Tuesday, 14 August 2018

How To Love A Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs

How To Love A Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs
First published in the UK by Picador on the 9th August 2018.

One of my August Authorfest reads and featured in WorldReads: Jamaica

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository

Tenderness and cruelty, loyalty and betrayal, ambition and regret – Alexia Arthurs navigates these tensions to extraordinary effect in her debut collection of short stories, How to Love a Jamaican, 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.

How To Love A Jamaican is a captivating short story collection which, I felt, captured a lot of the experiences of Jamaicans living outside their country and of families split by emigration. The stories are each self-contained narratives, but I liked that they are linked by little hooks and details such as the recurrence of a family name or the reappearance of a man with green eyes. This allowed me to think of the Jamaican characters as people within a larger community, a diaspora perhaps, rather than purely as individuals. The device reminded me of Yoko Ogawa's short story collection, Revenge.

Arthurs' first story explores the importance of race and how a person's family background can affect their perception of this. Several tales depict mother-daughter relationships and ask whether the traditional Jamaican style of upbringing might be a better school for adulthood than the the open American way. I think my favourite story was Island which follows a lesbian woman back to Jamaica for a holiday there with heterosexual female friends. Jamaica, as a former British colony, still has our bizarre and outdated laws that ban homosexuality only for men, although lesbianism is also not tolerated. Yet Arthurs focus is on the attitude to and behaviour of the heterosexual friends which creates a great story with interesting ideas and tensions.

I took away a lot to think about from How To Love A Jamaican. The collection is deceptive in that the stories are good light reads that can be simply entertaining, but they also contain real nuggets of truth concerning families, relationships and interactions. Jamaican culture is obviously at the forefront of these characters' experiences, but I felt that the situations here have a far wider relevance than purely one island. The stories do have a distinctly Jamaican flavour, but their messages and ideas are widely relatable.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Alexia Arthurs / Short stories / Books from Jamaica


  1. I'm having a better second week for Authorfest which is a relief! I'll be posting my update tomorrow!

  2. That's interesting that Jamaica only bans homosexuality for men, even though it's not tolerated for women either, like you said. Thanks for sharing. I'm glad you enjoyed this one!


    1. It's left over from British Victorian laws. Queen Victoria refused to accept that women would engage in That Sort Of Thing and so would only sign off on a law against male homosexuality!

  3. This sounds like an interesting read.

  4. I'm going to hop onto Goodreads and add this one to my TBR. It sounds so thought provoking and intrigues me a lot. I am part Jamaican as well, and know family stories of those who have been separated by the laws and the moving over to Britain. Thank you for the review and I am glad you were able to really enjoy reading this one.

    1. I just got to your comment here after seeing you'd added the stories on Goodreads. A very worthwhile collection :-)