115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Marlon James' Caribbean Internationalism: The Literary Prize and Terms of Prestige for Caribbean Literature 

Liz Janssen, University of Washington

This paper takes Jamaican writer Marlon James as a case study to examine the role of literary prizes to legitimate recent Caribbean fiction, in relation to historically overdetermined receptive frameworks for Caribbean literature, and current re-negotiations of entrenched value terms within the international receptive field. 

Proposal: 

Consumers of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings are confronted by the following list when they turn to the back cover (or when buying an ebook edition): Winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize; Winner of the American Book Award; Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction; Winner of the Minnesota Book Award; Winner of the OCM (One Caribbean Media) Bocas Prize for Fiction; Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

 

Few widely acclaimed, US-published novels can claim a more international spread of awards and prizes. Indeed, much has been made of James’ awarding of the Man Booker: being the first Jamaican-born writer to receive the award (itself recently controversial for its increasing internationalism). And yet, legitimations of the novel, as expressed by prize committees and news coverage of the prizes, are remarkably consistent in the ways they associate positive literary value with the novel’s Caribbean-ness: even while gesturing to the novel’s many “voices,” and its refusal to singularly represent Jamaican “experience,” these valuations tend to figure a writer inextricably associated with a geographic locale, representing that place to an audience elsewhere.  

 

This paper takes Marlon James as a case study to examine the role of literary prizes to legitimate recent Caribbean fiction, in relation to historically overdetermined receptive frameworks for Caribbean literature, and current re-negotiations of entrenched value terms within the international receptive field. A Brief History of Seven Killings is a novel explicitly resistant to its own potential reception as “representative” of Jamaica, or the Caribbean more broadly; as James has discussed in multiple interviews, he is highly self-conscious of non-Caribbean readers’ expectations of “Caribbean literature” (i.e. as depicting abject poverty, violence, et cetera). Sites of legitimation—namely, prizes—are themselves explicitly self-conscious in their efforts not to overtly fetishize or essentialize the novel as Jamaican. These distancing gestures toward historically problematic terms of value are productive to examine, as those terms still determine, to some extent, conditions of literary production. Likewise, they reveal the persistent, seemingly unself-conscious ethnocentrism, and investment in pedagogical value that veers close to fetishization, implied in locating authors—including authors in migration—as “telling” the story of “their” place to readers presumed as non-Caribbean. At the same time, these consistent gestures also show how the receptive field is always in flux, its terms in constant process of re-negotiation between texts, authors, and importantly, other agents (such as publishers, reviewers, and prize committees) in the literary field.