'How to Love a Jamaican' reimagines RiRi in a poignant tale of immigrant life and the trappings of fame

By David Canfield
July 27, 2018 at 12:00 PM EDT
Jeff Spicer/FilmMagic; Ballantine Books

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Tucked within one of the summer’s most exciting literary debuts is a beautiful — and disarmingly affecting — slice of Rihanna fanfiction.

The book is How to Love a Jamaican, a sublime short-story collection from newcomer Alexia Arthurs that explores, through various characters, a specific strand of the immigrant experience. Though this is the author’s first book, the prose is assured and textured, enlivened by a personal touch — Arthurs’ own life, growing up and living as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. until the age of 24.

Jamaican’s final tale marks a slight departure from what comes before it, centering on a mega-pop-star named Shirley, who has overcome any and all material difficulties associated with her immigrant identity by ascending to the pinnacles of fame and wealth. She’s rich and beloved — and based on none other than RiRi herself. But the story, titled “Shirley From a Small Place,” is hardly a frothy celeb portrait. It’s a loving study of a woman seeking privacy while living a very public life, battling depression and wishing to grieve the death of a friend in peace. She winds up back in her place of birth — Jamaica — facing her proud but judgmental mother and a community that’s come to idolize her.

At first, fictionalizing the Barbados-born Rihanna for Jamaican intimidated Arthurs. “I felt so distant from the imagination of a pop star,” the author says. “I couldn’t imagine being able to enter her consciousness, but somehow, over time, I became more comfortable with the idea of writing from her point of view.”

The more research Arthurs did, the more inspired she became. She was fascinated by an episode of Oprah in which Rihanna gave the TV host a tour of her old hometown. (“They’d stop and talk to people in the neighborhood like they weren’t Oprah and Rihanna!”) She learned that Rihanna has stayed best friends with her childhood bestie into adulthood. She even scanned Rihanna’s mom’s Instagram.

All this made it into “Shirley,” if only implicitly. “At its essence, [the story] is about what wealth does, and [suddenly] having all of these options,” Arthurs says. “But that small place she comes from — the human power at home — is what she comes back to.” Indeed, the power of “Shirley” is derived not from its real-world parallels but from the way it fits into the broader tapestry that Arthurs weaves in How to Love a Jamaican — the themes of regret, dissonance, and most potently, longing. Shirley and Rihanna may come from small places, at least compared with the glitzy American music industry, but as Arthurs’ vibrant take on the Caribbean-immigrant experience reminds us, it’s anything but hopeless.