When I posted to my personal Facebook account that I was reading this book and it was making me feel nostalgic and a bit sad, I was met with pity, concern, and ridicule.
I didn’t state what the book is about, so my friends and family thought I was talking about my love life. I felt the need to post a clarifying statement to explain that this is a book short stories about growing up in Jamaica and leaving the country to live in the U.S.; about being a Jamaican in a foreign country – the U.S.; about romance, yes, but also families and other relationships; about being a Black woman in the U.S. and about being a Black lesbian. It’s about these and much more, but these themes are at the forefront of the stories and most resonated strongly with me.
July 24, 2018 (I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.)
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 mother and father 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 international 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.
The winner of The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for “Bad Behavior,” Alexia Arthurs emerges in this vibrant, lyrical, intimate collection as one of fiction’s most dynamic and essential young authors. (Goodreads)
I don’t read many short story collections. Since starting my blog how many years ago, this is the second short story collection I’ve read. The first one being Things We Lost in the Fire, an unsettling collection of thrilling, gothic stories by Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez, which I read last year and enjoyed.
I’ve always assumed that I wouldn’t like short stories because of their short length. But reading these two collections have proven how wrong I was. Sure, there are a few stories that are so engrossing that I wished they were longer, but now I see short stories as a way to sample a writer’s style before committing to a longer work by them and great for when I’m between books but don’t want to commit to anything hefty.
How to Love a Jamaican was easy to get into and relate to. I’d say it’s contemporary literary fiction and the stories are told from either a first-person or third-person omniscient point of view. The stories are all character driven and give a great sense of depth to the characters.
I was drawn to the book because of its title and didn’t really expect it to be about Jamaica or Jamaicans but was glad that it is. Though the characters are all connected to Jamaica in some way, the stories are about modern human experiences and in that way, all who read the stories, no matter their background, can relate to them in some way.
It was the characters that kept me reading. Yes, the book is composed of different stories none of which contains the same characters, but, after a few stories in, I realized that the stories will all focus on how a particular event or character causes the protagonist to change their perception. I became more interested in seeing who the protagonist will be or how the protagonist will choose to see by the story’s end.
Character-driven stories are my favorite because of how introspective they are, which made me like many of Arthurs’s stories in this collection. But the ones that stood out to me I loved because they bring back Jamaica strongly to my mind and made me go off in daydreams where I reminisce about my childhood and summers spent there.
It’s not that Arthurs describes the island and its people in detail — her writing isn’t very descriptive, — but that she includes little phrases like “mawga foot man” that are uniquely Jamaican because I and many I know have used such a phrase to describe someone. (Btw, “mawga foot man” means that the man doesn’t portray any sense of strength or capability. It literally means “skinny foot man,” a man with skinny legs.) She even mentions one of my favorite fruits, the Jamaican apple, and even touches on my longing for that fruit, which I haven’t tasted in years (because it’s never in season when I visit Jamaica) and can’t get in the U.S.
The stories touch on many of my struggles as a teen trying to assimilate to an American lifestyle when I moved to the U.S., on the nosiness of my family, on the nosiness of my community in Jamaica, and on the strength of my mother. I could strongly relate to these stories and I loved them for that.
But despite the nostalgia and insight into characters, some things niggled at me. The first being certain words used and how they are spelt, which isn’t a big thing but it really annoyed me. Like “hissed,” as in “she hissed her teeth.” The word annoyed me every time I saw it used in that context because in Jamaica we’d say “she kiss her teeth,” which, in the U.S., means that “she sucked her teeth.” I kept thinking how can a person hiss their teeth? Is that possible? Why wasn’t “suck” used instead?
Another thing that annoyed me was the protagonists’ regard of others. Too often it seemed as if an entire story is only about the protagonist comparing herself to another character to show how better the protagonist’s opinions and way of life is. It seemed petty to me and I didn’t like it. This mostly occurred in the first story, “Light-skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands,” which I liked, but the constant comparing was annoying (though I should have expected that considering the title). And though this isn’t a big deal, it would have been nice to see at least one positive mother-daughter relationship in the book. They were mostly negative, though the stories do show how strong mothers are and how much they have sacrificed. But despite my complaints, I enjoyed the collection and think it’s pretty decent.
Of the 11 stories, here are my favorites:
“Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands” is the first story in the collection and is about a young woman attending NYC who befriends a woman who doesn’t seem to acknowledge the complexities of being Black in America.
“Slack” — about the mother of twins who drowned while playing with dolls in a tank. I like the way it ends by hinting at an unsolved mystery. Maybe the girls didn’t die in the way we are led to believe.
“Bad Behavior” reminded me of all the times my father would threaten my sister and I that he would send us back to Jamaica if we misbehave. The story is about a girl who’s sent to Jamaica to be disciplined by her grandmother but blossoms into a woman there. I like this story because it’s a good piece to use to discuss womanhood, femininity, and raising daughters.
“Mermaid River” is about a boy remembering his childhood in Jamaica and how his grandmother cared for him. I love this one because it made me nostalgic and a bit sad by the end. I also like the structure of story. It jumps back and forth in time in alternating paragraphs, so one paragraph is the present with the boy travelling to school and the other is in the past in Jamaica with his grandmother.
“We Eat Our Daughters” contains four mini stories each from the perspective of four different women who basically talk about how their relationship with their mother affects or has affected their current situation. The story touches on the complex relationship between daughters and mothers and shows that Jamaican (Caribbean) mothers have a strong presence in the lives of their daughters and can be too demanding.
Overall: ★★★☆☆ 1/2
It’s a decent short story collection that I’d recommend to those seeking something contemporary that’s about Caribbean experience, Black experience, Black LGBT experience, and femininity.