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Life in a Jamaican Ghetto

Snippet from

A Brief History of Seven Killings  

- Marlon James

Societal Drama

Context: This chapter is set on December 2, 1976, and is told through the perspective of fourteen-year-old Bam-Bam. Bam-Bam’s mother is a prostitute, and the Kingston ghetto where they live, Copenhagen City, is governed by violence and “madness.” Bam-Bam witnesses the killing of both his parents by a man named Funnyboy, and only escapes death himself by hiding underneath his mother’s dead body.


I know I was fourteen. That me know. I also know that too many people talk too much, especially the American, who never shut up, just switch to a laugh every time he talk ’bout you, and it sound strange how he put your name beside people we never hear ’bout, Allende Lumumba, a name that sound like a country that Kunta Kinte come from. The American, most of the time hide him eye with sunglasses like he is a preacher from America come to talk to black people. Him and the Cuban come sometimes together, sometimes on they own, and when one talk the other always quiet. The Cuban don’t fuck with guns because guns always need to be needed, him say.

And I know me used to sleep on a cot and I know that my mother was a whore and my father was the last good man in the ghetto. And I know we watched your big house on Hope Road for days now, and at one point you come talk to us like you was Jesus and we was Iscariot and you nod as if to say get on with your business and do what you have to do. But I can’t remember if me see you or if somebody told me that him see you so that me think I see it too, you stepping out on the back porch, eating a slice of breadfruit, she coming out of nowhere like she have serious business outside at that time of night and shocked, so shocked that you don’t have no clothes on, then she reach for your fruit because she want to eat it even though Rasta don’t like when woman loose and you both get to midnight raving, and I grab meself and rave too from either seeing it or hearing it, and then you write a song about it. The boy from Concrete Jungle on the same girly green scooter come by for four days at eight in the morning and four in the evening for the brown envelope until the new security squad start to turn him back. We know about that business too.

In the Eight Lanes and in Copenhagen City all you can do is watch. Sweet-talking voice on the radio say that crime and violence are taking over the country and if change ever going to come then we will have to wait and see, but all we can do down here in the Eight Lanes is see and wait. And I see shit water run free down the street and I wait. And I see my mother take two men for twenty dollars each and one more who pay twenty-five to stay in instead of pull out and I wait. And I watch my father get so sick and tired of her that he beat her like a dog. And I see the zinc on the roof rust itself brown, and then the rain batter hole into it like foreign cheese, and I see seven people in one room and one pregnant and people fucking anyway because people so poor that they can’t even afford shame and I wait.

And the little room get smaller and smaller and more sisterbrothercousin come from country, the city getting bigger and bigger and there be no place to rub-a-dub or cut you shit and no chicken back to curry and even when there is it still cost too much money and that little girl get stab because they know she get lunch money every Tuesday and the boys like me getting older and not in school very regular and can’t read Dick and Jane but know Coca-Cola, and want to go to a studio and cut a tune and sing hit songs and ride the riddim out of the ghetto but Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes both too big and every time you reach the edge, the edge move ahead of you like a shadow until the whole world is a ghetto, and you wait.

I see you hungry and waiting and know that it’s just luck, you loafing around the studio and Desmond Dekker telling the man to give you a break, and he give you the break because he hear the hunger in your voice before he even hear you sing. You cut a tune, but not a hit song, too pretty for the ghetto even then, for we past the time when prettiness make anybody’s life easy. We see you hustle and trying to talk your way twelve inches taller and we want to see you fail. And we know nobody would want you to be a rudeboy anyway for you look like a schemer.

And when you disappear to Delaware and come back, you try sing the ska, but ska already left the ghetto to take up residence uptown. Ska take the plane to foreign to show white people that it’s just like the twist. Maybe that make the Syrian and the Lebanese proud, but when we see them in the newspaper posing with Air Hostess we not proud, just stunned stupid. You make another song, this time a hit. But one hit can’t bounce you out of the ghetto when you recording hits for a vampire. One hit can’t make you into Skeeter Davis or the man who sing them Gunfighter Ballads.

By the time boy like me drop out of my mother, she give up. Preacher says there is a god-shaped void in everybody life but the only thing ghetto people can fill a void with is void. Nineteen seventy-two is nothing like 1962 and people still whispering for they could never shout that when Artie Jennings dead all of a sudden he take the dream with him. The dream of what I don’t know. People stupid. The dream didn’t leave, people just don’t know a nightmare when they right in the middle of one. More people start moving to the ghetto because Delroy Wilson just sing that “Better Must Come” and the man who would become Prime Minister sing it too. Better Must Come. Man who look like white man but chat bad like naigger when they have to, singing “Better Must Come.” Woman who dress like the Queen, who never care about the ghetto before it swell and burst in Kingston singing “Better Must Come.”

But worst come first.

We see and wait. Two men bring guns to the ghetto. One man show me how to use it. But ghetto people used to kill each other long before that. With anything we could find: stick, machete, knife, ice pick, soda bottle. Kill for food. Kill for money. Sometimes a man get kill because he look at another man in a way that he didn’t like. And killing don’t need no reason. This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness.

Madness is walking up a good street downtown and seeing a woman dress up in the latest fashion and wanting to go straight up to her and grab her bag, knowing that it’s not the bag or the money that we want so much, but the scream, when she see that you jump right into her pretty-up face and you could slap the happy right out of her mouth and punch the joy right out of her eye and kill her right there and rape her before or after you kill her because that is what rudeboys like we do to decent women like her. Madness that make you follow a man in a suit down King Street, where poor people never go and watch him throw away a sandwich, chicken, you smell it and wonder how people can be so rich that they use chicken for just to put between so-so bread, and you pass the garbage and see it, still in the foil, and still fresh, not brown with the other garbage and no fly on it yet and you think maybe, and you think yes and you think you have to, just to see what chicken taste like with no bone. But you say you not no madman, and the madness in you is not crazy people madness but angry madness, because you know the man throw it away because he want you to see. And you promise yourself that one day rudeboy going to start walking with a knife and next time I going jump him and carve sufferah right in him chest.

But he know boy like me can’t walk downtown for long before we get pounce on by Babylon. Police only have to see that me don’t have no shoes before he say what the bloodcloth you nasty naiggers doing ’round decent people, and give me two choices. Run and he give chase into one of the lanes that cut through the city so that he can shoot me in the private. Plenty shots in the magazine so at least one bullet must hit. Or stand down and get beat up right in front of decent people, him swinging the baton and knocking out my side teeth and cracking my temple so that I can never hear good out of that ear again and saying let that be a lesson to never take you dutty, stinking, ghetto self uptown again. And I see them and I wait.

But then you come back even though nobody know when you leave. Woman want to know why you come back when you can always get nice things like Uncle Ben’s rice in America. We wonder if you go there to sing hit songs. Some of we keep watching as you shift through the ghetto like small fish in a big river. Me know your game now but didn’t see it then, how you friend up the gunman here, the Rasta with the big sound there and this bad man and that rudeboy and even my father, so that everybody know you enough to like you, but not enough to remember to recruit you. You sing just about anything, anything to get a hit, even stuff that you alone know and nobody else care about. “And I Love Her,” because Prince Buster cover “You Won’t See Me” and get himself a hit. You use what you have, even a melody that’s not yours and you sing it hard and sing it long and sing yourself straight out of the ghetto. By 1971 you already on TV. By 1971 I shoot my first shot.

I was ten.

And ghetto life don’t mean nothing. Is nothing to kill a boy. I remember the last time my father try to save me. He run home from the factory, I remember because my face reach him chest when we both stand and he panting so hard like a dog. The rest of the evening we in the house, on we knee and toe. Is a game he say, too loud and too quick. Who stand up first lose, he said. So me stand up because me is ten and me is big boy and me tired of game but he yell and grab me and thump me in the chest. And me huff and puff and breathing so hard that I want to cry and want to hate him but then the first one slip through like somebody fling gravel and it bounce ’gainst the wall. And then the next and the next. And then they rip right across the wall pap-pap-pap-pap-pap-pap except for the last bullet that hit a pot with a bang and then six seven ten twenty blast into the wall like a chukchukchukchukchukchukchuk. And he grab me and try to cover my ears but he grab so hard that he don’t realize that he’s digging into my eye. And I hear the bullet and the pap-pap-pap-pap-pap-pap and the whoooshboom and feel the floor shake. And woman scream and man scream and boy scream in that way where life cut short and you can hear the scream get lost in blood rushing from the throat up to the mouth a gargle, a choke. And he hold me down and gag my scream and I want to bite him hand so me bite him hand because it also covering my nose and please Papa don’t kill me, but he shaking and I wonder if it’s death shake and the ground shaking again and feet, feet all around, men running and passing and passing and running and laughing and screaming and shouting that man from the Eight Lanes all going dead. And Daddy push me down flat on the ground and cover me with himself but him so heavy and my nose hurt and he smell of car engine and him knee or something in my back and the floor taste bitter and I know it’s the red floor polish and I want him to get up off me and me hate him and everything sound like it covered in stockings. And when he finally get off me, people outside screaming but there’s no more papapapapapapap or whooshboom, but he crying and I hate him.

Two day later my mother come back laughing because she know her new dress is the one pretty thing in this whole r’asscloth ghetto and he see her because he didn’t go to work, because nobody feel safe to walk the street and he go right after her and grab her and say bombocloth whoring gal, me can smell man stinking cockycheese ’pon you. He grab her by the hair and punch her in the belly and she scream that he not no man since he can’t even fuck a flea and him say oh is fuck you want? And he say make me find a cocky big enough for you and he grab her by the hair and drag her into the room and me watching from under the sheet where he put me to hide just in case bad man come in the night and he grab a broomstick and he beat her from head to foot from front to back and she screaming until she whelping and then moaning and he say you want big cocky, make me give you big cocky you fucking pussycloth whoring bitch and he take the broomstick and spread open her legs by kicking them apart. He kick her out of the house and throw her clothes after her and I think that is the last time me going to see my mother but she come back the next day, bandage up like a mummy from the movie that show for thirty cents at Rialto Cinema and three other man with her.

They grab my father the three of them, but my father fight, fight them like a man, even punch them like John Wayne in a movie, like how a real man supposed to fight. But he is one and they is three and soon four. And the fourth one come in only when they beat me father like a smash tomato and he say me name Funnyboy, me next in line to be the don but you know what you name? You know what you name? Me say if you know what you name, pussyhole? and my mother laugh but it come out like a wheeze and Funnyboy say you think because you work in factory you hot? Is me get you the work at factory and me can take it away, pussyhole. You know what your name is, pussyhole? You name informer. And he tell everybody to leave.

And he say you know why them call me Funnyboy? ’Cause me no take nothing fi joke.

Even in the dark Funnyboy lighter than nearly everybody else, but him skin always red, like blood always right under the skin or like white people who in the sun too long and him eye grey like a cat. And Funnyboy tell my father that he going die now, right now, but if he make him feel good he can live like them lion in Born Free only he would have to leave the ghetto. And he say only one way you going live and he say other things but he pull down him zip and he take it out and he say you want to live? You want to live? And my father want to live and my father spit and Funnyboy hold the gun right near my father ear. And he tell my father about country and where he can go and he can take him pickney with him and when he say pickney I shake but nobody know that me under the cover. And he say you want to live? You want to live? Over and over and over again like a nagging little girl and he rub my father lips with him gun and my father open him mouth and Funnyboy say if you bite off me head I going shoot you in the neck so you hear yourself dying and he put it in my father mouth and Funnyboy say you might as well lick since you suck like a dead fish. And he groan and groan and groan and fuck my father head then pull himself out and hold my father head steady and fire. Pap. Not like the pow in cowboy movie and not like when Harry Callahan fire, but one big sharp pap that shake the room. The blood splat on the wall. My gasp and the gunshot go off the same time so nobody know me under the blanket still.

My mother run back in and start to laugh and kick my father and Funnyboy go up to her and shoot her in the face. She fall right on top of me, so when he say find the little boy they look everywhere but under my mother. Funnyboy say, Can you imagine, the little batty boy say him would suck me like some bow cat and mek me feel good if me make him live? Dutty pervert all reach out and grab me wood. Can you imagine that, he say to the men who looking ’round for me, but my mother on top of me and her fingers right by my face and me in a cage looking through her fingers and I don’t cry and Funnyboy going on and on about how he know that my father was a battyman, have to be a battyman that must be why him woman was such a whore because how else her pussy going get look after, and then he say don’t tell none o’ this to Shotta Sherrif.

The house quiet. Me push me mother off and happy that it dark but I can’t leave because they might catch me, so I see and wait. As I wait my father on the floor by the door and he get up and come over to me and say English is the best subject in school because even if you get a job as a plumber nobody going give you any work if you chat bad, and chatting good is everything even before learning a trade. And that a man must learn to cook even though that is woman things and he talking and talking and talking too much, just like he always talk too much and sometimes he talk so loud that I wonder if he want the next door to hear and learn from him too, but no he still on the ground and he telling me to run, to run now because they going to come back to take them Clarks shoes off him foot and whatever else in the house that worth anything and they will tear down the house looking for money even though he put all him money in the bank. He over at the door. Me pull the Clarks off but see him head and vomit.

The Clarks too big and I clupclupclup to get over to the back of the house, with nothing outside but old railway and bush and me trip over me damn whore mother who jerk like she alive but she not. Me climb up the window and jump. The Clarks too big to run so me take them off and run through bush and broken bottle and wet shit and dry shit and fire not yet put out and the dead railway taking me out of the Eight Lanes and I run and run and hide in the macka bush until the sky go orange, then pink, then grey, and then the sun put out and the moon rise fat. When me see three truck drive pass with nothing but man in them I run until me reach the Garbagelands, nothing but waste and junk and shit stretching for miles. Nothing but what uptown people throw out, rubbish rising high like hill and valley and dunes like a desert and everywhere burning and I still running and I don’t stop until me see ghetto again and a roadblock by a truck and I run under the truck and still running and man shouting and woman screaming and the house them look different, closer, tighter and I running and some man come out with a machine gun but woman scream that is just a boy and he bleeding and something trip me and me fall and start to bawl loud and two man come up to me and one point a gun and me wheezing now like my daddy do in him sleep and the man with the gun come up to me and shout where you from? You smell like one of them Eight Lanes battyman and the other man say a pickney dat and blood ’pon him and the other say if man shoot you, boy? I can’t talk, all me can say is Clarks is good shoe, Clarks is good sh . . . and the man with the gun go click and somebody shout how that bloodclaat Josey Wales love fire a gun so! and not everything solve by a bam-bam and both man step away from me but plenty gather including woman. Then they open a space like Moses just part the Red Sea and he step towards me and stop.

Shotta Sherrif killing him own now? Him no know say able-bodied man rationed? he say. Must be Eight Lanes birth control. Everybody laugh. I say Mama and Daddy and can’t say anything else but he nod and understand. You want to kill him back? he say and I want to say for my father but not my mother but all I say is y-y-y-y-y and I nod hard like I just get hit and can’t talk. He say soon, soon and call a woman over and she try to pick me up but I grab my Clarks and the man laugh. He is a big man and wearing a white mesh merino that glow in the streetlight and light up him face, most of it hiding in him beard, but not him eyes for them big and almost glow too and he smile so much that you barely notice how thick him lips be or that when he stop smiling and him cheek sink, that him beard cut him face into a sharp V and him eyes stare at you cold. The man say, Let them know that is not ghetto dog that live over here in Copenhagen City, then he look at me like he can talk without saying anything and I know that he see something that he can use. He say get this boy some coconut water and the woman say yes Papa-Lo.

And I live in Copenhagen City from then on and I see the Eight Lanes and I wait for the time. And I see man in Copenhagen City with nothing but a knife, then a cowboy gun, then an M16, then a gun so heavy he can barely carry it himself and I turn twelve and or least I think so, since Papa-Lo called the day he find me my birthday and he give me a gun too and he call me Bam-Bam. And I go to the Garbagelands with other boy and learn to fire but the recoil make me trip and they laugh and call me little pussyhole and I say that’s what me call your mother last night when me fuck her and they laugh and another man, the man called Josey Wales, put the gun in my hand and show me how to point. I grow up in Copenhagen City and watch the guns change and know they don’t come from Papa-Lo. They come from the two men who bring guns to the ghetto and the one man who show me how to use it.

We, the Syrian, the American and Doctor Love out by the shack near the sea.


About the book:

The novel spans several decades and explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976 and its aftermath, through the crack wars in New York City in the 1980s and a changed Jamaica in the 1990s. The book was the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

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