My cultural life: Marlon James

The Booker Prize-winning author on the TV, film and art that has inspired him, including a surreal dance performance and a Toni Morrison-endorsed novel. 

Donna Mackay
Marlon James
Photo: Carolyn Cole/Getty

Marlon James' 2015 novel A Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker Prize, and became a New York Times bestseller. His return last year, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, brought him a fresh wave of admirers by uniting the fantasy and literary worlds.

Drawing on his love of mythology, the novel was partially borne out his frustration at the dominance in the fantasy genre of white, Western ideals. It garnered comparisons to the richly imagined worlds of the greats, including Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, though James has been clear, he never had access to those books as a child: ‘I read whatever cheap crap got dumped on the third world’, he told the Guardian last year.

So where does he draw his inspiration from? Marlon has previously admitted that he is heavily influenced by the world of comics, being a life-long fan of the Marvel universe. ‘Oh yeah. I’m an O.G. fan of the X-Men. I’ve been reading the X-Men since 1981’ he told with Gizmodo in 2019. As a child, he wrote plays (a Jamaican reversioning of Cinderella) and created his own comics.

To find out what else has been on his radar recently, we asked Marlon for his latest cultural recommendations.

TV: Chernobyl

I loved it when I saw it, but it’s only in hindsight I realise how brilliant it was. It’s such an understated and muted show, and then you realise, it’s because these were understated and muted people. In fact, two of them were literally shot down in silence. For me, the most interesting thing about it is watching such an explosive event. But sometimes the explosion isn't the nuclear fallout – sometimes the explosion is the truth.

One of the things that I admire so much about documentary and non-fiction is how they imbue a known event with suspense. We still so often believe a huge part of suspense is not knowing what happens and non-fiction always reminds us otherwise; we know what happened with Chernobyl and yet we are still on the edge of our seats. 

Photo: HBO

Film: Atlantics by Mati Diop

The Oscars and The Baftas are more famous for who they snub than who they laud, and this is a major, major snub on both of their parts. Atlantics, however, won the Cannes Grand Prix [Diop was the first black woman to direct a film in competition at the festival].

It’s a coming-of-age about a 17-year-old girl in Dakar; but it's also about loneliness and abandonment and there are parts where it stops being ‘realistic’ because it has to, and it becomes something way more haunting and way more magical. It shows that something that's out to all to destroy you can also restore and comfort you, which I find really interesting. Maybe even hopeful.

Art: The Great Tamer by Dimitris Papaioannou

I saw this dance performance in New York. It is by a travelling company, a Greek troupe led by Dimitris Papaioannou.  It’s funny and very tongue-in-cheek, with a parade of severed and rearranged bodies on a dance floor that keeps opening and closing and twisting, to sometimes even throw the performers off.

It’s totally surrealistic, about both dream and nightmare. It’s a provocation – and not just because the performers are naked, but because it pushes the boundaries of what you think you know and what we want the body to do. It’s performance art that blurs the boundaries between that and dance.

Theatre: A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson

The best play I saw in the last year is A Strange Loop, a musical by Michael R. Jackson. The name comes from Liz Phair song, though Phair wouldn’t grant the rights to the song for use in the show.

It's about a black, overweight, gay elevator operator who has dreamed of writing a great musical while dealing with his own personal demons. It sounds pretentious but it is one of the most heartbreakingly real explorations of what it means to be black, gay, unaccepted and struggling – all while just trying to be a person in the world.

It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen – I cried three times. For a musical, the songs are inventive and brilliant. Usually, my problem with musicals is the music, they often claim to draw from rock and roll, but that’s not always the case. But this, on a purely musical level, genuinely rocks. I saw it in New York, Off Off Broadway and thought it was the greatest work of art – it’s so funny.

A Strange Loop
Photo: Joan Marcus

Non-fiction: All God’s Dangers by Theodore Rosengarten

This oral history from an illiterate, black sharecropper from Alabama called Ned Cobb came out in 1974 and won the National Book Award.

It was the winner in one of the strongest ever nomination pools for the award, beating The Power BrokerAll the President’s MenWorking, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I think people may have forgotten it out of spite, as every one of those books has become classics, except All God’s Dangers. Why do I think that is? Institutional racism – the story of an illiterate black sharecropper is not perceived as conventionally interesting as the story of the fall of Nixon or the man who built modern-day New York.

All the other [nominated] books are about white men, whereas this is about a guy who history has chosen not to remember. It was one of the very first memoirs that dared to argue that the ordinary, the poor, and the downtrodden life is worth knowing about.

It’s a fascinating story that shows, at the time, any way society could deprive a Negro was a celebration. The fact that this book has remained in obscurity, is again, a win for racist systems. 

Fiction: The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

The Radiance of the King takes the heart of darkness narrative and flips it on his head. It’s about a white man’s journey through ‘darkest, wildest’ Africa, as he – like any imperial colonialist – demands to see the King. What happens next is a journey through the heart of his own darkness while he gets an education in his own humanity.

Meeting the King becomes an obsession, and in that obsession, he literally and mentally strips away everything, so that when he finally meets him he's both emotionally and physically naked.

It's a fantastic, funny and particularly hilarious novel. There's an edition where Tony Morrison wrote the intro and, for me, it is fascinating to read the novels that she read; the novels that made her want to write. If nothing else, to read the building blocks of one of our greatest ever writers… that in itself makes it a must-read. 


Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James is out on paperback now.


Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more