It’s fitting that Alexia Arthurs’ debut collection of stories has an epigraph from Kei Miller who writes so compellingly and inventively about national/racial Jamaican identity. In particular, his writing is often concerned with perception, self-perception and storytelling traditions. Arthurs’ lively and invigorating short stories engage with similar ideas through the diverse perspectives and tales of many different individuals. These men and women have moved from Jamaica to America or moved back to Jamaica after living in America or are first generation Americans with Jamaican ancestry. Many of these individuals feel a tension in being caught between these two nations. Their values, desires and goals have been gradually modified having lived within both cultures and this naturally makes the characters question where they fit within either country and how they interact with different communities. Arthurs depicts a wide range of points of view from the intimate thoughts of a college girl to an elderly man who holds a longstanding secret to a resentful twin brother to a lesbian who returns to Jamaica for a friend’s wedding to a pop star preoccupied with the sudden death of one of her dancers. In skilfully depicting a rich plurality of voices Arthurs raises challenging questions about how we define ourselves and the assumptions we make about others.
It’s also noteworthy that Zadie Smith gave a blurb for Arthurs’ book calling it a “thrilling debut collection” considering how Smith’s most recent novel “Swing Time” has subjects and themes that so closely mirror Arthurs’ story ‘Shirley From a Small Place’. Where Smith writes about a famous white singer (loosely inspired by Madonna) who has a mixed race assistant, Arthurs writes about a famous black singer (loosely inspired by Rihanna) who has a white assistant. These plots obviously have a sensational side to them fictionalizing the intimate lives of celebrities, but in depicting such figures they show an amplified version of the conflicts central to their stories. Arthurs’ pop star Shirley has achieved the sort of recognition and success in America many Jamaicans dream of, but she’s also subject to the projections and scrutiny of the general public. It results in a distancing from the people who have been closest to her all her life, particularly her conservative mother Diane. But it also gives Shirley a stronger identification with the meaning of home in relation to Jamaica. The way their relationship changes and how it makes Diane re-evaluate her own image and desires interestingly plays off from the previous story in the collection ‘We Eat Our Daughters’ where several children relate tales of the domineering mother they never fully understood.
The collection also fittingly begins with a story about a character who consistently makes assumptions about different people and then must readjust her understanding of them after actually interacting with them. In ‘Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands’ Kimberly feels a natural kinship with Cecilia because she’s one of the only other black girls in her freshman class. But Cecilia comes from a very different region and socio-economic background so their attitudes and perceptions about race are very different. There’s a melancholy poignancy in how the girls are unable to really see each other because they inhabit their racial identities so differently. In another story Arthurs also highlights how Americans often cling to people who come from similar backgrounds to themselves out of fear. She wryly observes “America, the land of diversity, where people talk to who they think it’s safest to talk to.”
Characters in several of the stories make strategic decisions about who they want to befriend or have a romantic relationship with based on someone’s race, but find it’s an individual’s values rather than their skin colour which ultimately determines whether they are compatible. For instance, unmarried teacher Doreen tries to formulate a relationship with another Jamaican man in America because of their similar backgrounds despite warning signs he might not be the one for her. There’s also often a weary awareness of how white characters will make assumptions about black characters and dictate how race should determine their position in society: “She was the kind of white person who would never let me forget my blackness – she would detail oppressions to me as though I hadn’t lived them.” These examples all highlight the tragic way people react to each other based on appearances rather than really listening to what someone has to say.
‘Slack’, one of the most stylistically daring stories in the collection, shows multiple perspectives of characters reacting to the deaths of two young twin girls in a water tank. It felt reminiscent of the technique Marquez uses in his novella “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” where a proliferation of talk about a death makes it seem as if the death was always inevitable. Athurs’ story also makes a searing indictment of the perceptions surrounding the term “slack” which is used to describe women who exhibit loose morals by having affairs with multiple and/or married men. The mother of the drowned girls Pepper is referred to as such, despite the fact she was only an adolescent herself when she became pregnant and no blame is affixed to the older married man who had sex with her. It’s a term and attitude which recurs in several of the stories highlighting how people also frequently form judgements based on gender.
The title of this book has such a playful double meaning since it can be posed as a statement as if the book is like a "how to" manual, but it also functions as a question - one particularly relevant to Jamaicans who move to America. There’s such a proliferation of vibrant characters and compelling situations in all the stories found in “How to Love a Jamaican” that make it a mesmerizing and highly enjoyable read. What I appreciate most about the many perspectives Arthurs brings to the table is that she raises so many issues and questions without offering any easy answers. She merely represents these varied and idiosyncratic voices while respecting their passion and humanity.