Bob Marley had such towering celebrity that, even today, he hoovers up attention & can make the world around him appear flat and undifferentiated. When many Americans think of Jamaica, they think of Marley and little else. When many Americans see somebody with dreadlocks, they think of Marley and little else (I’ve had countless Marley lyrics shouted at me while running, even though our similarities end at dreadlocks & a little beard). When many Americans talk about reggae, they often mean Bob Marley’s music, not the entire musical tradition.
Even in Jamaica, Bob Marley seems to command an outsize percentage of everybody’s brainspace. In Alan Greenberg’s vibrant documentary Land of Look Behind, many of the interviewees speak voluminously about Marley, about being like Marley, about the country needing a new Marley, at the cost of expressing their own personalities (although, two caveats here: I have no idea what Greenberg’s aims were when he was cutting his film, so maybe his interviewees would’ve come across as more unique individuals if he hadn’t selected only their thoughts about Marley, and the film was made shortly after Marley’s funeral, which might’ve put the dude in the forefront of people’s minds).
In A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James brings into crisp focus the Jamaican populace that many people overlook because they’re so busy ogling Marley. Yes, Marley is there, and most of the action in the book is still pulled toward “the Singer” as though by a massive gravitational field, but James explores the lives, loves & losses of numerous (extremely numerous) others nearby. Addled cokeheads whose thoughts pulse in stream of consciousness with choppy linebreak layout like it was poetry. Ghosts who ooze through their killers’ homes hoping but failing to affect the world they’re cursed to observe. Poor kids speaking & thinking in slang, hoping for little more than a bit of safety, maybe a place to shower indoors so cops won’t roll up and toss ’em naked into a lineup in the middle of the street, forced to hump the road till their genitals are raw. And many arrogant white men from the United States, sure they’re the country’s saviors.
James wants his readers to hear more Jamaican voices, to know about the bustling world so often papered over by cartoon imagery of Bob Marley’s face and marijuana plants and lion-emblazoned flags. You get a sense of that from his interviews after winning the Man Booker prize:
… and from ironic passages in his book, especially when there are CIA agents thinking things like
You have to get to the point where you know how the country works better than the people who live here. Then you leave. The Company suggested I read a book from V. S. Naipaul before coming here, The Middle Passage. It amazed me how he could land in some country, be there for mere days and nail exactly what was wrong with it.
James wants for readers to experience a more genuine version of his country. He doesn’t want for the only literature that people read about the place to be stuff written by outsiders who spent mere days there.
But, if you’re going to read it, I should warn you. The language is very gruff. Much of the book is written in stream of consciousness, and his characters think awful stuff about women, and even more viciously awful stuff about homosexuals. Homosexuality, the chance that others are engaging in it, the risk of other men (or dogs, or Satan) sodomizing males as punishment, seems always to be on the characters’ minds.
Which is, as far as I know, an accurate representation of Jamaican culture. Homosexuals are subject to horrific violence and persecution in Jamaica, much of it aided and abetted by the police. In the Human Rights Watch article “Jamaica: Unchecked Homophobic Violence,” you can read about several such incidents, including one in which a victim was unable to sign a subsequent police report because the officers told him, “You are a battyman. We don’t want battyman to use our pen.”
And the awful stuff about women in A Brief History of Seven Killings also seems highly representative of the real Jamaica. Modern music especially is rife with misogynistic lyrics. Young girls are targeted for sexual violence in huge numbers. So, yes, it’s good that James draws attention to this, that he delves into the thoughts of a woman being driven to the middle of nowhere by the police, sure she’s going to be assaulted & abandoned somewhere far from home… but it makes the book hard to read, so I thought I should warn you. And, to me, even grim passages from the victims go down far easier than stream-of-conscious writing from the perspective of the assailants. It can be very unpleasant to inhabit their minds, even for just a short chapter at a time.
So I’d like to end this post by recommending a piece of music: Spice, “Like a Man.” Feminist dancehall reggae? That seems like a good follow-up to some of the more vicious passages in James’s book. Her song is great, even though I wish she lived in a world where she hadn’t felt compelled to write it.