6 Great Books Set in Jamaica That We Love

6 Great Books Set in Jamaica That We Love

Monday, 14 August, 2023

There’s so much for travelers to love about Jamaica — the turquoise-blue Caribbean, lush green rainforests, soft-sand beaches, plus the infectious lilt of reggae and irresistible tastes of jerk pork, sweet plantains, and rum punch.

But life for locals is more complicated than a beach getaway, given Jamaica’s history with slavery, coloniaism, pirates, and poets.

These six books explore all the challenges and pleasures of life in Jamaica and will transport you to this appealing Caribbean island.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Jamaica: Let’s Get Together and Feel All Right.


Black Cake - Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake
> Charmaine Wilkerson

This family story about identity and forgiveness is set in modern-day California and the Caribbean in the 1960s. The main characters are an estranged brother and sister, their recently deceased mother, and Jamaican black cake. Do not deny yourself this beautiful novel in which cake plays a central role.

When the novel opens, Byron and his sister Benny are meeting with an attorney to settle their mom’s estate. This is the first time in years that they’ve been in the same room. ‘Taut’ is the word that comes to mind. Then they learn that instead of paperwork, their mother has left them an audiotape she spent days recording. Her final wish was that Byron and Benny listen to it together. Now.

They’re also given a note that says, ‘B and B, there’s a small black cake in the freezer for you. I want you to sit down and share the cake when the time is right. You’ll know when.’

So they begrudgingly listen to the tape while wrestling with their complicated feelings. It’s not long before they learn almost everything they knew about their parents and family history is a lie.

This is a sweeping story that weaves threads of racism and climate change with good old, messed-up family dynamics. There are also acts of coincidence or fate that bring people together at just the right time — and there is, under every wrong decision and sharp word, love. {more}

His mother used to say she would make a black cake for Byron and Benny when each of them got married, but neither of them had. Ma’s cake was a work of art, Byron had to admit. That moist, loamy mouthful, the tang of spirits behind the nose. But Byron had never shared his parents’ emotional attachment to the recipe. Tradition, his ma used to say. But whose tradition, exactly? Black cake was essentially a plum pudding handed down to the Caribbeans by colonizers from a cold country. Why claim the recipes of the exploiters as your own? Tradition? How about coconut gizzada? How about mango ice cream? How about jerk pork, rice and peas, Scotch bonnet peppers, coconut milk, yellow plantains, and all those flavors that Byron had come to enjoy, thanks to his mother’s cooking? Now, that was what he called island food. But no, these had never been enough for his ma. More than any other recipe, it was the black cake that brought that creamy tone to his mother’s voice. That shine to her eye. — Charmaine Wilkerson

Motherland - Melissa Thompson

> Melissa Thompson

Melissa Thompson wants to help you load up your table with traditional Jamaican food — hello, Jerk Pork, Braised Oxtail, Ackee and Saltfish! And while you eat, she’s going to share the stories behind the recipes to also feed your mind.

Thompson grew up in England, eating homemade food cooked by her Jamaican father. She watched and learned and, eventually, out on her own, she recreated the dishes that represented home to her. And she got curious. How did the unlikely marriage of ackee and saltfish come to be? What makes jerk jerk?

So she wrote this book, what she calls ‘a cookbook with historical narrative,’ weaving Jamaican recipes with essays about the impact of slavery, colonization, and immigration on Jamaica’s cuisine. It’s worth mentioning that this beautiful book includes a map so you can connect flavor with place.

If you want to work Jamaican food into your regular rotation of recipes, crank up the reggae, crack open this book, and get cooking. {more}

I grew up in Weymouth, a seaside resort in Dorset on England’s South Coast, where there were few Black people, let alone any Jamaican culture. Yet, in our kitchen at home, as soon as I scooped up mouthfuls of my dad’s famous ackee and saltfish with torn pieces of fried dumpling, or savoured a slice of caramel-sweet plantain, if I closed by eyes, I could imagine I was in Jamaica. Each bite rooted me further to the island, a place where — at the time — I had never been. — Melissa Thompson

If I Survive You - Jonathan Escoffery

If I Survive You
> Jonathan Escoffery

This series of linked vignettes — lyrical, darkly funny — tells the story of a Jamaican family fighting to find their way in Miami. It explores the in-between: of homes, of cultures, of life stages, of love.

The first story is told by Trelawny, the son of a Jamaican immigrant in the US. Trelawny was born in the States but often feels he doesn’t belong anywhere. And, to a large extent, he doesn’t. He’s too American to be Jamaican, too Jamaican to be accepted by Americans, too brown for the white kids, not brown enough for the Mexican kids or the Black kids.

He feels it when people ask why his mother talks so funny. He feels it when his teachers ask him how he learned to speak so well. But he feels it most when people ask, ‘What are you?’

He tries saying, ‘Black,’ then goes through a phase of ‘Jamaican,’ all the while trying to connect but failing to find his way. Trelawny grows up, but it’s without a foundation; he’s perpetually on the unsure footing of someone who feels they don’t belong. You will leave this story feeling much empathy for Trelawny.

Then we meet Trelawny’s dad, Topper. His story is written in Jamaican patois, and it’s a sketch of his life: his coming-of-age, putting aside his dreams, fleeing Jamaica, and landing in the US. He also shares his take on his son Trelawny, and the effect — seeing both sides of that story — is stunning. The complete picture emerges of how these two men resent each other. How they each wish the other was different and better. And how neither of them is willing to soften, even a little. It’s brilliant, illuminating, and tragic.

There’s dark humor in the narrative, and there is simply dark. But the satisfying magic of a great story well told — with character development that feels searingly real — is on every page. {more}

Reclined in the slow-flickering beam of television images, I scroll through my contacts and search for a friend to text with. For a moment, I consider texting my brother to see if his offer to move in with him—now that his wife up and left—still stands. His invitation had arrived with brotherly advice: People amount to their actions and you’ve been acting like a bum.

I took no offense but clarified, I identify as dispossessed. — Jonathan Escoffery

Black Heart of Jamaica - Julia Golding

Black Heart of Jamaica
> Julia Golding

Meet Cat Royal. She’s four feet tall with long red hair and an affinity for close scrapes. She’s been a spy and a ballerina, gone undercover as a boy, and been kidnapped and forced to sail across the Atlantic. The year 1792 finds her in Philadelphia. But it won’t be long before Cat accidentally joins a pirate crew and is caught up in an uprising of enslaved people in the Caribbean.

Eager for a change of scenery, Cat and her best friend Pedro — an African violin virtuoso and formerly enslaved person — join the Peabody Theatrical Ensemble and sail from London to various ports of the Caribbean to perform the works of Shakespeare.

But after the stunning debut of their show, their dramatic careers are cut short when Pedro catches revolution fever, and Cat is tricked into a perilous situation that gives her first-hand experience of what it’s like to be enslaved.

Her tale has everything you could want in a pirate/theater/sassy-heroine adventure. There’s a pious theater impresario with secrets, a bloodthirsty bosun, pirates with gentlemanly manners, and a handful of actors, sailors, and ne’er-do-wells with questionable motives. {more}

Our destination of Kingston sat on one side of a natural harbour, a settlement of brightly painted houses, fringed by lush mangroves, set against the backdrop of the Blue Mountains of the Interior. Across the bay on a protective spit of land lay Port Royal, a naval base and centre of shipping. The bay was a thicket of masts as ships waited to off-load the ‘black ivory’ of slaves and take on cargoes of sugar, coffee, tobacco and other plantation goods. Small boats plied the water between the sea-going vessels, offering fresh goods for sale. The sea sparkled blue under a cloudless sky; the wind was warm and spicy. — Julia Golding

The Last Warner Woman - Kei Miller

The Last Warner Woman
> Kei Miller

Full transparency: This book’s setup might not sell you on it. This is a beautifully written story about a woman born in a Jamaican leper colony and later committed to a mental hospital in England.

But trust that this gorgeous book is much more than those few words convey. It’s lively and raw, musical and heartbreaking, challenging, thrilling, and unforgettable.

This remarkable novel is the life story of Adamine, a warner woman — she communicates with spirits to warn people of what’s coming. Born in one of Jamaica’s last leper colonies, she grew up, discovered Revivalism, and learned of her gift as a warner.

The narrative spans from the 1940s until the 2000s. We pass through Adamine’s life at her side, experiencing her awakening as a warner woman and its accompanying tragedies. We also meet a mysterious character she calls Mr. Writer Man — he’s convinced Adamine to share her life story so he can turn it into a book. The story unspools through Adamine’s first-person account in a musical patois and the observations of Mr. Writer Man.

Although Adamine is the star, this is really a story about storytelling and who gets to write the final version of a person’s life. Why let the facts get in the way of a good story? If you have any empathy at all, parts of this book will cut you deeply. There’s a lot of tragedy in these pages. But there’s also a vise grip on the will to live — and to love.

This story begs to be read aloud. We recommend the audiobook narrated by the author with one caveat: The book is divided into four parts, and the audiobook includes only the first two, about 60 percent of the book. Attempts to suss out why failed. But we stand behind our recommendation of the audiobook because Kei Miller tells his story so vibrantly, making a song of his words.

Double down on this: Listen to the audiobook until there is no more, then switch to the print version — and you will still hear Adamine’s poignant, urgent patois ringing in our ears. {more}

The cry of the Warner Woman carries with it a scent, and if you are close by when she prophesies you will smell it too. It is the smell of nutmeg, of earth, of rocks, of rain coming in from a distance, of salt, of ocean, of egrets, of oil, of cream soda, of coconut, of dust. — Kei Miller

West Winds: Recipes, History and Tales from Jamaica - Riaz Phillips

West Winds
> Riaz Phillips

Want to feel like you’re on a walk in Jamaica with a local, talking to his friends and sharing plates of food? Then this is the book for you.

Riaz Phillips is a writer, video maker, and photographer. He was born and raised in London, but he’s passionate about the Afro-Caribbean food he ate growing up. His curiosity about people, what they eat, and how they cook infuses this book. It’s loaded with gorgeous photos that transport you to warmer climes and recipes with narrative vignettes woven into the headnotes. It’s delicious food, yes, but there’s always a story there, too.

You’ll find the recipe you expect; jerk chicken is there for you. But there are also creative possibilities like Macaroni Cheese spiced up with his 10-ingredient all-purpose seasoning and a sprinkling of desiccated coconut added to the buttered breadcrumbs on top. There’s also Dr. Bird Cake, a pineapple-infused confection with fragrant nutmeg and allspice, buttery pecans, and cream cheese frosting.

If you want to get hit in the face with new, bold flavors — and bring a bit of the Caribbean islands to your kitchen, West Winds is a fantastic place to start. {more}

My grandmother Mavis always cooked. I can still hear the sound of her flickering gas hob boiling a pan of water in her Hackney estate flat in East London. From among the supermarket shopping bags in her trolley always emerged more bags: brown paper ones, bright lube, or red and white-striped plastic bags in which plantain, Scotch bonnets, green bananas, and yams were nestled. As a child, I didn’t give this a second thought. It wasn’t Jamaican food, it wasn’t Caribbean food, or anything foreign, it was just food… — Riaz Phillips

Top image courtesy of Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke/Pixabay.

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There's so much to recommend a trip to Jamaica. Where else to eat some callaloo, sip smooth Blue Mountain coffee, walk in the footsteps of pirates, sing with the rebels of reggae, and splash in the warm Caribbean?
By conjuring images of a mermaid — a beautiful, graceful, free mermaid — this prose poem by Jamaican writer Kei Miller speaks eloquently of the damage caused by imperial rule to colonized people, lands, and seas.

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