A short story masterclass

Karin Lock reviews How To Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs

The short story – the literary form of our times that’s bite-sized for an attention-deficit society. It is a fictional genre easily digested in one sitting, yet few have mastered it. Olive Senior’s Summer Lightning, Junot Diaz’s Drown and Roberto Bolano’s Last Evenings on Earth are all contenders, and now there is a new kid on the block.

Alexia Arthurs has certainly risen to the challenge with her compact debut collection, set in the US and Jamaica. As expected, these eleven mini-sagas are humorous, fresh and sensual, albeit voicing blunt truths about life, love, family and friendship. The writing is mature with the right balance of tension and control, propelling readers towards the surprising revelatory
moment that makes reading short stories so pleasurable.

In How to Love a Jamaican the author presents us with a kaleidoscope of stimulating narrators: scholarship track student, glamorous singing star, lonely undergraduate, cautious gay holiday maker, unruly teenager, cheating returnee, desperate spinster and bitter son. There is also a roster
of errant fathers and controlling mothers who, having not achieved their own goals in life, demand that their children over-succeed.

Even though Arthurs gently critiques her characters’ chauvinistic attitudes, there is touching nostalgia for their no-nonsense values, respect for the elderly and humble country lifestyle. As she lovingly describes the sights and sounds of everyday Jamaican life, you can easily visualise fried fish sizzling, higglers (vendors) calling out and domino players joking around by
the roadside as you read.

These wonderful vignettes linger in the reader’s consciousness as do constant references to mouth-watering provisions: fried dumpling, green banana, cornmeal porridge, sweet potato pudding, chicken foot soup, oxtail
stew and roasted yam. For further sustenance, we are nourished by the book’s recurrent themes of identity crisis, class resentment, sibling jealousy, parental favouritism and familial deceit.

The over-riding leitmotif here is ‘cultural bifurcation’: being caught between two cultures, yet not belonging to either. Characters often appear lost, either trapped in a white world of invisibility, or choked by the constraints of duty and appearances. Many are hermetically tied to their homeland by an invisible umbilical cord. One narrator explains her bittersweet longing as: “the loss of not being able to eat fruit I picked by hand in my grandmother’s yard”.

Here the writer is masterfully describing the poignancy of the black diasporic experience. Although her central characters are trying to improve their opportunities and quality of life by migrating, they now have to deal with everyday racism and prejudice. Starting over in a new country with next-to-nothing can feel like going backwards, especially if you are unable to escape the shadows of your past.

How to Love a Jamaican also acts like a magnifying glass, exposing the hypocrisy of those who brand others as ‘bad minded’ yet have absolutely no self-awareness of their own flaws. This defence mechanism – which psychologists call ‘mirroring’ or ‘projection’ – allows the protagonists to ignore their own unresolved emotions and continue their reckless behaviour. It is a lesson we might heed from this captivating set of cautionary tales.

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