On May 16, the O. Henry Prize, celebrating its 100th year of championing short fiction, announced its twenty winners. “Mermaid River” by Alexia Arthurs, which appeared in our Spring 2018 issue, was one of the lauded works. The story follows a young man caught between Jamaica, where he was raised by his grandmother, and New York City, where he’s been sent by his mother in the hopes that he enjoys a better life. The author of the debut short story collection How to Love a Jamaican, Arthurs spoke to us about geographical tension, learned fear, and the “blooming nature of memory.”
The O. Henry Prize Stories 100th Anniversary Edition (2019) will be published in September by Anchor Books.
SR: Of the fantastic stories in How to Love a Jamaican, “Mermaid River” strikes me as one that unfolds more quietly than the others. Of course, this subtlety is what makes its discoveries so devastating. Were you writing from a different place when working on this story?
Arthurs: I wrote the stories in How to Love a Jamaican over a period of four years and some months, which is why I feel that I was in a different place—emotionally, creatively—for each one. In “Mermaid River,” I was interested in the processing of grief, and the blooming nature of memory. And at the time my stories leaned heavily on interiority. I was really interested, sometimes to a fault, in what was happening in a character’s head, particularly the kinds of things a person can’t say out loud.
SR: New York and Jamaica act as the two locational poles of this story. The main character seems at once oriented toward, and torn between, both places. Can you speak to this geographical tension in your work?
Arthurs: I wrote “Mermaid River” during my first year living away from New York, the farthest I had ever been from my family and the Caribbean diaspora in Brooklyn. My mother shipped canned ackee, saltfish, and yams to Iowa, where I’d moved for graduate school. The route Samson takes to his high school is the one my brother took to Brooklyn Tech. And Canarsie, where Samson lives, and where I lived, is heavily concentrated with Caribbean people. I was thinking a lot about leaving home, about a person’s relationship to a place. I'm interested in diaspora living—living in a place like the United States, but being rooted to another place in memory, by how we eat, and what we hold close to us.
SR: In this story about familial love and generosity, the injustice and violence of the world makes its way to the surface. At one point, the protagonist describes his mother saying goodbye before school: “then she is wrapping her arms around me and whispering a quick prayer because she watches on the news the ways in which America can swallow black sons.” How are fierce maternal love and the danger inherent in a new life in America in conversation with each other in this story?
Arthurs: I was thinking about how people of color immigrate because they want a better life for their children, but better in a country that brutalizes black and brown bodies. I was twelve when my family immigrated, and I remember learning to be afraid in ways I hadn’t known before. This child-like knowing, passed down from the seemingly all-knowing adults around me, was something I haven’t forgotten, and I wanted to explore it in a story.