It is, perhaps, a startlingly simple reminder: Geography may forge a people’s destiny, but it also shapes individual human beings in concert with a whole set of personal characteristics. Arthurs makes the case for her characters’ specificity repeatedly throughout the text. Still, it’s never a blunt, overbearing message. The vignettes ebb and flow at different paces because Arthurs’s characters do. In this way, How to Love a Jamaican enters a larger canon of literature by immigrant or diasporic authors whose stories function both as self-contained literary worlds and as mirrors of human ecosystems that precious few American artistic institutions invest in reflecting.
Following in a broader Caribbean literary tradition, Arthurs also infuses the book with familiar themes and motifs. Water both purifies and drowns. Mermaids are both warning signs and prizes. Arthurs immerses the reader, taking special care to re-create the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and feelings of the island she calls home. In some stories, the reader can practically smell curry wafting through the air. In others, oxtail gravy might as well drip down characters’ chins. Mangoes are ripe; the sun sits high and mighty. The scenes transport the reader: For those familiar with the world these characters inhabit, it’s a trip home (or something almost like it). Even for those who may never have cracked a coconut or sung an unruly prayer, Arthurs crafts an extrasensory delight. How to Love a Jamaican is a world all its own—but it’s still connected to the one readers inhabit, to the country that birthed Arthurs.
To parse some of the questions How to Love a Jamaican raises about national ties, familial connections, and shifting identities, the Atlantic staffers Hannah Giorgis and Lolade Fadulu discuss Arthurs’s book, the dangerous comfort of nostalgia, and the refreshing complexities of black-immigrant literature.
Hannah Giorgis: Lola, I’m so excited to talk about this book with you. How to Love a Jamaican feels like a deeply character-driven set of stories, but I was struck by how much nostalgia permeates the text. As the daughter of two immigrants (from Ethiopia, a sort of spiritual cousin of Jamaica), I definitely felt that in my bones. Did that resonate for you at all? To what extent does How to Love a Jamaican complicate the idea of identity as something fixed, something we return to as opposed to something we shape?
Lolade Fadulu: Seeing just the title of this book brought a smile to my face. My father is Nigerian, but I was raised by my African American mother and her Jamaican partner, Brooks. Every mention of oxtail, rice and peas, and callaloo made me yearn for my Florida home, where those types of meals and more were prepared almost daily. And the dialogues: I found myself reading them in Brooks’s voice. When it comes to complicating the idea of identity, Arthurs really comes out swinging. In one of the first stories, “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands,” she places two Jamaicans on a college campus in New York City. Kimberly has lived in New York City for her entire life, and was raised by a Jamaican mother who is still figuring out social media. Cecilia, on the other hand, was raised in the Bay Area by Jamaican professor parents who didn’t cook Jamaican food. Kimberly expects that they’ll be friends, before she even knows Cecilia’s background, just because they’re black. At first, Cecilia really disses her though.