“You don’t have to drive too far outside of Kingston to know that Jamaican agriculture still works on a slavery model, which is one cash crop, which is still sugar,” James continued. “You can’t escape it, which is why you can come to Jamaica and shoot a film about slavery and not worry about [re-creating] location shots. Just go out and shoot — trust me, there’s nothing except for the odd truck to pick up the cane. …. It speaks to how in a lot of ways these things are still there.”
“The Book of Night Women” follows Lilith, a green-eyed, black-skinned woman born into indentured servitude, a life started in a flood of crimson violence as she fell from her mother’s womb “squealing like it just depart heaven to come to hell.”
Lilith’s unusual looks have long caused those around her to think she possesses a dark power.
“There’s confusion in the whole Jamaican spirit,” James said of the country’s obsession with shades of brown. “It’s something that’s not yet resolved; it’s something that we’re working out — and working out pretty messily: what our attitude is to race. Every time we think of racial problems, everybody thinks of the American South. [But] the Caribbean, and certainly in Jamaica, we have our own problems. … Jamaicans like to say, ‘It’s not race, it’s class.’ But then how come everybody in that class tends to look like a certain race? I’ve been to parties in Jamaica where I’m the only black person there, and the only reason I’m there is because I wrote a book and I’m hot shit,” he laughed.
When a group of female slaves who call themselves the Night Women plan a slave revolt, they look to Lilith for help. But she sees herself as something other than a mere powder keg for revolution, and her independence causes conflict.
“One reviewer called the book ‘feminist,’ which I thought was great,” James said. “I was setting out to write a feminist novel. … A lot of the book deals with, ‘Who owns the female body?’ To draw a contemporary scenario, that’s an issue we’re still dealing with. The whole thing about Jamaica being like gunpowder in a kitchen — it’s still there.”
There’s a mystical quality to both of James’ books, which deal frequently with the mix of Christianity and obeah (West Indian sorcery) that defines much of the island’s belief system. While James doesn’t consider himself religious in any traditional manner, “I think we’re born myth-makers,” he said. “I think we need myths. I don’t know if we need to worship a god, but I think we need myths; we need all these things that feel greater than us so we can feel greater.”
But there are also evil spirits at work in myths, and these darker forces help drive humans to madness in James’ books. “The Book of Night Women” has several scenes that can be difficult to read because they are so bold in their depictions of ferocious anger. But even more than the vibrant, violent plot, its James’ prose that puts flame to wick. His text is an explosion of poetry, recalling the lyrical experiments of James Joyce, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Irvine Welsh.
“I didn’t want it to read very stuffy,” James said, “and I also wanted the language to move. Even though it’s set 200 years before today, I wanted it to move with a distinctly contemporary energy.”
James’ uses a self-collated 18th-century patois that mixes Yoruba and English of the time.
“If I was going to write exactly how these people spoke, nobody would understand it,” James said. “So, as a writer you do have to make a compromise because you’re not just expressing, you’re communicating. … Picture that you’re speaking [in Yoruba], you learn some English language words, it’s 1785 — you’re not going to sound like, ‘Yes, massah. I be coming soon massah.’ You’re going to sound like a hybrid of [Yoruba] and English.
“Aa lot of language from that time has endured, or has continued through song,” James continued. “The songs tend to be more of an English-language hybrid [rather] than how they would have spoken to each other. … There are also the slave narratives that have been kept — sometimes it’s eyewitness reports from the slaves that have been transcribed in their dialect. [But] a lot of it is just guess work. A lot of it is looking back at writing and fiction from the time, [and] if the standard English for the time was this, what would be the patois version of it? It’s dialect, but it can’t afford to sound contemporary. You can’t say, ‘Soon come,’ as Jamaicans say. I have to look back at the standard English for that, so in 1802 they’d probably say, ‘I’ll be there presently.’ So, I’ll then change it to something like, ‘Mi soon present.'”
With “The Book of Night Women,” James has arrived.
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Photo by Simon Levy