How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs

How to Love a Jamaican: Stories is a promising debut collection that focuses on the Jamaican diasporic experience, highlighting cultural and generational differences and providing us with some wonderfully realized vignettes. Alexia Arthurs’ prose is engaging, unsentimental yet lyrical, and she’s fully able to bring the places she’s writing of—be it America or Jamaica—to life. Many of her stories hone in on familial relationships, depicting the misunderstandings and differences between Jamaican-American children and their Jamaican parents. While the parents are often shown to be more traditional than their children and are vocal in their disapproval of their lifestyles, their professions, their sexuality, their ‘Americaness’, Arthurs allows them to be dimensional individuals, without resorting to one-dimensional stereotypes.

‘Light Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands’, the first story in the collection reminded me of Danielle Evans’ novella, The Office of Historical Corrections. Both stories explore the relationship between two Black women who are unable to bridge the gap created by their different upbringings and financial situations. In ‘Bad Behavior’ a despairing mother sends her misbehaving teenage daughter back to Jamaica to live with her own mother (the girl’s grandmother). While the stories depict different situations and people they are united by their shared themes (of acceptance, guilt, self-divide). Within these 11 stories, Arthurs underlines the difficulties experienced by those who are dealing with family expectations and pressures or living in predominantly white spaces or feeling torn between Jamaican and American customs & cultures.
I appreciated and could relate to the nostalgia and homesickness that affects many of these characters and how sometimes they view their ‘new’, in this case, American, environment as ‘alien’.
Easily, my favourite was ‘Island’. This isn’t all that surprising as it follows a lesbian who has become more and more aware of how her best friends are visibly uneasy at any mention or confirmation of her sexuality. It was sad but this particular story really spoke to me.

While I loved the author’s breezy prose, the authentic flow of her dialogues, her rich examination of Jamaican and Jamaican-American identities (the stories follow people who are united by their heritage but are ultimately living very different lives) as well as her realistic explorations of parenthood, siblinghood, and queerness, only two or three stories really stood out to me. This is one of the cases where less would have been more (to me, of course). I would have found this to be a stronger debut had it had fewer but longer stories. Nevertheless, this was a solid collection with some real hits. If you enjoyed Zalika Reid-Benta’s Frying Plantain or you are a fan of Danielle Evans’ short stories. I look forward to whatever Arthurs publishes next.

my rating: ★★★¼

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Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

“I wondered if all daughters fought with their mothers this way when they grew up.”

Frying Plantain presents its readers with a vibrant coming-of-age. Through the course of twelve chapters Zalika Reid-Benta captures a girl’s transition from childhood to adolescence into young adulthood. But this is far from a conventional Bildungsroman as within each chapter Reid-Benta hones in on a particular moment of her protagonist’s life, playing with perspective and style.
Kara Davis, a second-generation Canadian, feels divided between her Canadian nationality and her Jamaican heritage. Kara lives in Toronto with her hardworking single mother. Everyone Kara knows seems to find fault with her: her relatives, her mother in particular, scold her for her “impertinence”, while her peers often tease her for being too “soft” or a goody two shoes.
In most chapters Kara learns a lesson of sorts. In the opening chapter Kara, who has just returned from a trip to Jamaica, begins to tell a rather tall tale about a pig head to impress her classmates and her neighbourhood’s children (who aren’t as gullible as the white kids). As her story becomes increasingly fantastical, she lands herself in a spot of trouble. In the following chapter, which takes place a few years later, Kara becomes the victim of a cruel prank by her ‘friends’. Another chapter revolves around a somewhat tense Christmas dinner at her grandparents house.
While the chapters can be read as a series self-contained narratives, read as a whole Frying Plantain provides its reader with a detailed and nuanced story of growing up. The fraught mother-daughter bond between Kara and her mother is present at each stage of Kara’s life. This pressure to succeed, to excel, drives Kara and her mother apart. Kara’s mother too has a troubled relationship with her mother. While the tension between these women often results in disagreements and fights, Reid-Benta conveys the love and affection that underlines their ‘difficult’ relationships (mothers wanting their daughters to achieve what they themselves couldn’t).
Reid-Benta vividly renders family tensions, the gap between generations, the self-divide created by Kara’s Canadian nationality and her Black identity. The realism of Reid-Benta dialogues was utterly captivating. During the first chapters I was struck by Reid-Benta’s ability to so accurately portray a child’s mind.
The last few chapters did loose me somewhat as I was more interested in Kara’s early experiences.
Nevertheless this is a great debut novel and I look forward to reading whatever Reid-Benta will write next.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars

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