The Great Jamaican Novel: Marlon James’ New Book Explores the Attempted Assassination of Bob Marley

A Brief History of Seven Killings author Marlon James talks ‘70s Jamaica and the country’s most famous cultural export.

August 12, 2014

From the magazine: ISSUE 93, on stands August 26th and up for preorder now.

Ever since his 2005 debut, John Crow’s Devil, Minneapolis-based author and Macalester College professor Marlon James has used his novels to delve into the history of his native Jamaica. His past books focused on slavery and religion, but his new novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, tackles a moment that’s usually only discussed in whispers: the 1976 attempt on Bob Marley’s life. That foiled plot—carried out by several poor, young Jamaicans about whom little is known—remains shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories. James’ book shifts the focus away from Marley himself and, as such, does little to offer a definitive account of the affair. Instead, it uses the story’s question marks and convolutions as a means of exploring an equally complex time in the history of Jamaica, marked by Cold War politics abroad and growing tension between the conservative Jamaican Labour and the socialist People’s National Party. The author utilizes dozens of narrators, including a Rolling Stone writer, a CIA agent and a host of Jamaicans who speak in varying strains of dialect. Over the phone, James discussed the roots of the novel, his fascination with this vibrant and turbulent era and the world-wide success of the country’s most famous cultural export.

Where did you get the idea to tell the story of the Bob Marley attempted assassination? I’ve been interested in this story since around 1991, when I read an issue of SPIN magazine with Jane’s Addiction on the cover. There was this article by Timothy White, who wrote the Bob Marley biography Catch a Fire. He wrote an update where he went further into the one incident in Marley’s life that no one wants to talk about, which is when these men tried to kill him. One of them went on to be a major player in the ’80s crack trade, and another was assassinated with a bullet to the head in East Germany. Those two were really striking to me. I’ve always been interested in who these men were and what happened to them.

Why did you use so many different perspectives to tell the story? I couldn’t figure out whose story it was. It couldn’t be just these killers, because some of these guys were barely 15. There was brutal poverty and boredom, then they tried to kill somebody and they disappeared. I soon began to realize it was everybody’s story. The more I looked into it, the less interesting Marley himself became to me. He’s just called “The Singer.” That’s why the novel became so long, because I started to think about the whole world around the incident. You should write until you fall for your characters, even the villains, and I eventually fell for all of them. The risk was that it could end up being scattered, but I think it’s just highly populated.

What was the state of Jamaica at that time? You grew up in a political culture—in the ’70s, in particular, because there was so much propaganda and the Cold War. My grandmother’s wall had a picture of [former Jamaican Prime Minister] Michael Manley, but no pictures of us! At the same time, the ’70s were so culturally vibrant. Education was free, so there was suddenly a middle class. It says something that it was such a violent and crazy time and that everyone was recording here. The Rolling Stones did Goats Head Soup, and pretty much every version of “Start Me Up” was recorded in Kingston. The cultural exchange that was going on was just incredible.

Where did Marley fit in the cultural landscape? My grandfather’s generation was the first to really be inspired by the Black Power and Black Arts movement. People forget that these movements really disliked Marley. He was half-white and he came across as this unintellectual, unwashed ragamuffin who suddenly became the voice of black struggle. Everybody has a revisionist history of this now, but Marley’s death was the first time many people in Jamaica heard him on the radio. Still, reggae used the voice of the people to talk about serious issues. The idea of me writing a novel in dialect would have never happened in 1962. It barely happened in 2005. The idea that this voice could be used to speak about injustice, trauma and freedom is a concept that the ’70s gave us.

The Great Jamaican Novel: Marlon James’ New Book Explores the Attempted Assassination of Bob Marley