Author Marlon James Connects Fiction and History at Athanaeum

Jamaican novelist Marlon James filled Claremont McKenna College’s Marion Miner Cook Athenaeum on Feb. 1 with his discussion of the interconnections between fiction and history and how the line between fact and narrative is more blurred than we know, in novels as well as the world we live in today.

Jamaican-raised, James got his undergraduate degree in English Literature at the University of the West Indies, and later, his master’s at Wilkes University. He currently teaches English at Macalester College.

“I want to talk about writing and novels and history,” he said. “I’ve never considered myself a historical novelist but I’ve always been called that … I already get more invitations from history departments than English departments.”

Many view history and fictional narratives as polar opposites. Much of the time, we narrate real-life events relevant to the world we live in, while fiction tells stories taken from the corners of worlds that transcend ours. But James took time to contest this notion during his Feb. 1 talk.

“Just the fact I’m a novelist makes me a historical novelist. You’re always given alternative facts,” he said, explaining that because each fact originates from a particular opinion, it is not facts we want, but stories. To James, this is the era of stories.

“We don’t want facts, we want narratives … but any narrative will do,” he said.

“Death penalties [are] a narrative, black violence is a narrative,” James went on. “If you keep adding narratives, you get alternative narratives. If you keep adding alternative narratives, you get alternative history.”

To James, history is constantly molded, biased, contorted in so many ways that it is difficult to know how much of it actually represents truth. There are always sides to history, often with those in power dominating the narrative.

“Coming from the Caribbean, this is not something new to us,” the author said. “We write the stories that aren’t told, [the stories that] slip through the cracks, [the stories that] will never be told or are simply told wrong,” James said. “To be a writer is to rectify.”

James believes that the reason people need to tell their own story is because if they do not, others will tell it for them.

“I don’t trust people to tell my story in any other way,” he said, because through narratives, we are “writing ourselves into being.”

The author elaborated that even those who have come up on top should be able to tell their own stories. We need to be critical of our sources, critical of all the ‘facts’ we are told and the information we hear.

“Newscasts alone aren’t going to save us. Social media is as real as it is fake.” James said. “Truth becomes something that you have to seek rather than something that is just handed to you. That’s something we have to go back to.”

Claire Yi PO ’20 found it interesting that James spoke about fiction as a narrative that was as authentic as history.

“I’ve always thought of them as complete opposites, yet they are very closely linked because history itself is biased and contains some facets of ‘fiction,’” she said.

Yi was overall pleased with the event, but would have liked to hear “how he thinks we should distinguish facts from biased opinions, and how we can figure out truth … but I suppose it’s difficult to do so.”

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