The librarian is in: ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’

The librarian is in: 'A Brief History of Seven Killings'

COURTESY PHOTO/RIVERHEAD BOOKS

By KATRINA SPENCER

This work represents the most enrapturing audiobook vocal performance I’ve ever encountered. “A Brief History of Seven Killings” came on my radar after I interviewed Dr. Kemi Fuentes George, professor of political science at the college, for the In Your Own Words oral histories project (go/inyourownwords/). I asked him what works he might recommend to someone wanting to learn more about diasporic blackness, and he suggested it. Taking some real life events and creating others, it’s a fictionalized and revisionist re-telling of the zeitgeist surrounding an attempt made on Bob Marley’s life in 1976. But it’s really much more than that. The most engrossing parts of the book are the glimpses readers get into the social stratification of 1970s Jamaica and the suggestion that non-governmental entities ran the country. Moreover, while Jamaica is but one Caribbean island, the people and culture it has produced have strong impacts all over the world. We see this, for example, in the plentiful nurses and domestic care workers “exported” from Jamaica to New York. From commentary on the 1960s’ Bay of Pigs Invasion to references to the popular television series “Starsky & Hutch,” Marlon James revives the ’70s from its crypt and highlights the international reach of U.S.-based media and the rise of Jamaican reggae. Unforgiving druglords, unpredictable addicts and regular bouts of gun violence run all throughout the pages (or soundbytes, if you’re listening) of this work. 

It was the extent of the homophobia, however, omnipresent throughout the work, that I found the most relentless of all. James makes a diligent effort to shed light on the virulent attitudes towards homosexuality that remain alive in Jamaica today. Readers will need to negotiate the parts of the story that they believe and can rely on. While certain cultural products and chronologies are true, others are figments of the author’s imagination. As is repeated multiple times throughout the work, some Jamaicans say that “If it not go so, it go near so” some recounting of history is tremulous and uneven, but its shakiness isn’t an invalidation of its veracity or near accuracy. For more works that treat similar themes, I recommend Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” which also takes an actual historical time period, its politics and accoutrements, and remixes its narratology. Television series like “Hawaii Five-0” and “Three’s Company” also gesture towards capturing this era.