Too many writers are mining their personal lives rather than their imaginations for material, says St. Paul-by-way-of-Jamaica writer Marlon James. “It’s gotten to the point where nobody believes that a writer can simply come up with a character,” he says. Lilith, the heroine of his new novel, “The Night Women,” is beaten, raped, and tortured, and experiences worse atrocities through the other slaves on the Jamaican sugar plantation upon which her story is set. It’s a mercy that she’s fiction — or would be, if her story wasn’t based in the reality lived by millions of slaves.
“In the middle of research I had a mental shutdown. All the unrelenting cruelty started to seem unreal, as if I had dreamed it all,” James says. “On one hand you have to respect the slaves for what they endured. It cheapens their memory to sugarcoat what they went through. But anybody who goes back to check the real history will realize that I let that world off the hook in many ways.”
Despite the continually painful subject matter, the epic story is deeply compelling and often pure magic. Blending folklore, superstition, conspiracy, a touch of unreasonable love, the book is hard to walk away from even at its darkest moments. There’s even a surprising amount of humor, through the ribald interactions of the slaves, who had not much to laugh at but each other. It’s a stunning novel, and unlike anything ever to come from a Minnesota writer, which James, a professor at Macalester College, can now be called, although he hails originally from Kingston, Jamaica.
Although the plot, which circles around a slave revolt planned by a group of women, came straight from James’ imagination, the writing process depended on a heavy dose of research and plotting mechanics that he says would surprise his students, who sometimes believe art springs fully formed from the mind. Throughout the experience, James referred to an elaborate, ever-changing web of connections, events and details written out on his wall. “I would love to say that it was a spontaneous and organic process, but it wasn’t,” he says. “At one point my wall was covered in notes and charts, not just of actual events in the 18th century and real people, but also maps, nautical charts, slave auction posters, notes on Irish, Welsh and cockney dialects and even a timeline to remind me of who did what in which year.”
In his life outside of the classroom, the young writer also maintains an active web presence, and blogs about literature, race, current events and the past. “There’s nothing you can do about history. But grab a pen and suddenly, you have power. There’s a reason why when the oppressors come they burn the books first.”
Marlon James will read from “The Night Women” at Common Goods books on Tuesday, March 31, at 7:30 p.m. 165 Western Ave. N., St. Paul. 651.225.8989.