LONDON (Reuters) - Marlon James became the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker fiction prize on Tuesday for “A Brief History of Seven Killings”, inspired by an attempt to kill reggae star Bob Marley, and said he hoped more Caribbean writers will follow.
The 686-page novel, which uses Jamaican patois, Harlem slang and liberal doses of scatological language, tells the story of a gang of cocaine-fuelled ghetto kids armed with automatic weapons who tried but failed to kill Marley in the Jamaican capital Kingston in 1976 before he gave a peace concert.
“Jamaica has a really really rich literary tradition, it is kind of surreal being the first and I hope I’m not the last and I don’t think I will be,” James, 44, said after winning the award.
“There is a real universe of sort of spunky creativity that’s happening,” he added. “I hope it brings more attention to what’s coming out of Jamaica and the Caribbean.”
James, who said he had been inspired to become a writer by his father, said he had decided to give up writing after one of his books was rejected 70 times, but eventually it was published and he was able to put the voices he heard in Jamaica into his work.
“The reggae singers ... were the first to recognise that the voice coming out of our mouths was a legitimate voice of fiction ...that the son of the market woman can speak poetry,” he said.
Author and academic Michael Wood, chair of the five judges who selected James’s book from a shortlist of six titles, said the sprawling work had impressed the entire panel.
“The excitement of the book kept coming, I think, and we just felt it didn’t flag, and on re-reading it just got better,” he told reporters.
The book is the third novel by James, who now lives in Minneapolis and teaches writing.
In an online interview with the Gawker Review of Books website, James was quoted as saying the book breaks a lot of the rules he teaches his students at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Half of the stuff in that book I don’t allow my students to do,” James said. “There’s a seven-page sentence in the book. Even when the book ends, it just stops.”
Wood told reporters he was sure his mother would not have been able to get through even a few pages of the book, but he recommended it to readers who want to try something different.
“It may be controversial but only if you simply extract the swearing and drugs and stuff from the context,” he said. “It could well be that it’s not so controversial.”
The prize, which in its 47-year history previously has gone to Salman Rushdie, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee, carries a top cash award of 50,000 pounds ($76,000), but more importantly can be a huge shot in the arm for book sales.
Last year’s winner, Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, has sold 800,000 copies worldwide, a statement announcing the prize results said.
James’s book has won high critical acclaim, with the New York Times saying it was “like a (Quentin) Tarantino remake of ‘The Harder They Come’, but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner”.
Wood noted that James calls his novel - which opens with a dead man speaking, describes events that occurred in Jamaica from the viewpoints of dozens of characters, and closes in New York City - “Dickensian” in its scope.
He said a rule change two years ago which allowed American writers to compete for the Man Booker, previously limited for the most part to the Commonwealth, had no impact on this year’s choice, since Jamaica is a Commonwealth country. But he said the change had broadened the types of books under consideration.
“The sheer range of what we read was amazing,” he said.
Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Jonathan Oatis