My first piece of 2018 is a feel-good column. Listen to some Bob Marley to get in the mood (I did). And think about feeling lucky, like in those opening lines of the Langston Hughes poem “Luck”: “Sometimes a crumb falls/ From the tables of joy/ Sometimes a bone is flung.”
I’m feeling lucky in this new year to be in this business that brings me together with people like Barbara Epler, Mieke Chew, and Eliot Weinberger to talk about a New Directions book we are all excited about: The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim by Marcia Douglas. Epler is the president of New Directions and Chew is co-director of publicity; Weinberger—an essayist, editor, and translator, most notably of Octavio Paz—is the one who discovered the book, and Douglas, at the 2016 Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad in April 2016.
Weinberger says he was invited to the festival “inexplicably,” adding: “I was perhaps the only writer there with no connection to the Caribbean—and, embarrassingly, largely ignorant of Caribbean literature. This was a whole new world of writing for me—one that is thriving and lively, although almost entirely neglected by the rest of Anglophone writers, readers, and publishers—so I tried to attend most of the readings and panel discussions.”
At the festival, Weinberger kept hearing about Douglas’s novel, which had just come out from Peepal Tree Press in England. (Peepal Tree is the major forum for Caribbean writers, with more than 300 books published since 1985, and where many of the writers Weinberger met at the festival have published, or hoped to be published.) He went to Douglas’s reading and onstage interview, and was “simply knocked out” by this “panoramic novel that takes place on one corner of Kingston, Jamaica, full of characters, living and dead—from street vendors to historical figures like Marcus Garvey—presented in a multiplicity of voices, with a vibrancy of the English language that was new to me.”
I concur. It’s a wildly creative, funny, and immersive book, in which Marley is reincarnated as Fall-down, a homeless man who sleeps in a clock tower in Half Way Tree in Kingston, recognized only by his long-ago lover, the deaf woman Leah.
The book is personal for Douglas, who came to the U.S. to study when she was 19, but came of age in Half Way Tree, which, she explains, is the crossroad in Kingston that separates uptown from downtown, with a clock in the tower that always tells the wrong time: “There’s a square where Jamaicans come together, where politicians come to speak, and it’s a meeting place of different people from different classes. For me, it’s symbolic. When you write a book, part of it comes from history, but most comes from imagination. Leah, Bob’s love, is fictional but comes from women I’ve known, as does the character of Bob. I’ve encountered men like Bob even if I’ve never met him.” We both laugh, acknowledging Marley’s reputation in matters of the heart. As Marley himself says in the book, “Women is my vice.”
In one chapter, Douglas imagines the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, revered by Rastafarians, as “the old man in the torn shirt eating sugar cane” meeting Marley: “And so it is the prophet and the Judah-lion stand at the redgreengold sign…. Rastaman without locs, lion without teeth… Now the Judah-lion’s toothless smile is absent of worry or botheration, and Marley, standing there face to face with the Almighty, feels the urge to sing, his voice a seven-chambered instrument filling the yard, redgreengold fire in the sound.”
Douglas tells me that she loves writing. “It’s hard work,” she says, “but I enjoy the process.” For Marvellous Equations, she took a year’s sabbatical from teaching creative writing and Caribbean literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and spent it in Jamaica.
“Writing the book enabled me to go home, to revel in the language,” Douglas says. “I felt like I was in my story.” She did traditional research, but most of it “was pure experience.” She spent days and days at Half Way Tree “catching the vibe of the place.”
I ask Douglas, “What is bass riddim?” and she explains that reggae is only as good as its bass, that good reggae has a deep bass, and that, for Marvellous Equations, she imagined a bass so powerful that it could call up the dead, bring back the ancestors. She wanted to write a book that came out of the reggae aesthetic. “And when you think reggae,” she says, “you think Bob Marley.” And when you think Bob Marley, you think Rasta: “Rasta is a mysterious thing, is a thing of the heart,” a street corner character notes in the book. “Some people Rasta and them don’t even know them is Rasta.”
Before writing Marvellous Equations, Douglas had published a poetry collection and two novels—the last, Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, was published by Peepal Tree in the U.K. in 2005. Marvellous Equations took her seven years to write, and she was determined to publish it first in the U.S. She shopped it around to agents and to publishers with, she says, “no luck”; some responded with simple rejections, others with admiration but with no idea how to market it. The rejections, Douglas feels, kept her working and revising and ultimately, produced a better book.
Eventually Douglas gave up her quest to publish in the U.S. and went with Peepal Tree once again (Marvellous Equations was published in the U.K. in 2016). Shortlisted for the Bocas Prize, the book took her to the festival, which—to complete the circle—was where she met Weinberger. “He came up to me after my panel and said he was surprised I didn’t have a U.S. publisher or an agent,” she remembers.
Of the meeting, Weinberger adds: “So I, of course, bought a few copies of the book, thinking I might send it around, and I read it as soon as I got home, impressed—and relieved—that the whole novel was as terrific as the excerpts I had heard her read. I gave the extra copy to Barbara Epler and Mieke Chew at New Directions—with some trepidation: perhaps my exhilarating time at the festival had exaggerated my enthusiasm? Luckily, Barbara and Mieke were equally excited by the book, signed it on within a few months, and are rather speedily publishing it. It was all pure chance, and an unusually happy publishing story.”
New Directions deals in experimental literature but also hits the mainstream. Epler knows magic when she sees it (she offered to give back half her Christmas bonus if Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound wasn’t a success; she kept the bonus) and she knows whom to listen to (“I was intrigued when Eliot gave me this book,” she says. “His focus is not usually fiction, so his reaction was impressive”). But Epler also insists that everyone at New Directions has a say in what’s published.
With Marvellous Equations, there were different reactions as to when the book hit its stride, but the general consensus was overwhelmingly positive, and, as Chew asks, “Who can resist Bob Marley?” (Answer: No one. Epler played “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” at sales conferences.)
The British spelling of “marvellous” remains at the request of the author, according to Epler who was the original editor. But she soon handed the project over to the talented and enthusiastic Chew, who has been doing more editing along with publicity, and whom Epler refers to as her “sous chef.”
The book publishes in July, and New Directions plans to tour Douglas, who, according to Weinberger, is an amazing reader. Understandable since Douglas is also a performer with a one-woman show, “Natural Herstory.” For all concerned, a lucky find.