Monday 4 November 2019

Festival Prologue: Marlon James on Language, Whose Story Is It, and Who Gets to Tell It?

The honour of giving the Festival Prologue at SWF 2019 this year went to Marlon James and as literary prestige goes, Marlon James gets top billing, as winner of the 2015 Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, a sprawling novel with 76 characters, most of which are written in first person point of view. His fourth novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Penguin Random House UK, 2019), comes equipped with self-drawn maps, and a similar long cast of characters, which was somewhat hyped in pre-publicity as the African Game of Thrones. What have come to characterise his novels are: cacophonous voices, the interweave of fantasy, African history, myths and folklore, a bold collapsing of genres (a flat-out thumbing of the nose at literary snobbery even), a healthy disregard for traditional plot-structures and an intrepid blend of Jamaican patois, language and syntax that is not standard English. Subversion ought to be Marlon James' middle name. 

That his prologue speech at SWF would be trenchant and witty comes as no surprise: starting off with the point 'whose stories get told', he said, "Colonialism. Nothing good came out of it," and the English language, well, that rose out of bad German. While not belabouring the point about how English as a language has been harnessed as, one could argue, a primary tool of British colonialism and even a weapon of combat (to use literary theorist Rey Chow's term), its dominance and how it is to be used in literary narrativising is surely an enclave-like protection of power, and this is what James sets out to knock down in his novels. On his second question: who gets to tell the stories, he spoke about trying to write his second novel, The Book of Night Women, in Standard English and it came across as stilted and false. Searching for language has involved acknowledging and then ridding himself of the shame that had been inculcated in the colonised mind about patois, dialects and local slang.  An apt resonance with the theme of the festival indeed. In the Q&A, I would have liked to have heard more about this process — the trials and errors, the mental back and forth —  in rediscovering, reclaiming and redeploying patois and dialects in fashioning his own literary voice, but I suppose there was so much ground to cover.  

The elephant in the room no doubt was cultural appropriation — writing the other. James almost scoffed: "there is no attack on freedom, but there is a critique of expression." Do the work, get it right. As cultural appropriation examples, he compared David Bowie with Vanilla Ice, and why one was extolled and the other vilified. In cultural appropriation, he stated, 'appropriation is the least offensive part'. It's pretending to write the voice of the other, but not checking your blind spots, embedding within a story old tropes and invidious stereotypes of the other — therein lies the problem. He quoted a white writer who said that the cultural appropriation police now made writers approach the blank page with fear, and laughingly joked that  like Ocean Vuong, he entered every blank page with positive terror ever since he first started writing and still do.  He gave some funny examples of critique he tried to give his students, all of which had nothing to do with telling them not to write the other, but rather to do with doing the necessary homework and nailing down the character, and their standard response: you're curbing my freedom. Lest he be misunderstood: once again, it's not 'write what you know', it's 'write towards the unknown'. 

James was not above taking potshots (or cheap shots?) at 'realism' — "what's realism anyway? A fat, potbellied white guy who still manages to have a wife and a mistress — how is that real?" or writing  for 'white ears' or 'novels that write to the British gaze' in advocating for telling more diverse stories ('We don't need one more Howard's End'). While I found myself 'uhming' and aahing to James' pithy rejoinders to the thinly-disguised status-quo objections to diversity inclusion (diversity kills genius) and cultural appropriation witching (e.g. in talking about call-out or cancel culture, James asked pointedly: who exactly has stayed cancelled — not Louis C.K., et al), I'm not sure I'm quite as sanguine about its anaesthetised effect.  cf. Obama's speech this week about 'wokeness' not being equivalent to activism. I appreciated James' point about criticism (but prefer the word 'critique'): it has to go beyond declaring something to be bad or good. I am in agreement that the point of critique isn't to assign a work of literature to either the pedestal or the bin, and that critique really means a thoughtful response to a literary work that incorporates high and lows, points of contention as well as points of contemplation. More than that, the role of the critic (bringing to mind the issues surrounding the building of social value around dissent) is, I believe, to sit at the extreme end of prevailing opinion (to the extent that we even know what that is), or as literary critics and scholars F. O. Matthiessen and Roland Greene averred, critics are intermediaries between past bodies of knowledge and expanding culture. 

What I found emotionally infectious (to steal Tolstoy's term and appropriate to a different context) is the spirit of James Baldwin that Marlon James invoked: that one can be fiercely critical AND fiercely hopeful at the same time, i.e. that one strives to be as 'clear-eyed' as Baldwin was about the times we live in, but to be almost deranged in hopefulness for what the form of the novel can do for the reclaiming and retelling of diverse voices and stories.  James cited writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Kiran Desai as exemplars of the post-post colonial zeitgeist — displaced persons who are at home nowhere, but who fashion out of this nihilistic space of flows a 'story that stands within its own framework' rather than an inherited tradition or one wrestling with 'colonialism'.  Onus and opportunity, in one breath.