Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Marlon James: X-Men saved me as a gay teenager

Marlon James: X-Men saved me as a gay teenager

The Man Booker prizewinner from Jamaica on his personal possessions, from a pair of jeans to a much-loved comic

The Man Booker prizewinner from Jamaica on his personal possessions, from a pair of jeans to a much-loved comic

August/September 2019

This photo of my father and me symbolises our relationship
My father wasn’t around much when I was a kid. He wasn’t given over to domesticity, and when I was a child in Jamaica there would be three-month stretches when I never saw him. It’s not like he visited a lot of places – he only went to America once. But I have a feeling that he had the desire to travel but got to the point where it was probably too late for him to do it. I also had a yearning to be away when I was young, whether it was to be in another country or to disappear into fantasy or fiction. I was a pretty depressed kid, so it was always important to me to escape my sense of being confined, of being boxed in. This photograph of us by the car symbolises the urge that kept us apart and, in a way, now brings us together.

X-Men helped me get through school
I travelled almost 30 miles to get this comic. I was at school in Portmore, Jamaica, when someone told me they had seen this issue in another town. It’s not like I could call the place and tell them to hold it for me, so I had a race against time to get the comic. The thing about X-Men is that they are hated and feared by the world they are sworn to protect. I was very unpopular in high school. I was one of the nerds and the gay kids – and the cool kids gave me hell. But I used to do their homework for them, because I always thought that if I did I would become their friend. I even cheated in exams for them. But then they would scream out “Fag!” in the middle of a bus station so the entire street heard. I started to think, “You know what, I am an X-Man. I’m a goddam mutant helping these people who come after me.” I really connected with the idea of having to be in a world that doesn’t want you.

Prince shaped my sense of what a creative person could be
I found this postcard from the Prince fan club in a record store in Chicago. As a teenager, I was such a Prince fan that my high-school yearbook says my greatest ambition is to work for Prince. “Purple Rain” electrified me in a way I had never felt before. To me Prince was always a fearless champion of outcasts and originals. After a while most of the cool kids hated Prince. They thought he was gay, and that he worshipped the devil or something, both of which were perfectly fine by me. More than any other artist, he shaped my sense of what a creative person could be – what they could do, what they could look like, how they could succeed totally on their own terms.

Levi’s Skinner jeans gave me a sense of daring
On my first visits to New York I used to stay in a very Jamaican area of the Bronx, where I wore baggy, hip-hop, Jamaica-approved jeans. But I would grab my backpack, jump on a train and go all the way down to Union Square, where I would go into the Barnes & Noble bathroom and change into my fabulous, possibly queer clothes – including Skinner jeans, which are super-tight and have bell bottoms – and wear them around New York. In these jeans I became the person I always thought I was. It’s not just queerness but a kind of daring, about being comfortable in my own skin. That’s the thing we sometimes underestimate about fashion – that putting on external things can get you closer to the core of who you are. I still have my first pair. They don’t fit now, of course. That was ten years and 50 pounds ago.

Toni Morrison’s “Sula” taught me not to live my life to please others
When I was working on my first book, a Trinidadian novelist told me that I was a good writer but I didn’t understand women. She gave me several writers to read – Iris Murdoch, Jeanette Winterson – but it was Toni Morrison who had the biggest impact. Her novel “Sula” changed the way I saw the world, and changed the way I saw myself. There’s a scene in the book where Sula is dying, and her best friend, whom she had betrayed by sleeping with her husband, is there with her by her deathbed. Sula is talking about all the things she did in her life, and says, “I sure did live in this world”, and her friend looks at her and goes, yeah, but what do you have to show for it? And Sula says, “Show? To who?” I don’t have a lot of fall-off-the-chair moments, but that was one of them. I was never going to be the kind of person who was going to be accepted by the normal people, but I always wanted to be. It had never occurred to me that I did not have to live my life to please other people.

 

I became a writer using this white Apple Macbook
I wrote my second novel, “The Book of Night Women”, on this laptop. That book changed things in all sorts of ways. It was the first novel I published with a major publisher and gave me a renown I didn’t have before, and writing it challenged everything I thought I knew about being a novelist. I wrote it without any preconceived notions of what a novel should be, and I was trying to be as ambitious as I possibly could, regardless of what its commercial fortunes might be. With all due respect to my first novel, it was “The Book of Night Women” that made me think, now I’m a writer.


As told to Simon Willis