A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings

by

Marlon James

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Witness and Storytelling Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Violence vs. Peace Theme Icon
Masculinity, Sexuality, and Homophobia Theme Icon
Jamaican Culture and Identity Theme Icon
Politics, Power, and Corruption Theme Icon
Witness and Storytelling Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Brief History of Seven Killings, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Witness and Storytelling Theme Icon

A Brief History of Seven Killings is a work of historical fiction based on real events, yet in its fictionalization of reality, the novel calls into question whether it is possible to understand history as a single narrative. The book features fourteen narrators, and together they tell different versions of the action taking place over five days. That each section of the novel covers only a single day can be hard to believe, given the amount of activity and detail recorded by the many different narrative perspectives. This rich form of storytelling recreates the busy, chaotic feeling of a city, and particularly of ghettoes like those described in the novel, where action unfolds as a result of the constant collision and interaction between many different people, each with their own complex storyline. By recreating the feel of the city through its polyphonic narrative style, Seven Killings emphasizes the randomness of history and collapses the distinction between major historical events and uneventful days in the lives of ordinary people.

The narrative revolves around certain key events, such as the shooting at the Singer’s house, the Smile Jamaica concert, the Jamaican general elections, the death of the Singer, and the death of Josey Wales. However, these events come in and out of focus depending on which character is narrating, and at many points, the main action of the novel is crowded out by other details. These other details become particularly prominent due to the fact that many of the characters narrate in a stream-of-consciousness style; for example, Bam-Bam’s narration of the shooting at the Singer’s house mixes observations about the actual facts of the shooting with Bam-Bam’s own fears, desires, cravings, and daydreams. Thus while the multiple perspectives create a richness and complexity to the overall narrative, the chaotic web of information within each narrative perspective further destabilizes the centrality of any one character, event, or idea to the novel as a whole.

The novel also draws attention to the process of deciding how to construct a story through the character of Alex Pierce, a journalist for Rolling Stone. Alex begins the novel as a somewhat hapless figure with the grand ambition of telling the story of Jamaica through a profile of the Singer. He hopes to interview the Singer but struggles to gain access to him, and when he does finally have a chance at conducting the interview, he realizes he doesn’t know what to ask and ends up leaving the Singer’s house just before the shooting takes place. In this sense, Alex embodies a foolish, failed version of storytelling, in that his idea of the story he wants to tell precedes his actual knowledge of the reality around him.

However, over the course of the novel Alex develops into a far more capable journalist, in part because he decides to draw on the technique developed by the journalist Gay Talese of creating a profile of the Singer through descriptions of the people and climate surrounding the Singer. In this way, Alex contextualizes the Singer, thereby rendering his story more accurate. Of course, this technique is also used in Seven Killings itself, and the title of the essay series Alex publishes in The New Yorker is also called “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” This suggests a connection between Alex and Marlon James, which could be interpreted as a gesture of humility on James’ part. Perhaps in evoking an affinity between himself and an initially foolish writer, James seeks to undermine his own authority, reminding readers that the version of events he creates in the novel is inevitably flawed and should not necessarily be interpreted as truth.

The novel emphasizes that witnessing and storytelling are potentially dangerous acts. Both Alex and Nina are forced to flee Jamaica after they come to learn that it was Josey who shot the Singer. Interestingly enough, the reason Josey does not want anyone to know that it was he who shot the Singer is not because he fears being sent to prison, but rather because of the shame and scandal it would bring to have it discovered that he did not succeed in killing his target. Alex ultimately evades punishment for knowing this information, but ends up being punished for witnessing and storytelling anyway when Eubie gruesomely forces him, under torture, to make changes to his New Yorker article about Jamaica. On the other hand, Nina, in disguise as Millicent, ends the novel with the sudden possibility that she will not be punished for what she has witnessed. When she sees a newspaper headline declaring Josey dead, her secret knowledge no longer poses a threat to her life. The fact that Nina comes across this information by chance in a newspaper again emphasizes the randomness of history.

The final moment of the novel occurs when Millicent/Nina is back at home when she calls her sister, Kimmy, and the final word is Nina asking: “Kimmy?”. The fact that the novel ends at the beginning of a conversation is significant. A sense of anticipation emerges from the question mark, making readers aware that although the story being told in Seven Killings might be over, another one is beginning. Just as history is constructed through a somewhat arbitrary focus on certain people and events, storytelling is also arbitrary in that it involves imposing beginnings and endings on the infinitely unfolding progression of life.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Witness and Storytelling ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Witness and Storytelling appears in each chapter of A Brief History of Seven Killings. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Witness and Storytelling Quotes in A Brief History of Seven Killings

Below you will find the important quotes in A Brief History of Seven Killings related to the theme of Witness and Storytelling.
Part 1, Sir Arthur George Jennings Quotes

That's what happens when you personify hopes and dreams in one person. He becomes nothing more than a literary device.

Related Characters: Sir Arthur George Jennings (speaker), The Singer
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

But who win West Kingston win Kingston and who win Kingston, win Jamaica and in 1974, the PNP unleash two beast from out of Jungle, a man called Buntin-Banton and another named Dishrag. PNP was never going win West Kingston, a fact then and a fact now, so they pull a jim-screachy, they create a whole new district and call it Central Kingston, and pile they people in it. Who they have run it? Buntin-Banton and Dishrag. Before them two, war in the ghetto was a war of knife. They gang did number thirty strong cutting through Kingston on red and black motorcycle, buzz buzz buzzing like an army of bees. Then the Buntin-Banton Dishrag gang attack we at a funeral me know right there that the game done have new rule now. People think it way past the time when anybody can remember who start things first, but don’t get the history of the ghetto twist up, decent people. Buntin-Banton and Dishrag start it first. And when PNP win the 1972 election all hell break loose.

Related Characters: Papa-Lo (speaker)
Page Number: 152-153
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 9 Quotes

Today is the day we revoke the Singer's visa because he's suspected of trafficking drugs into the United States of America. Shouldn’t be hard to prove really, just check his back pocket. We're supposed to make a big, public
show of it, a sign that we, as a friend of Jamaica, will not sit by and allow lawlessness to take control of our gracious ally. I already wrote the press release, signed off by higher up. We also have proof that he has consorted with known drug traffickers in Miami and New York and has aligned himself with men of questionable character in Jamaica and abroad, including at least two local terrorists. This has already been documented. One of them, calling himself Shotta Sherrif twice tried for murder, is even closely linked to the present government.

Related Characters: Barry Diflorio (speaker), The Singer, Papa-Lo, Shotta Sherrif
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 11 Quotes

In Jamaica people have a way of saying that if shit didn't go down a certain way, then the truth is probably not far from it. If it no go so it go near so.

Related Characters: Alex Pierce (speaker)
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 15 Quotes

I can’t figure out if I just got a sudden case of the chickenshits or if I am slowly realizing that even though the Singer is the center of the story that it really isn't his story. Like there's a version of this story that's not really about him, but about the people around him, the ones who come and go that might actually provide a bigger picture than me asking him why he smokes ganja. Damn if I’m not fooling myself I’m Gay Talese again.

Related Characters: Alex Pierce (speaker), The Singer
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4, Chapter 2 Quotes

Bad man don’t take no cock. But me not bad, me worse. Bad man don’t make a man know he fucking him good, because then he will realize a man on the top. Better to stand up or bend over so he come from behind and invade. Moan a little, hiss, say work it harder, fucker, like a white girl getting black cock in a blue movie. But you really want to yell and scream and howl, yes I read Howl, fucking facety white boy you think just cause me black and from the ghetto me can’t read? But this is not about ignorant white boy, is about you wanting so bad to howl and bawl but you can’t howl and bawl because to howl and bawl is to give it up and you can't give it up, not to another man, not a white man, not any man, ever. As long as you don’t bawl out you not the girl. You not born for it.

Related Characters: Weeper (speaker)
Page Number: 447
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4, Chapter 5 Quotes

Discernment. I could always look at a man and read him. Like Weeper. Is years now I know the man not only fucking man but is really the one getting

fuck, and no matter what he say, he still sorry to leave prison. Is years now I supposed to kill him for that, but why? It move my brain better to watch him fuck pussy after pussy as if battyman behaviour is something pool up in him sperm and if only he shoot out enough he will finally shoot out the need to put a cock in him battyhole. I don't know much 'bout them things and I don't read Bible. But if there is one thing I do know is when a man fooling himself. Is something to watch though.

Related Characters: Josey Wales (speaker), Weeper
Page Number: 466
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4, Chapter 20 Quotes

Me don’t see Copenhagen City since '79 but me hear 'bout it. Brethren, is like them communist country you see 'pon the news. Poster and mural and painting of Papa-Lo and Josey all over the community. Woman naming them pickney Josey One and Josey Two, even though he not fucking nobody but him wife, no, they not married for real. In him own way, you could call him a classy brother. But still, you want to get Josey you have to mow down the entire Copenhagen City first, and even then. You also have to tear down this government too. What you mean, government? Come, man, Alex Pierce, who you think give this party the 1980 election?

Related Characters: Tristan Phillips (speaker), Alex Pierce, Papa-Lo, Josey Wales, Winifred
Page Number: 567
Explanation and Analysis: