I have strong opinions on a few things, which include the kind of hair conditioner I like, not taking anyone’s last name and, apparently, what makes a good title for a book. Recently, a friend and I dawdled on an evening in Iowa City, eventually turning our conversation to our favorite book titles this year. We agreed that a disappointing title could distract from an incredible book. She had brought up the title of my short-story collection, How To Love A Jamaican, and said that she liked it. I like it, too. For me, the title of a book should feel like an invitation and an enigma at the same time. It should hook and inspire wonder. After all, that saying from childhood—“Don’t judge a book by its cover”—no longer applies.
More often than not, when anyone finds out that I’m a debut author and they ask about the title of my book, I’m embarrassed when I tell them. Sometimes, I laugh. Why do I do this? I’m not sure. How To Love A Jamaican is a title I’ve stuck with, even though one of my graduate advisors didn’t like it. Perhaps I feel that the title reveals too much about me. I’m Jamaican. Perhaps the title feels self-referential in a way that makes me shy.
Last month, a man – a stranger – wrote to me: “If I may ask without being rude, are you Jamaican? Your book is not actually about loving a Jamaican, but a collection of Caribbean-themed short stories. Right?” I’ve gotten other messages from Jamaicans with similar concerns, or I lurk on people discussing the book on social media. It seems that some of them really do believe that I’ve written a self-help book. A photograph of a white woman who seems to be licking her lips as she reads an advanced copy on the New York subway has been re-shared dozens of times on various social-media platforms. A man tweets: “The fact that she licking her lips got me HELLLLLLA weak.” Inevitably, a stranger or a few will tag me in the discussions.
Almost two thousand people “like” a re-sharing of the photograph of the white woman licking her lips on a Facebook page called I Am A Jamaican. Two Jamaican friends who follow the page alert me to the discussion below the photo. I skim the comments, and a few catch my eye – “They’re easy to love but they’re not faithful.” ”Jamaicans aren't hard to love, just honest. But, she is licking her lips. Don't know how to take that.” “Are we that hard to love that there needs to be a whole book on how to love us? Lol” ”Some of the women I've met are bitter and spiteful... My neighbor is the best person I've met thus far... Don't know about the men.” ”That book need to be thicker than that. And have multiple multiple volumes.” ”Hmm didn't know it was that hard... just learn to cook and most of your worries gone.”
A friend told me that How To Love A Jamaican has a certain ring to it. Apparently, How To Love A Canadian or How To Love A Sri Lankan wouldn’t work quite as well. Perhaps what the friend is suggesting is that a book title that features a nationality so prominently can only work if the nationality has a provocative, sensory presence in the minds of readers. I mean, a nationality that can be reduced to stereotypes, or misunderstandings – white, sandy beaches, an Olympian, a song that makes you want to sway. When I was living abroad, in Mexico, I noticed that when I said that I was a Jamaican national, people, especially ones who spoke little English, used specific references – Usain Bolt, Red Stripe beer, Bob Marley, marijuana – to communicate what they knew or liked about Jamaica. One man I met had a little more to say. He told me, though self-conscious about his English, “I have so much respect for your people.” We had been drinking at a party. Somehow, I was touched. I thought about what he could mean for a long time.
Sometimes, I think that the title of the collection is also about me. I am the Jamaican in need of loving, and these stories trace my twenties, those years of profound searching where the powers that be told me that I had to spin gold out of straw
The title of the book is also the title of a short story in the collection. It’s a story about a man reckoning with himself – what it means to be a husband, a decent man, in a place as hyper-masculine as Jamaica. It’s taken from a line of dialogue. A character, who is called Ugly by friends because he is that, has left his wife for another woman. He contemplates the wife he left behind.
“Dat woman really knew how fi love a Jamaican man.”
“Why yuh sey dat, Ugly?”
“Because wat a man need more dan a good food in him belly, a clean house, and someone fi hug up wid at night?”
Sometimes, I think that the title of the collection is also about me. I am the Jamaican in need of loving, and these stories trace my twenties, those years of profound searching where the powers that be told me that I had to spin gold out of straw. I looked into a darkness and imagined other lives and other selves. And, in a larger way, I think of the stories as love stories between Jamaicans – familial, romantic, platonic and, yes, sometimes the Jamaican is oneself. I’m curious to know how the title registers for Jamaicans who read the book. Someone with the handle StephBMore tweeted: “That ‘how to love a Jamaican’ book is NOT about what I thought it was about.”