Alexia Arthurs


Before the eleven stories in “How to Love a Jamaican” were collected together, I thought I was writing two separate collections. The first one, which I started during my first year at graduate school in Iowa, was broad in scope. The second collection was about Jamaicans too, but was woman-centric, and interested in gender and sexuality. By this time, I had graduated, and was still living in Iowa City with two Caribbean roommates. My writing had come closer to what I was feeling and thinking, and how I was living. When one of my ex-roommates read “How to Love a Jamaican,” it interested her to see how some of our conversations as Afro-Caribbean women inspired stories in the collection.

The oldest story in the collection is “Slack.” I had a little bit of a crisis after writing it. It was unlike anything I had ever written—it’s such a dark story. I wondered, why did my imagination go there? Now, I know that that’s a naïve question to ask. Soon after, I wrote "Cobby" and “Mermaid River,” and a few months later, "How to Love a Jamaican." I can’t imagine writing any of these stories now. It’s weird. I admire the skill that went into writing these stories, but it feels like a long time ago. Now, I feel personally closer to newer stories in the collection, like “On Shelf,” “Island,” and “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands.”


On inspiration: "The ghost of Jia Yi"

Once, on the greyhound from Chicago to Iowa City, I met a young Jamaican man who ran track for an Iowan college. I continued thinking of him, of how it must be to come so far from home, and to Iowa of all places. When I’m fascinated by someone, I write about them, but I felt stuck. I knew that I wanted to write about a Jamaican athlete in Iowa, but I needed more of a story.

Later, I can’t remember how much later, a University of Iowa student murdered Shao Tong, an international student attending a nearby university. After he killed her, he fled back to China, and because there isn’t an extradition treaty between the United States and China, it would be a long time before he was convicted. My roommates—both international students as well—were greatly saddened by the murder of this stranger, who had died in a foreign place, so far from loved ones. I started to write—somehow, a Jamaican runner and the murder of an international student became connected in my imagination. I had the sense that I had a story.


On form: "We Eat Our Daughters"

I’m intrigued by linked stories or vignettes, by a sense of narrative culmination. I’m intrigued especially by ordering—choosing how vignettes follow each other, calling and responding. The story “We Eat Our Daughters” is written in four vignettes about mother-daughter relationships. If you’ve read the collection, you’re familiar with the story “Bad Behavior.” “Bad Behavior” used to be the last vignette in “We Eat Our Daughters,” before an editor, Lorin Stein, had the idea that it could be its own story. That left “We Eat Our Daughters” with three vignettes that altogether felt incomplete to me. I pulled what currently stands as the first vignette from elsewhere. I reconsidered the order and felt strongly and intuitively that Corrine should start speaking and Cherry would close.


On Rihanna: “Shirley from a Small Place”

An excerpt from the Granta piece:

“People want to know if Shirley is Rihanna. Yes and no, I say. Or they want to know, why Rihanna? For selfish reasons, I’m interested in Rihanna. We grew up together – we were born almost exactly a month apart. If I was born in Barbados and not Jamaica and lived in her neighborhood or gone to her primary school, might we have been friends? I’ve watched as she’s come into her womanhood. I’m witness – as witness as a fan can be – to her maturing. Have I matured too? We turned thirty this spring. We have complicated relationships with our fathers. We have younger brothers. We are Afro-Caribbean. Our work is inspired and energized by our Caribbean upbringings.”


Enjoy more coconut drops!