In honor of National Caribbean-American Heritage Month, which was instituted in 2006 by President George W. Bush and is held each June to honor contributions by Caribbean people to the society and culture of the United States, the Oprah Magazine has featured a list of 16 books by Caribbean authors meant to encourage readers to learn more about the Caribbean region, its literature, and the experience of its peoples in the US. Among the 16 writers on the list are five authors of Jamaican heritage: Nicole Dennis-Benn, Alexia Arthurs, Kei Miller, Maisy Card, and Marlon James.
“Patsy” by Nicole Dennis-Benn tells the story of a woman who leaves a life of poverty in Jamaica to make a new life in New York where she hopes to reunite with her oldest friend. To pursue her dream, however, she must leave behind her five-year-old daughter, and upon arriving in the US, must face the hard realities of living as an undocumented migrant in a hostile environment. Dennis-Benn was born and raised in Kingston and currently lives in Brooklyn. She has received awards including the Lambda Literary Award and the New York Foundation for the Arts Artist Fellowship. Her first novel was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2016.
“How to Love a Jamaican” by Alexia Arthurs combines the themes of tenderness, cruelty, loyalty, betrayal, ambition, and regret in her debut collection of short stories about Jamaican immigrants to the US and their families on the home island. The 11 stories describe the immigrant experience as people Arthurs is the winner of the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize and is considered by critics to be a dynamic and essential young author. Arthurs was raised in Jamaica and New York and graduated from Hunter College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her particular interests are writing about the Jamaican Diaspora and Caribbean feminism.
“Augustown” by Kei Miller was chosen as one of the best books of the year by Slate, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews. It follows Ma Taffy, who is blind, but “sees everything.” When her great-nephew comes home from school crying because a teacher has cut off his dreadlocks, a violation of the Rastafarian family’s beliefs, Ma Taffy is carried back to her own youth. The book vividly describes Jamaica during the 1980s and tells the story of a family’s path over time through history, race, class, violence, and mythology. Miller was born in Jamaica and lives in London. He is the author of two previous novels, poetry collections, and short stories.
“These Ghosts Are Family “by Maisy Card has been described as a “rich, ambitious debut novel” by the New York Times. It focuses on the ways that a Jamaica family develops and breaks apart over several generations. It tells the story of Stamford Solomon’s 30-year-old secret and how it changes the lives of everyone around him: he faked his own death and took on the identity of his best friend. Nearing the end of his life, he is about to meet his first-born daughter, a home health aide who unknowingly took on the job of caring for the father she thought had died. Card was born in St. Catherine in Jamaica and has an MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College. She works as a public librarian. She was raised in Queens, New York, and has an MLS from Rutgers University and a BA in English and American Studies from Wesleyan University.
“The Book of Night Women” by Marlon James won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2010 and the Minnesota Book Award. His second novel, this book follows Lilith, a woman born in the 18th century on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. An orphan, she learns the brutality of life as a slave, and after defending herself against a rapist, she is sent to work in the house of the plantation owner, where she attempts to earn the master’s affections. When this ends badly, she is sent to live with the overseer, and they enter into an unconventional relationship. The novel explores the complex roles of women and their links to Obeah and Myal spiritual traditions common throughout the Caribbean. James was born in Jamaica and graduated from the University of the West Indies. He later migrated to the US to pursue his career and teaches literature. In 2015, he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” which describes Jamaica at the time of the attempted assassination of reggae musician Bob Marley in the 1970s. The book involves multiple genres of political thriller, oral biography, and class crime.
In addition to these five Jamaican authors, the Oprah Magazine list of Caribbean books to read include The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older of Cuba, Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo of the Dominican Republic, Everything Inside: Stories by Edwidge Danticat of Haiti, The Girl with the Hazel Eyes by Callie Browning of Barbados, The Housing Lark by Sam Selvon of Trinidad, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys of Dominica, Girlcott by Florenz Webbe Maxwell of Bermuda, The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull of the US Virgin Islands, Love War Stories by Velisse Rodriguez of Puerto Rico, A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid of Antigua, and Love After Love: A Novel by Ingrid Persaud of Trinidad.
The establishment of National Caribbean-American Heritage Month represented a long-time effort by Dr. Claire Nelson, the founder and president of the Institute of Caribbean Studies (ICS). The Institute’s mission is to recognize Caribbean immigrants to the United States and the contributions they have made to the US since its founding, from Alexander Hamilton to W.E.B. Dubois, Cicely Tyson, and Sidney Poitier.