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How Marlon James Built a New World in His ‘African Game of Thrones

9 minute read

A little over three years ago, Marlon James made a comment he now insists was a joke. The acclaimed Jamaican author, fresh from winning the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, told a reporter that his next project would be an “African Game of Thrones.” James underestimated the buzz the comparison would stir up, and soon enough, multiple outlets published breathless stories about the diverse epic fantasy he had promised. Now, on the eve of that novel’s release, James laughs when he considers just how far his offhand comment traveled: an email arrived in his inbox from George R.R. Martin, the man behind the massively popular fantasy series. Sitting at his office desk in Brooklyn, dressed in a black one-piece tracksuit, James sets down his yogurt and pulls up the message: “‘I was flattered by the mention,’” James reads aloud, his deep voice rasping into a chuckle. “‘I think it’s a project well worth doing. I look forward to reading it one of these days.’”

It turns out that James’ new epic, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which hits shelves today and kicks off a trilogy, does resemble Martin’s series, in a few key ways: each features warring royals, deadly beasts and plenty of graphic sex scenes and bloody battles. James says he even “cheated” — his word — and studied how Martin crafts violent sequences with mythical creatures.

But James’ book is set in a distant-past Africa and filled with queer characters of color inspired by the continent’s history and mythology. And it joins the ranks of those by authors like Tomi Adeyemi and N.K. Jemisin, whose works push back against stereotypes about the types of figures who “should” appear in fantasy fiction. There’s no Jon Snow in the world James created: “I wasn’t trying to write some noble warrior walking through the bush,” he says. Tracker, the protagonist, is a man whose sense of smell reveals the whereabouts and recent deeds of those he encounters. He’s deeply flawed—brash, violent and distrustful of love — and brings those qualities with him as joins a crew set on finding a mysterious missing child.

The novel challenges the notion that there are lines to be drawn between literature and genre fiction. Some British publishers rejected the book, saying it’s “too sci-fi for the literary crowd and too literary for the sci-fi crowd,” a judgment that James wholeheartedly disdains. “The idea that somebody who reads, say, Octavia Butler can’t read Toni Morrison is absolutely ludicrous,” he says.

And a writer can channel them both in a single work. Breaking down those boundaries has helped James thrive: Black Leopard is his first book since A Brief History, his fictionalization of a real 1976 assassination attempt on Bob -Marley—which he saw as an experiment with another genre, crime fiction—took home one of literature’s most prestigious prizes and became a paperback best seller. James’ Booker win, the first by a Jamaican author, catapulted him to literary stardom.

At 620 pages, Black Leopard is an ambitious undertaking, even for readers used to Martin’s dense prose and meandering storytelling. James himself acknowledges that his books can be challenging. A Brief History had more than 70 characters, and many spoke in Jamaican patois. His new novel has more than 80 and often leaves the reader with half a thought to carry through pages and pages before finally uniting it with its other half. “I take a lot of risks,” James says. “When I throw the reader into the deep end, I just have this faith they’re going to find their way back.”

The next two books in the Dark Star Trilogy will tell the same story from other perspectives. The second, which he’s currently plotting, will follow a witch from the first book. Who tells the third, James gleefully declares, is a secret. At the end of the trilogy, the reader will have to decide which narrator, if any, is telling the truth—a nod to the African storytelling tradition wherein tricksters’ stories must be taken with a grain of salt. “Seeing sometimes doesn’t depend on the object,” James says. “It depends on the eyes.”

James, now 48, was raised in a suburb of Kingston, Jamaica, the son of a police inspector mother and a police -officer turned lawyer father. Both of his parents encouraged him to read, and growing up, he rewrote the ends of The Incredible Hulk episodes so Bruce Banner could finally catch a break, and journaled about his own life starting at age 16. He studied literature at the University of the West Indies and worked as a graphic designer, among other jobs.

Before his writing career took off, he threw himself into evangelical Christianity in order to bury a secret: he was gay, in a country that was — and despite improvements, still is — plagued with homophobia. He would eventually undergo a voluntary “exorcism,” an “ex-gay” ritual that saw him praying and vomiting for hours as he attempted to rid himself of so-called demons. It made him feel better — but only briefly.

But before that, when he was 31, he read Toni Morrison’s Sula, and it offered an epiphany — in the form of a three-word line — that would come to shape his outlook. The unrepentant Sula, who is on her deathbed, is asked what she has to show for her life choices. Sula responds, Show? To who? “And man, I don’t have a lot of fall-off-the-chair moments, but I had a fall-off-the-chair moment right there,” James says. “It just hit me: There’s nothing about what I want to do in life that I have to get permission for. When it comes to being who I am, I don’t have an allegiance or a duty to anybody.” Morrison’s words gave him the validation he never found at church.

Five years later, in 2007, after he published his first novel, James moved to the U.S. to teach at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Eight years and two more books after that, he published an essay in the New York Times Magazine about the experience of becoming his most authentic self, publicly declaring his sexuality for the first time.

When James won the Booker, a tabloid sent reporters to Jamaica to see if he’d ever been a victim of homophobic violence. “I guess they didn’t believe me when I said no,” says James, who is currently applying for U.S. citizenship. He was never attacked — his reasons for leaving were about his own feelings. Even so, when he returned to Jamaica after winning the award to speak at his alma mater, he was scared. But while some same-sex sexual activity is still outlawed and attitudes toward LGBTQ people can be hostile, he was celebrated. When he went to meet queer students with his “it gets better” speech at the ready, they couldn’t have been less interested. “They were like, ‘We don’t want to hear that sh-t. Do you know Beyoncé?’” he says. “I was so amazed to see a generation of queer young people defending the right to be young.”

James steps out for a moment to collect his lunch delivery — chicken satay — then returns to his desk, still decorated with sticky-note reminders from the writing process. He lists some of the hundreds of texts he consulted over two years of research for Black Leopard: books, articles, epics, archeological reports, primary source materials — some in languages he doesn’t speak — and legends from around the world. His new novel is populated with characters who are gay, trans and gender fluid — but largely because, he was surprised and validated to learn, many of the figures in the African histories he studied were queer. “It looks like I was being, ‘Yay for intersectionality.’ It turns out, no,” he says. He also wanted to honor the reservoir of African legends so often overlooked, so he pulled mythological creatures directly from their sources and placed them in his world.

But for anyone tempted to describe the effort as a direct rebuttal to Western genre tropes, James is quick to reiterate that many of the book’s influences also come from European lore — everything from tales of the Vikings to the Wars of the Roses. And he presses that he’s not on a mission to invert anything.

He’s just doing his own thing within the fantasy genre — the same way he’s doing his own thing with his career, defying those who would say a writer with his background “should” write about certain topics. He writes like he reads, and relishes discovering novels by black authors that wouldn’t have been published a decade ago. But labels aren’t as limiting as they once were, he adds. “I think or at least hope that a phrase like black writer or Caribbean writer comes with a whole set of expectations that it didn’t have 20 years ago,” he says. “One being that you should expect anything from us.”

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Write to Lucy Feldman at lucy.feldman@time.com