The author has been praised by Zadie Smith—and rightly soby Alex Peake-Tomkinson / December 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
The title of this debut collection of short stories might mimic that of a “How to” manual but Alexia Arthurs’s prose is anything but didactic. In the opening story, “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands,” the narrator Kimberley observes of her friend Cecilia that she was the “kind of black girl who didn’t think about her race as much as I did.” Although Kimberley initially views her friend as “a white girl trapped in a black girl’s body—an Oreo,” her judgment comes to seem too easy. Kimberley had also been labelled “an Oreo” at school because she liked spending time in the ceramics classroom.
Some of Arthurs’s protagonists live in Jamaica, others have been transplanted to North America and a few inhabit, at least psychologically, the limbo between the two. All of her characters grapple with stereotypes. In “The Ghost of Jia Ya,” Tiffany, a dispirited Jamaican athlete at an Iowa college, conceals from her North American roommate that she has never smoked weed, knowing that this will shock the other woman. The narrator of “Island” says of a friend: “She was the kind of white person who would never let me forget my blackness—she would detail oppressions to me as though I hadn’t lived them.”
Zadie Smith has lavished praise on this collection and it’s no wonder—Arthurs’s stories share Smith’s tender and melancholic nostalgia. Even the global pop star in “Shirley from a Small Place,” whose characterisation must surely owe something to the Barbadian superstar Rihanna, is unable to disentangle herself entirely from the past. When she burns her tongue on some soup, it’s like “a little piece of childhood come back to haunt her.”
The tension between destiny and fulfilment is seen most clearly by the narrator of “Island,” who tries to bury her sexuality and literary ambitions by dating men and attending law school, but discovers, “those desires still found me in the end.”
How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs (Picador, £14.99)