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Marlon James Builds A New World From Old Stories In 'Black Leopard'

Marlon James could have chosen to write about anything after his last novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings; that kaleidoscopic account of Jamaica won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. So there were a few gasps when the author revealed that his new book would be what some people dismiss as genre fiction.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an epic fantasy quest — full of monsters, sex, and violence, set in a mythic version of ancient Africa. "The whole idea that you get to the age where you outgrow fairies and witches and wonder and so on, to the point where people who like that are considered kind of immature and nerdish — has always struck me as pretty ludicrous," James says.

This book overflows with that sense of wonder — nightmares from African folklore jump out of every page, monsters that might be unfamiliar to readers of Western mythology. "So, there's ipundulu, who's the lightning bird," James explains. "Then there's adzi, and adzi is also a blood-sucker, but what adzi does is that he changes into a swarm of bugs and then the bugs attack you and the bugs drink your blood."

Other elements of the story are more familiar — there's a ragtag group of questing adventurers, including a moon witch, a sad giant, an intelligent buffalo, and the narrator, known only as Tracker, who can sniff out anyone, anywhere. They're looking for a missing child — but James gives away the child's fate in the very first sentence of this book: "The child is dead. There is nothing left to know."

Interview Highlights

On why he gave away the child's fate

I've always been more interested in whydunnits than whodunnits. I find whodunnits frustrating, because I usually figure it out by the tenth page. But whydunnits, it's a bigger question, it's a more involved question. You know, I don't want to know that you got a divorce, I want to know why your marriage fell apart. That's the question that always leads to the longer and the more complicated answer. "Why?" cannot be answered with a one-word answer.

On the unreliability of Tracker's narration

That's a very African way of telling a story. I think in the West we're a little too obsessed with the idea that a story told must be truth. We're obsessed with the authentic version, the director's cut ... whereas in African storytelling, a lot of African storytelling, you already know that the trickster is telling you the story. An Anansi story, we already know ... the trickster spider, any story one should take as a grain of salt. It doesn't change how much you enjoy the story, but it does put the burden of belief on you, the listener or the reader than on the person telling the story. I have no duty to tell it true or not. It's your job to judge if I'm lying or not.

I wonder if we're all faced with the things that Tolkien was faced with, where we have these big questions and the world right in front of us isn't answering them.

On how he learned African mythology

I grew up with some, I grew up with Anansi stories and I grew up with my grandfather telling me stories — sometimes it would be the same story with one tweak the next day. Despite their very very best efforts, Europeans didn't totally destroy the African in the slave. But of course, I didn't know nine-tenths of what I wrote about — so I had to research it, I had to do some detective work. African mythologies, African histories, African legends, African epics that have been translated so far — you know, most of those are on par with any "Beowulf." I had some very clear ideas about the type of story I wanted to tell, but as much as I can talk about Africa, I grew up in the West. A crisis for me is, who's my favorite Charlie's Angel? So yeah, a lot of that I had to learn, and a lot of that I had to discover.

On placing the book in the current context of fantastical works by black creators

I wonder if we're all faced with the things that Tolkien was faced with, where we have these big questions and the world right in front of us isn't answering them. If I want to talk about what it feels like to be displaced and lost, I might have to set myself in a fairy-tale New York. If I'm talking about larger-than-life evil I don't understand, I have to bring in monsters. But I also think that all these writers are responding to erasure — they're responding to never being in a narrative, or if we're in a narrative it's a certain kind. If we're in the Americas, for lots of us, certainly for me, ground zero was slavery. And I rarely learn anything beyond that. And it's important that we know slavery and we understand it ... but if I continue thinking the origin of my story, the origin of the story is colonialism and slavery, then eventually I'm going to feel as if I'm nothing more than a displaced person. So I think that's one of the things — to actually tap into the original narratives, to tap into this sort of reservoir of stories. I think every society needs its myths, it's what tells us who we are. So if I come from a people who didn't have them, I'm going to start searching for them and trying to make some up.

This story was produced for radio by Jolie Myers and Noah Caldwell, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.