Alexia Arthurs Recommends a Reading List of Queer Caribbean Literature
The author of ‘How to Love a Jamaican,’ on LGBTQ stories from the islands
M y debut, How to Love a Jamaican, is a collection of stories that explores the anxieties of Jamaicans from all walks of life, as people like to say. A few of these characters self-identify as lesbians. For a long time, I thought I was writing two separate collections. The first collection was similar in tone to the finished product but felt safer, and the second was about gender and sexuality. The latter felt more personally pressing for what I was thinking about. Over time, with a recommendation from my agent, these two manuscripts became one — How to Love a Jamaican.
Over the past year, I’ve lived in Mexico City for seven and a half months. There was an evening I ended up at a social gathering with a group of queer women, and one of them turned to me when she’d heard that I am a Jamaican citizen to state that Jamaica is a hard place to be gay. I feel like I’ve had this conversation hundreds of times, and the conclusions are the same. Sometimes, I am the one to say that life in Jamaica is hard if a person is queer. “Sure,” I said that day, and then I asked if she knew of a place where it’s easy to be gay. The irony is that we were having this conversation in Mexico City, a place that is commonly believed to be unsafe. What I meant to imply then is that every place is more nuanced than we are told to believe. Every place is safe and unsafe at the same time, though yes, some places are safer and others are less safe.
Sure, it’s hard to be queer in Jamaica, but what else is it besides hard? There has to be more room for unknowingness in how we talk about lives and places. I can’t speak for every queer Jamaican who still lives in Jamaica. This is why I struggle with the fact that so much of queer literature, especially stories set in commonly believed to be homophobic regions, is about pain, humiliation, and loss. For me, that’s only a part of the story. One of my hopes for “How to Love a Jamaican” was to write honoring queer stories. What follows is a list of Caribbean authors — my brethren in this effort to write queer stories about the Caribbean.
Ladies by A. Naomi Jackson
This chapbook begins in Jamaica with the blossoming desire of two young women at a teachers college, until a horrible and violent outing. This haunting short story traces their relationship over time, place, and circumstance.
The Cowherd’s Son by Rajiv Mohabir
In this vulnerable and lasting poetry collection, a queer, Indo-Caribbean poet, unpacks mythical and religious familial traditions.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Dennis-Benn writes beautifully about Jamaican women, who feel trapped by their circumstances. They desire to love women freely, to have lighter skin, and to rise above their social class.
Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo
In this moving novel, the mystery surrounding a woman, who is believed to have murdered her father, turns out to be a story about incest, sexual abuse, gender fluidity, and sexuality.
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
A coming-of-age novel about Juliet, a Puerto Rican nineteen-year-old from the Bronx, who comes out to her mother on the day she is to leave for an internship on the other side of the country. A hilarious, tender turn-pager that I wish my younger self had discovered by accident on a library self.
Fear of Stones by Kei Miller
A collection of stories written in lovely, spare prose that reckons with masculinity and homophobia in the Caribbean.
The Pagoda by Patricia Powell
The Pagoda follows a Chinese shopkeeper in 1890s Jamaica, who initially wears men’s clothing to leave China at a time when women weren’t allowed to emigrate. This sensual, lush novel is about queer love, gender roles, and race.
The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
The Salt Roads is a historical and speculative novel that begins with the burial of a stillborn baby, during which slave women in Haiti conjure an Afro-Caribbean goddess. The Goddess goes on to inhabit and empower three black women separated by time and place, though all of them are on a quest for personal freedom. Hopkinson’s writing is energetic and brilliantly imagined.
About the Author
Alexia Arthurs was born and raised in Jamaica and moved with her family to Brooklyn when she was twelve. A graduate of Hunter College and the Iowa Writers’s Workshop, she has been published in Small Axe, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vice, and The Paris Review, which awarded her the Plimpton Prize in 2017. How to Love a Jamaican is her debut collection.