Today, I had the privilege of presenting this paper about Marlon James’ writing on a panel on Global Neoliberalisms with Ignacio Sanchez-Prado, Joeseph Jeon, and Sarah Brouillette at the MLA Convention.
I want to talk generally about Marlon James’s two most recent novels, A Brief History of Seven Killings and The Book of Night Women, to show you some of the ways Caribbean fiction is critiquing identity work and the neoliberal purposes it sometimes serves. In particular, I want to focus on how some contemporary narratives are challenging neoliberal tendencies that appear in 20th century literature. In the interest of brevity, the lone neoliberal tendency that I will engage with is the prioritization of identity concerns in reading and writing African diasporic, immigrant, and other literatures of difference. More specifically, I am interested in how literary foci on identity and difference, as bolstered by official anti-racism stances, decouple race from material conditions in a manner that both enables and represents neoliberalism’s inequalities. Moreover, I want to show how James’ work intervenes in this tendency by diffusing the centrality of identity and difference in Caribbean narratives and thus creates new possibilities for thinking about the region’s place in our contemporary reality.
To begin with, James’ writing critiques neoliberalism in structural ways propelling typically (or forcibly) localized literary discourses into more global ones. Indeed, the inescapability of global markets, central to neoliberalism, seems incommensurate with the ways we compartmentalize our examination of literary discourses—peering into some spaces for specific things rather than others. For diasporic writers and their readers, the thing that has long been looked for is a pre-imagined version of subaltern authenticity. Teju Cole’s Open City famously complicates this. The novel’s resurrection of the nineteenth century flaneur, through its protagonist and narrator Julius, poses challenges not only to the celebration of cosmopolitanism as an aesthetic mainstay of immigrant fiction, but also the unimpeachable authority and sanctity of the immigrant subject, who is also central to the work of the white savior industrial complex. If immigrant or diasporic or other geopolitical narratives of difference have been our go-to for cultural knowledge about identity and difference, writers like Cole and James are invested in disrupting this tendency.
This disruption should not be taken, however, as an uncomplicated nod to reading more of everything from everywhere for the same things. James’ most recent novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, shows how choosing between the local and global, rather than attending to the constant fluidity between them, is a shortsighted and unimaginative exercise in opacity. The novel is a 600+ page brick, built around the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley’s life. It relies on
75 12 different narrators (15 if you count the character who is in the novel under 4 different names) to encapsulate a mid seventies political moment in the Caribbean that was implicitly global, in that the attempt on Marley’s life is embedded in the narrative with the Cold War and OPEC crisis. The narrators include Jamaican gang members, uptown denizens, a live and a dead politician, a Rolling Stones reporter, the filmmaker son of a rogue CIA agent, a rogue CIA agent, active CIA agents and a Cuban CIA consultant who makes bombs. One character even appears multiple times throughout under a different name each time. To note that it is a dizzying read because of all these perspectives, also begins to get at the novel’s dissonant eschewing of the typical narrative of individual self-actualization and success.
At its simplest this narrative actively effaces the development of an authentic version of subjectivity as an organizing logic for Caribbean writing. The novel is not one person’s, one country’s, or one community’s story. What unites the cacophony of voices in James’ novel is one specific moment in history – the assassination attempt. This moment in turn works in the novel as a local anchor for one of the most turbulent decades in global neoliberal history. In this way, it makes transparent how the Caribbean is imbricated in the 1970s experimentation with and implementation of neoliberal policies in Latin America. Moreover its cacophony of identities overwhelms any effort to read the novel solely for difference and thus effectively sidelines it as a narrative preoccupation. What then comes to the fore is an account of CIA presence in the region throughout the 1970s that in turn implicates the US and its Cold War foreign policy in not only the implementation of neoliberal policy in Argentina, but also in the destabilization of governments in places like Jamaica, and in facilitating the linkages and circuits that propelled the illicit narcotics and weapons trade between South America, the Caribbean, and the US.
This poly-vocal and rhyzomatic structure thus eschews thematic and character organization around identity or culture by foregrounding instead how power works. A little less abstractly, the character Josey Wales is described in the novel’s “Cast of Characters” in three different ways “head enforcer, don of Copenhagen City, 1979-1991, leader of the Storm posse.” Each of these descriptors shows Josey’s relation to a specific source of power, which moves from local to global, as history and neoliberal order progress. Thus “head enforcer” and “don” reflect a relation to local government politics in Jamaica in the 1960s and 70s. Josey’s covert interaction with the CIA in the late 70s, a link made possible by his history as an enforcer for local politicians, opens up the world of trafficking in illicit commodities in the 80s and 90s, which in turn enables his later transition to posse leader. Thus, in the novel Josey pretends to be on the politician’s leash because it covers his dealings with the CIA as well as “the company’” connections to Medellin. What should not be lost on the reader is how this West Kingston don is positioned between and amidst capitalist structures that are distinct in the novel only along the lines of legality.
The novel’s multivocality as well as active silencing of the one individual around whom the narrative’s action circulates – a global icon and the image in which all Jamaican citizens are imagined – disrupts the centrality of an authentic subaltern subject, giving us instead a more compounded vision of capitalist interconnectivity between third and first world spaces during the turbulent years of the 1970s. In making these connections transparent, via multivocality, James’ novel issues a renewed invitation to examine the simultaneity of neoliberal policy-making, government destabilization, and the boom in weapons and narcotics trafficking in Latin American during the 1970s.
If I had to situate James’ writing somewhere in existing discourses on literature and neoliberalism, it would be among the texts that Jodi Melamed call “race radical texts.” These texts, according to Melamed represent the “points of resistance to official antiracisms” (xvii). In other words, race radical texts offer critiques of naturalized race liberal discourses and have been a part of our literary landscapes for as long as official antiracist stances have. I will use two aspects of The Book of Night Women, to explain what I mean by this – in particular why critiques of antiracist projects are also a preoccupation of contemporary Caribbean literature. Before getting into the two things, a bit of background on the novel. It is a neo-slave narrative set in Jamaica, in which a teenaged slave protagonist, Lilith, refuses to participate in a slave rebellion. The Haitian Revolution just went down and house slaves, who aspire to murder all the whites and establish an African style village in the island’s mountainous interior, foment a similar rebellion. Not only does Lilith refuse to become involved, she opts to protect her Irish lover and white overseer father from the rebelling slaves, even killing her half sister in the process, instead of fighting for her freedom alongside her fellow slaves.
On to the first of the two aspects of the novel that convey its race radical critique of neoliberal antiracism: the sentences “Every negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will,” appear at the beginning of five chapters in the novel. This repetition invests the novel with an ethos of interminable circularity and also paradoxically, as suggested by “walk,” movement and progression. The non-specific use of “negro” as the subject, rather than slave, enables a more literal and collective interpretation as “every negro” includes slaves, those descended from slaves, and even those with no personal or familial connection to slavery. Thus, travelling in a circle implies not only confinement in a system of literal slavery, but also the confinement of the means through which opposition to these systems has been articulated. In repeating these sentences five times, circularity takes center stage on multiple levels: the level of the text itself, the themes we associate with such narratives of slavery – racialized discourses of freedom and resistance – and on the level of literary practices.
Circularity in all three of these (form, theme, and literary practice) is illuminated by the second and final aspect of the novel’s race radical critique of neoliberal antiracism that I want to talk about today – its ending. The Book of Night Women does not end with formal/legal freedom for Lilith. This isn’t because Lilith runs away and lives as a fugitive until Emancipation, as is standard in the narratives of her non-fictional slave compatriots Mary Prince or Harriet Jacobs. Instead, the novel ends in 1819, more than a decade before Emancipation. The narrator tells us that despite the fact that “Lilith didn’t get any free paper … she act like a free negro. She work in the kitchen and cook and clean for Jack Wilkins and do her own thing as he her mood” (412). Thus, after the suppression of a slave rebellion and a rebuilding of the plantation, Lilith remains on Montpelier Estate, on a British colony where slavery still exists.
We could easily read Lilith’s individuality and capacity for achieving freedom amidst institutionalized confinement as a successful neoliberal narrative. In early stages of my arguments about this novel, I have done as much, celebrating Lilith’s refusal to form alliances or acquiesce to allegiances simply on the basis of race, gender, or common status. I have championed her difference as agency, because individuality and agency must dissolve the material restrictions of slavery, right? Or not. In closing, I want to hint at what becomes possible if we read the ending as a race radical moment, rather than as a triumph of individual self-actualization. If official anti-racisms have disconnected race from material conditions, even as they have limited the horizon of social possibility for overcoming racism, then leaving Lilith on the estate as property at the end of the novel where she is free but for the formal papers both forecloses the sentimentalism of self-actualization that is often proffered as the solution to racism and forces us to see how race and material conditions remain imbricated. Neoliberalism teaches us to value our individual freedoms but what do they mean when they are entrenched in a larger system of confinement and inequality, and our efforts to escape this system remain fixed in individual endeavors? Indeed, if neoliberalism remains committed to creative destruction as a form of constant revolution without content, “every negro walk in a circle” that goes far beyond the plantation.