How three writers of colour stormed 2015's major literary prizes
Andre Alexis, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Marlon James' books have more in common than it first appears
Given that we are a few days into 2016, it's a little bit late for another article about 2015. But while I was perusing through the inevitable lists and roundups, one fact about 2015 was not mentioned by any that I came across: Black male writers took home three of the top literary awards in the world.
"Each of these writers in his own way is fighting for a kind of freedom — creatively, intellectually and literally."
Forty-five year-old Jamaican writer Marlon James was awarded the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. Forty year-old African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates took home the National Book Award for non-fiction thanks to his bestselling Between the World and Me and, here at home, fifty-eight year-old Trinidadian-born, Canadian raised writer André Alexis won the Scotiabank Giller Prize — and before that, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize — for his imaginative apologue, the novel Fifteen Dogs.
I read each of these books back to back and so they inevitably entered into a kind of conversation with each other in my mind.
The title of Alexis' book is not a metaphor; the protagonists of Fifteen Dogs are literally dogs, and Alexis imaginatively crafts the story of each of their lives as they are bestowed with the gift/curse of human consciousness by two Greek gods. I raised an eyebrow when reading the synopsis on the back of the book and side-eyed the idea of dogs as main characters. Once I began however, I was locked in, easily buying into the premise and becoming deeply invested in the characters. In very little time, I had hopes for some of the dogs, despised others, wept for my favourites and talked about them for days afterward.
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I wrote a little in my last column about my experience with Between the World and Me. An extended essay structured as a letter to his son, Coates left me thinking about what it means to bring a black child into this world. My partner is now reading the book and we are engaging in conversations not only about the scary side of raising children but also about the kind of lives we hope they will live.
Chronicling the events surrounding the 1976 assassination attempt on reggae superstar Bob Marley, James' novel — the first by a Jamaican to win the Man Booker — is an epic sprawl of people, events and time. (One thing that A Brief History of Seven Killings is not is brief.) The descriptions are so raw, brutal and violent that I frequently had to put it down and take moments of reprieve before returning. In an interview with Charlie Rose, James states that violence should be violent. It is clear that he doesn't want his reader to gloss over these experiences but rather to be left unsettled and disturbed by them.
The uncomfortable reality of violence is actually something that is shared between the three books — from the violent realities of dogs that have been cursed to exist apart from their kind, to the bloody history of life in pre-election Jamaica to the systemic realities of violence historically inflicted on black bodies in America. Indeed, the inspiration for at least two of the books in part emerged from the desire to remember pivotal moments of violence.
For Marlon James, the attempted murder of one of the most famous men who ever existed is the entryway to imagine the lives and people around this moment who have since been forgotten. Each of these characters are given names, motivations, fears and desires. In fact, the only one left unnamed is Bob Marley himself, who is simply referred to as The Singer.
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For Ta-Nehisi Coates, the murder of his college friend Prince Jones at the hands of a police officer 15 years ago (a police officer who was never punished or prosecuted) led to a desire to not only write about the larger issue of systemic and historical violence inflicted on black bodies, but also to remember a friend who it seemed the world had forgotten.
Coates uses his experience as his foundation for exploration. His personal journey becomes a point of access for a larger treatise on the history of race in America. Coates unapologetically notes in a Slate interview, "As a writer I was shaped by a desire to write for black people. That things were not being represented. That was my motivating force."
Although not boasting quite the same scale of attention as Coates — not only did he win one of the MacArthur Foundation's 'genius grants,' The Washington Post named him the foremost public intellectual of our time, though he protests the accolade — for years Alexis has also made it a priority to have his voice heard on a variety of issues. In 2014 he called out writer David Gilmour for racism and also utilized the incident to shed light on the silence of Canadian reviewers who avoided the issue in ways that would never have occurred in the United States.
And yet, though they echo Coates' concerns in their interviews and their work, as fiction writers Alexis and James have publicly struggled against the prejudicial assumption that they can only speculate on things that have to do with their identity. In a conversation with Donna Bailey Nurse, published in her 2004 book What's a Black Critic to Do? Interviews, Profiles and Reviews of Black Writers, Alexis states, "I am absolutely a writer of colour. That's who I am. But I really want to insist that I have the right to speculate on things that aren't directly to do with race. I prefer that you don't read my book and look at it as the product of a black person. I would prefer that you take it and look at it as speculation about faith, about God, about place."
James has similarly noted his frustration that an assumption is often made that writers of colour can only write from a perspective of experience rather than realizing that, just like their white counterparts, they also have access to the tools of talent and imagination. His novel exhibits this boldly as he weaves the story through a dizzying array of protagonists who range from hippie Rolling Stone reporters to young disposable gunmen from the ghetto.
It's interesting that all three of these literary figures' upcoming projects allow them to move into worlds of fantasy, magic and myth. Alexis is continuing his exploration of mortal connection with Greek gods, James is embarking on a quest to write what he calls an African Game of Thrones and Coates is writing a new comic book for Marvel based on the superhero Black Panther.
Each of these writers in his own way is fighting for a kind of freedom — creatively, intellectually and literally. This year, the world chose to celebrate that desire to be free. Let's see what happens in 2016.