How to Love a Jamaican, Alexia Arthurs’s first book, is a short-story collection that delves into the lives of people who have Jamaica in common. Whether it’s the place they currently live, the place they left, or the place their parents are from, Jamaica always forms some notion of home. And How to Love a Jamaican explores, in part, what it means to make and remake that conception of home. In this book, there’s no single way to be Jamaican—the definition of the word itself expands to encompass each person who claims it. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Arthurs has been published in the Virginia Quarterly Review and Granta, among other publications. A story from the collection, “Bad Behavior,” first appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The Paris Review and was awarded the 2017 Plimpton Prize. Arthurs and I spoke on the phone two days after the collection was published, about invisibility, the idea of “a better life,” mermaids, and more.
When you were writing these stories, what did you want from them?
That’s such an interesting question. What did I want from them? I think I was working through various things and, intuitively, I was trying to make peace with things that had happened or were happening, and with myself. My stories are really personal, so even though it’s fiction, the stories, in different ways, feel as though they’re about me. At its essence, perhaps I just wanted to feel less lonely. These stories allow me to feel heard and maybe even understood.
In “Mermaid River,” the mother “watches on the news the ways in which America can swallow black sons,” and in “The Ghost of Jia Yi,” Tiffany’s mother recognizes the U.S. as “a place that … took daughters and later spit out their bones.” America can be a barbed wire, and yet people continue to come here. What do you think about that dichotomy, of knowing the U.S. might break your children—and maybe you as well—and yet believing in the promise of a better life anyway?
I think about that a lot, especially in my life. It’s something that my immigrant friends and I talk about—the fact that our parents came for a better life but resent the fact that we’ve become so Americanized. A lot of us aren’t religious. A lot of us don’t have the values that our parents tried to instill in us. And it’s a conflict for me personally because I want to understand why so many immigrant communities or families think they can create this sheltered bubble in a place like the U.S. But in terms of your question in a larger way, I feel that because of the way the world is set up, with these major powers and these other countries that were colonized, many feel that the only option is to immigrate. I think a lot of people leave for the U.S. or leave for Europe or wherever it may be and they wrestle with that fact—the fact that they’re leaving for what they hope will be a better life, but one that will take and take and ultimately lead to unrecognizable lives.
A feeling of invisibility comes up a lot for your characters. In “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands,” the protagonist thinks, “When you’re invisible to a white person, you can almost get used to that, but when it’s a black person, you can’t help feeling hurt.” Among black people, there are differences between those who are from Africa, and those who are from the West Indies, and those who were born in the United States and whose families passed through slavery. And there are differences in how we all perceive each other. I wonder about that greater sense of invisibility, not just as in, We’re walking the same campus and I see you, but about how some Jamaicans might have the idea that black Americans are lazy—or as a Jamaican might say, slack. In one story, a Jamaican character is shocked that black Americans would allow their yards to look bad. And yet we all want to be seen and recognized by those who look like us, even if they don’t have the same background. Does that make sense?
Yes. That does make sense. I grew up in New York, in Brooklyn, in a very Caribbean neighborhood. Those were the people I knew at church, and all of my friends were the children of immigrants. Even though we were in the U.S., I was very much a part of a Caribbean community in Brooklyn, and when I was in high school, I met this guy—I think I had a crush on him—and he was a black American. I found that shocking. The fact that his family had lived in this country for generations was really surprising to me. He had a black experience that I’d read about in American textbooks.
I was really interested in exploring that invisibility in the story “The Ghost of Jia Yi.” When I moved to Iowa to go to graduate school, it was a culture shock. A lot of my classmates were from backgrounds unlike mine. And Iowa City in itself is very middle-class. It’s very white. There had been black people from Chicago who’d moved to Iowa City, and there was a lot of aversion to that. So invisibility in New York is one thing, but invisibility in Iowa is another thing. I remember I met this black man from Chicago, and he was talking to me for a while, and eventually he looked at me in a strange way and asked, “Where are you from?” I think the assumption was that I was black American.
When it comes to blackness, I feel seen by black people of all backgrounds, but when it comes to understanding, I feel understood by people who are from my background—who are from Jamaica or who are from the Caribbean. There’s a difference between being seen and being understood, which I wanted to explore. When I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I had two classmates who are also from the islands—Naomi Jackson, who wrote this beautiful book called The Star Side of Bird Hill, and Stephen Narain—and this made a tremendous difference. Without them, I would have been very lonely.
I’ve heard Afro-Caribbeans say very condescending things about black Americans, which is always bizarre to me. We all have the same background. I was interested in exploring that tension.
I’m also wondering about differences across generations. For example, in “Bad Behavior,” there’s the idea that the grandmother in Jamaica can straighten out Stacy, her granddaughter who’s lived in the U.S. What do you think is lost in the journey from Jamaica to the United States? Why is it the grandmother who can straighten Stacy out?
That story, for me, challenges the expectation that the grandmother would discipline Stacy in this old-time, grandmotherly Jamaican way—she doesn’t. She listens to her granddaughter, and she reasons with her. They have a traditional grandmother-granddaughter relationship, but there’s also an understanding there that I think is really evident toward the end. They both confront this boy who has less than desirable expectations for Stacy. For me, that story is about what it’s like to be an immigrant mother and what is sacrificed to mothering. I thought a lot about my own mother, who came to the U.S. in her midthirties with three kids. She sometimes talks about regrets, about the things she wishes she could have given us. I think it’s a profound loss in her eyes. There’s a line in “Bad Behavior”—I think it says, “Not all mothers could afford to be kind.” And to me, that’s what that story’s about. I do think that unfortunately, some mothers are more available and have more to give. I think that’s a privilege some immigrant mothers may not have.
In many of the stories, mermaids appear in some form. They feel like a symbol of “elsewhere” and emblematic of a kind of lost freedom. I’m thinking of the twin girls with their mermaid dolls, allowing their dolls to let them do things they couldn’t, or the grandmother who used to swim in Mermaid River when she was a girl. What do mermaids mean to you?
I had written two stories with mermaids—“Slack” and “Mermaid River”—when a friend, the writer Stephen Narain, sent me Kei Miller’s poem “The Law Concerning Mermaids.” I was thrilled—here was a poem that was in conversation with what I had been thinking about. Basically, the mermaids in the collection are an evolving metaphor. In “Slack,” they’re about what lures a person. That story is really interested in Pepper’s cravings. And eventually, her cravings become dangerous once she becomes a teenager who desires a man. I was thinking about young female sexuality, but also, I think of mermaids as being this metaphor about transgressive sex, which to me is a part of the appeal of their mythology. I thought about this when I was writing the story “Island”—the narrator, a woman, sleeps with women. But in a larger way, I think of mermaids throughout the collection as challenging what people believe to be true about Jamaica. People tend to see Jamaica in such polarizing ways. Some think of Jamaica as being this paradise, and others think only of the high murder rates. I think of mermaids as being revelatory in this reckoning.
Who do you write for?
When I was writing these stories, I was really just writing and not thinking about an audience. And then, when I realized these stories were going to be a book, I felt this strong desire that it be for Jamaicans. I do hope that everyone reads it and likes it, of course, but I hope to write about Jamaica in a way that honors its people. So much out there about Jamaica, and marketed as Jamaican, has been appropriated and hasn’t really been in service of the culture. I’m really excited about this collection, which to my mind reflects a diversity of experience, because so much that is known about Jamaica doesn’t yet allow for that.
Abigail Bereola is a writer and the books editor at The Rumpus. She lives in Brooklyn.
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