explain the type of horror that they witnessed in World War I. We still reach for allegory, we still reach for myth, we still reach for tall tales in order to understand ourselves.


NF: Was the writing process for Moon Witch, Spider King different than it was for Black Leopard—you were working with the same larger story, but telling it from a different angle and introducing new parts?


MJ: The new one is very much a COVID-19 book. My partner and I left New York for Portland, Connecticut, at the height of it. A good third of this book was written on my partner’s sister’s dining table. We were all sort of in the woods, trying to escape this flipping plague. And I hadn’t even started it yet. But it turned out to be the quickest book I’ve ever written.


NF: Wait, you started it in 2020?


MJ: March 2020.


NF: Interesting timing!


MJ: Lord knows there wasn’t anything else to do. And fantasy gave me a way of escaping. It almost became this kind of drug, because I got to have another life. I couldn’t wait, every morning when I got up, to jump back to the dining table, to escape into this world where lots of terrible stuff was happening, but it was still a different world. Fantasy gave a sense of possibility, because I was creating a world as I was writing the book.

“I’ve read novels set in New York where I didn’t come across a single Black character. That’s as ridiculous as flying humans and demons on rooftops.”

Writing a sequel—when you have a certain familiarity with a character, you can write with a certain ease. That’s not always a good thing, especially when different characters are giving their version of the same events in the different books. So even though I’m familiar with these characters, I couldn’t write it assuming that somebody reading Moon Witch has read Black Leopard. They don’t have to read the first book to read the second one. I’d love if they did, but they really don’t have to. In fact, people can read the series in any order they want. So that means I had to revisit characters almost as if I didn’t know them, even though I did. Familiarity was the one gift that I had that I couldn’t use.


NF: When Black Leopard was published, you warned people not to get too attached to certain characters or even believe the narrator Tracker’s point of view. And Moon Witch is told from another character’s perspective, Sogolon, and immediately flips what we thought of her—she’s certainly not how Tracker perceived her. You’ve mentioned that unreliable narrators are characteristic of African storytelling and myth. What draws you to that sort of storytelling?


MJ: In a way, it’s how I connect with ancient African folktales. And not just folk tales, because some of those survive, but also the larger African mythological history. At the same time, I also wanted to let go of some absolutes that we have in Western fiction. One is that, if you’re telling a story, it is true. And that a story gains its authenticity just from the fact of its telling. I think in a lot of these African stories, certainly the folktales that my grandparents used to tell me, they made it very clear, “I may very well be lying to you.” You don’t pick up a novel like Bleak House and go, “You know what? I don’t believe anybody in this book.” Unless it’s a novel like Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, where it’s established that the narrator is unreliable. In Jamaican storytelling, someone would tell you a story, and they would say, basically, “That was my story. Do you believe it?” I may reply, “No I don’t. Tell me another one.”

So, you have to sift through all these tall tales and figure out what the truth is. I was very attracted to the idea that the reader gets to decide truth, and the reader gets to decide authenticity, and the reader is the one who takes that journey—as opposed to the character. I think it’s very un-Western, but if we really want to get specific, it’s very un-Christian. A lot of us aren’t practicing Christians, but we are practicing Calvinists, whether we know it or not. We still tie virtue to reward, and we still have this idea of what truth and honesty are, and we still have these values that are, in a way, kind of Puritan. And the kind of storytelling in these books took me away from that.

“I’m not necessarily a believer that you must identify with everything you read, but I do think that it becomes exhausting, constantly reading books where you can’t see anyone like yourself in them.”

Also, when you go back to a lot of these old African narratives, you see how sexuality was fluid before we had the word fluid. And genders were nonbinary before we had the term nonbinary. When I started researching this novel, I didn’t go to it looking for validation as a queer person. I didn’t go for it looking for queerness. But I found it, and that was surprising. You know, a lot of that sort of sensual world, to steal a Kate Bush album title, existed before anybody showed up, usually foreigners, to tell them, “No, that was wrong.” So, I found there was a connection to a previous legacy and heritage which I didn’t know I had.


NF: You once said, all great art speaks to the world that we’re in. Do you see this trilogy reflecting our world right now?


MJ: I think a lot of the things that we’ve struggled with, we’re still struggling with. We’re still struggling with what to do with abuse of power. We’re still struggling with the demonizing of independent women. In a lot of places, not just the African continent, there are women who are still being called witches, and they’re still being beaten and killed over it. We’ve still got child soldiers. We’re still trying to figure out what love is.

Sogolon is not the first person to wake up one day in a domestic situation and ask, “How did I get here?” We’re still doing that. We’re still waking up with our husband, wife, and two kids, and go, “How did we get here? What sort of values led to this, and is this really what I wanted to do with my life?” We’re still figuring out those universal things. And in a lot of ways, Sogolon is just figuring out how should she be. And who is she, if all she is is what people told her that she is. To me, fantasy can amplify those questions.


NF: It’s clear that these books have a lot to say about power, who wields it and what they do with it. One of the most popular and talked-about TV shows right now is HBO’s 2018 series Succession—which is also about power and how it’s carried. What’s the appeal of these sorts of stories?


MJ: We live at a time when power is abused everywhere around us—just as it always has been. (It wasn’t just Trump.) But I think that if we’re going to talk about power, we also have to talk about empowerment. At this moment all sorts of people are feeling empowered, too. So in a way we are obsessed with power—we are trying to figure out how it works, and we are trying to figure out if we have any. How did we lose so much, and how do we get it back? That’s the whole point of Black Lives Matter. And these are the kinds of questions that these stories help us explore, as they become more and more urgent and fever-pitched.


NF: You’ve said before that a significant part of the inspiration for writing Black Leopard and this series came from wanting to see representation, wanting to see a realistic, meaningful range of Black characters. What do you think that does for Black readers? Sometimes we talk about representation as a good, powerful thing, without really investigating why or how that happens.


MJ: There are certainly flaws in the way we talk about representation. There is this idea that yes, representation is good, but if there’s no sort of uplift, we’re reinforcing negative stereotypes. If half of your characters are despicable people, for example, suddenly you’re seen as anti-Black.  I’ve gotten flack for it, and so have writers like Gayl Jones and Sapphire.

“If we want to show the full range of human experience, it must include the bad. We need the villains as well.”

But representation doesn’t just mean heroes—it means the whole spectrum. We need the villains as well. It’s true we don’t want the villains as they’ve been in the past, where a Black villain or an Asian villain is just a projection of a white fear. That’s not going to cut it; we’d rather just not have anybody at all. When Faulkner talks about Black people in The Sound and the Fury, he just said, “They endured.” That’s of no use to me. That’s of no use to us.

But if we want to show the full range of human experience, it must include the bad. It must include the difficult. That’s what I mean by representation. I want the characters I love, and I also want despicable characters, characters I really can’t stand, characters I have a deeply conflicted relationship to. I want heroes, I want villains, I want victims. I want the whole range. But I also want to believe they’re people, as opposed to types. Otherwise we’re just going to end up with a bunch of one-dimensional villains and magic Negroes.

I know what it feels like to read a novel and at the end of it, feel like you were never in it. I’ve read novels set in New York where I didn’t come across a single Black character. That’s as ridiculous as flying humans and demons on rooftops. It’s just as fantastical. And I’m not just talking about realistic fiction—I’m talking comics, I’m talking sci-fi. It’s a hell of a thing to see the future with people like you not in it. It’s not to say that those stories shouldn’t exist, but that stuff gets exhausting after a while. In a speech at the J.R.R. Tolkien lecture a few years ago, I talked about the pleasure of taking your mythologies for granted—when you get to the point where you have so much representation that you never have to talk about it.

That’s why some people don’t understand why we bring up representation, because of course, they can take theirs for granted. It’s one of the reasons why I went back to reading African mythology, because I wanted to know what it feels like to have that thing so far in the back of my skull that I take it for granted. I see Europeans walking around with their mythologies, even if they don’t know they have them. The average British person doesn’t think about King Arthur much; I wouldn’t expect them to. But they walk around with the myth of Camelot every day.

So I’m interested in what it feels like as a Black person, as a Native American person, as a marginalized person, to walk around with that privilege of taken-for-grantedness. It’s a different kind of walk. It’s a different way of seeing the world, and seeing yourself. It comes with a certain kind of entitlement: that there are certain things and certain stories that I should expect from the world. And if we’re not going to get all of them, then we’ll write them.


NF: There’s a growing conversation around Afrofuturism having the power to do that kind of worldmaking. What is the power of fiction for you?


MJ: I’m a big believer in fiction’s reach, because it reached me. It wasn’t easy. It’s not like I grew up in an illiterate society, but books were not that easy to come by. Reading books shaped a lot of how I see the world. A huge part of how I saw myself and how I look at myself came from reading Toni Morrison’s Sula.

“Literature could save a life. There are kids who wouldn’t have made it without young adult fiction. I believe in that power.”

For evidence of the power of fiction we only need to look to its enemies. They already know literature has the power to change the world: that’s why they ban and burn it. It’s why the culture wars invade libraries all over America. The enemies of literature are on the move, and they’ve never stopped.

Jeannette Winters has said, reading is an act of free will and it’s a private act, which is why people are so scared of it. If a book is changing your mind or liberating your thoughts, nobody will know but you. Now, that is not always a good thing. Somebody out there is reading The Turner Diaries right now, and tomorrow they’re going to tattoo a swastika on their chest. But maybe that’s the price we pay, because a world without books is way too horrible to contemplate. Literature could actually still save a life. I teach kids fresh out of high school. There are still kids out there being raised by Judy Bloom. There are still kids who wouldn’t have made it without young adult fiction. I believe in that power.


NF: Speaking of Sula—what other works have influenced you?


MJ: Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, for one. When I was born Jamaica had only been independent for eight years. It was very hard for me to realize that the voice that I needed to tell stories was already in me, because I always thought literature was something you acquired, writing was something you acquired. You have to adopt it from somebody who actually knows how, or from a culture that knows how to write. Books like Dogeaters and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple were super important in that sense. So many books not just expanded my world but also expanded what was possible as a writer. And at some point, I realized that the future was something I could write myself into.

I’m not necessarily a believer that you must identify with everything you read, but I do think that it becomes exhausting, constantly reading books where you can’t see anyone like yourself in them. Because there is a certain electricity that happens when you kind of identify, if we want to use that word, with somebody in a novel. It doesn’t always have to happen, but there is something electrifying about it.

“We’re still trying to figure out what love is. To me, fantasy can amplify those questions.”

Any form of art that opens up space for you becomes electric. And I think that when we read literature that doesn’t have anything to do with us—yes, we can enjoy it, we can admire it, we can love it. Toni Morrison said that Tolstoy couldn’t have known that he was writing for a Black girl in Lorraine, Ohio. But there’s also a reason we have Toni Morrison now. Tolstoy can fire up a young Toni Morrison’s imagination, but clearly it wasn’t enough, because she still had to write stories into being.


NF: Do you think about trying to spark that electricity in someone else while you’re writing?


MJ: It’s really more of a worry. I’m thinking, “Oh God, I hope somebody likes this.” As opposed to deliberately setting out to do it, I hope it happens. I write it with wishful thinking. But most of the time, though, I’m really just trying to write a good story. And I’m trying to write it as if I’m reading it. So, if something in my novel ends up being a surprise to somebody, it was a surprise to me when I wrote it. To me, it comes down to something that simple—I hope that they just enjoy it.