How Marlon James Is Rewriting the Rules of Fantasy Fiction

The winner of the Booker Prize 2015Please see the following: The Brief History of Seven Killings Marlon Charles, the author, embarked upon a more ambitious project: The Amazingly Ingenious Novel, which was a decades-spanning novel that focuses on Bob Marley’s assassination attempt. Dark Star trilogy. James’ fantasy series is meant as a corrective to the genre’s oversaturation of European myth and mores. The 620-page quest story is the first in that series. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, In 2019, the following were landed It has received wide critical praise. James worked for months on the sequel to the pandemic, during which he was hospitalized. Moon Witch and Spider KingEvery day, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. February 15, Moon Witch expands the universe James built in the first novel by retelling the central story—a quest to find and save the missing young heir to the throne of a powerful land—through the voice of a secondary character.
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Black Leopard The story was told through the eyes of Tracker (a drifter who has an uncanny ability hunt down living creatures). In that first book, Sogolon, the sequel’s titular moon witch, joins Tracker’s hunting party, though her motivations seem suspect at best. However, in Moon Witch James unravels the same events from Sogolon’s perspective, and her journey widens the scope of political intrigue, mythos, and motivations in the Dark Star universe—and forces readers to reckon with a fluid definition of truth.

Learn MoreThese are the 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time

TIME interviewed James to discuss his influences (a prestige television drama, a Booker-winning novel, and his desire to add identity fluidity to fantasy fiction. He also discussed how different cultural beliefs have affected his storytelling.

TIME IN Black Leopard, Sogolon seems to be a villain—at the least, she isn’t relatable—while Tracker, though flawed, is the character with whom readers most likely sympathized. In Moon WitchThe two roles are switched. This brings up the question that the books raise themselves: How does storytelling relate to truth-telling?

James: If we were talking about truth, we would have to go back to oral storytelling, and that’s how far I went back with my research; there are things your eyes will skip that your ears won’t. A lot of these old stories, particularly African stories, didn’t come with a moral center. It’s a very Western thing to believe that the simple fact that you’re telling a story means you have the authority to tell it.

In Jamaican storytelling, there’s a thing that the storyteller says at the end of the story, which I don’t think has a direct translation in English: “Jack Mandora mi nu choose none.” It’s basically meant as a verbal agreement that no blame for inaccuracy should be attributed to either the listener or storyteller. The idea is that just because you told a story, it doesn’t have a stamp of authenticity. I will say that I couldn’t write Moon Witch if I didn’t believe Sogolon. At the same time, I couldn’t write Black Leopard if I didn’t believe Tracker.

I don’t know if I’ve experienced that rejection of the notion of an objective, quantifiable truth in the same way with any other sort of serial fiction telling.

RashomonI was inspired by the three films about one event that were titled. It’s a movie I’ve seen a million times. And—it’s funny, because I have yet to watch the show—the idea of the trilogy moving in a nonlinear and more associative instead of sequential logic came from somebody telling me about the TV show The Affair. I love the idea of two, three people telling supposedly the same story, but they don’t add up at all. They have different views about people, each other and their relationships.

Other than RashomonAny important texts from which you can draw?

Two books were at my desk when I wrote this article: Wolf HallHillary Mantel Be lovedToni Morrison. My character navigates through a royal court that she doesn’t belong to, and there’s the threat of violence at every turn amid all this pomp, ceremony and finery—her biggest struggle is just to stay alive. That is a lot because of the influence of Wolf Hall. Then? Beloved, because I’m constantly rereading Morrison, one thing she does so well is write about women among women. I’m very interested in those relationships. Sogolon devotes much of his book to the presence of children, family, queens or would-be queens as well as princesses, princes, and other princesses.

Moon Witch, Spider King

The protagonists of both books are shape-shifters, and they are only two among a range of different types of shape-shifting characters you’ve written. I’m curious why you chose to populate your world with individuals of this sort?

The simple answer is that shape-shifters are flippin’ cool. I’ve always loved shape-shifters in comics. Of the holy trinity of monsters—Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolfman—I was always for the Wolfman.

But also, there’s a connection between the idea of shape-shifting and code-switching. When I first used to come to New York, I would leave the Bronx in my normal clothes, and go to the Barnes & Noble in Union Square and change into my fabulous gay clothes—and then rush back to Barnes & Noble before 10 p.m., like Cinderella, to put on my normal clothes again and head back to the Bronx. Shape-shifters appear in nearly every folklore, and the “transformer” has always been something fascinating to me—if for no other reason than there are times I kind of wish I was somebody else.

That said, I did want to resist the tropes we have with these characters, where when they change into an animal, they’re wild and brutal. They are not in the book. That would just be me falling into another Western trap—it’s not Id and Superego. It’s almost looking at shape-shifting as another way of being non-binary.

I love maps, lineages, and the encyclopedic aspects of speculative literature. Moon Witch and Spider KingIt has truly unique maps which show the globe in more detail than normal Black Leopard. What role do these elements have in your writing process?

Another life was when I was an artist. In fact, TIME actually received my art portfolio. I was very pleased to receive a nice letter of decline from them. I thought it was 1999. I really hope it’s still not there.

Eudora Welty stated that setting can be both a constraint and a determiner. Both can be very motivating for the work. If I know that this character has to get to the North, but the distance between North and South is half a year, then I have to make the book show that it’s a half-year trip—and that means certain things don’t happen, like there’s no way that a character is on the same horse the whole time. This can increase the intrigue and drama. While you want the world to be seen, it is also important that people move. If all you’re doing is world-building, then the reader doesn’t stop being a tourist.

Why do you choose to write fantasy epics?

It didn’t seem a big jump to me, because there are fantastical elements in all the books I write. You can even do it! An Overview of the Seven Killings, which is the closest I’ve come to social realism, the main narrator is a ghost. If I’m writing a fantasy novel, the characters have to feel like they live in a historical novel, because it’s not fantastical to them. It’s fantastical to me, but it’s not fantastical to Sogolon. And because I write in first person, it’s even more urgent that a character has to feel so connected to their surroundings that they take it for granted.

Does it make sense to choose first person writing? Are you adamant that you cannot write in any other person but first?

It’s not like I can. I’m not as confident in third person as I am in first. But I’m also interested in voice and tone of voice as a concept. That doesn’t mean you can’t have third-person with a fantastic voice, but for me, novel writing comes down to a kind of imaginative journalism, and I am very much interested in character testimony. I feel like I’m just a record keeper when I write these books. I’m always getting surprised by what these characters do and say, because I don’t feel like I’m in control of them.

What does the “Dark Star” in the Dark StarTrilogy refers to:

You’re gonna have to read the third book to find out. It’s called White Wing and Dark Star.

The following interview was edited and condensed for clarity.


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