Photo of Alexia Arthurs by Kaylia Duncan.
“Bad Behavior,” a short story by Alexia Arthurs in our new Summer issue, follows Stacy, the teenage daughter of Jamaican immigrants living in Brooklyn. After a series of troubling events at home and school, she’s sent to live with her grandmother in Jamaica.
Arthurs, a graduate of Hunter College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was born in Jamaica and moved to New York with her family at the age of twelve. She wrote to me about her story by e-mail.
Where did “Bad Behavior” come from?
I wondered what an immigrant mother sacrifices when she raises her children in America—so many of her energies are directed toward survival and providing. I babysat to pay for my undergraduate education in New York City, and I noticed that women who were more financially settled—who could afford expensive childcare and someone to clean for them—were particularly concerned with the anxieties of their children. It’s interesting to consider which mothers have that privilege, to be present in a vigorous way. “Bad Behavior” deals with this—“Not all mothers could afford to be kind.” Also, once I knew of a young girl who was dangerously reckless, and I remember that someone suggested sending her to Jamaica as a last resort. I don’t know what became of the girl.
One reason Stacy’s parents send her is away is because her body, her blooming sexuality, is threatening to them. The narrator says that Pam and Curtis are “terrified of her and for her.” When did you first realize that a young girl’s body could be threatening like this? Why are Stacy’s parents intimidated by her sexuality?
I was twelve when I first got my period, and it was so distressing that I hoped I misunderstood what I was seeing. I didn’t even tell my mother until the next day. Around this time, a man my family knew made me sit on his lap. When I told my mother, she made it so that I didn’t have to see him again. To the kind of man who preys on young girls, just being young and female is an invitation to them, and I learned this early. At some point, I remember watching the Bob Marley documentary and realizing with horror that one of his lovers was sixteen at the time he started to “bother” her. I don’t know why so many Jamaican men are bold in this way, why pedophilia isn’t a national conversation. This is a concern that appears and reappears in my writing. Stacy’s parents are intimidated by her sexuality because she’s too young, too vulnerable to advocate for herself. I find that being a woman, particularly a young woman, is an ongoing lesson in learning how to say no, which can be hard even when we know something doesn’t feel right. The world often isn’t interested in our permission.
“Bad Behavior” is narrated in the third person, and this makes the story feel like a fable at times. The voice is wise, detached, distant—and there’s the moral element.
“Bad Behavior” is such a different story for me. Most of my stories are told by first-person narrators. They tend to be raw, the narrators less interested in motive. But I felt early on that this piece required a more removed point of view. What you read as nearly fable-like was an uncomfortable direction to take—writers of color are often limited to writing universally, telling the story of wherever we’re from, the understanding being that one person can speak for many, as opposed to writing, for example, a story that is simply about one Jamaican family. An agent told one of my friends that she could learn from stories by writers of color, that she considered it an educational experience, and I suspect that she wouldn’t have said the same of a white writer, particularly a white, straight, male writer. I don’t mean that cultural significance doesn’t play a part in my writing, because I am interested in the anxieties of Jamaicans—immigration, race, colonialism, tourism, sexuality, and class—and I hope that my fiction can appeal to readers in a vital way. I write about Jamaicans, but I can’t write for every Jamaican.
Pam, Stacy’s mother, believes that Trudy, Stacy’s “old-time granny” will set Stacy straight—Trudy was a rough mother with Pam, tough and cold, and Pam convinces herself that this is the only thing that can save her daughter. But when Trudy finds herself raising Stacy, she is gentle and patient and kind. What’s happening between the generations—grandmother, mother, daughter?
I see how someone could read Trudy as “tough and cold,” but I believe that, implicit in that harshness, is incredible love. Pam and Trudy are both working women who have had the added responsibility of caring for a daughter. The survival of their families falls on them—Pam is married, but because Jamaican culture often requires less of fathers, it is almost as though she is a single parent. Now that Trudy is an older woman, without the pressures of both mothering and making a living, I think she is in a place where she can be emotionally available in a different way.
What have you read recently that has really moved you?
I spent the last two months reading Grace Jones’s memoir, which covers her childhood in Jamaica, her family’s move to upstate New York, and her remarkable life and career—there is a photo on the Internet of her jogging with Andy Warhol in Central Park! It was so nourishing that I felt the need to read it very slowly. We also have a lot in common—we were both raised in rigorous, religious Jamaican households. That kind of repression feels odd against the landscape of Jamaica, which is so lush and uncontained. Art was freeing for her, as it is for me, and though we both left our religions, we feel incredible relief in knowing that our families are praying for us. Caribbean women like Grace Jones do what they want. They are the kind of women who give me permission to be myself.
Caitlin Love is an associate editor of The Paris Review.
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