Celebrating Marlon James and “the Unreliable Narrator”


On Marlon James’ 46th birthday today, I celebrate his artistic expressions in the form of three novels and especially his 64th Annual Charles Eaton Burch Memorial Lecture that he gave at Howard University on Tuesday, April 12th this year.  I learned so much from this lecture that I had to take notes and put them in the context of his important anticolonial messages of his three novels and the critical responses to them.   

His lecture was intended for the students but taught so much to me as a artist.  One of the guiding themes of this lecture for me was his point that he “became obsessed with the unreliable narrator.”  

Unreliable narrators exist ad nauseum in our society run by white supremacist capitalists.  They are all around us, and the unreliable narrators in Marlon’s novels should help us to scrutinize the unreliable narrators in the mainstream media, and the histories that justify colonialism and neocolonialism.  This theme of an “unreliable narrator” shows up most profoundly for me in Marlon’s second and third novels.  

It shows up in the second novel The Book of Night Women because the main narrator Lilith, is a character who, like I messaged Marlon James, desperately wants to integrate and assimilate in a colonial society.  Lilith is extraordinarily unreliable in terms of the values she embraces and rejects.  She embraces the domestic life of a wife of Robert Quinn, an overseer, however she rejects the values that Homer tries to teach her when Homer tries to recruit her to join a rebellion on a Jamaican plantation that is in solidarity with the Haitian revolution.  

When I told Marlon James in person that I had a huge problem with the ways that Lilith identified with the values of a plantation overseer, he said that he had to be true to her, and that in the process of being true to Lilith, he had to write her the way she expressed herself, which was, vying for a marriage to Robert Quinn.  My own desires for Lilith to follow Homer was related to my own desires to see a younger generation resist the colonial norms of U.S. hegemony, especially in terms of identifying with police officers and corporate friendly attorneys like Olivia Pope rather than journalists like Marcus Garvey and Mumia-Abu Jamal. 

This second novel The Book of Night Women has also produced some very profound literary criticism.  I think some of the best literary criticism of this novel has been written by Valerie Orlando and Carol Bailey.  Orlando wrote in an article called “Thiefing Sugar From the Island Beneath the Sea” that “even white women…are corrupted and manipulated by the barbarity of an enslaved environment.  As in Allende’s Beneath the Sea and Jean Rhys’s earlier Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), as well as Rochester’s demented Antillean wife in the attic depicted in Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte, white women go insane from the hostility of the tropical island environment or they are manipulated and abused by white men, which, in turn, hardens them into cruel animals.”  
 Carol Bailey wrote about James’s Lilith that creates an intimacy with a sugar plantation overseer character Robert Quinn in order to stay alive.  She speaks to the ways that ALL JAMAICANS perform on some level in a neocolonial economy in order to stay alive.  Nicole Dennis-Benn’s character in her debut novel “Here Comes The Sun” who works in a hotel also performs in a way similar to the way Lilith is performing.  
This theme of an “unreliable narrator” shows up in Marlon’s third novel A Brief History of Seven Killings in his Papa-Lo character, who is a drug don that conducts a trial of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.   However he proves himself unreliable when he refuses to put himself on trial and insists on trying to prosecute those who, unlike those with wealth, are unable to have the power to defend themselves.  He considers the audience that he’s talking to “decent people” and claims that as a drug don, he will “eradicate” drugs.
 James is very clear on showing the unreliability of his narrators.  When James spoke at the Burch lecture he said that we as Black writers have to come to terms with the culture that produced the art.  This explained his deep interest in the fiction of Charles Dickens, novelist of Great Expectations.  Even though he praised Dickens’ novels as one that shaped his imagination, he also recognized Dickens as a man who supported the English governor’s murder of those in the Morant Bay Rebellion in the 1860s.  He also mentioned other books “that made me write books” including books by Cormac McCarthy, James Joyce, and The North China Love by Marguerite Duras.  Books that also made him write books include Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, which Nadia Ellis mentioned in her review of A Brief History of Seven Killings.  I honestly had trouble with developing an interest in some of these novelists with such a fixed Western worldview, James’s lecture still encouraged me to read them because we should pretend that their art is their BEST self.  
 The same culture that produced their art, their novel is the same culture that produced the man.  James shared an obvious fascination with many European writers that influenced him, and I couldn’t help but take notice.   
James’s read of Toni Morrison’s Sula I found very interesting.  He said the biggest epiphany he ever had was the last scene in this novel when Nel asks Sula, on her deathbed after she lived a full life, “what do you have to show for it?”  Sula replied “Show?  To Whom?”  James said that reading this part made him fall out of his chair.  James was speaking to the freedom that Sula personified, in not having to live for anybody else but herself.  I thought that that freedom was also liberating.  I think the way that Kokovah Zauditu-Selassie and Susan Neal Mayberry analyze Sula is very interesting to me.   
The lesson James was pointing to in Sula, was her rejection of domestic norms that defied the idea of her “showing” her life or norms of materialism to any other person.   This is the freedom that apparently inspired Marlon’s fiction. 
I am grateful for Marlon James’ fiction and I highly encourage everyone to take a closer look at his work.  I was most grateful for his Burch Lecture at Howard on April 12, 2016. 
This lecture was sponsored by the Department of English at Howard University chaired by Dr. Dana Williams, and run by the Caribbean Studies Program directed by Dr. Curdella Forbes.  And I especially thank Professor Marlon James for sharing his wisdom and experience with the Howard community.  -RF. 


Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.