For Colored Girls Book Club + Alexia Arthurs

 

Alexia Arthurs is the author of the wildly popular short story collection How to Love a Jamaican, in which she pays homage to Jamaicans at home and abroad. She explores themes like immigration, sexuality, and the nebulous concept of home using subjects like Mermaids and a fictionalized Rihanna.

This collection is an easy favorite, of which we had many questions for Alexia. We caught up with her via email and talked about how she writes, what she reads, and who she writes for.

 
 
Alexia Arthurs. Photo by Kaylia Duncan

Alexia Arthurs. Photo by Kaylia Duncan

 

FOR COLORED GIRLS BOOK CLUB:

You engaged a lot with themes of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and as I found in a lot of work by Jamaicans, with a consideration of “home.” Why are these themes that occupy your mind space, and therefore your stories?

ALEXIA ARTHURS:

Every story in the collection speaks to a moment in my life: injustices I felt for myself and my larger community, and that human craving to belong and to be listened to. I use fiction to process how I’m feeling and thinking, and the act of writing is healing in a world where I often feel silenced. 

 FCG:

My favorite theme/thought that engaged with was immigration/being an immigrant. Specifically, the nuances of being an immigrant in the U.S. How did your experience(s) as an immigrant inform a. the stories you told and b. the way you told the stories?

AA:

When I was twelve, my mother moved us to the United States because she wanted better opportunity as a single mother. In Jamaica, I had been preparing to start at an all-girls school—a dressmaker had already sewed my uniform. In Brooklyn, I struggled to find my place. In school my closest friends were the children of Caribbean immigrants, but they were Americanized. My life had changed so much—economically, culturally, academically. And for a long time, we couldn’t travel back to Jamaica because we were undocumented. My immigration status was another way in which I felt unwelcomed in the U.S. and outside of my friends’ experiences, my friends who had social security numbers to apply for summer jobs, certain creative and academic opportunities for high school students, and eventually college aid. I remember a painting I made in high school: Brooklyn was on one side, and Jamaica was on the other side, with a crying sun in between. I titled it: “Stuck in between as time goes by.” It wasn’t a very good painting, but I mean to say that I’ve been thinking about being an immigrant for a long time. And one thing I’ve thought about is the diversity of the immigrant experience—the reasons people immigrate, what their lives look like. I wanted to bring this diversity of experience to the stories in the collection.

 FCG:

My favorite story in How to Love a Jamaican was “Island,” about a queer woman who goes back to Jamaica for a wedding with her straight friends and has what feels to her like taboo sex with another woman. This story itself seemed like the “one gay friend” because the other stories don’t explicitly deal with sexuality in this way. Was that intentional? How come more of your stories didn’t explore queerness? Or did they?

AA:

The process of compiling the collection was an interesting one because stories I had been working on for years, some longer than others, were all in the running. I’m thinking of two stories exploring queerness, one about two friends at an all-girls high school in Jamaica and the other about church people, that didn’t make the final cut. I can see how “Island” stands out, as it’s focused on the desires of a queer Jamaican woman—there’s that line “I fucked a woman in Jamaica.” But I don’t think it’s the only story interested in queerness—there’s “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands,” “Shirley from a Small Place,” and Cherry’s vignette in “We Eat Our Daughters.”

FCG:

Did the fact that they are so reflective of your own experiences make these stories easier or harder to write?

AA:

The stories that are closer to my life were definitely harder to write. And by harder, I mean navigating the mechanics of a story because I couldn’t see outside of the autobiographical pieces, especially the life stuff that’s painful to see on the page. That’s when another set of eyes come in handy. The story “Island” feels narratively close to my life, and a story like “The Ghost of Jia Yi” is in-part inspired by a real person, Shao Tong, an international student, who was murdered by a University of Iowa student. This was after I had graduated, and was living in Iowa City with two friends, international students from the Caribbean. The murder of another international student felt close to us, though we had never known her.  

 FCG:

Why was/is it important for you to write in patois?

AA:

I write about Jamaicans, who are the people I know most intimately. To not write in patois, the language my mother uses to speak to me, would be a disservice. And I love patois—I love the malleability, the imagination, and the sound of it. It’s one of my most beautiful cultural inheritances.

 FCG:

How do you feel about people reading your collection and using it as a way to “understand” Jamaicans?

AA:

Fiction can provide a window, but I’m wary of foreigners using a book like mine, a book of fiction, to understand Jamaicans as though there is a singular experience. People don’t, for example, read a fiction book by a white author from the United States to understand white people from the United States. But black and brown writers are often expected to be the mouthpiece for their people. In my work, I interrogate social constructs for Jamaicans. This isn’t the same as “understanding” a Jamaican person, an individual. And isn’t a foreign claim of understanding another nationality in and of itself reductive? I hope my collection allows readers to see how diverse Jamaicans are, the influence Jamaicans have on global culture, and how little is credited.

 
how to love a jamaican alexia arthurs
 

 FCG:

What is your responsibility as a writer? Who do you write for?

AA:

I imagine that I’ll be thinking about my responsibility as a writer for as long as I publish. I see my stories as my offering to the global community of Jamaicans. My favorite writers are working at the intersection of social justice and creative writing. Stories tell us who we are, and often how we are as people, how we show up to others, isn’t enough. I always write for myself—often younger versions of myself, and more recently, the late twenties to early thirties version of me, which is now. Writing is healing for me. I write for millennial Jamaicans, women Jamaicans, queer Jamaicans. Sometimes stories are borne out of conversations with my women friends, and in this way, it feels that I’m writing stories for my closest friends who are black women, so really, I am writing for black women, too.

 FCG:

Why is it important for you to tell the stories you tell?

AA:

I think it was Toni Morrison who said that writers should write the kinds of books they want to read. My publicist shared a podcast based in the U.K. with me, and someone on it described my book as “millennial,” which made me smile. We don’t usually mean “millennial” as a compliment, but the person on the podcast meant it in this way. I wanted to read contemporary stories about Jamaicans, stories exploring what my friends and I worry about over cocktails. I’ve received beautiful letters from readers sharing that they feel represented in the stories.

 FCG:

Are there specific writers you read when writing?

AA:

No, no specific authors, as I’m an opportunistic inspiration seeker. I tend to reread beautiful passages and lines from stories and poems for inspiration—just whatever I come across that’s meaningful to settle into. Today, my students and I were talking about one of our favorite lines from “Some Things Only Make Sense Between Your Teeth,” a poem by Meg Freitag: “You’ll eat apricots from the open hand of my memory.” The poem is a lovely one, rich with feeling and memory, the kind of thing I’d reread before my writing practice.

 FCG:

Who are your favorite writers?

AA:

I adore Sandra Cisneros. I loved The House on Mango Street as a young reader, and later discovered Woman Hollering Creek, Caramelo, and the poetry collections My Wicked Wicked Ways and Loose Woman. Sandra Cisneros was the first writer who showed me that books could be written about people like me, a low-income immigrant girl from an urban place. She remains my favorite writing teacher—I pick up her collection of essays A House of My Own: Stories from My Life when I’m seeking advice about life and writing. Before I knew that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was a graduate program, I wanted to go to Iowa to learn to write because I read it on the back of The House on Mango Street.

 FCG:

Who/what are you reading right now?

AA:

I’m traveling for work to Portland, and bringing three books with me: A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, Resisting Paradise: Tourism, Diaspora, and Sexuality in Caribbean Culture by Angelique V. Nixon, and Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race, by Naben Ruthnum. I’m researching for the novel I’m writing.

 FCG:

Another book? Will it be short stories, and will it explore the same or similar themes as How to Love a Jamaican?

AA:

I’m working on a novel that is inspired by an international trip I took with friends. I’m interested in the ethics of travel and expat-living. It’s a return to some of the themes in How to Love a Jamaican, like friendship between women, and tourism. Surprisingly, I’m returning to two characters from the collection. What’s funny is that a reader asked if I ever considered such a thing, and at the time I was adamant about feeling finished with those characters.

FCG:

Can you offer any book recommendations?

AA:

A Small Gathering of Bones by Patricia Powell. I read it this spring and I’m still thinking about it. It’s about gay men living and loving in Jamaica during the 1980s AIDs epidemic. It’s a stunning, devastating little novel. Funny, too. I wish I’d found it sooner. I want to write Patricia Powell a fan letter.