Book Review & Author Interview: ‘How To Love A Jamaican’, Alexia Arthurs

‘How to Love a Jamaican’ Review

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his debut collection of stories about Jamaicans in Jamaica and the diaspora is enriching, lively, and full of character. Alexia Arthurs touches on all aspects of the lives of Jamaicans -either at home or abroad. Her stories range from focusing on colourism, problems first and second generation Jamaican migrants face abroad, family dynamics, the influence and effects of education on families, or the hopes Jamaican parents may have for their children and how they sometimes force their own dreams on them.

All of the stories are touching and insightful, and I love how the dialogue between the various characters is largely written in a typical Jamaican accent. As a non-Jamaican I had to slow down the reading to really get what the characters were saying, but it was never out of reach for me to understand, and at the same time, it gives the characters life and authenticity.

Reading this book gave me as much of an insight into Jamaican society and life, as it revealed the inner workings of many parts of the wider Jamaican community. In general, it feels like these stories have been written for Jamaicans, but that has not taken anything away from my personal enjoyment of the book as a non-Jamaican. I just felt like some references, inside jokes or allusions may have gone over my head since I am not part of the community, but even so, I could still relate to the characters and feel for them. 

What I liked the most about this was the skill with which Alexia Arthurs painted the diversity within Jamaican society – at home or abroad. In literature, individual and personal differences or nuances are all too often only afforded to white people, whereas non-white groups tend to be forced into a fixed set of stereotypes, with no room for expansion or change. One size has to fit all. That is, however, far from the case here. We see Jamaicans from all walks of life, from all ages, social statuses, levels of education, gender, or sexual orientation. Arthurs does include the ‘typical’ stereotypes we are familiar with – the weed selling bare-chested man badgering people to buy his merchandise, for example, but the inclusion of these ‘stereotypes’ shows that a group of people can be known for one thing or another, without having to be reduced to that particular attribute or behaviour only.

This short story collection is at once specific and general. It touches on points that are specific to the Jamaican community, while also raising issues that concern the wider community of people in the diaspora.

20 Questions with Alexia Arthurs, author of ‘How to Love a Jamaican’

How long have you been an author for?

I’ll be an author in almost a month! A dream since I was twelve.

 What was the first piece of writing you published?

I published regularly in my college paper but publishing a story in Small Axe, a Caribbean journal, during my first year of graduate school was affirming in a different way. I had the feeling that I had something to say, and that people were interested.

What inspired you to become an author? During a middle school creative writing assignment, I discovered that I was fascinated by language.

How often do you write?

If I’m working on something, I try to write everyday, or every other day, or when I have time to. Otherwise, I write when I have something to say. Which usually means when I’m sorting through my feelings and experiencing an emotional crisis.

What was the inspiration behind ‘How to Love a Jamaican’?

I wanted to write contemporary stories about Jamaicans—stories in conversation with what the Jamaicans I knew were talking and thinking about. A book I so badly wanted to read.

What would you say is the most challenging thing about being a female writer?

Being marginalized as a female writer. To some people, my gender contextualizes the kind of writing they think I can do.

What is your favourite literary genre?

I love literary fiction and read plenty of it. But my favourite genre is graphic memoirs—something about images and text together is thoroughly satisfying for me.

On average, how often do you read?

Not enough. There are so many books I’ve had on my mental list for years.

Which book has influenced you the most?

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I was young when I discovered that book, which is about an immigrant, low-income community in Chicago. I hadn’t known that books were written about people like me.

Who would you say is your favourite author of all time?

Sandra Cisneros. I met her once. I complimented her and wrote her a little note, but was too embarrassed to tell her that her books saved my life.

Do you have any preference in terms of books that you like to read when you’re on holiday?

I like travelling with short story collections and literary journals because they are good for putting down and returning to.

In your opinion, what is the most underrated book of all time?

Of all time? I can’t speak to that right now. But yesterday, I taught “Proper Library” from the short story collection “Don’t Erase Me” by Carolyn Ferrell. I adore that collection. I wish it was more widely read.

What do you prefer reading? E-Books or Paper Books?

I hate E-books. I hate reading on devices. It makes me eyes tired.

Would you say, in your opinion, that writing as a black and female author is an act of rebellion (a pathway to liberation)?

Sometimes writing feels that way in a world that silences people like me. And other times, it’s simply what I need to do for me, for self-caring, and then I find that my anxieties and pains have a larger audience than me.

Where do you do most of your writing? In a designated space or just anywhere?

I’ve tried to write in coffeeshops, but it never works for me. I need to be alone at home. Writing feels too personal to do it in public.

When in your creative zone, what works best for you? Typing on your phone/tablet/computer or writing on paper with a pen?

Typing on my computer, at my desk, with a cup of tea and my cat sleeping a few feet away.

What would be your best advice for aspiring authors?

There is no hurry to publish. I wish that was common knowledge.

What is your favourite book that has been published this year?

So many. “The House of Impossible Beauties” By Joseph Cassara, “The Comedown” by Rebekah Frumkin, “A Lucky Man” by Jamel Brinkley, and “House of Stone” by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

Which forthcoming book do you look forward to the most?

This is such a good year for short story collections! I’m excited about “How Are You Going to Save Yourself” by JM Holmes and “Other People’s Love Affairs” by D. Wystan Owen.

Toni Morrison or Angela Davis?

Toni Morrison. I have a tattoo of a line from “The Bluest Eye” on my wrists—“her tendril, sap-green days”