On 13 October 2015 it was 44 years since a West Indian won the Man Booker Prize for the finest fiction written in English for the year. The first and only writer of West Indian origin during the 44-year period was Vidya Naipaul, the Trinidad-born writer who was awarded the prize in 1971, two years after it was launched in Britain, for his book “In a Free State”.
Forty-four years may seem like a long time between winning, but it should be recalled that the English-speaking Caribbean, with a population of 8 million people, is a small pool in relation to other English-speaking countries and regions.
While West Indians everywhere should exult that, for a second time, a native of the region has won the coveted prize, this year’s winner, Marlon James, brings pride particularly to Jamaica where he was born and the University of the West Indies (UWI) where he earned his first degree.
In recent years, Jamaica has suffered a bad reputation. Gun crimes, drug wars, violence – all served to paint a one-dimensional image of the country. Set aside were the people who went to work every day keeping their families, their neighbourhoods and their country afloat through difficult economic times. Ignored, too, were the officials who worked in the global community to earn a respected place for Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. Little recalled were the talented artists, dancers, poets, writers and craft makers that represented a mosaic of rich creativity.
Marlon James’ literary triumph is a timely reminder that Jamaica is a vibrant nation capable of producing some of the best people in their fields anywhere in the world. A one-dimensional view is a distortion of reality. While crime and violence exists, it is a fragment – albeit a troubling one – of a remarkably gifted society.
Two years ago, James would not have qualified for consideration for the Prize. Until 2013, only writers in English from Britain, Ireland and Commonwealth countries were eligible. Then the Prize opened to writers in the United States, giving James, who now lives in Minneapolis, a chance to be considered.
His book, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (Oneworld Publications), may have been written in the US but it is very much born of a Jamaican experience. James said he “needed the perspective and distance” to be able to write the novel which tells a story of 1970s Jamaica, juxtaposing reggae with street violence and exploring the attempted assassination of the Jamaican musical icon, Bob Marley.
He won against stiff competition. His book was up against a short-list that included a veteran American author, Anne Tyler, and the bookmaker’s favourite, US author Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life”. It is reported that each of the five judges independently chosen James’ book as their preferred winner.
I have not yet read James’ book fully though I have leafed through it quickly. At 686 pages, the book is almost three times as long as Naipaul’s “In a Free State” which I first read in 1976. Reading it properly will have to be spread over some weeks, particularly as it has over 70 characters and its language ranges from Jamaican patois to fine English prose. James, who wrote most of the book in the US, has called it “a novel of exile”.
The novel may lay bare some of the more unpleasant aspects of Jamaican life during the decade with which it deals. But, the reader must recognise that the story it tells and the characters to whom it gives voice are not all that Jamaica is. Indeed, Jamaica is much more. It is a country of magnificent talent in a wide range of fields and with a great intellectual capacity.
Its people have risen-up from a legacy of slavery, deprivation and exploitation that defies their subjugation and celebrates their innate creativity and intelligence. What image portrays this more effectively than Bob Marley leaving his hospital bed, wounded from the attempt to assassinate him, to perform at a concert?
And this is the point that I want to make in this brief commentary that is more about Jamaica than about one Jamaican, outstanding as he is.
Marlon James’ achievement in the literary field is a shining example of Jamaica’s success that is globally acknowledged and enjoyed. The Jamaican ‘brand’ is well established in music through Bob Marley and a host of others; in athletics by the feats of Usain Bolt – admired to the point of adulation worldwide; in modern-day cricket by Chris Gayle whose batting prowess lifts the spirits of the game’s enthusiasts as high as he effortlessly hits a ball out of the ground. Now to music and sport is added literary triumph.
All this is good for Jamaica and for the West Indian family of which it is so vibrant a part.
Hail to Jamaican accomplishment.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and a Senior Fellow at the Universities of London and Toronto. He is also a candidate for the post of Commonwealth Secretary-General)