8 Jamaican Women Writers You Should Be Reading
Books that interrogate the complexities of Jamaican girlhood and womanhood
When I first read “Girl”—Jamaica Kincaid’s well-anthologized short story featuring a mother instructing her young daughter how to behave and carry herself—I heard my own mother’s voice saying, “If you can’t cook, your husband will send you back, you know.” My mother said it from time to time, exhorting the young girls in her care—her three daughters and the high school girls who boarded with my family while attending neighborhood schools—to learn the proper way to clean and cut up a chicken, cook cornmeal or banana porridge without lumps, steam rice that wasn’t mushy.
In Kincaid’s “Girl,” set in Antigua, there are contradictions in the mother’s warnings. She warns her daughter against becoming a slut, while telling her how “to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child.” She tells her daughter to “always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach,” while also instructing the girl how to spit up in the air if she feels like it and move so the spit doesn’t fall on her.
Likewise, there were contradictions in my mother’s actions and her exhortation that us girls learn to cook to keep a man. My mother, a life-long educator, was fiercely independent and she expected her daughters to be the same and to master education and careers, while still knowing how to keep a home.
The contradictions in both mothers’ words reflect the complexity of a Jamaican girlhood and womanhood bound by cultures and traditions tainted by a colonial past, and the duality of being both a conservative nation and a land of free-spirited people.
Here are the 8 Jamaican women writers who interrogate the complexities of Jamaican girlhood and womanhood in both poetry and prose, tackling subjects such as parental and patriarchal expectations, morality, and class consciousness:
The Merchant of Feathers by Tanya Shirley
“She watches the party from a small window,
face sandwiched between burglar bars,
forlorn but not foreseeing
that this is the beginning
of a life sentence.”
So ends “The Alphabet of Shame,” the first poem in Shirley’s collection. In the poem, a father proudly shows off to his new circle of friends the house he has acquired and its spectacular view. His bright ten-year-old corrects his mispronunciation of “orbit” and the embarrassed father punishes his daughter by sending her away from the party to her room—punishing the child for exactly what he wishes her to be: educated and bright.
Shirley’s work navigates the many contradictions of the outer self that we present to the world, which she again does deftly in the last lines of “What We Do Not See:”
“She will walk with a bounce and a swing and the world
will claim her as one of the living, not knowing
how close she lives to the ground,
dust always gathering in her mouth.”
A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes
Part fairytale and part exploration of alternative histories, A Tall History of Sugar is the story of Moshe Fisher and Arienne Christie, two distinctly different children who consider themselves “twins.” Moshe is born with pale and translucent skin and, having been abandoned as a baby, is raised by a childless couple. Arienne, a darker-skinned girl, takes on the role of Moshe’s protector, and from early on sets out to protect Moshe from the social and emotional consequences of his physical differences. Through Moshe and Arienne’s unconventional love story, Forbes explores the legacy of colonialism: its effects on childhood and its ongoing impact on the Jamaican way of life.
Daylight Come by Diana McCaulay
This futuristic novel set in 2084 explores the impact of climate change. The sun’s intense heat reverses the way inhabitants of Bajacu, a fictional Caribbean island, live; the residents sleep during the day and work at night. A young Sorrel finds it hard to adapt to daytime sleep and the dire conditions of their city. She convinces her mother to head to higher, cooler terrain where groups of residents called Tribals have found a way to survive. Sorrel’s relationship with her mother is a key part of this work of science fiction.
By Love Possessed by Lorna Goodison
Lorna Goodison’s collection of short stories include characters from all walks of Jamaican life—wealthy employers, street children, domestic workers—all of whom contemplate love in its various forms. With societal expectations and class consciousness running through many of the stories, Goodison asks and answers moral questions about love and relationships.
Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair
Poet Safiya Sinclair’s work is obsessed with postcolonial identity, which she looks at through interrogating Jamaican childhood, mythology, and race relations as an immigrant in America. She writes about the contradictions of the female body, which is both fertile and uninhabitable, spiritual and objectified, and an object of shame. In “Autobiography,” she writes:
“I had known what it was to be nothing.
Bore the shamed blood-letter of my sex
like a banishment; wore the bruisemark
of my father’s hands to school in silence.”
These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card
In the early 1970s, Abel Paisley fakes his death, steals his friend’s identity and lives his life as Stanford Solomon in America. Older and wheelchair bound, he reconnects with Irene Paisley, the daughter he abandoned in Jamaica as he remade his life with his new identity. While Stanford Solomon lived a good life, Irene’s life has not been easy, and her father’s revelation upends her life. These Ghosts Are Family interweaves the stories of multiple generations of the Paisley family, and the lingering effects of race and lineage.
Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta
Based in Toronto, Reid-Benta writes about second-generation immigrants and their experiences with Jamaican culture. The connected short stories in Frying Plantain center Kara Davis’s efforts to be a “true” Jamaican, as well as the challenges of being a Black girl in a majority white country. These stories—which follow Kara from elementary school to young adulthood—reflect the tensions between mothers and daughters, and the parental expectations that their children achieve more in life than their parents.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
In Dennis-Benn’s sophomore novel, five-year-old Tru is left behind in Jamaica when her mother migrates to America and becomes an undocumented nanny. Once in America, Patsy remakes her life with no communication with her daughter. Abandoned by her mother, Tru has to learn how to navigate a strained relationship with her father while trying to define her identity and sexuality.