July 24, 2018
Blurb: 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.
SASCHA DARLINGTON’S REVIEW
I was excited to receive How to Love a Jamaican, a collection of short stories from Ballantine Books by debut author Alexia Arthurs. As a fan and reader of short stories for a long time, I am always happy to seen new collections. It means the form isn’t dying and may even have a rebirth.
While I enjoyed all of the stories on a certain level as they introduced me more thoroughly to Jamaican life, some were definitely stronger than others, especially the ones that dealt with the experiences of young Jamaicans, especially females, abroad.
The very first story, “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands” had the feel of a young adult/new adult story as two young women both of Jamaican heritage, one Jamaican and the other Jamaican-American, meet at University. Their attitudes are thousands of miles apart, but Arthurs carefully allows each their foibles, their lack of mutual understanding.
The last story, “Shirley from a Small Place,” struck me as being so obviously about Rihanna that I found it a bit tougher to put aside that knowledge and focus on what the story was trying to say. However, it was one of the stories in which the main character had a good relationship with her mother, and the familial base, home, and comfort food were the elements needed for her to heal.
Many of the stories were generously laced with patois, which made me focus too long on what was trying to be said. The only instance in which it felt as though it contributed was in “Shirley from a Small Place.” For most of the beginning of the story, Shirley’s speech is straight written English. However, when she returns to Jamaica, becomes comfortable, she slips into patois, showing the transition.
Some of the stories were a bit uneven, perhaps because they felt like exercises of writing from the POV of a different age and gender. Others, like “Slack,” really demonstrate Arthurs’ abilities, showing everyday people reacting to a neighborhood tragedy.
This collection shows that Arthurs is a talented new voice in literary fiction.
I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.