October 17, 2015

Only Out Jamaican Writer Describes Growing Up in a Homophobic Country

Out gay Jamaican writer Marlon James

Marlon James has become the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker fiction prize for “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”
James, 35, said he had to leave his homeland just to be able to do simple things: “You might want to walk down the street and hold somebody’s hand one day. When you grow up in a homophobic country, you’re sitting on a time bomb.”
Before coming to the States and taking a job at Macalaster College in Minnesota in 2007, he recalls living in fear. 
“I was so convinced that my voice outed me as a fag that I had stopped speaking to people I didn’t know,” he wrote in an essay in the New York Times. “The silence left a mark, threw my whole body into a slouch, with a concave chest, as if trying to absorb impact.”
“I bought myself protection by cursing, locking my lisp behind gritted teeth, folding away my limp wrist and drawing 36-double-D girls for art class. I took a copy of Penthouse to school to score cool points, but the other boys called me ‘batty boy’ anyway — every day, five days a week. To save my older, cooler brother, I pretended we weren’t related.”
In addition to Seven Killings, James is the author of John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women
He hopes the award will draw attention to the robust literary scene in his homeland.
“There’s this whole universe of really spunky creativity that’s happening,” he said. “I hope it brings more attention to what’s coming out of Jamaica and the Caribbean.”
The novel is based on an imagined oral history of a 1976 attempt to kill reggae singer Bob Marley. It focuses on a group of young men who burst into Marley’s home with automatic weapons before a peace concert — an event Marley survived.
The 668-page book deftly captures the language and life of the Caribbean, and James says he hopes more Caribbean writers will follow in his footsteps.

“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 said.
The openly gay writer has spoken at length about growing up in a homophobic country, a topic he also included in the book.
“It was very important to me that there were gay characters in the book – to reflect the gayness and hypocrisy in Jamaica,” he told The Independent.
Although it’s clear the 44-year-old author holds his country in esteem, he now lives in Minneapolis.

“You might want to walk down the street and hold somebody’s hand one day. When you grow up in a homophobic country, you’re sitting on a timebomb,” he said.
Jamaica still has anti-sodomy laws on the books, dating back to 1864. The country’s “Offenses Against the Person Act” make such actions punishable by imprisonment or 10 years hard labor. In a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, more than half of LGBT people surveyed had been the victim of a violent crime.
James said his father inspired him to begin writing, although he did give it up for a time after one book was rejected more than 70 times.

The 47-year-old prize has previously gone to writers Salman Rushdie, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee. It comes with a $76,000 reward.
“A Brief History of Seven Killings” is his third novel.

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