Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’re enjoying my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
Alexia Arthurs’ How to Love a Jamaican is a powerful collection of eleven character-driven stories that explore Jamaica and its diaspora. While some of this collection’s narrators live in Jamaica, others have settled in America and plan to return to the island when they retire. There are also stories told from the perspectives of second generation immigrants as well as characters who have left Jamaica for good. Through these characters, Arthurs explores Jamaican identity, painting a portrait of how race informs everyday life.
Most of the stories in this collection explore how, and to what extent, their narrators fit into their respective communities. In many of them, these narrators—from the elderly man who is estranged from his twin brother to the pop star whose life is upturned by the death of one of her dancers—embark upon some kind of journey of self-discovery.
In Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands, two NYU students of Jamaican heritage attempt to build a friendship based on their wrongly supposed similarities; in The Ghost of Jia Yi, a depressed athlete who is sleeping with her roommate’s boyfriend is haunted by the ghost of a recently murdered fellow international student; and in Bad Behaviour, a couple send their wild teenager, who was recently caught giving a blow job to a boy at school, back to Jamaica in the hope that her grandmother will be able to straighten her out.
Many of the female characters in this collection challenge what is expected of them by rebelling against imposed gender norms. We see these women marry for convenience, explore their sexualities, and opt not to have children. One of my favourite stories in the collection is On Shelf, in which an unmarried teacher called Doreen tries to force a relationship with a Jamaican man living in America, despite clear warning signs that he may not be the one for her.
When Glenroy had asked how many men she had been with, she responded with, “I’ve had two boyfriends,” which was and wasn’t a lie. When she turned the question to him, he thought about it for a moment before he confessed, “You know, I don’t know.” And he had smiled slyly, as though he might as well have been flexing his muscles or showing her the length and width of his penis.
Another of my favourite stories is the book’s last one: Shirley From a Small Place. In it, a pop star achieves success and recognition in America at the expense of her relationship with her conservative mother, only to return to Jamaica and begin the process of restoring who she once was. On Instagram, Arthurs dedicated the story to Rihanna.
Stylistically, the stories are all quite different—with We Eat Our Daughters perhaps the most experimental. This story comprises four vignettes of Jamaican women discussing their relationships with their mothers. The collection uses linguistics to explore code-switching, with many characters speaking in patois only to their Jamaican peers.
In How to Love a Jamaican, Arthurs brings so many interesting perspectives to the table. She raises tonnes of questions—about race, identity, love, and belonging—without ever presenting the reader with easy answers. As a collection it’s compassionate, tender, and complicated. I whizzed through it in a couple of sittings and can’t recommend it highly enough.
How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs (Pan Macmillan, 2018)
More books by Jamaican authors
Here’s a short list of other recommendations:
Nothing's Mat by Erna Brodber
These Ghosts are Family by Maisy Card
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim by Marcia Douglas
A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes
Tea by the Sea by Donna Hemans
Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson
Daylight Come by Diana McCaulay
A Million Aunties by Alecia McKenzie
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to editorial team at PREE magazine for their recommendations for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!