The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Prof. Marlon James on "Night Women," patois, cruelty, and one way the Twin Cities beat Jamaica and NYC

By Hazel Schaeffer

English Prof. Marlon James’ second novel, “The Book of Night Women”, is about a slave girl painfully coming of age on a Jamaican plantation and a secret society that neither fully accepts her nor is fully accepted by her. We discussed the implication of writing entirely in Jamaican Patois, why disturbing material is harder to write than read and the Twin Cities literary scene.TMW: Why didn’t you name your novel after the heroine? Is that because “night women” sounds much racier than “Lilith”?

Prof. Marlon James: Oh yeah. “Lilith” just isn’t catchy. It’s funny you should bring up that question because it was actually a big struggle to name this book. Usually I’m very good with naming. I have a name for my next book and I don’t even know what it will be about. But this one, it just would not come. I went through eight drafts of it, and I don’t think I found a name until about the seventh draft. My professor at the time was like, well name it “Lilith” I was like, okay, but who’s going pick up a book called “Lilith”? For one, it sounds like “lithosphere”. I’m not sure how “Night Women” came up. I think it just was just me hitting that these women are planning things at night, even women who are not slaves, like Isobel (a white woman in the book), when she starts riding at night to all these strange places. The reason I called it “The Book of Night Women” was because I don’t think I give anything away by saying the story is a book that someone has written. It’s not just the novel, it’s like you stumble across her [Lilith’s] book. It’s a book about a book.

The identity of the narrator is not revealed until the very end of the novel. Did you know who the narrator would be when you started writing?

I didn’t know who it was at all. One of the reasons was because I was still going between writing it in standard Queen’s Jane Austen English, and writing it in dialect. Earlier drafts of it actually didn’t reveal who it was, you were going to end the book never knowing who was telling it. I toyed with that for a while; it’s really more problems than it’s worth cause people would keep hunting me down going, “But who’s telling the story?” and I’m like “But what does it matter?” . But me figuring about who was telling the story, I didn’t realize until one of the final drafts. It made sense. It also allowed me to go back and change a lot of things about the books that things tie in. But it still allowed me to leave it till the very end to tell who was telling the story.

Did you ever have to defend your choice to write the entire novel in dialect (Jamaican Patois)?

Yes, but funny enough to Jamaicans, not to Americans. I’ve never had problems with Americans and dialect. That’s because it’s a whole different value. You know, there is no British Huckleberry Finn. One of the reasons is that if you grow up in Britain or if you grow up in a British colony, there is a sort of shame attached to [Patois]. It’s what you speak with people of a lower class, whatever that may mean, or something you speak to friends. It’s not a part of serious discourse. And part of that makes sense. If I go into a class and I just start speaking Jamaican, they wont know what the hell I’m talking about, for the most part, although they all listen to reggae.
So that was part of it, this whole sort of stigma against it. So when I tell Jamaicans I’m writing a book and the whole thing is in Patois they go “Why you want to do that? Didn’t you go to school? Aren’t you an English Professor? Why are you writing in bad English?” That’s the thing, they think it’s bad English, or it’s a broken English as if it needs to be fixed of something. But it raises a debate. It’s like the debate in America about Ebonics. Where is the place for it? Is it some sort of backwards speech? There’s an ad that came out years ago and the headline was “I Has a Dream.” .How many people [would] remember the speech if Martin Luther King said it in Ebonics? But at the same time there is nothing wrong with the language. In fact standard English, whatever that may be, survives by borrowing from these dialects. That’s where the dynamism of English or any language comes from. It doesn’t come from in here, it comes from a saying on the street. So it’s legitimate, it’s just that you can’t necessarily put it in words, because then how do you spell it, which is a whole other thing. I just chose to spell it as close to standard English spelling, as much as possible. Some Jamaicans will disagree with that. But I’ve never had to defend it to American audiences. I have to British.
The first publisher to get this, to read this [novel], funny enough the British division of the American company [that in the end] published it, asked me if I would rewrite it in standard English, in the third person. I said to them, “Look no wonder Huckleberry Finn is an American novel.” I wasn’t surprised by that.

Your novel is marked by dark material (rape, torture, slavery and murder) that is naturally disturbing to the read. Was it disturbing to write and have on your mind?

Yeah. I mean it’s dark but I hope there are also parts where it’s funny and even sometimes romantic. It’s still about an atrocity, about slavery. It’s a lot like writing a novel about the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide or Rwanda. You have to kind of stare in the face of evil. It is as disturbing to write [as it is to read]. Especially because fiction in a lot of ways pulls back, sometimes just for the sake of fiction. Smember the end of that story. .I tell this to students all of the time. I am not one for censoring what you write, but keep in mind that if you put in something that is too explicit, whether it’s violence, whether it’s sex, you run the risk that even when the person reaches the end of the story, all they remember is that scene.
Some of the scenes in the book are pretty brutal, but they are nowhere as brutal as how they really were. In some ways it was far more traumatic to write than [to read] because I have to deal with the actual things that happened. You read things like slave logs and master’s logs, gazettes and crime reports of the time. It’s never even the slave stuff so much, or reading other novels about it. It’s always the very simple things that get you, like a master saying, “Had to chop of his toe today,” like he’s writing “just laid out some flowers today.” That’s what gets you. How they’re not the least bit perturbed by what they are writing, not in the least bit concerned that they’re committing these really brutal acts against other humans. To deal with all of that, then having to write about it, and worse, to write all these monsters but make them human, that was hard.
I think readers have it far easier. You can just hate somebody. I still have to make them human enough that if you do hate them, it’s a realistic thing. Some of these people who owned slaves and were brutal to the slaves were quite wonderful people to everyone else. How do you [as a writer] balance that? If you write a character that’s just plain evil, soon your reader is just not going to believe it, or your reader is not going to be as engaged in that character because it is a caricature, there’s no depth to that person. It’s one thing reading all the atrocities, all the evils, but [another to] make these characters human. That was a big struggle for me, and I always debated why I should have to do that, especially when there are novels written by white authors and the nonwhite characters are all cartoony. Nobody says anything about “Heart of Darkness.” Ultimately you have to not just be true to your characters, you have to write characters that people care about. It’s fine when you hate a character, it’s fine when you love a character. What you don’t want as a writer is for people to become indifferent to them. [Then] they have no reason to pick up the book tomorrow. All of that was really hard, because of the subject.

How much of the cruelty exhibited by your characters stems from the fact that they exist within the institution of slavery?
Most of it is from the institution of slavery. If by some trick of fate Indians survived the conquistadors, if they could have gotten enough Irish people to come out here, Irish people would have been the slaves. [Slavery] was very much a business, it was an economic system. A lot of the treatment stemmed form it being a business. That said, a lot of it was still a huge racial prejudice. In some ways, the theory of evolution did as much harm as good, that black must be on a lower scale, and so on. There was some inherent racism to all of it, but part of it was just the system of slavery. It’s not the first system of slavery. It may have been the most brutal. There is slavery going on right now. I don’t think it’s all racial.Africa was one of the countries that was confused about the end of slavery: “Why would you ever want to end that?” Some of it also has to do with the nature of the countries. American slavery was pretty brutal, but it wasn’t as brutal as in the Caribbean. One of the reasons for that was the make-up of the Caribbean. There was ninety percent slaves as opposed to about ten percent in the U.S. Of course you’re going to have problems, your going to have rebellions, uprisings. And the [slave owners] are going to be more and more Draconian in the way they enforce the law, because by their definition it was a lawless territory to begin with. And most of the people that came to Jamaica were not families, they were single men trying to make money. They come to a country, they can do whatever they want, they can rape whoever they choose.

Where do you see your book fitting into literature? Is it black literature? Is it Caribbean literature? Something else?

I mean, it’s all. Four years ago I would say, “Oh, it’s literature and don’t call me black and don’t call me Caribbean.” But the thing is, it is Black literature. People say to me, “I don’t see color.” I go, “Really? Because this is black, get used to it.” It’s difficult escaping that and why should anybody escape that? The problem is when you go to a bookstore and you’re in the black section besides things like “How to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed” written by a black author or all these books that have no correlation to each other at all besides that the authors are black. I’ve been to dinners where the only thing we have in common is that we are all black. It is the most boring thing that you can imagine. That said though, there is something to be said for community, and I said yes I am a black writer and I am a Caribbean writer. For one, you are talking about two of the most venerable and noble traditions in literature. Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that? Sometimes it just boils down to marketing. For me, for this book and the book I wrote before, it was marketed as a literary novel first. There are two sides to being called a black writer or a Caribbean writer. You get thrust into a kind of literary ghetto. Oh he’s a black novelist he doesn’t need to be invited to this festival, or no, he cannot give you an opinion on Shakespeare. Call it 90 percent blessing and 10 percent curse. You don’t want to be called a feminist novelist or a gay novelist. At the same time you don’t want to reject that identity, because that’s what you are too.
our ass. But other than that, it’s only reading. I’m sorry, no tales of debauchery.

How do you find the Twin Cities literary scene?

The Twin Cities literary scene is very bright and vibrant. I was actually surprised. I’d heard about it but I didn’t necessarily believe it. You can always tell how the literary scene is by the independent bookstores. There is such a huge tradition of independent bookstores here. I’ve been to nearly all of them, I’ve read at a couple. It’s such a book town and so supportive of that art. .It’s a very literary city and they care about books, they care about fiction, support the stores. And all of that is great for a writer. I’ve been in Jamaica. Jamaica is cool but it’s not really a book town. New York kind of is but it’s so corrupted by big stores. You’re better off writing some stupid advice book like Women Men Love, Women Men Leave. I’ve found a great set of breadth, greater appreciation for not just novels but poetry as well, here. There are so many writers here and so many writers here that haven’t left here. You don’t realize [as a writer] how much you need it until you’re in it.

What current projects are you working on?

I never talk about current projects. I did that once, I ruined the book. .All I will say is that I am working on two projects, one that’s set in the past and one that is set in the future, and that is all I am going to say.

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