The rise of cultural diversity in pop culture

Photo by Casey Gomez

The buzz about the Marlon James’ new novel, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf”, infected me.

I was first hooked with the title of his interview on New Yorker: “Why Marlon James Decided to Write an African ‘Game of Thrones.’” I skimmed the article, and immediately switched over to Amazon to pre-order the book: the first time that I’ve done this.

The novel arrived on Tuesday. 

I walked to Amazon store, took it home, and so far have read the first chapter, already drawing me in with its “In a Grove”/Rashomon-reminiscent interrogatory setup.

Admittedly, I only got a third of the way through James’ Man-Booker-Prize-winning “A Brief of History of Seven Killings,” which featured a wide array of characters whose stories swirled around the 1976 Bob Marley assassination attempt.  But I loved what I read — with its authentic voices featuring every line on the spectrum of Jamaican Patois and the investigation into the dynamics between Jamaica, the Cold War U.S., and the world. Full disclosure: my parents are from Jamaica, so these topics naturally intrigue me.

With “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” James is tackling an entirely new challenge head on: constructing an entire fantasy universe based on an African foundation, instead of the typical Tolkienesque structure using recognizable European myths.

James has later played down his Game of Thrones remark.

“I said that as a joke in a magazine and it took off so much that Martin emailed me saying he was so excited,” James said in a Vulture interview.

By “Martin,” James of course refers to George R.R. Martin, who wrote — and remains writing — the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, the basis for the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

In a 2014 interview, Wall Street Journal senior editor Christopher John Farley asked Martin why fantasy and science fiction has historically been so monocultural: aka white, European.

“Well, I think there’s a relatively simple answer,” Martin replied, “It’s so monocultural because it’s mostly been written by white men. And, you know, um, I’m a 66 year old white man. Tolkien was — I don’t know what age he was — but he was born in the 19th century in England, and he was an Oxford don, and he lived in small English towns his entire life.”

“We look back on our own history and the cultures and the things we were taught, raised up on legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur, and you know, Tolkien was an expert on Beowulf and all of that,” Martin continued.

But what is interesting is how Martin noted rising voices from other areas of culture — black writers like N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okarfor,  Asian writers like Ken Liu — and proceeded to give a prediction of when we would start to see minority voices surface to the forefront of fantasy and science fiction: when they started making money.

It seems to me that we are on the edge of the cultural transition, epitomized perhaps by 2018’s box office blockbuster  “Black Panther,” which  brought Afrofuturistic science fiction elements to a wide, accepting and excited audience.

Before that, N.K. Jemisin, the female writer who Martin explicitly mentioned as a rising star, became in 2016 the first African-American woman to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, for Fifth Seasons — and then became the first person ever to with the Hugo for Best Novel three times in a row, when both of Fifth Seasons’ sequels won back to back.

Heading back to James: what is exciting about Black Leopard, Red Wolf, to me, is that it is explicitly built on African mythology and cultural themes — and that it simultaneously wants to explore those themes while aiming for grand Westerosian scale. James is planning a trilogy and “Black Leopard, Red Wolf”, despite being only out a couple days, already has had its film rights bought by Michael B. Jordan and Warner Bros.

I admit, however, when I opened the book, I experienced a minor disappointment: the map seemed barebones, daresay simple: it was lacking the immersive micro-detail of worlds such as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or Martin’s Westeros. But this small shock reminded me of how my expectations on this were set by those past fantasy works.

And as I read the first chapter, I was reminded of the griot, how words bring the history and locations of a world to life: not just a map. And I also noticed how James’ map was only a corner of the world: the “North Lands,” and much lay beyond.