Every Witch Way

Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James. New York: Riverhead. 656 pages. $30.

The cover of Moon Witch, Spider King

ELVIA WILK: I wanted to tell you that I had a dream in the Dark Star universe last night.


It was intense. I’ve been rereading your books in anticipation for this meeting. I think some hyenas visited me last night.

Hopefully they came in solidarity. You really don’t want to be on their bad side.

They were definitely chasing me toward this interview. I guess they knew that I was excited to talk about your new book.

Moon Witch, Spider King (Riverhead, $30) is the second in the Dark Star Trilogy. The first book, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, set up a sprawling universe and constellation of characters, but the story was mainly told through the eyes of the protagonist, Tracker. In this book, the narrator is a different character who we know well already. She’s the Moon Witch, also known as Sogolon.

So the new book takes us through Sogolon’s life story and leads us up to the events of the first book, where their stories intersect a few hundred pages in. So it’s a nontraditional sequel—for the first half, it’s more like a prequel. I’m interested in the ways that it dovetails with and diverges from the first book. A lot of the story corroborates the plot as we know it, but it also complicates it. For instance, once we know Sogolon’s background, we know that Tracker has misunderstood her in many ways. But I especially appreciate how it undercuts the supremacy of the first story. It makes the first narrator even less reliable than we might have suspected him to be. And in its content, the book is also explicitly about the unreliability of truth, or maybe the multiple coexistence of many truths, all of them equally valid. Sogolon is grappling with the reliability of her own memory and the reliability of the social memory by which history is recorded. I came out with a feeling that history—any history—is an unstable and restless and transforming living tale. I thought we could start by talking about the series as a set of compounding destabilizations. Do you see each book as a kind of ongoing splintering, or fracturing?

Yeah, and I think many historians would say the very same thing about history. The thing we keep forgetting about the past is the past is changing all the time. We have this idea of the past being fixed, but any historian will tell you history changes. And sometimes, even when the events don’t change, the eyes that look at history change. I think that then puts a lot more responsibility on the reader or the listener to find out what truth is or decide what truth is. Sometimes truth is a decision—we choose to believe who we want to believe.

The burden of truth, for a long time, was the responsibility of the reader. Or the listener. In a lot of Western storytelling, from fables to morality plays to a lot of the Christian tradition, there is this assumption of the authority—or not authority, but the truth of the storyteller. You believe a story because it’s being told. If you don’t believe it you have an “unreliable narrator.” There is no other storytelling tradition where the narrator is considered reliable. In African storytelling, especially the stories about Anansi, you are expecting the narrator to try and trick you.

The question then is, where does this leave history? And where does this leave truth? Because certain things have happened and certain things are real. But what is important to both narrators is how we got here. And I think that is where history gets splintered. I think we’re wired for fracture. We keep fracturing things, we keep choosing the aspects of history that we want to believe. It’s always interesting hearing stories about lynchings told from the white people in the neighborhood. You know, in a certain neighborhood you go, “Hey you remember the events of 1949?” And they go, “Oh you mean when those four Black boys terrorized that girl?” No, we’re talking about when you all lynched an innocent person. It’s that same fracturing. It’s a cliché, but it is true that until lions tell stories of the hunt, stories of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

This is a trilogy. There’s no surprise fourth volume coming where I go, “What really happened was . . .” Do I believe everything Sogolon says? Yes. Do I believe everything Tracker says? Um, yeah, and when the next person tells the third one, I’m going to believe them too. And people are gonna have to choose what they believe.

It occurs to me that this fracturing or partitioning of truth can happen in service of power, but it also happens in service of allowing people to participate in their own constructions of history. I do think that the effect the two books have had on this reader was to ask me to participate. They asked me to rise to an occasion. In that way reading them feels as much part of an oral-history tradition as a literary one.

I still write books to be read aloud. And I was very much paying attention to the oral tradition when writing both books. Both stories are basically interviews, you know—a story of you being told a story. Tracker sometimes goes way off course, telling these little fables and and these little stories within stories. Sogolon sometimes goes inward and outward.

Most of the stories I’ve written, even A Brief History of Seven Killings, I read it out aloud. There are things that your ears will notice that your eyes will skip. One thing that happened to me while writing both of these books is that I developed a whole new respect for the oral tradition, because the listener has to do things that readers don’t have to do. The listener has to do some detective work. The listener—especially in a lot of African folk telling—the listener has to know, has to figure out if the storyteller is pulling the rug over them. And the listener has to retain what’s been told, remember all the details of the story for the next day. Readers can always flip back to the page. And we lose some things with that, which I was really interested in getting back: the oral quality of literature, how important rhythm and dialect and pathway is to a story. What resonates, what echoes? What leaves a mark? Sometimes it’s not always a good thing. Sometimes it’s a super violent scene. But you learn what stains and what washes away. And when you think more about how your books sound, as opposed to how they read, those things happen.

Marlon James, 2021. Mark Seliger
Marlon James, 2021. Mark Seliger

After the publication of Black Wolf, there was so much conversation about your choice of genre, and your ability to push against genre while working with its conventions. But I’m hoping that with the second book we can skip over some of those questions, like “why fantasy, why now?” or “is this highbrow or lowbrow?” Because people are expecting it now, and I think that conversation might have run its course.

I think so too, and I’ll probably just answer most of those questions the same way I answered two years ago. Because it’s still a kind of backhanded insult. What you’re basically saying is the literary guy has done a fantasy novel, so fantasy is good now. It doesn’t just insult fantasy—it insults myth-making, it insults the same formative literature that everybody has read and that all of our literature has come from. I do push against that, but on the other hand, I felt a need to establish my fantasy credentials: I’m not just here slumming. What I can say is probably something that Márquez would have said: listen, I come from a reality that you would all consider wilder than fiction. So for me, it wasn’t a big jump from Brief History to Black Leopard. For one thing, you know, Brief History is anchored by a ghost. And to me, Black Leopard and this new novel didn’t even come out of a desire to tell a story, they came out of a desire for me to find a better, or more profound, origin narrative for me than than whichever ancestor came off the slave ship.

Did you borrow from African mythology indiscriminately to construct the stories? Did you feel a need to be faithful to certain myths and cultural traditions?

Yes and no. I stayed away from quite a bit of Orisha worship, for the same reason I don’t think I’d put Jesus in my novel. Because these are active religions, and these are living gods who are being worshiped. I’ve read novels where the active participation of the gods or the spirits is what makes it great. But this comes back to the whole idea about genre, that the irreverence which we take these characters is also part of a tradition. One of the reasons why the oral tradition has stayed for hundreds of years is a certain irreverence, and having irreverent characters like Anansi. So there were characters that I took huge liberties with, and also fantasy characters I made up. In the book, my favorite characters—I completely play favorites—are the shape-shifters.

I also felt increasingly attached to the shape-shifters in the second book. My favorite character is Keme, the half-lion-half-man who Sogolon loves. I really appreciate the idea of shape-shifting as literary quality, the ability to move between forms. But I also just love the material and sexy elements of the relationships between these multi-species characters. I’ve been thinking a lot about species hierarchies and how those come from the West. There are, of course, species discriminations in the book, like how the shape-shifters are sometimes looked down upon. But the interspecies relation between Sogolon and Keme is a love relation—it’s real and it’s hot.

Yeah, even if it’s a fantasy for me, it’s real for them. So I can’t exoticize these characters or enter the novel like a fantasy tourist. That said, there is the sort of unliterary answer: he’s a sexy-ass lion. I draw sketches of my characters and that sketch of Keme will only be released after my death. I had to be careful that it wasn’t “animal sexuality,” because I’ve got issues with that too. It ties back to a sort of cultural primitivism. It’s very easy for fantasy to fall into hierarchies, because a lot of fantasy is still a European medieval story with witches in it. Fantasy can actually reinforce some of the prejudices we have. But even then, I don’t think I’m going too far ahead of myself by saying that Keme is in a way a nonbinary character. Sogolon thought he was going to become a full lion and he said, no, it’s this midpoint here that I feel most me.

I want to ask you about a formal aspect of fantasy and what it allows you to do with plot. Tracker’s nose can take him across a continent in a chapter. Or Sogolon’s wind-harnessing abilities save her from near death many times. I’m thinking that fantasy is an enabler of huge plot twists and fast movements through supernatural events and abilities. It’s a supernatural quality for the writer to have. In realist fiction, it can be hard to get your characters out of the apartment. It’s hard to make big moves. I’m just impressed by the hugeness of your plots.

Yeah, certainly one of the things that drew me to fantasy in the first place is that I did want to write six-hundred-page novels of characters doing awesome stuff. And I can sit back behind my literary pretentiousness as much as any social-realist writer, but I wanted characters to do awesome shit. It’s funny, in many ways, these characters are actually more influenced by superhero comics than fantasy.

You read both of these books, and you can tell somebody’s been reading his X-Men. The superpowers thing for me goes back to spending most of my childhood pretty lonely and imagining being able to just fly somewhere else. It became the power to do things and make your life more epic than it is. It gives Sogolon and Tracker immense mobility. But lord knows it doesn’t give them any happiness.

No, they’re still real people.

We have this idea: “If you got that one awesome thing, everything would be perfect.” I see this a lot when I’m writing fantastical people. Their powers are not a life saver. It’s like thinking that because you’re richer or you’re more talented, you’re going to be happier, or things are going to be easier. They just aren’t. When you’re writing fantastical creatures and fantastical people, you have to ground yourself even more in those gut truths than, say, a social-realist novel has to.

One thing that I did find socially realist was the seriously combative verbal sparring between men and women about sex and gender. Sogolon even makes a comment on manspreading: she says it’s “as if left leg had hatred for right”. . .

Can you tell that I live in New York?

Yeah, I thought you must take the subway! I’m really interested in the way you portray a super combative, if joking, relationship between the sexes. There are all these very serious questions that come up: Would women be better rulers than men? Are women as gross and as violent as men? Sogolon says women “don’t know gluttony,” but then she takes violent, gluttonous vengeance against men who are violent to women. And so these essentialisms keep cropping up, but then they get repeatedly undermined through jokes and jabs.

One of the first things I looked at is: How do people in nations that are pretty much constantly at war, how does that filter down, even in how they deal with and talk to each other? The further you go back with older literature, the more you see this, the violence in everyday speech.

But I also kind of like writing rude characters, and I like smart characters. I like characters who call out bullshit and will laugh at bullshit. A lot of times when people are writing stories about Black and Brown people, and people of color, there’s this idea that the language must be noble. It can’t be irreverent, it can’t be lusty or lustful. I was pushing against that.

This isn’t the first time you’ve written a book about women, or from the perspectives of women. Here, there’s a line at the end of the book—Sogolon says that “even the gentlest of men can tell only so much story about a woman.” Is that a kind of meta comment? Do you think that’s the case?

I keep hearing people say that it’s hard for men to write women and women to write men. It’s not like that sentence is wrong so much as misguided. All literature is supposed to be hard. And I think a lot of people don’t do the work. But that line is kind of meta in the sense that Sogolon also knows we’re reading the book because a man wrote down everything she said.

Yes, and that’s consistent with the history of female narratives, which are often reported secondhand.

At the end of both books, there’s an intimation that a threat is coming from the West and that the characters of the kingdoms will need to unite against this threat. The most obvious reading is a foreshadowing of colonialism. Is that the interpretation you intended?

Oh, absolutely. I’m not even being subtle. I guess it is kind of fantasizing on my part: “What if we did get a heads-up that Europe was going to do this, what would we have done?”

But it was very important for me that they’re not lining up against some great supernatural monster. They’re lining up against politics, and, invasion, and greed. And war.

What I like so much about this is that at the moment it came up in each book, I couldn’t even imagine that this incredible, complicated political world could be crushed by an outside force, because I was so involved in it. It says something to the magnitude of destruction.

At the back of my mind, and hopefully, readers’ minds, is the sense of: we do know how this all eventually turned out. But I don’t think I was necessarily making a nod to realism. I was thinking about what the reality is for somebody of that era.

One last fan question: Do you know who the next main character is going to be in the third part, or is that a spoiler?

Oh, it’s a total secret.

I sort of hoped you would say that.

I tell people the title and they think they can figure it out. The title is White Wing, Dark Star.

Yeah, that hints at some things.

That’s all I’m gonna say.

A condensed version of this interview appears in the Mar/Apr/May 2022 issue of Bookforum.

Elvia Wilk is the author of the novel Oval (Soft Skull, 2019). Her essay collection Death by Landscape will be published in July.