“Literature should be sensual and endlessly sensory,” says Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Marlon James. “I like books that make me feel like I’m emerging from a fever, like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon or Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. You’re hearing it, smelling it and touching it.”
Born in Jamaica in 1970, James’ debut book John Crow’s Devil – which was rejected 78 times before being published in 2005 – tells a dazzling story of religious mania and redemption in a small Jamaican village in 1957. His second novel, 2009’s The Book of Night Women, follows a slave women’s revolt on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the early 19th century, while 2014’s A Brief History of Seven Killings explores several decades of Jamaican history and political instability through the lens of Bob Marley’s attempted assassination in 1976.
James’ latest work, 2019’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf, blends African history, mythology and fantasy into an epic exploration of truth, power, and queer love. Defying genre conventions with labyrinthine plots, intense prose, shameless sexuality, and cinematic violence, its extensive cast of characters includes necromancers, river witches, conjoined twins, shape-shifting hyenas, a deranged killer monkey and giant talking cat. The first in a planned trilogy, its film rights were bought by Michael B. Jordan prior to even being published.
In a reading list for NY-based bookstore One Grand, James shared the ten titles that have most impacted his life and work. From the electrifying experience of reading Rushdie to the shape-shifting miracle of The Master and Margarita, find his favorites below.
Summer Lightning by Olive Senior
“Because she taught me everything about matching devastation with economy. The entire future of Caribbean prose is mapped out in this collection of stories, and I don’t know a single Caribbean writer who doesn’t reread it often.” -MJ
“What Kafka gave Marquez – permission to write – Shame did for me. And like all electrifying experiences, at first it was just the shock that such things could be done with novels, that got to me.” -MJ
“Three-quarters of the way in, and Song of Solomon is merely one of the three best books I’ve ever read. But the last 60 pages are one of the most astonishing feats of writing I’ve ever read. I remember reading it standing up, almost in this fever, and so thoroughly believing the ending that I almost jumped off my balcony.” -MJ
“Because nobody has ever been slyer with characters than Austen. It still blows my mind that her unsavory, and unfortunate characters (Mrs. Bennett, Lady Catherine, Charlotte), are the only ones who truly know what time it is.” -MJ
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
“First book I ever read for school that I was sad to see end. Best plot of all time? Maybe, but too close to the top to merit serious argument.” -MJ
Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn
“Possible the most brutally, hilariously accurate portrait of post-colonial Jamaica I’ve ever read. And it’s a novel about the Philippines.” -MJ
“Picking a Marquez novel is a near-impossible task. It’s too easy to just go with the obvious choice(s). But this is his most daring novel, and the labyrinthine twists and turns of each sentence demand undivided attention—so perfect for a desert island, then.” -MJ
Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez
“I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person to realize that the collected Palomar stories, from one half of Los Bros Hernandez, adds up to the finest American novel of the past 30 years?” -MJ
Epic Traditions of Africa by Stephen Belcher
“Grimm’s Fairytales are great, the Icelandic sagas are essential, and I’m always here for Grendel. But sometimes you want to read about the Cannibal Witch, Unborn children who leave the womb at night to hunt for food, and Son Jara, the original Lion King.” -MJ
“Nude vampires, a gun-toting talking black cat, and devil as ultimate party starter aside, the miracle of this novel is that every time you read it, it’s a different book.” -MJ
(via One Grand Books)