How To Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs review – sad and sensual short stories

Pride and racial prejudice in a visceral portrait of the Jamaican experience – ‘at home’ and in the US

This debut story collection might sound like a slightly salacious instruction manual, but thoughtful readers will find a book that defies every dreadlock-lovin’, Usain-Bolt-cheerin’, ganja-smokin’ stereotype. Alexia Arthurs takes two subset communities – Jamaicans who live “at home” (or return there) and Jamaicans who live “in foreign”, in the US – and presents their stories with compassion, tenderness and an unassuming complexity.

For a start, she compromises nothing, including the perennial way that race informs everyday life. The collection is a visceral portrait of the subtler costs of social inequality – how, as minorities, we are watchers of ourselves and others, “code-switching” or swapping language depending on who we’re talking to, with a self-consciousness that becomes habitual. Many readers in the UK will relate to it.

In “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands”, two NYU students with Jamaican parents test the fragile limits of friendship, class and skin-shade privilege. Arthurs’ characters regard the lives, morals and experiences of white and black people as different (“It wasn’t that Jamaican children were perfect – it was that when they made mistakes, they knew how to be ashamed”). Frequently, they do not expect to be fully understood unless they are “home”. In “Bad Behavior”, winner of the Paris Review’s Plimpton prize, parents take their “force-ripe” teenager back to Jamaica, hoping the pit toilet and her grandmother will fix her,  and of course they do. Arthurs explores an ambivalence, too: however nostalgic we are, the island is a source of redemption and worry. It breeds both guilt and pride.

Her masterful handling of women’s sexual selves – those secret spaces where the urgency to feel loved is everything – is reason enough to read this sensual, funny, sad book. In “The Ghost of Jia Yi”, a depressed Jamaican athlete sleeping with her roommate’s boyfriend is haunted by the ghost of a murdered international student. Whether you relate more to teenage Pepper, ashamed of her older lover with three teeth hanging outside her school gate in the heartbreaking “Slack”, or to the protagonist in “Island”, contemplating the easy rightness of her first lesbian kiss, this is a hymn to women: stoic and pained and lyrical. My surprise favourite might be “Shirley from a Small Place”: in a story obviously inspired by singer Rihanna, we see a pop star who is deeply human - contemplating her period or her hair weave, purple as star-fruit; running home to cry into her mother’s chicken-foot soup. Arthurs gives men a tender complexity, too: the quiet twin forever condemned to live in his gregarious brother’s shadow in “Mash Up Love” and the tender ruminations of an older man in the titular story, sitting on a rotten tree stump, both sorry and glad for the son only possible through his infidelity.

If you’re not Jamaican, what you have here is a special opportunity to see who we actually are: we’re not at all like you, but absolutely the same. Mostly, Arthurs has written a love letter to Jamaicans, and it feels so good. Yes, iyah. Bless up.

• How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs (Picador, £14.99). To order a copy for £12.74, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

Leone Ross

The GuardianTramp

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