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This programme contains some strong language
THEY GREET EACH OTHER
Good to see you, good to see you.
Look here now, why you do project for the BBC?
What the programme about? Where does it come from?
Well, it's a documentary called Imagine.
-They've done a whole bunch of subjects,
they've done one on Howard Jacobson who won the Booker.
They did one on Beyonce.
-When I tell people, "Yeah, Howard Jacobson,"
they're like, "Yeah, yeah."
-And I go, "Beyonce."
Marlon James was six years old
and living on the outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica, when one evening,
on the other side of town,
seven gunmen stormed a house and started to shoot.
-Entertainer and reggae star Bob Marley, Rita Marley,
and the manager of the Wailers, Don Taylor, are now patients
in the University Hospital after receiving gunshot wounds
during a shooting incident which took place at Marley's home
at 56 Hope Road tonight.
"Short, stumpy manager running right into it.
"Chatting shit. Monkey business.
"Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam from Josey gun.
"Josey riddled him thigh.
"Shower him back. He scream and I scream,
"and all you say is Selassie I Jah Rastafari.
"And all fall down.
"So you get him? You get him?
"You get him? Yeah."
The gunmen who tried to murder Bob Marley were never caught,
and became little more than the footnote to one of the most
shocking, blatant, and violent episodes in Jamaica's history.
They are the starting point for James's novel -
A Brief History Of Seven Killings.
It is neither brief, nor does it stop at seven killings.
Marlon actually has a real gift for violence.
He has an almost lyrical quality where he will convey violence
as very beautiful, while, at the same time, being very horrible.
Characters in James's novel are raped, executed, buried alive.
It begins with the gang wars of Kingston
and ends with the crack epidemic in the USA.
There are brutal ghetto dons, underhand CIA operatives
and ruthless druglords.
Marlon James never spares the reader.
And some can't stomach his uncompromising violence,
especially when they discover how much of it is true.
You have to risk it.
You have to risk sentimentality when you're writing love.
You have to risk pornography when you're writing sex.
You have to come to that point and just not sort of tumble over.
His novels draw from the seam of violence that runs through
Jamaica's past, from slavery to contemporary gangland murder.
But it was something else that made it impossible for him to stay.
"I was on borrowed time.
"Whether it was in a plane or a coffin,
"I knew I had to get out of Jamaica."
The winner of this year's Booker Prize is Marlon James.
The night Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize,
he went on social media and posted a two-word message.
So, Booker, what's the shape of that thing?
It's like a big plastic square.
You want me to draw it?
-If you remember it.
The judges were unanimous when they chose their winner.
All the more surprising as Marlon's first novel was rejected
At one point, he gave up the idea of being an author,
and destroyed all his manuscripts.
-Oh, shit, it's their menu!
I think they'll let us have a menu.
Marlon James didn't write his Jamaican epic in his homeland,
he wrote it here in the American Midwestern state of Minnesota,
where he is now a Professor of Creative Writing
at McAlester College.
What was the impact in Jamaica, actually, of the book?
Because, obviously, it's a book which is,
in a kind of critical period in Jamaican history,
it's quite contentious in lots of ways.
I think it was complicated.
I think people, for the most part, were very happy, but I think
it was also a very critical novel and I think there are Jamaicans
who believe anything from Jamaica should always just be praising,
or beautiful beaches and wonderful people.
And it's not doing any of that.
And I think there's still a sense of, from some people,
of me being a muckraker.
In his novel, Marlon takes liberties with the history that Jamaica
would rather forget.
He trawls the murky corners of Kingston's underworld
for his relentlessly graphic and brutal fiction...
..peopled with some of the nastiest characters you'll ever come across,
sharing their grim endeavours in dense patois.
"Two guns, one in each hand like an outlaw, for real.
"Josey Wales stamps slow into the dark, to the crack house.
"A man run past to the right, Josey run out and shout, 'Pussyhole!'
"a left gun blasts the chunk off the top of him head.
"Josey walk up to the man and he still firing and firing,
"until both gun click.
"Empty. He still pulling the trigger.
"To a click, click, click."
Say I just dwell on violence and only violence,
then it becomes a kind of pornography of violence.
And then you have the option to be desensitised to it.
You have the option to be numb to it.
And I don't think you should have that option.
"You know why them call me funny boy?"
"Because me no take nothing for joke.
"And funny boy tell my father that he going die right now, right now.
"And funny boy hold a gun right near my father ear.
"And he say, 'You want to live?
"'You want to live?' Over and over and over again
"like a nagging little girl.
"And he rubbed my father lips with them gun
"and my father open him mouth, and funny boy say
"'If you bite off my head,
"'I'm going to shoot you in the neck so you hear yourself dying.'"
Some of the most violent sequences in the book are actually,
at the same time, can be quite poetic and funny.
They're not on one note at all, are they?
No, and on one hand, it's going to be a terrifying scene,
but it's also going to be a scene of wonder.
It's when Bill Sykes dies, he's gone, but we kind of miss him.
And we're not supposed to. He's one of the most horrible things Dickens
ever came up with. But that sort of, "Make them laugh, make them cry,
"make them wail," which is what Dickens said,
a lot of people misses that he means all at the same time.
And this other strangeness of your life, your mother
was a policewoman, a detective.
Your father was also a detective and a lawyer,
so what kind of upbringing did you have?
That's a good question. I'm still figuring that out.
It's weird, it's kind of protected, but not sheltered.
But that the same time, yeah, my mum was a cop.
The night of the '80 election, there was a shoot-out right at her office.
And there's a split second where I'm thinking,
"My mother might not come home tonight."
So, there's never a sense of total safety.
MUSIC: Concrete Jungle by Bob Marley
# No sun will shine
# In my day today
# No sun will shine... #
Jamaica in the 1970s was a dangerous place.
Split by two political parties,
the governing People's National Party
and the opposing Jamaica Labour Party
whose ghetto territories were controlled brutally
by gang enforcers.
Murder was commonplace.
But Marlon grew up in Portmore,
a relatively sedate suburb just to the west of Kingston.
You may have heard about these things.
-You may have watched the news.
You were living in a middle-class environment.
I'm in a middle-class suburb,
two cars, working parents, raised by a Sesame Street household.
At the same time, the country's not so big that you escape anything.
So even if you've not experienced violence, you've heard about it.
There's a rumour of it.
There's a fear it might jump uptown and hit you.
-# Concrete jungle
Everybody knew who the powerful ghetto dons were.
Marlon drew on these gangsters and tales of their vicious crimes
for his book, changing their names to things like Shotta Sheriff,
or Josey Wales.
There was a character at the school who was the son of the so-called
-Mark. Yeah, he was in my art class.
The fact that he was there forced me,
and forced everybody at school to look at him in a different context.
Of course, he then went on to be a gunman himself
and died pretty young.
One bike, two riders, one steering the bike, one firing the gun,
and killed him... That's what I think.
And his father was involved in those gangs at that time?
His father headed those gangs.
"You have another son. The machete reappears right up my throat.
"Your firstborn dead, your girl dead, you only got one left, Josey.
"And if you don't think we won't come after him..."
Marlon went to school here at Wolmer's,
an all-boys grammar school in Kingston.
All right, what you reading?
What are you reading now?
Wow, my apologies!
I hate Thomas Hardy.
His English teacher Ms Leyow still works at the school today.
All right, this is the only yearbook that I could find with Marlon's
picture in it. Marlon was in fourth form, and here he is, in form 4L.
-Here he is.
-So that's him.
Right, so he would have been about 15.
-And that was around the mid-'80s, was it?
My memories - quiet young man, almost an introvert.
Always sketching, drawing.
Was a good student.
And Marlon, to this day,
is the only student that I've had
who scored an A on the Shakespeare paper.
Do you get a certain feeling
that you have to write about Caribbean things, or do you...?
-All the time.
-Are you OK...?
But you should write whatever you want.
I think, too often, we writers, particularly in the Caribbean,
in African continent and sub-Asia, is all of us,
we feel that there's a certain story that we're obligated to tell.
And you're not obligated to tell it. If you want to tell it, tell it.
There is no "should" when it comes to writing.
There's nothing you should do.
When I first came to Wolmer's,
there was an expression that the boys would use
that I didn't understand.
My first encounter with it was in a Shakespeare class - Julius Caesar.
And it had to do with a particular line between Cassius and Brutus.
And a student gave out this expression - veee!
And I said, what is that?
What is that sound supposed to mean?
I had a friend, and I told her about the experience
and she said, "My dear,
"that is the expression these Wolmer's boys make when they think
"anything smacks of homosexuality."
14 and 15 were horrible years.
Absolutely horrendous years.
I'm convinced that it was music that got me through them.
If there wasn't, like, Purple Rain to listen to,
I don't know if I'd have made it to 16.
It's a hell of a thing, when the years that you really want to be
popular, you end up being one of the least popular kids.
And why do you think you were?
I think because everybody just thought
it was a little fag running around.
I certainly remember doing things to sort of score man points.
-Yeah. Kind of, the sort of, sissy, but I brought Penthouse.
"I'd spent seven years in an all-boys school.
"2,000 adolescents in the same khaki uniforms, striking hunting poses,
"stalking lunchrooms, classrooms, changing rooms,
"looking for boys who didn't fit in.
"One day, after school, instead of going home, I walked for miles,
"all the way down to Kingston Harbour.
"I stopped right at the edge of the dock, thinking next time,
"I would just keep walking."
When I first had Marlon in my class, I was a junior teacher,
you have to understand.
So I was finding my own way, trying to hone my skills.
So I don't think, at the time,
I was very observant of some of what I might call the underbelly
of an all-boys school.
But in the 30 years I've been here now, I've had students who have
indicated to me that they suffered.
And I think that Marlon was one of those students.
Jamaica has a long history of anti-gay prejudice.
It's a country where sodomy is still illegal
and the law is used to justify and spread violence and hatred.
Jamaican dance hall has played a huge part.
Some tracks calling for gay men to be attacked, even murdered -
As a young man, Marlon's closest friend was Ingrid Riley.
How long have you known Marlon for?
We met in sixth form.
So, yeah, pretty much more than half of our lives,
if we were to be honest about how old we are, right?
He talked about himself being a bit of a nerd.
Was he cool or was he a nerd?
-He was a cool nerd.
-A cool nerd?
A cool nerd. I think nerds are cool.
-I hang around with quite a few of them.
-Did you have this...
a relationship intimate enough for him to tell you about his sexuality,
that he was gay? Did he talk to you about it?
Here's the thing, I always kind of knew.
-You always kind of knew?
Actually, I told him. And when I told him,
that was the one time in all of the years that we've known each other
that our relationship kind of strained.
I was like, "Dude, I think you're gay
"and you maybe just need to accept that and everything."
I took him to a couple of gay parties here and he'd be, like,
in the corner going like...
And then he ran into the church.
After university, Marlon spent his late 20s living in Kingston,
working as an advertising executive.
He was 28 when he joined the church.
The church he belonged to for nearly a decade was an evangelical-style
with hand clapping, singing and charismatic sermons.
-Sing about praise!
-THE CONGREGATION SING AND CHEER
I need the best praise that you've got.
Give me that praise.
Clap your hands above your head.
Tell me about the church phase.
Let's talk about that now. This is nine years where you committed
-yourself to the church?
And how much pleasure did you get out of the time
or was it just a retreat?
But retreat is pleasure, though.
I actually got a lot of pleasure out of it.
I went there for very selfish reasons.
I went there to pray away the gay.
To pray away the gay.
To pray away the gay.
That's really the only reason why I went.
But you know, I ended up with a whole new sort of family there,
I would never have been in church...
..for eight, nine years if it wasn't genuine, if it wasn't real,
and if I didn't form really deep friendships
with a lot of these people.
There was still a sort of... Not a sort of... There was actually,
I think, real acceptance because - and I think this is a crucial
thing - because you're able to...
..believe, buy into, become convinced,
that Jesus finds you where you are
but wants to take you to somewhere else.
And I think there is actually something genuine to that.
But also I think it's something that anybody can use to kid themselves.
Praying away the gay wasn't working.
So he tried to free himself
and sort out something more drastic.
This was essentially an exorcism?
We don't call it exorcism, we call it deliverance.
And I remember, it was a Tuesday morning around 9am
and I met two people I've never met and then they just sat me down
and said, "Tell me about yourself."
All I remember is opening my mouth to say something
and a scream came out.
Somebody, clearly me or somebody says,
"You know, he sees men naked when he prays."
Everything just exploded in that room.
It's like now they're talking to the demons.
And one of the things about being in such emotional distress -
cos I'm crying the whole time - you just start to vomit,
you just start to bring everything up,
it doesn't matter if you ate that day or not,
so I went in there at nine o'clock in the morning,
I left there around 11.30 and it was like, "You're free."
Of course it wasn't that easy.
And Marlon found himself drifting further and further away
from the church.
When did the break come after nine years?
The cracks started to come when I really got serious about writing
and I knew I wanted to write about subjects that my church
wouldn't like, including really, really, really using the language
of faithful to dispute faith.
But also realising after a while that I was just tired of struggle.
It's like, "That's it?"
I just started to really question
the idea that...
..life is supposed to be an acceptance of a basic unhappiness.
That just didn't make sense to me.
# All along on the road to the soul's true abode
# There's an eye watching you... #
The book he wanted to write was John Crow's Devil...
..about a small country church in Jamaica in the 1950s,
and two preachers who do battle for the soul of the village.
"Follow me and I can lead you beyond pain, beyond sin, beyond miracles.
"I am the way, Clarence, I am the way.
"Beyond every single thing you have thought about yourself,
"beyond normal, beyond real.
"Every time you use this, this snake in your pants,
"you think you're killing the devil inside you,
"you know of which devil I speak.
"The devil you've been trying to kill since you were 12,
"the devil in you that was stealing looks between my legs just now
"when I was sitting in front of you.
"You'll never kill it, not through pain, not through sin,
"no matter how many times you come inside a woman
"you'll never kill your heart's real desire."
# There's an eye watching you. #
The book, in its own way, you could say it was revenge.
Because here you talk very generously about the church
and about that experience, but of course this is all a reflection
of your own internal struggle as well during these years, isn't it?
To some extent you've been on this journey yourself,
certainly reflecting it.
It's so funny, I remember the first person who said that to me,
I was so offended.
-Are you cross with me?
-No, this is why I was offended
cos he found me out. Because I'm like, "Well, I set it in 1956.
"I did all these things to mask all of that," and I was like,
"Dude, you're all over this book.
"including this scatological obsession with men's private parts."
I do know that I wanted to say something about the church.
Despite me having a good experience in the church,
I know I did want to say something about that.
I also knew I wanted to puncture this kind of idyllic rural life
that we always talk about in Jamaica.
When he'd finished writing John Crow's Devil,
Marlon sent it to a publisher, who turned it down,
so he sent it to another and then another and another.
You had 78 rejections for John Crow's Devil. I mean 78,
that's quite a lot.
I just didn't realise it and when I did realise it,
it was really catastrophic and one day it just hit me -
"Wow, this book has been turned down so many times,
"maybe there is something wrong with it."
And did it make you very depressed?
Oh, I destroyed it. I actually destroyed the manuscript.
I erased it from my laptop.
I went to my friends' houses and erased it from their computers.
I just destroyed the whole thing.
Having buried his manuscript and along with it any hope of being
a published novelist, Marlon went along with friends as amateurs
to a workshop at Calabash, Jamaica's international literary festival.
One of the workshop leaders, Kaylie Jones,
the novelist, asked me if I had any other work and I was like,
"No, I'm really not a writer, I'm not here for this."
-But she was impressed with you, that's why she said that?
She insisted on seeing John Crow's Devil which I know didn't exist
any more and she just wouldn't take no for an answer.
She said, "You need to bring me this novel."
So I went back went through all the old computers and tried to undelete
and all of that. None of that worked
and I went through the e-mail outbox.
It was Outlook Express - that's how old we're going back.
And it was in the outbox sent to my friend Robert.
And that's where I found it.
MUSIC: Dirt Off Your Shoulder by Jay Z
# Turn the music up in the headphones
# Tim, you can go and brush your shoulder off - I got you... #
The workshop leader's persistence paid off -
it got Marlon one step closer to his ticket out of Jamaica,
with an introduction to a Akashic Books,
a small independent New York publishing company,
known for chancing risky authors.
# Trying to hustle some things That go with the Porsche. #
Marlon walks up and says,
"Kaylie told me to talk to you,"
and Marlon and I chatted for a few minutes.
One piece of the story that is always very ironic to me,
I have a rock 'n' roll background and I played for years in a band
called Girls Against Boys. It's how I made a living in the 1990s
and in fact how I started this publishing company was with money
I made playing rock 'n' roll music.
One of the first things Marlon asked me when we first met was,
"Are you really in Girls Against Boys?"
And to this day I'm convinced that there was only one person in Jamaica
that knew about this band and it was Marlon James.
So he gave me the manuscript.
From the very first word to the very last word, it was genius.
What was it that captivated you about the book?
My taste in literature runs dark. You know, I love William Faulkner
up to Toni Morrison.
I like it when people are diving deep into the guts of dark themes,
that they are not shying away from dark themes.
Everything I'm saying about my taste in literature, anyone who's read
Marlon's work knows that Marlon's work falls dead centre
in terms of what I'm talking about.
-It is incredibly inflammatory, that book about the church.
I was nervous about that.
I knew enough about how seriously religion...
What a serious and fundamental role Christianity, in particular, play in
Jamaican culture. He was invited to read at the Jamaican Consulate.
When he was reading, everybody was so uncomfortable.
There were people gasping.
There were people... Everyone was wiggling in their chairs,
a lot of sucking of teeth.
That kind of writing is too dark for some people.
This sort of relentlessly honest,
oftentimes relentlessly brutal work.
He writes what he writes and obviously I think the fact you saw
in this, what you felt was,
you know, great literature.
Obviously there are others who might have been intimidated by it.
That's what's amazing to me about the 78 rejection letters he got.
I don't think I brought a tremendous amount of keen insight
into my first reading of that manuscript but to me,
the strength of Marlon's writing, you pick up any of his three novels,
you open up to any page, it's right there,
it's just right there on the page
so I don't know what those 78 people were thinking.
He sent it to the wrong 78 people.
John Crow's Devil was published in 2005,
but of course this also meant his unholy thoughts were now out there.
The book John Crow's Devil has got a dedication on the front.
"And to my mother who must not read this book."
Why must she not read this book?
Mum's a good Christian lady.
I don't think she would want to read all this perversion going on.
Because my mum is still a very religious person
and sometimes I wonder if a part of me didn't want her to know that,
that she would read it and see all the subtext.
It was my enquiry into religion and the church and why I couldn't really
be a part of this any more.
And what was your relationship?
Tell me about you and your father
cos I sense that that was... whatever, you know,
goes on between father and son, that was a close relationship?
It wasn't always close at all.
It didn't start out that way.
In fact our relationship was defined by distance
for a long time.
We were really good at talking about Shakespeare...
..and talking about poetry and literature and talking about science
and art and all of that. I don't think we talked about each other.
You didn't share with them at any point that you were gay
or did they have...? Or you thought you were?
No. I can't imagine sharing anything like that.
Marlon James first found the courage to write so boldly
in the pages of another author's daring book.
"I started reading Salman Rushdie's Shame,
"hiding it in the leather Bible case.
"I never read anything like it.
"It was like a hand grenade inside a tulip.
"Its prose was so audacious, its reality so unhinged.
"It made me realise that the present
"was something I could write my way out of."
So Marlon James says that it was reading Shame that absolutely
sort of inspired him. Did he tell you that at all?
He did tell me. I mean, he told me when I met him which was after
the publication of Brief History,
and I think what it did is it allowed him to throw away...
..a lot of conventional wisdom about how you should structure and write
a novel, you know. I remember when I was a kid...
..finding a collection of short stories by Borges.
Not that I write anything like Borges, you know, but it made me
think, "Goodness, you can do that and you can do that
"and I didn't think that was possible to do that
"but it seems you can do that."
So it's not that he decided to write like Shame,
it's that reading it just opened some kind of door in his head
which let his own thing come out.
I'm very flattered he should have reacted to it so strongly.
What was your response when you read,
I suppose, first of all, you read A Brief History?
Initially, of course, baulked because of its incredible length.
And then I really liked it,
and I think it is a wonderfully ambitious book,
in...you know, a good way.
It has that daring,
which, in a way, prefers to fall off the edge of a cliff
-than not to attempt it.
I mean, can a glorious failure be better than modest success?
-But, actually, what's amazing is how much, how often,
how much through the book he pulls it off.
I mean, I thought, it does that thing which the novel, at its best,
can do, which is literally to bring you the news.
It can show you that this is what the world is like, a piece of
the world that you know nothing about.
JAMAICAN RAP MUSIC
Tell me now, tell me
some of the things that happen to you since you win the prize?
One thing I noticed happen is, anything I say now
will make a headline.
A lot of young Jamaicans are coming to me,
and I see them in the chatrooms,
-or when I meet them on campus...
because in Jamaica we have veranda discussion.
What we talk about on the veranda,
-but we're not going to talk about it on the air.
This, to them, feels like one of them veranda discussions that
them have, or their parents have.
-Out in the open?
-Out in the open.
But also, I mean, sales, it's nice to sell a book.
-Them royalties, man.
Rich up, rich up, rich up.
1976 is a year that Jamaica would prefer not to talk about.
Violence is off the scale.
Political murders have reached the hundreds.
And with an election looming, more people are going to die.
-This army post has been established at a point
between one area which supports the opposition Labour Party,
and the other supporting the governing People's National Party.
There are rumours that the CIA are annoyed by the Communist leanings
of the government PNP party, and are trying to destabilise the country.
We have watched in the last year,
violence, murder, lies.
All of these forces have been held against us.
Shipments of guns have flooded Kingston,
and gang enforcers on both sides are warring on the streets.
And it is Bob Marley who is seen as a symbol to hold Jamaica together.
He agrees to perform at a concert for peace.
But then the election is called early, to coincide with the concert.
Suddenly, Marley looks like he has sided with the government.
A gang of seven gunmen is recruited, by whom it's not clear.
"When Josey Wales tell me last night who we was going shoot up,
"I go home and vomit.
"Me's a wicked man, me's a sick man,
"but me would never join this
"if I did know he wanted me to rub out the Singer."
-They are embroiled in something very political, very complex.
-You know, the different political parties...
They just had no idea what they were caught up in.
They're not... I don't think they are victims.
They're not victims, and they're not misunderstood heroes,
some of these guys are pretty horrible men.
On the evening of December the 3rd, two days before the peace concert,
the band are rehearsing at Marley's home, 56 Hope Road,
and stop for a break.
"I'm moving fast but everything's slow, I jump on the last step,
"but the sound stretch and the faster I lift the gun,
"the slower it feel.
"I push my head in and see you.
"Before I see Josey, you."
This is it, this is where those boys - and they were boys -
tried to kill Bob Marley.
They didn't even go in,
the guy was still down there and Josey just stuck his hand in
and just fired.
They just shot through the door?
Yeah, he stuck his gun in and just fired.
Marley would have been to the end there.
Had he been inhaling instead of exhaling,
the bullet would have gone straight through his heart.
His manager got shot all over the abdomen,
they thought he was going to die.
His wife Rita was shot in the head,
and they were about to finish her off until somebody just said,
"Time to move, is he dead?" "Yeah, he's dead."
"Josey don't aim for the head.
"Like the Cuban tell we, aim for the head.
"Make it blast open like a blender, you look straight at me,
"you drop your grapefruit,
"you look at me and I want you to shout and scream and sniff and tear,
"piss your pants, jerk and fall, but you just look,
"you didn't blink, and I and I bam-bam,
"Jah Rastafari shot you in the heart.
Now, we had just gone through So Jah Seh,
and were starting on Natty Dread.
We already finished the introduction and we get into the tune,
and we hear "Bang-bang!" Hell broke loose.
The men escaped and were chased by the police.
In an interview with JBC News at the hospital,
Bob Marley said he and members of his crew
received numerous threats since
the announcement of the Smile Jamaica Concert.
It was so shocking, even the news report was so shocking,
because the unwritten rule in Jamaica was,
nobody touches a tough gang.
The first time I ever saw my parents looking scared was after.
After the shooting, because it just meant all bets are off
and nobody was safe.
# Get up, stand up
# Stand up for your rights... #
On December the 5th, a crowd of 80,000 people
crammed into Kingston's National Heroes Park for
the Smile Jamaica Peace Concert.
48 hours after the bungled attempt on his life,
a bullet still lodged in his arm, Bob Marley got up on stage.
He'd agreed one song, but gave the fans a full 90 minute set.
And then showed off his wounds.
It's hard to believe, isn't it, that there's this gang of guys,
and they fail to kill anyone.
I think they were stunned and disturbed by the idea
of shooting somebody who was a hero even to them.
The only way they could get it done is do it as quickly and get out,
they didn't even, you know,
they usually administer the second shot to make sure everybody is dead,
they didn't even do that. I think they were scared, actually.
I think they were more scared than the people who got shot.
It's not like they got up one day these boys
and go, "Ooh, here's a gun, let's go kill Bob Marley."
They were clearly at least assembled for a purpose,
and the fact that they were so young
and so inexperienced also meant they were disposable.
So, the people behind the plot, do people know who was behind the plot,
-have they survived?
-I think people know. You know what,
I made sure not to answer that question.
Because one, I don't know and two, I don't want to end up dead.
But, I mean, I think people know.
One interview that happened right after Bob got shot, it's online,
you can find it on YouTube,
where somebody was asking, "Do you know who shot you?"
And he was like, "Yeah."
Just very matter-of-fact. Almost whispered, it's like, "Yeah."
You never saw the gunmen?
At that time, no.
-But you know who did it?
-Yeah, I know them.
-Where they caught?
-No, not caught by police.
Just you know...one of them things.
# Stir it up
# Little darlin', stir it up
# Come on, baby... #
So, what happened to the hitmen?
In the years that followed Marley's attempted murder,
the case seemed to drift away, just like his would-be killers.
And, then, in June, 1991,
they turned up again, in an article in one of Marlon's music magazines.
You know, "The gunmen involved in the ambush of Bob Marley began to
"turn up dead, hunted down by Rasta vigilantes."
That just set off my head, in all sorts of ways,
the idea of this Rasta avenging force going after these people.
"Those found in Kingston or tracked to urban hideouts had been shot,
"most of them through the head.
"Those who fled to the hills have their throats slit,
"as a bushman does with goats at slaughtering time."
I didn't know these men, these boys, had an afterlife.
And that's what this article sort of gave me,
and, I mean, I was riveted by it.
"Brethren, you can't write no book about this.
"Let me get this straight, you're writing a book about the singer,
"the gangs, the peace treaty.
"You have no proof of anything.
"But, yeah, man, write the book.
"Just do me and yourself one favour -
"wait till everybody dead before you publish it."
One by one, the gunmen who tried to kill Bob Marley
meet horrible deaths.
Some are shot, others are hanged and one is buried alive.
It's clearly a very well researched book.
He's clearly gone to enormous trouble to inform himself,
but I think he's then done the intelligent thing
that you have to do when you are writing fiction.
There's a point at which you have to close the books of research.
And just say, "OK, now I'm going to make it up."
Marlon's novels all delve into troubled periods
in Jamaica's history.
But the one that reaches furthest into the guts of the most prolonged,
most violent episode in his country's past
is his book about a young slave girl called Lilith.
"She see the slaves when they come back in the evening, tired, crying,
"limping and bleeding, and some that come back in a sack.
"And she hear other things, too.
"Of the time in 1785 when they burn a nigger girl alive
"right in the middle of the cane field.
"And when the overseer chop off another nigger head
"and stick it on a pole until it rot off.
"And when they send five slave to the treadmill, where them niggers
"run themselves to death."
At the end of this book, you say,
"Thanks to the history I learned and the history I had to unlearn."
-So what did you mean by that?
I mean the British colonial history.
The very first thing I ever learned to memorise
was Christopher Columbus discovered Jamaica in 1494.
There are at least four lies in that sentence.
This sort of British colonial education,
which is a lot different from British education.
Because we are being, even in 1970,
we're still being taught to be subjects of Empire.
And I think that is something that I had to sort of get out of.
Everything, even how I wrote English, one of the things I notice,
and a lot of writers who come from the British Commonwealth
can talk about this,
is how we kind of have to unlearn the English we learn.
Because we learnt this sort of servile, overwritten
verbose English, and we have no fun with the language.
-You call this book The Book Of Night Women.
And you have focused the story on very much an untold story,
which is a story of slave women.
A story of slave women, a Caribbean story because a lot of
the major novels we have about slavery
tend to be about American slavery.
It was a difficult book to write, and one of the reasons why it was
difficult is to try to get in the mind where this cruelty is casual.
Where both victim and perpetrator look at it as just another day.
"Nothing in this world like killing a man.
"Your skin and him skin, you're tearing him chest hair off.
"You just kill one time and you know why God save murder for himself.
"Wicked, wicked, wicked, and good, good, too good.
"You understand me?
"It's better than bellyful or when man fuck you good.
"You do it and you know why white man be master over way.
"Because he can grab a nigger and kill her just so.
"Just like that. Only white man can live with how terrible that be."
The Night Women are planning a murderous revenge
on their plantation masters.
The leader and mother figure, Homer, takes Lilith under her wing.
But this gets complicated when one of the Irish slave overseers,
Robert Quinn, takes an interest in Lilith.
Colum McCann was one of my first draft readers.
He says, "You know there's a love story in this novel.
I'm like, "Dude, I don't do love.
"I'm a literary fiction author, I don't write that love bullshit."
-Oh, yes, you do.
-And then he says, "Yes,
"but there's a relationship between Lilith and Robert Quinn,
"and you need to write it." I was like, "I'm not writing that."
And he says, "You need to risk sentimentality."
Which is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever gotten.
And that's how that happened,
but I had no intention of her falling for that Irish dude.
"Lilith see him moving in to kiss her and pulled back.
"He look at her.
"White man supposed to lie with nigger woman,
"fuck them and even squeeze them.
"Sometimes, they even love them.
"But no white man is supposed to kiss a nigger.
"That be love things,
"things for white woman, and proper white woman at that.
"Robert Quinn hold her firm, close him eye and try to kiss her again."
There are two chapters, almost pages which follow each other.
-One in Lilith thinking about killing...
..and the monstrous things that she has done, if you like.
And then about kissing,
which is almost more alien to her than killing, you know?
Well, it would be, because cruelty
-would be a lot more familiar to her than tenderness.
Even among the women, even among the slaves themselves,
while the tricky, complicated things about Lilith and Homer,
who oversees the house,
is they come this close to being mother, daughter, but not quite.
They come this close to being sister, sister but not quite.
It's just that final...
..let's call it a leap of intimacy, whatever that might mean,
just can't happen. It never happens with Lilith and Homer.
It doesn't happen with Lilith and Quinn.
It's one of the things I was saying about slavery,
ultimately this type of love,
this type of bond, is doomed in this type of scene, it's just doomed.
"Lilith start to imagine what white flesh look like after a whipping.
"What a white neck look like after a hanging.
"What kind of scar leave on a white body after black punishment."
Lilith seizes her chance.
She drowns the owner of the plantation in the bath,
slaughters the witnesses and burns the great house to the ground.
The children, still locked inside.
The scene in the bath is extreme,
and then, of course, she's left in this house.
And there are the pickneys, the little children sitting there.
She almost hesitates, and yet she kills those children too.
What was the motivation behind that extremism?
Two things, one...
they are witnesses.
And, funny enough, that's the rational side of her,
that was the rational, let's think this out carefully.
But I think also, there is her absolutely getting off on it.
And honestly, and again,
that's another scene, I think,
that was almost more me than her.
That if I was surrounded by all these people who commit atrocities,
I would totally burn them to death.
-The anger, you mean?
-The anger, the fury.
There is a lot of my own rage.
You can't write a story about slavery and not be enraged.
There were days when I was so consumed by rage, I couldn't write.
Part of me bringing in this kind of eye for an eye, we're both blind.
I'm like, I don't care, as long as you're blind, I'm fine with it.
It's lucky you just write novels.
# Old pirates, yes, they rob I
# Sold I to the merchant ships
# Minutes after they took I
# From the bottomless pit... #
Slavery in Jamaica lasted nearly 400 years.
The country suffered one of the longest,
most brutal oppressions of all the colonies.
Whilst Marlon's novels feed off the brutality of Jamaica's past,
his books are also steeped in his own personal turmoil.
# These songs of freedom
# Cos all I ever have
# Redemption songs.
# Redemption songs. #
At 28 years old, seven years out of college,
I was so convinced that my voice outed me as a fag that I'd stopped
speaking to people I didn't know.
The silence left a mark, threw my whole body into a slouch
with a concave chest, as if trying to absorb impact.
I hadn't thought about killing myself since I was 16.
But now there were nights when I woke up crying,
or found myself out on the jail-terrace, so low, in sadness,
that I had no memory of how I got there.
This feeling of you say, not just once or twice,
but there were a number of moments
where you thought you might end it, end it all?
Knowing that you're at the end of your rope and this is it,
and actually just starting to decide to actually kill yourself,
I think they're actually not two different things,
but they're two different stages.
I think one of the things I notice sometimes with my students,
when they are depressed and bawling,
weeping and wailing and crying in my office and so on,
that's actually fine.
It's when they're a little too at peace...
..especially with things they shouldn't be at peace with,
that's what's scary and that's when I go, "I know what you're thinking."
I listened over and over again to lyrics from the song,
I Found A Reason by The Velvet Underground.
"I do believe if you don't like things, you leave."
I cried for a sorrow that I did not know I had.
I was 28 years old and I had reached the end of myself.
# Oh, I do believe
# If you don't like things, you leave
# For some place you've never gone before... #
Marlon's article - From Jamaica To Minnesota To Myself -
was published in the New York Times in March 2015.
By now, he was 44 years old.
It was his way of finally, publicly, coming out.
When it was published, even his closest friends were surprised
by how much of a struggle his silence had clearly been.
Did he tell you he was going to write it, did he send it to you?
He sent it to me before he sent it off to the New York Times.
And I read it and I called him and I was, like,
-slobbering, bawling, right?
It's true, you've been with someone for decades as their friend,
and I was, like, "Seriously, this is what was going on with you?"
He says, yes, so on so on.
I was like, "Wow, I didn't know
"this is what you were thinking or feeling.
"And I'm sorry I wasn't tuned in to you during that time."
And I was like, "Wow, OK, are you going to do this?"
He says, "Yeah, I'm just going to put it out there."
I'm trying to figure out where this sort of personal vow of silence
or secrecy came from.
Why I didn't feel there were people I could talk to.
I'm not sure where that came from.
I think it's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy,
you figure if you tell anybody this,
they'll never love you or accept you or whatever.
So you just never do.
You're such a sophisticated person in so many ways,
and then you tell me this.
And it's simply because,
the whole of the rest of the world has come out,
and able to do so and felt able to do so.
And yet, somehow or other, you didn't feel you could?
I think to come out, you first have to accept it, or accept yourself.
And, I mean...
If I had accepted myself in my twenties,
I'd never have had that long church phase.
# Hey, Jim
# Just a minute, y'all
# I want you spell for me something
# I want you spell for me New York, man
# Why do you want me to spell New York, man?
# I just want it spelled for me
# New York, can you do that, man...? #
By the time he reaches his late thirties,
decades of masquerading had become too much.
There are better places in the world to be Marlon James.
"Eight years after reaching the end of myself, I was on borrowed time.
"Whether it was in a plane or a coffin,
"I knew I had to get out Jamaica.
"I stepped off the 6 train at Spring Street.
"Black combat boots, busting a move.
"Levi's Offender jeans sausaging my legs skinny.
"Hip hug, butt squeeze, flaring below the knee and over my boots.
"Stepping out on the subway, emerging crotch first,
"posture moving from a slump like a question mark to a buffalo stance.
"By now, the person I created in New York
"was the only one I wanted to be."
# I want you to dig me, soul brothers, soul sisters... #
It's not just Marlon James who ends up in the States.
A Brief History Of Seven Killings winds up there too.
It's the late '80s, and the height of the American crack epidemic.
One of Marlon's most vicious Jamaican gangsters
has flown out to run their crack cocaine operation.
He's ruthless, manipulative, and now that he's in New York,
he's unashamedly gay.
And the hitman who's been sent to kill him,
he's gay too.
"So, she a sweet little thing then?
"What's your name?"
"Thomas Alan Bernstein, but I call him Rocky, can you shut up now?"
"Yeah, and I don't need your fucking shit."
"Well if you're going to be a batty man, at least get the best batty."
He's gay, he's intimidating, he's incredibly violent,
capable of incredible violence.
And that's why nobody challenges his gayness or anything like that,
it's sort of accepted, is that right?
It's also not unheard of in Jamaica.
If you're vicious enough, you can get away with anything, I think.
There have been gay gunmen,
there've certainly been some men there
who look like they're transgender.
There are people who are big on skin bleaching
and wearing make-up and so on.
All this stuff is there, but it's not being commented on?
Right. I think, for example,
some Jamaicans would have had less of a problem with me if I stuck with
don't ask, don't tell.
Which is what a lot of Jamaicans, gay Jamaicans, negotiate.
We will never speak of this.
If we never speak about it, we're cool.
If you start wearing a rainbow T-shirt,
we're going to have problems.
"All right man, too much of this batty boy business."
"You're the first man in this city worth talking to."
I get up and go behind him,
I push the gun through his hair until it touches his skull.
Your books have actually got people talking.
I feel you want to start a conversation here in Jamaica
about the past, about the present,
about the things which have not been talked about,
-is that part of your...
-Yeah, but I didn't think it was a deliberate
thing, when I started doing it.
I think a lot of it was conversations that I wanted
to have personally with whoever would want to listen.
And yeah, there's a huge part of me that wrote these books,
not necessarily to start debate,
because I usually don't stay around for whatever fires I start.
But, to sort of change, I hope, the culture of not speaking.
Just sort of getting it out.
# I've been set free and
# I've been bound
# To the memories of
# Yesterday's clouds
# I've been set free and
# I've been bound
# And now
# I'm set free
# I'm set free
# I'm set free to find a new illusion. #