Date Read: March 5th 2019
Tenderness and cruelty, loyalty and betrayal, ambition and regret—Alexia Arthurs navigates these tensions to extraordinary effect in her debut collection about Jamaican immigrants and their families back home. Sweeping from close-knit island communities to the streets of New York City and midwestern university towns, these eleven stories form a portrait of a nation, a people, and a way of life.
In “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands,” an NYU student befriends a fellow Jamaican whose privileged West Coast upbringing has blinded her to the hard realities of race. In “Mash Up Love,” a twin’s chance sighting of his estranged brother—the prodigal son of the family—stirs up unresolved feelings of resentment. In “Bad Behavior,” a couple leave their wild teenage daughter with her grandmother in Jamaica, hoping the old ways will straighten her out. In “Mermaid River,” a Jamaican teenage boy is reunited with his mother in New York after eight years apart. In “The Ghost of Jia Yi,” a recently murdered student haunts a despairing Jamaican athlete recruited to an Iowa college. And in “Shirley from a Small Place,” a world-famous pop star retreats to her mother’s big new house in Jamaica, which still holds the power to restore something vital.
Alexia Arthurs emerges in this vibrant, lyrical, intimate collection as one of fiction’s most dynamic and essential authors.
Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)
My 4 stars rating for How To Love A Jamaican doesn’t mean I loved all the stories. In fact, out of the 11 short stories, I absolutely loved just 4 of them. But I give this collection 4 out of 5 stars because I LOVED how this collection made me feel. I carried this book everywhere with me for the two weeks it took me to finish it. I was always eager to pick it up again and didn’t mind re-reading some stories just to be in the world of the characters again. It took me a while to finish this collection mostly because of school (this is ALWAYS my excuse, have you noticed?), but also because I wanted to take my time and imbibe myself into the stories! It took me forever to get my hands on this book, so I just wanted to savor every word. Special thanks to my friend Kobby from @bookworm_man on Bookstagram who initially lent me his copy, then later allowed me to keep it 🙂
While some stories fell flat for me – especially ‘Bad Behavior’, ‘Mash Up Love’, ‘Shirley From a Small Place’ (I wasn’t fond of how Shirley’s story resembled Rihanna Fenty’s career trajectory), I mostly enjoyed how accessible Arthurs’s writing was – especially the patois. At the beginning of the book, she makes it clear that this collection is ‘For Jamaicans’ and she is true to her words. Reading stories about Jamaicans, mostly IN Jamaica or Jamaicans who were born and bred in Jamaica without migrating out of the Island, was definitely refreshing and inspiring.
My favorite stories were:
Island – This story is excellent. Island is about three girlfriends who travel to a Caribbean island for a wedding. One of the girls in this group is a lesbian and her friends subtly malign her throughout the trip. The tension within the friend group was palpable and maddening. It had me thinking about friendship – why we call certain people our friends and how our choice of friends reflects who we are, or who we aren’t.
On Shelf – This story was pretty ordinary from beginning to end. But Arthurs’s ability to just tell a normal story about an academically successful 40 year old Jamaican woman in the US, settling with a man below her standards in order to move forward with life and bear a child felt very real.
Light-skinned girls and Kelly Rowlands – I love that the collection commences with this story! It kept me wanting more and I eagerly anticipated reading the rest of the stories, thanks to this one. This story follows two young women in college – NYU, who become friends unexpectedly. Cecelia is dark-skinned; upper class; only dates white men; of Jamaican heritage but was born and bred in California. Brittney on the other hand is from a low/middle-class family; prefers dating black men; was born in Jamaica but moved to Brooklyn when she was six years old. I loved the sisterhood these friends shared, but I also despised the tension between them, especially when they had disagreements. I felt Brittney constantly tried to undermine Cecelia’s Jamaicanness/Blackness, because she was more or less an ‘oreo’ and had never been to Jamaica before. The ending of this story just reminded me of gnawing issues I have with folks born and raised in their native lands versus pure Diasporans.
The recurrent themes in this collection include: good ole’ problematic Jamaican pigmentocracy (aka- colorism), mother-daughter relationships (I find many Caribbean women writers love writing on this theme! So far Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid and Naomi Jackson all touch on this theme and always suggest a fraught relationship between mothers and daughters in their writing), mermaids, being haunted by ghosts, love & relationships. I especially LOVED when queer characters and issues surrounding members of the LGBTQ spectrum were introduced into stories – they were the most compelling.
★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!
Purchase How To Love A Jamaican on Amazon
2 thoughts on “How To Love A Jamaican: Stories by Alexia Arthurs”
Great review. I gave it a similar rating (3.5 stars). I agree that it’s pretty good and too enjoyed the collection for how it made me feel. It made me nostalgic for Jamaica and my childhood. I think my favorite story was Mermaid River because that’s when my nostalgia was strongest because the protagonist was thinking back on living in Jamaica with his grandmother and having to move to the US. I also like how that one is written because it jumps back and forth between past and present.
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Thanks, Anais! Right – Mermaid River was a GREAT story! Arthurs did a great job of moving us back and forth in time, without making the reader feel disoriented. I especially loved the food references in that story hahaa. The protagonist’s memories of his grandma were vivid.