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July 24, 2018

Alexia Arthurs's Playlist for Her Short Story Collection "How to Love a Jamaican"

How to Love a Jamaican

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Alexia Arthurs' impressive debut collection How to Love a Jamaican is filled with tender and masterful depictions of women young and old and the love in their lives.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"These stories unravel the knot of being in a place but not quite belonging and the sense of missing but not quite understanding what was lost. . . . This strong debut collection . . . beckons the reader back, again and again."


In her own words, here is Alexia Arthurs' Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection How to Love a Jamaican:



I love song references in fiction for its ability to allow a narrative to be in conversation with the times, and in this way invested in the tangible world. In my short story collection, “How to Love a Jamaican,” the artists Kanye West, Tupac, Biggie, Britney Spears, Bob Marley, and Beenie Man are referenced in relationship to characters and are implicated in conversations about race, gender, and sexuality. I wanted to write a collection about the Caribbean that could speak to contemporary life. Now, I want to create another list of songs, a list that speaks to my headspace as I was writing these stories.


Is this Love? / Corinne Bailey Rae

Bob Marley was a brilliant songwriter, but the cover of this song by Corinne Bailey Rae moves me to feeling every time I hear it. I love the simplicity of the lyrics: “I wanna love you and treat you right/I wanna love you every day and every night/We'll be together with a roof right over our heads/We'll share the shelter of my single bed.” The essence of HTLAJ is love relationships—familial, romantic, platonic—with other Jamaicans, so this song—wanting to love someone, wanting to care for them—really speaks to the collection.

Liability / Lorde

The characters in HTLAJ tend to wrestle with solitude and loneliness, similar to the speaker in this song: “So I guess I'll go home into the arms of the girl that I love/The only love I haven't screwed up/She's so hard to please but she's a forest fire/I do my best to meet her demands, play at romance/ We slow dance in the living room, but all that a stranger would see is one girl swaying alone, stroking her cheek.” These are feelings of rejection, complicated by the fact that Jamaican communities for all their beauty and intimacy can feel narrow-minded in acceptance. I suppose this is the challenge of home, for every kind of background and for however long human beings have walked the earth. Characters throughout the collection are confronted, finally, with themselves. In a way, these stories are love songs to selves.

Fools / Diane Birch

This song—“Fools knockin' on my door, calling out my name/Tellin' me to change my ways”—speaks to the women in HTLAJ who own their bodies and their lives in defiance of the hypermasculinity and the traditional gender roles in Jamaican culture.

Bag Lady / Erykah Badu

Not so much bag lady but bag people, the characters in HTLAJ are holding on to things—relationships, ways of being and believing—that do not serve them. Badu sings, “Bag lady you gone hurt your back dragging all them bags like that/ I guess nobody ever told you all you must hold onto, is you, is you, is you.”
Sometimes, redemption is in the letting go.

Sex With Me / Rihanna

“You know I got the sauce (sauce)/ You know I'm saucy/ And it's always wet/A bitch never ever had to use lip gloss on it/ I'ma need you deeper than six, not a coffin/ We're not making love, tryna get nasty”

While I was writing some of these stories, I imagined that they were in conversation with “This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz, which is largely concerned with Dominican-American men. Women are often the ones on the receiving end of desire, infidelity, and abuse. I wanted to write female-centric stories about Caribbean women who desire too, and desire in complicated ways.

Where Do We Begin Now / Alicia Keys

This is a tender coming-out love song. Keys’ begins, “What they gon do 'cause we the same sex? And we spendin' all this time/This could be the love we ain't made yet. Even though it's on my mind.” Queer narratives, especially those depicted in historically homophobic regions, tend to weigh heavy on the violence and humiliation. This generalization is a failure. I wanted to write desiring, honoring queer stories.

Cold War / Janelle Monae

“I was made to believe there's something wrong with me/ And it hurts my heart/Lord have mercy ain't it plain to see/That this is a cold war/
Do you know what you're fighting for/This is a cold war/You better know what you're fighting for”

Every story in HTLAJ is a fight song, characters pursuing and sometimes failing to pursue the life they want, while waging against racism, sexism, homophobia and other obstacles out of their control. “Cold War” is a more than worthy anthem.

Buffalo Soldier / Bob Marley & The Wailers

This song traces the life of a slave who is taken from Africa, made to fight in the Indian Wars on the side of European colonists, and is later taken to the Caribbean. I’ve experienced that sometimes Afro-Caribbeans distance themselves from African Americans or Africans, in a way to say that we are different or better than. The reality is that Afro-Caribbeans who emigrate to the U.S. are seen and treated as black first and forefront, no matter the cultural distinctions that separate them from American blacks. HTLAJ is interested in this division and unity. Buffalo Soldier is a song for black resistance, and also one of togetherness—“If you know your history then you would know where you coming from/Then you wouldn't have to ask me who the heck do I think I am.” Sometimes we forget who we are.

F.U.B.U. / Solange

I love that Solange wrote a song for black people: “All my niggas in the whole wide world/ Made this song to make it all y'all's turn/ For us, this shit is from us/ Get so much from us/Then forget us.” When it came time to dedicate HTLAJ, I knew in my bones that I’d written it for Jamaicans. This came to me intuitively, as I’d always thought I’d dedicate my first book to my family. Of course, I hope that people of all backgrounds read the collection and find personal meaning in it. But I wrote these stories for Jamaicans. Jamaica has contributed so much to our global culture—many people don’t know that Hip Hop has roots in Jamaican music—but so many people have a polarizing relationship with the island. The popular images come to mind—reggae music, beaches, the crime rate, or a famous Olympian. We’ve given so much, and I think Jamaica is owed more understanding.


Alexia Arthurs and How to Love a Jamaican links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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