How to Love a Jamaican Complicates the Idea of Home

Two Atlantic staffers discuss the writer Alexia Arthurs’s bright, complex debut collection of short stories and the larger tradition of immigrant literature from which it draws.

Fresh fruit sold by a mountainside vendor in Jamaica
Fresh fruit sold by a mountainside vendor in Jamaica, the setting of many stories in Alexia Arthurs's new collection (Kwanza Henderson / Shutterstock)

In Alexia Arthurs’s new short-story collection, How to Love a Jamaican, identity is fluid but not frivolous. The book follows multiple characters of Jamaican descent either on the island or in the American locales that have become an approximation of home—whether that’s Brooklyn or Iowa. Some characters are content to remain in Jamaica, others yearn for more. Some who leave the island have found solace in their departure, others nurse a persistent nostalgia.

Despite its cheeky title, How to Love a Jamaican isn’t a didactic text. Arthurs, who has had her fiction published in The Paris Review and the Virginia Quarterly Review, never makes sweeping pronouncements about who Jamaicans are. How to Love a Jamaican, her debut collection, is neither a guide to the island nor an instructional for how to assess its people. Rather, the book insists on the diversity of its titular population, partly through Arthurs’s choice of format: By offering a series of short stories rather than any single consolidated narrative—whether fictional or anthropological—Arthurs complicates the very idea of a unifying national identity. She paints a disparate but not disjointed portrait of a complex national and diasporic landscape. To love any one Jamaican, Arthurs implies, you must first learn them.

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.

Giorgis: You know, I didn’t love that story on first scan! It made me worry that the collection would be full of vignettes that each presented stock characters—the Self-Hating Jamaican versus the Authentic Jamaican—rather than fully realized individuals. It’s hard to consume work made by black and/or diasporic authors and not wonder how it’ll be received by audiences who don’t normally imagine that a Kimberly and a Cecilia could be radically different from each other.

Where that story starts to come together for me is in Arthurs’s subtle indictments of Kimberly’s entitlement to Cecilia’s friendship. The two may share a heritage, but that doesn’t necessarily grant Kimberly unmitigated access to Cecilia. Avoiding the romanticization of a shared identity can be difficult, but it’s something both Kimberly and the reader must do. Arthurs doesn’t judge Cecilia for wanting to transcend her Jamaican identity in college—the author just offers a glimpse of one way that a child of immigrants might attempt to reckon with the assumptions made about her during an especially formative time. As someone who can get a little obnoxious about my own immigrant-kid pride, I didn’t expect to find Cecilia sympathetic, but Arthurs really pulls that off.

Fadulu: I was surprised to see Kimberly and Cecilia actually build a relationship, but I was happy when they did. The way their bond started, when it did, was so organic—over Cecilia’s admiration of Kimberly’s art—and not forced, which, in some ways, is how friendships should start. As you said, Arthurs does a great job of portraying Cecilia’s desire to transcend her Jamaican identity but also of showing why Kimberly would feel so distressed by not at least having Cecilia in her corner on their predominantly white campus. And when their friendship disintegrated again, it made sense because Arthurs committed to their radically different personalities, political leanings, and overall interests.

Giorgis: But Cecilia and Kimberly aren’t the only fraught girls or women throughout the text. How to Love a Jamaican presents countless women who buck expectations of them—expectations held by their families, by Jamaican society writ large, by America. I love that Arthurs complicates the idea of “likable” women not by explicitly making an argument for brash behavior, but by presenting characters who rebel against imposed gender norms in ways both subtle and bold.

Fadulu: It’s definitely a collection that prioritizes the voices of grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. Several times, female characters throughout the book weigh their options: the route of marrying less-than-ideal men/having children/gossiping about unmarried women versus the path of exploring one’s sexuality/focusing on getting an education/perhaps never marrying or having children (what some folks may uncharitably call a “slack” lifestyle). The way Arthurs mulls over these decisions that women are often forced to make is refreshing; she never condemns the more “traditional” path. Instead, she spends more time on the repercussions of living what can be called a more progressive lifestyle. In “Island,” the narrator is subtly shunned by her best friends because of her queerness and misses out on the opportunity to share what she’s experiencing with her friends. Who can she tell that getting kissed by a woman feels normal? To whom can she explain this new form of sexual intimacy? How can she describe the freedom and happiness her girlfriend makes her feel, without actually talking about her girlfriend?

Giorgis: Those thorny questions are part of why “Island” might be my favorite story of the bunch. The queer Brooklynite protagonist finds herself back in Jamaica for the first time in years. “I always wanted to go to Jamaica as a tourist—to see the island as an outsider,” she muses. “Who doesn’t want to, at a certain point, be pampered in her own home?”

You’re right that the story’s narrator isn’t wholly accepted by her friends and her community when they realize she’s queer—that she isn’t granted the space to celebrate this newfound part of her identity alongside the Jamaican-ness she’s always known. I appreciated that Arthurs writes this tension without pathologizing Jamaicans, or black people in general, as uniquely homophobic. Her narrator is fearful; after all, outside the confines of the resort where she’s arrived for a heterosexual wedding and befriended some other queer travelers, the country can indeed be a place of grave danger for queer people. But that fear isn’t conveyed for voyeuristically dramatic effect. It’s just one part of the narrator’s story. In these moments, Arthurs’s work is evocative of Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings) or Nicole Dennis-Benn (Here Comes the Sun). Both authors left their native Jamaica in no small part because they feared homophobic violence. Arthurs doesn’t wash over that reality, but she also reminds the reader that it is not the island’s defining characteristic—and that it lives elsewhere, too.

To me, How to Love a Jamaican is at its most riveting when its characters are making complicated connections. The book plays with the idea of what “love” itself can mean. Does loving a country require us to stay there? Does loving a relative mean we also have to like them? Does loving a child demand that we support them unconditionally?

Fadulu: Arthurs explores those questions in the context of grief, which makes sense given the introspective period that often follows the death of a loved one. Her characters, after all is said and done, constantly seem to be asking themselves, Have I made the right decision?

In “Mash Up Love,” a mother dies. One of her sons, the narrator, is quiet and thoughtful; the other, Cobby, is spirited and boisterous. The narrator never leaves the country; Cobby goes out exploring and adventuring. The narrator marries a Jamaican woman and stays by his mother’s side; Cobby embarrasses his mother by having a child at 16. If mothers do in fact have favorites, the narrator would definitely be it—at least on paper. But as she’s dying, she asks the narrator repeatedly for Cobby. When she dies, Cobby doesn’t even attend the funeral. This leaves the narrator wondering why he didn’t win the prize of her affection for never leaving. Ultimately, there’s nothing left for him but his grief.

In “Mermaid River,” a grandmother dies. Her grandson’s mind is flooded with memories of living with his grandmother in Jamaica while he’s commuting around New York City. The grandmother spent most of her life selling fish and other foods under a tree near a river with some of her girlfriends. She persists as the town gentrifies and as the river is rebranded “Mermaid River” and visited by tourists. He recalls one day in particular: He and his friend are playing marbles in the front yard when the friend asks who that “ole woman” is. It’s the first time the narrator is forced to think of his grandmother’s mortality. He spends the next day helping his grandmother with her business down by the river, and she tells him stories of how things used to be. But he doesn’t help out for long after that day and goes back to hanging with his school friends, playing marbles and cricket. Looking back, he feels guilty. Ultimately, again, he’s left with nothing but his grief. In both stories, Arthurs really shows how these complicated questions have no simple, clean, and painless answers.

Giorgis: “Mermaid River” bleeds with grief over the narrator’s grandmother, yes, but also over the river itself—and by extension, the country. Tourism, a form of foreign intervention, changes the landscape and texture of any country, and Jamaica is no different. Arthurs makes the human effect of the industry palpable through the loss that the narrator’s grandmother experiences. The story immediately made me think of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, a compact missive about the devastating effects of tourism and colonialism on the island of Antigua. Throughout How to Love a Jamaican, but especially in “Mermaid River,” Arthurs implicates readers whose primary knowledge of Jamaica is gleaned from stereotypical imagery of the Edenic island as a blank slate for tourists. To overlook Jamaica’s histories while swimming along its shores is to bury its people while searching for paradise.

Asked about the sheer volume of grief and death in How to Love a Jamaican, Arthurs told Hazlitt, “I love that the imagination can put language and imagery to what is unknown and shrouded in mystery, like the nature of death.” To the immigrant, the process of leaving home is itself a mystery, a small and specific death. Especially given the impossibly high stakes of immigration policy at this exact moment, it’s hard not to feel heart-heavy when reading about characters—which is to say, people—who sacrifice everything only to meet a country that does not want them. So many of Arthurs’s scenes feel driven by the same sorts of concerns that animate black-immigrant households of all backgrounds. How do people retain the elements of their culture that matter most to them in a country that can make them feel as though their difference renders them unworthy of respect? How do immigrants from the Caribbean and the continent relate to one another—people who share their heritage, people who share their skin tone, people who share their sense of isolation?

How to Love a Jamaican renders the many losses that immigrants can experience with an eye toward both the specificities of Jamaicans’ cultural realities and the broader connective tissue of migration and its effects. I’m reminded of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, who is a dual citizen of Mexico and the United States. Or Behold the Dreamers by the Cameroonian author Imbolo Mbue. These books are beautiful, brilliant. They introduce us to characters who both reflect and challenge our experiences—as immigrants, as the children of immigrants, as humans. Like us, they defy simple categorization. How to Love a Jamaican is a joy to read not just because it reminds the reader of lives that deserve close attention, but also because it magnifies, with tenderness, the multitudes within an identity too often dismissed as singular.