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Marlon James delves into fantasy with ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’

In an entertainment market dominated by superhero blockbusters and binge-worthy streaming services, audiences often overlook the fantasy genre’s literary counterparts. On March 5, Dimitri Nasrallah, author of The Bleeds, joined Marlon James at the Rialto Theatre to discuss his new novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The novel has become a phenomenon in the fantasy world, achieving both popular success and critical acclaim. Hosted by Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, the sold-out event attracted an audience eager to see the literary powerhouse.

Set as the first instalment in a trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a stark departure from James’ previous novel, the 2015 Booker Prize winner A Brief History of Seven Killings, a realist story revolving around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. For his foray into fantasy, James adopts the same explorative view he uses in A Brief History to construct a world populated with diverse characters and settings. The story follows Tracker, a solitary protagonist who begrudgingly joins a mercenary group in order to hunt down a missing boy presumed dead.

When Nasrallah commented on the novel’s seemingly straightforward premise, James contested his claim, explaining that he intended to challenge readers’ notions of what a fantasy story should be. From its onset, Black Leopard, Red Wolf does away with tropes of the hero’s journey and the traditional three-act literary structure, and rejects the genre’s tendency to borrow from European mythology. James abandons familiar eurocentric settings and archetypal characters and instead spotlights uncharacteristic heroes in a dense African mythos.

“[Tolkien] had myths to go back to,” James said. “We need myths to create myths. In the absence of me knowing what those are, I couldn’t create a mythology [….] The initial stories are essential, but I had to search for them.”

Beyond the novel’s cultural inspiration, James sought to distinguish his work by experimenting with the narrative style that dominates the current literary scene. Fantasy writers often employ world-building to capture readers’ attention, though it often tests readers’ concentration when communicated through unwieldy blocks of text. James deviates from the exposition-heavy tradition by employing unreliable narration. His prose is sparse and kinetic, and he uses vague terminology in compact sentences that allude to a rich world instead of providing a complete picture for his audience. If readers don’t slow down to read between the lines, Tracker’s deliberately confusing narration will leave them feeling lost.

“I wanted to write a novel where everything is up for grabs, including reality, including identity,” James said. “Everything is fluid, everything is precarious, everything shapeshifts, and nothing is a given, including whether you should believe this novel or not.”

Near the end of the talk, Nasrallah inquired about how James’ transition into genre fiction clashed with his literary identity. Though James was quick to dismiss the literature versus genre fiction bias, Nasrallah remarked that perhaps the literary world only allowed authors of James’ renown to navigate the genre spectrum without consequence because of their reputation. James rebuked the idea, recognizing it as a uniquely western ideal that replacing make-believe with realism is a sign of intellectual maturity. James explained that he owes his literary imagination to the genre fiction of his childhood and that none of his previous works were without fantastical elements.

“I’ve always been in awe of fantasy,” James said. “Comics pretty much saved my life when I was a teenager. To me, it doesn’t feel like a change of direction, it feels like I was always headed there.”

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