A few months ago, Netgalley gave me the opportunity to read an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) for a new book. I was entranced by the title: How To Love A Jamaican, and the fact that while it was a short story collection, it had a very catchy title and a gorgeous cover. But I was also a bit hesitant to dive in. I’ve been disappointed by several of the books I’ve read recently by Jamaican and other Caribbean authors. Since then, I’ve been looking for a book that would be respectful of my heritage as well as portray the hopes and dreams of the immigrant who leaves behind a beautiful, if imperfect, place in search of an opportunity to contribute to the diaspora that will give Jamaica even better recognition across the world.
In April, I started reading How To Love A Jamaican on Netgalley, and a few stories in, I abandoned it. Not that it was a bad experience but I wasn’t absolutely loving it and I didn’t want to read another Jamaican book, especially an unfinished draft of a promising book, and tear it apart with my criticisms prematurely. What Netgalley shares is a first look at the manuscript that is still undergoing the editing process. In short, it’s unfinished. I decided to wait for the perfected version, the one that had been injected with the author and publisher’s best selves, and read it again when it had been polished and made ready for market. In July, when the book finally hit the shelves, I tried again.
This time, I enjoyed the nostalgic feelings these short stories brought me because the author and I both come from similar backgrounds. I enjoyed the way Arthurs painted pictures with the skill of a visual artist, with plot lines that are as familiar as if I was looking at snapshots from a time gone past, and characters that resembled celebrities I follow or as if people I knew in real life were playing the parts. But I struggled with the writing. Some of the sentences were awkwardly constructed and each gaffe took me out of the literature. For a title that reads like a general self-help book, the book seemed to promise a more varied scope than what it delivered and some of the stories seemed to use the same themes and characters without much connection. Several stories are woven with a mermaid thread without much other explanation or link. Some of the descriptions of interracial relationships and sexual fluidity felt like forced attempts to critique the notoriously homophobic Jamaican atmosphere and I didn’t like that the book then, was trying to be something other than what it was. In a way, the result was that some of the complex characters that were being created became reduced to what they did behind closed doors and that just detracted from the rest of their personas.
In a book that seems to hint at a revelation of Jamaican secrets, the title story includes a line about what Jamaican men really want, that is quite anticlimactic and patriarchically backward.
"Dat woman really know how fi love a Jamaican man... Because wat a man need more dan good food in him belly, a clean house, and someone fi hug up wid at night?" [sic] page 161
This cliched oversimplification is a line that would have been lifted from a book printed in another century, except that in the story, the female character who hears this line doesn’t object, and the male speaker is one who has left such a woman and traded her in for a younger, more appealing woman, both of whom offer him this kind of “love” without condition.
Furthermore,there is no attempt at balancing the gender expectations. The stories never seem to answer the question of how to satisfy the Jamaican woman. The female characters are either self-sacrificing older women or flighty young ones, the ones who all forget themselves when a man comes around, whether they marry or have a child out of wedlock, or change their relationships with other women, all these women are walking contradictions since none of them seem sufficiently content to even love themselves, let alone give or receive love to others.
Despite the critique, I think this is extremely promising as a debut collection and I would like to read more from this new author.
- Title: How to Love a Jamaican
- Author: Alexia Arthurs
- Pages: 235
- Format: Hardcover
- Publisher: Ballantine Books