Marlon James’s explosive novel about Jamaica, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” has won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf fiction prize.
Billed as “the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity,” the Anisfield-Wolf book awards in fiction, nonfiction and poetry are sponsored by the Cleveland Foundation.
James, who teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, described himself as “stunned and seriously humbled” when he heard that he’d won the $10,000 prize. “It’s strange when you win an award that your heroes have won,” he said via e-mail. “You’re tempted to think that it means you’ve arrived, but it really means that you have so much more work to do.”
Last month, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” which involves the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. At the end of 2014, The Washington Post named it one of the top 10 books of the year.
In a statement released Wednesday morning, the Anisfield-Wolf judges praised the novel’s “scalding yet musical language” and its “superb risk-taking.”
“Many of my characters are Jamaicans living in the States and stunned by a racial and economic landscape that is not their own,” James said. “In the book, the Bronx is still burning, and residents of Bushwick burn their houses down because they can’t sell them. That’s an outcome of a racist system even if nobody in the novel has the wisdom to call it out.”
The response from his Jamaican readers has been reassuring. “Younger Jamaicans have taken ownership of [the novel],” James said, “glad that they have something to start a real conversation about where the country is going, for once. Older audiences tend to be split between loving the scope and hating the occasional vulgarity of it.”
James is currently working on a fantasy novel based on African myths and legends. He describes it as “a Yoruba Game of Thrones.” Long a fan of fantasy and sci-fi, he once wondered if all the significant myths belonged to the Norse, Celts and Greeks. He’s since discovered that “we have our own gods, demons, monsters, mad kings, ambitious queens and court intrigue. We even have our own Vikings, who raided West African villages by sea.”
The Anisfield-Wolf prize for nonfiction was awarded to historian Richard S. Dunn for “A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia.” Noting that the book is the product of more than 40 years of research, the judges admired the way Bunn investigated “enslaved motherhood, the effects of interracial sex on the meaning of family and how individuals fared upon emancipation.”
The Anisfield-Wolf poetry prize was awarded to two books: “The New Testament,” by Jericho Brown, who teaches at Emory University in Atlanta, and “Hard Love Province,” by Marilyn Chin, a professor at San Diego State University.
At the awards ceremony in Cleveland on Sept. 10, retired Yale historian David Brion Davis will receive the Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement award. Almost 50 years ago, one of his first books, “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture” (1966), won a Pulitzer Prize. Last month, Davis’s most recent book, “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation,” received the National Book Critics Circle nonfiction award.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, chairs the Anisfield-Wolf jury. The other judges are Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker and Simon Schama.