Tag Archives: Marlon James

SWF: My Day 4

Saturday at the Sydney Writers’ Festival the weather held, brilliantly.

My first session was at 11 o’clock: Paul Muldoon: On Seamus Heaney. Advertised as Muldoon discussing Heaney’s poetry, this turned out to be Muldoon reading Heaney. Did I mention earlier that David Malouf described Paul Muldoon’s reading as ‘at the right speed’? It’s such a spot-on observation: he makes every word count, the way Mandela did in his oratory. He read ‘Follower‘, ‘Digging‘, ‘Tollund Man‘, ‘Keeping Going‘, and stopped for questions. A woman in the front row – it may have been Kate Tempest – asked him to read more poems. He read ‘When all the others were away at Mass‘. It was an absolute treat.

Meanwhile, the Emerging Artist went to see First Dog On The Moon Live, which she said was wonderful: from the symptoms of windfarm pathology (all taken from real if somewhat delusional sources) to the grief caused by the death of a pet dog, the Dog is as captivating in person as his cartoons are compulsory reading.

We both went to see Kate Tempest: The Bricks that Built the Houses after lunch. Wow! Michael Williams, her interlocutor, set the ball rolling by reading the first couple of paragraphs of the novel that this session was named for. As he said, he’s not a bad reader. Then he asked Kate to read the same bit. She stood up with the closed book in her hands and gave us the first several pages as a passionate spoken word performance. It was a whole other thing!

For the whole hour, she was not just passionate about her world and about the world, but constantly self-questioning, challenging herself not to fall back on setpieces when talking about her work. Responding to one question she rhapsodised about the joys of freeform rapping; to another who asked what William Blake said to her she quoted half a dozen bits from (I think ) ‘The Proverbs of Hell’. As the session drew to a close and Michael Williams made the standard announcement that her books were on sale at Gleebooks, she interjected, ‘Nothing you can buy will make you whole,’ then explained that she would have to be snappy with any signing because she wanted to get to the session on the Stolen Generations with Ali Cobby Eckermann in half an hour.

We had some quiet time, then queued for The Big Read at half past 4. This lovely event has been downgraded from the main Sydney Theatre stage to the cavernous space known to the Festival as The Loft, with just enough room on the  tiny stage for MC Annette Shun Wah and the five writers. All the same, it was  a great pleasure to be read to by

  • Carmen Aguirre (Chile and Canada), from her memoir Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since the Revolution
  • Paul Murray (Ireland), from his novel The Mark and the Void
  • Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe), from her novel The Book of Memory, a reading that included some very sweet singing
  • Marlon James (Jamaica), from A Brief History of Seven Killings and
  • William Boyd (England and France), from Sweet Caress.

I dashed straight from there to Avant Gaga, to be read to again, this time by poets in the Sydney Dance Lounge. One end of the space was occupied by people eating their dinner, and not doing so in monastic silence. Our crowded end was full of people straining to listen. There weren’t enough chairs for the audience – some sat on the floor, some on the spiral stairs in the middle of the room, one (me) sat on a low table under the stairs and managed to draw blood by bumping into the sprinkler there. Avant Gaga is a monthly event in the back courtyard of Sappho’s bookshop in Glebe, which it goes without saying is a lot more comfortable (unless it’s raining).

I can’t say it was an unadulterated pleasure to be read to in those circumstances, but there was a lot of pleasure. Our MC was Toby Fitch. He kicked things off with a seemingly endless list of entities and activities, real and then increasingly fanciful, that might be represented by the initials SWF. ‘Sesquipedalian’ featured and so did ‘fellatio’. Then, in order, a.j. carruthers, Amanda Stewart, Astrid Lorange, Elena Gomez, joanne burns, Kate Fagan, Kent MacCarter, Lionel Fogarty, Pam Brown and Peter Minter read. Toby Fitch asked our indulgence an read a poem called something like ‘A hundred fully-formed words’, in honour of his infant daughter. Here’s what Astrid Lorange looked like from my vantage point:

avant gaga.jpg

While I was there, the EA went to My Family and Other Obstacles in which Richard Glover hosted three much younger people talk about books about growing up with seriously dysfunctional parents. One of my siblings once said that our birth family was dysfunctional, and I’ve no doubt that my sons at various times would say the same of theirs. After hearing the stories from this session, I’m confident that its participants would be entitled to sneer.

And though the festival continues today, that was it for me. I didn’t mention arriving one day to pass a senior poet wheeling a baby in a stroller, or pretty much looking up from the book I was reading to see someone whose name had been mentioned just a page earlier, or hearing a well respected political essayist exclaiming a common obscenity, or discovering that the Children’s Book Council had scheduled a conference to coincide with the Festival, or the pleasure of having my name spelled correctly on three hot chocolate lids in as many days, or the books I bought. But I don’t have to blog everything.

Marlon James’s Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (OneWorld 2015)

1780746350.jpgI was reading A Brief History of Seven Killings in a cafe when I noticed that the young man at the next table was reading Oliver Twist, and the horrible thought occurred to me that Marlon James’s work might one day, like Dickens’s, be required reading in schools and universities. Assuming that its spectacular obscenity, violence and graphic sex won’t protect it from such a fate, I offer here, in lieu of a blog post, some possible essay questions:

  • ‘The book’s epigraph, “If it no go so, it go near so” implies a claim to historical truth. While the central event of the narrative, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley on 3 December 1976, is verifiable, the novel relies more on the tropes of US drugs-and-violence cinema and television than on historical research.’ Discuss.
  • James says in his acknowledgements: ‘I had a novel, and it was right in front of me all that time. Half-formed and fully formed characters, scenes out of place, hundreds of pages that needed sequence and purpose. A novel that would be driven only by voice.’ Is that an accurate description of the novel as it finally appeared? (Suggested answer: Far too modest, but kind of.)
  • ‘The novel is narrated by 12 different voices. Although most of them are Jamaican gunmen, they are brilliantly differentiated. At times, especially in the third of the book’s five sections, the sheer virtuosity of it becomes the point of the writing, and the narrative slows almost to a halt.’ Is this fair?  (Suggested answer: Yes, but the writing really is fabulous.)
  • What is the function of the many references to US popular culture? Does it differ with different characters? For example, a main gunman’s nom de guerre is Josey Wales and there are many other references to Clint Eastwood movies, while the only woman narrator refers several times to US television as a guide to how she is expected to behave. Is it necessary to be familiar with Dynasty and T. J. Hooker [whatever that is] to understand the novel?
  • Given that the book runs to nearly 700 pages, to what extent is the title ironic? Given that vastly more than seven people are killed, which are the seven referred to in the title?
  • The character known only as the Singer is definitely Bob Marley. Does the book make you want to (re)listen to all his music and read about his life? [Recommended answer: Yes]
  • Nina Burgess says in page 157: ‘The problem with a book is that you never know what it’s planning to do to you until you’re too far into it.’ Did this book tease the reader with other meta moments such as this? Were the many jibes at white men who think they know about Jamaica meant to prompt white readers of the book to check themselves for voyeuristic tendencies [or was that just me?]
  • We have become accustomed to some Hollywood movies’ preoccupation with penis size and certain sexual activities as easy metaphors for domination. Most of the characters here fall back on that rhetoric is a way that would be deadening if not for the Jamaican ‘bad chat’ elements. Does the one scene of tender sexual intimacy counterbalance this, or is it a token nod to alternative takes on sexuality?

There, that should do it.

Oh, another thing: One reason I read this book was that I had so enjoyed Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and wanted to read more from the Caribbean. Apart from the sheer exhilarating joy of the language in both, I can’t say they have much in common. But that could be the basis for one more essay question: compare and contrast.