14 Oct 2015

Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James ‘in exile’ from Jamaica

Marlon James, whose first novel was rejected 70 times, fled Jamaica fearing persecution for being gay. Now he has become the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker Prize.

(Above: Marlon James interviewed by Channel 4 News in September)

The author left Jamaica after spending time living as an openly gay man in New York.

Mr James took the coveted award, billed as “fiction at its finest” with his third novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings.

The book creates a fictional history based around the attempted murder of Bob Marley in 1976.The attempted assassination is the starting point for an examination of gang violence and political corruption on the Caribbean island.

Mr James, 44, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, teaches creative writing in Minnesota in the United States.

He collected the award, which comes with a £50,000 prize, from the Duchess of Cornwall at a ceremony at central London’s Guildhall on Tuesday.

An option to turn the Booker winner into a film has reportedly already been taken up by HBO.

Marlon James’s first novel was rejected 70 times before being published. The book, John Crow’s Devil, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. It was also a New York Editors’ Choice.

He is the first Jamaican to win the literary prize in its 47-year history. This is the second year the prize has been open to writers of any nationality writing in English and published in the UK, having previously been restricted to the UK and Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe.

Mr James said: “Jamaica has a really rich literary tradition. It is kind of surreal being the first and I really hope I will not be the last. I do not think I will be because there is this real universe of spunky creativity that is happening. For me, first just means the first to get attention. I think there is a lot more that is coming.”

Leaving ‘in a plane or a coffin’

Some Jamaican commentators have noted that whilst being celebrated as a Jamaican author, Marlon James fled the country due to his sexuality.

Under Jamaican law, practising homosexuality is punishable by up to 10 years’ “hard labour”.

Becoming fraught at living as a closeted gay man in Jamaica, Mr James told the New York Times: “Whether it was in a plane or a coffin, I knew I had to get out of Jamaica.”

In an interview with Channel 4 News in September (watch video above), Mr James described being considered a “gay batty man” at an all boys’ school as “pretty traumatic”.

He said: “Nobody wants to be rejected at school, it is the exact point in your life when you need acceptance.”