By MIKE AWOYINFA
Today, Jamaica is on my mind. I was flying from Trinidad and Tobago on my way to Atlanta and had to make a brief stopover in Jamaica—the land I had heard so much about through the powerful medium of music. Reggae music.
From the air, you could see the iridescent island sparkling, like a queen, a Caribbean queen bejeweled in a splash of sun, sea and reggae. I wanted to see everything: the sights of Jamaica. I wanted to hear everything: the voices of Jamaica. Men and women in dreadlocks, speaking their patois and reggae music blasting in my ears from ubiquitous loudspeakers such as we have in Lagos. Is this not another Africa? Africans must be Africans everywhere they are. I wanted to smell everything: the smell of ganja, marijuana or whatever name you call it. The ganja that Peter Tosh sang about and campaigned for its legalization because of what he claimed as an all-purpose medicine that can cure asthma, tuberculosis and what have you. Legalize it, and I will advertise it. Remember that song by Peter Tosh? The Peter Tosh who was killed by gangsters on motorcycle—a victim of gang violence in a society afflicted with so much crime and violence like Nigeria our Nigeria.
Jamaicans don’t play with their heroes. They celebrate them. Loudly and proudly. All over Norman Manley airport are huge photographs of their heroes: Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world in his familiar yellow and green athletic outfit doing his trademark lightning pose. But still, the biggest of them all is Bob Marley, the man whose face is the face of Jamaica, the legendary king of reggae who still rules from the grave. Bob Marley who prophesied his own immortality in the song Bad Card:
“You a-go tired fe see my face/Can’t get me out of the race.”
Yeah, Bob Marley. The same Bob Marley who sang about Jamaica afflicted with violence in the song ‘Johnny Was’: A song about a woman who “hold her head and cry, ‘Cause her son had been shot down in the street and died from a stray bullet. Woman hold her head and cry…Now she knows that the wages of sin is death, yeah! Gift of Jah is life. ‘Johnny was a good man’ she cried.”
Many years after his death by cancer of the foot, Bob Marley simply refuses to die. His spirit lives on, not just hovering over Jamaica but around the whole world with his unforgettableness.
Like a genie in a bottle, the ghost of Bob Marley popped out this week at the Guildhall in London, venue of the prestigious Man Booker Award where a young Jamaican writer Marlon James beat all odds to win the coveted literary prize with a novel titled ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings.’ And to think that even the award-winning novel was Bob Marley-inspired. A fictional story of an attempted assassination of Bob Marley.
Here he was in London, Marlon James, nattily dressed in suit with his Rastafarian hair bonded at the back with a red ribbon, sitting this evening in a literary circle. A night of media glitz with myriads of flashlights and TV cameras panning on him. Out of the 156 books considered for this year’s award, six have been chosen as finalists. It was like an Olympic 100 meters finals with all the finalists on the track waiting for the gun to blast and they would dash out to the finishing line to claim the winning prize of 50,000 pounds. Plus the spiral of global glory and acclaim that come with it.
As a Nigerian, I am filled with pride to see a Nigerian writer on the list of finalists. Not since Ben Okri won the Booker Award Prize in 1991 with his The Famished Road in 1991 have we come this far. I was praying and hoping that a Nigerian would win. As I usually do when a Nigerian is competing in anything competitive in this competitive world. The Nigerian offering is a novel titled The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma, born 1986 in Akure but currently teaches Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he is an assistant professor of Literature and Creative Writing. His story is set in a small town in western Nigeria where “four young brothers—the youngest is nine, the oldest fifteen—use their strict father’s absence from home to go fishing at a forbidden local river. They encounter a dangerous local madman who predicts that the oldest brother will be killed by another. This prophesy breaks their strong bond and unleashes a tragic chain of events of almost mythic proportions.” I am quoting from the sleeve jacket of the novel which I bought in a local bookshop here in Ipswich. It is interesting to find in the book Nigerian remembrances and familiar names like President Babangida, Chief MKO Abiola, Abacha, Kudirat Abiola Jay-Jay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, Nigeria’s Olympic Dream Team, Hope ’93, Atlanta 1996, Cyril Stober and Abati. Yes, the same Reuben Abati of The Guardian
Chigozie Obioma says of his new book: “The Fisherman first came to me as a tribute to my many brothers, and a wake-up call to a dwindling nation—Nigeria. Then it grew into something much more than that: it felt necessary.”
There are so many books to read this holiday. Certainly, I will read the two books before me Chigozie Obioma’s The Fisherman and Marlon James’s Bob Marley-inspired book.
Hei, I was listening to Marlon James’s interview and he talked about how his first novel, John Crow’s Devil was rejected 78 times. “I nearly gave up,” he confesses. But he never gave up. He kept on writing, believing in himself, believing his day will come. Now the day has come and he finds it “surreal being the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker and I hope not to be the last.” He hopes that his prize will open the floodgate for other fresh voices from Jamaica to come out and be heard. It is good to see Jamaica now on the literary map. Good to hear that Jamaica is not all about reggae and athletics.
The boy from Jamaica had come to London on Monday, just to make up the numbers. He never strongly believed he could win the prize. As such, he didn’t even bother writing a speech. He only jotted down a few points which he slid into the inner pocket of his coat. When the moment of victory came and suddenly found himself on world stage amidst the bright lights of the media, he had to dip his hand into his pocket to fish out the notes he jotted. Here, he paid homage to Ben Okri, the Nigerian novelist who was there before him as a Booker Prize winner. Then he thanked his father for inculcating in him a childhood habit of reading and memorizing lots of Shakespeare. He recalls how he used to engage his dad in a Shakespeare soliloquy contest to see who could recite the longest soliloquy. He paid homage to Charles Dickens who was an early influence. “I still consider myself a Dickensian in as much as there are aspects of storytelling I still believe in—plot, surprise, cliffhangers,” he said.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is all of that—an action-packed thriller and a page turner by a writer from a small country where people rumour and talk a lot about everything with a writer acting as a sponge, absorbing everything and recapturing everything into a spellbinding thriller. You’ve heard of Bob Marley, Usain Bolt. Now is the time for the world to know Marlon James, the writer from Jamaica—the boy from Jamaica who found his métier in fictionalizing and drawing attention to everyday events around him. Today, the world is his stage. And he is strutting it with grace and aplomb. He says he doesn’t want to wake up to discover this was all a dream. “I’m not an easy writer to like and I remember the lengths I went to just to get my voice heard,” he says.
As Shakespeare titles one of his plays: All’s Well That Ends Well.