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Marlon James Wins 2015 Man Booker Prize

Niklas Halle'n / Getty

Marlon James has won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. James is the first Jamaican to writer to win the prize, which was first awarded in 1969.

A nearly 700 page epic featuring nearly one hundred characters, A Brief History of Seven Killings begins with the attempted assassination of Bob Marley at a 1976 concert and unfolds as a fictional oral history of three decades of life in Jamaica. (It's perhaps worth noting that Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week, is also renowned for her work in oral history.) A dark, challenging, and violent book that's also remarkably funny, A Brief History of Seven Killings appears to have been an easy choice for the judges, who voted unanimously to award it the prize in a deliberation which lasted less than two hours. "This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation," said Man Booker Prize chair of judges Michael Wood. "It is a representation of political times ad places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami."

"It is a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about," he continued. "It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times."

Before the announcement, Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life was the favorite to win the prize; Tom McCarthy's Satin Island, Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, and Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways were also shortlisted. 

Born in 1970 in Jamaica, James currently resides in Minnesota and teaches at Macalester College. Last year, James wrote a moving essay in the New York Times about growing up gay in Jamaica and how writing has helped aid his path towards self-discovery. James is not only the first Jamaican author to win the Man Booker Prize, but the first author from the Carribean to win since V.S. Naipaul won in 1971 for In A Free State. When John Berger won the following year for G. he attacked Booker McConnell, the company that administered the prize. "Booker McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation," he said in his acceptance speech. Berger  donated half of the then £5,000 prize (it's now  £50,000) to the British Black Panther Party. 

A Brief History of Seven Killings is his third novel, but in a touching, somewhat rambling speech—James was so convinced he wouldn't win that he didn't prepare any remarks—James acknowledged that he considered quitting writing after his first novel struggled to find a publisher. Kaylie Jones, the author of six books and daughter of the novelist James Jones, helped convince him to stick with it. James's first novel, John Crow's Devil was eventually published and James still seems grateful—he thanked the book's publisher, Akashic Books' Johnny Temple, in his remarks. 

In perhaps the most memorable moment in his speech, James remembered having "Shakespeare duels" with his father, where the two of them would try to remember and recite longer soliloquoys than the other—"father and son in a Jamaican rum bar," reciting Julius Caesar and Othello. "If anyone shaped my literary sensibility it was my dad, which is funny because he didn’t read English literature, he said. "[For him,] everything... in English literature was written by Coleridge. If it wasn’t written by Coleridge it was written by Shakespeare." James also noted the influence of reggae singers like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, who were the first to make Jamaicans "realize that the voice coming out of our mouths was a legitimate voice for fiction," on his work.

Diversity was a major theme of the brief remarks made by both James and Michael Wood. "One of the things diversity reinforces," James said near the end of his speech, "is there are so many ways to tell the English lanugage novel."

Wood began the ceremony by praising the diversity of the shortlist, saying "To put it mildly [the shortlisted authors] have very different biographies. They take us to very different times and places," before going on to praise the diversity of fiction itself. “I want to say a word about another kind of diversity," he said. "We care very much about these novels and the lives of the people in them. But novels, as we often forget, are actually written. They’re made of words. The words are putting together by working writers who have to put them together.... Long, short, violent, tender, magical, harrowing, traditional, experimental, mythical. These artistically diverse works provoked many responses in the judges." Wood's speech was as abstract as that excerpt suggests (I still don't quite follow it beyond "there are very different types of novels") but it was charming and Wood certainly seemed to be having a good time—he was giggling as he opened the envelope and annouced that James had won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. 

The employees of Riverhead Books, James's publisher, are understandably overjoyed.  "From the day we read the manuscript, [A Brief History of Seven Killings] immediately became a passion project of the entire Riverhead team," Jynne Martin, the company's associate publisher, told me in a statement. "The novel is pure immersive pleasure; it will shock you and entertain you and challenge you with uncomfortable truths. I am beyond thrilled that this book can finally get the massive worldwide readership it so richly deserves."

 Winners of the Man Booker typically see a huge boost in sales. Last year's winner, Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, sold 343 copies, per Nielsen BookScan, the week before it won the prize and 3,409 the week after; it continued to sell between 2-4,500 copies a week until Christmas. In 2011, Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending jumped from 1,497 to 6,927 and peaked at nearly 10,000 copies a week. A Brief History of Seven Killings is currently out in paperback and sold 1,206 copies last week, though it's worth noting that BookScan only tells part of the story—factoring in ebook sales and retailers who don't report to BookScan, the real number of sales may actually be twice as high.