Barbara Nelson, Contributor
Opal Palmer Adisa is in love with writing. Her first stories, she says, were composed as a child in her native country, Jamaica, while she "lay nestled in the tall grasses, peeling away the sharp skin of the cane with my teeth and feeling deep pleasure as the sweet, sticky juice trickled down my cheeks onto my neck".
Today, she is a full-time professor of Creative Writing and Literature at California College of the Arts in the USA and former chair of the Ethnic Studies/Cultural Diversity programme. She has taught at several outstanding universities, including the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University and San Francisco State University.
Opal is an award-winning poet and prose writer with 11 titles to her credit, including the novel, It Begins With Tears (1997), that Rick Ayers, a well-respected (media, journalism and English) teacher at Berkeley High School (in California) and author of several books on education, proclaimed as one of the most motivational works for young adults.
Her work is well known, as she has lectured not only in the United States, but also in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, and England, and in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. She is widely acclaimed, yet she is a most approachable and humble person.
"What is the secret of your attitude?" I asked her.
Responding from her home in California she said: "Not sure I can attribute any one thing or a single person, but perhaps all things - life, my faith and my basic ideology that we are all god-like and nothing I or anyone achieves sets us apart from our humanity and connectedness with others. Daily, I am grateful for all that I have achieved thus far," she said.
She credits her mother, who "is the most resilient, optimistic person I know, a real determined, will-not-be-stopped woman" as the single most influential person in her life. But, she adds, "Many others, both known to me and others I observed in passing - their zeal, their passion, their relentlessness and drive to make a way, to do better, to accomplish, to love," have also influenced her.
The real spirit of the Jamaican people - the way they wrestle with life - has been her major inspiration. "As a writer," she added, "knowing the work of Kamau Brathwaite, Claude McKay, Zora Neal Hurston, Jean Toomer and Alice Walker offered additional impetus."
Her poetry, stories, essays and articles on a wide range of subjects have been collected in over 200 journals, anthologies and other publications, including Essence magazine (February 2006). She has also conducted workshops in elementary through high school, museums, churches and community centres, as well as in prison and juvenile centres.
Opal loves travelling - "I love to be on the go, and travelling quenches a need I have," she said. She has travelled to many countries in different parts of the world, and has been a resident artist in internationally acclaimed residencies, such as Binational Fulbright Institute (Egypt), Sacatar Institute (Brazil) and Headlines Center for the Arts (California, USA).
Dreams coming true
"Both Brazil and Egypt were places I dreamed of and said I would go as a child in Jamaica, and going to both of these places was the very act of dreams coming true. Both places are amazing and I was welcomed and felt at home in both places. I felt like I belonged there," she said.
She found the African culture in Brazil "so rich and magical" and "Egypt was mind-blowing - its history is daunting, overwhelming, and the 20 million people live daily with almost no crime. I could walk anywhere, anytime, night or day, and I did not have to be afraid."
Opal says she discovered another skin when she was in Egypt and was able to live in that skin. This is the poem she wrote about her visit to Egypt:
An Egypt Welcome
By Opal Palmer Adisa
Here the past
is as alive as the people's smile
where the present is grace
and welcome is not merely a word
but a true embrace of visitors and tourists
my heart glides in the Nile.
She is a friendly, outgoing, charming woman and it is no wonder that she makes lifelong friends on her travels.
Does she have a favourite award or honour? After all, she has had several. "None is more important that the other," she said. "Each is recognition of all that I have achieved, and how my works have affected various communities. If pressed to select, though, I would say the fact that my novel, It Begins With Tears, was voted as one of the most inspirational books for young adults, and that so many high school students, at least in the Bay Area where I live, read it."
"Moreover," she continued "I am gratified that when I am invited to their schools they tell me how much they enjoy it, and the impact that it has on them."
It means the world to her, reaching young people, and being able to influence them positively "and bring another culture/society - Jamaican culture - to them to see and appreciate so much that they want to go to Jamaica, not as a regular tourist, but rather to meet and connect with the people on a level of commonality."
In her Journal Entries in Eros Muse she brings the reader into some intimate experiences: "March 1985 - I thought writing a poem and completing a collection was a miracle, but this child, my precious Shola, is my best poem yet.
"April 1985 - I wrote poems while Shola suckles at my breast. I often fall asleep in the rocking chair, Shola asleep in my arms, milk trickling from my breasts while my poems float around, a halo that protects us."
She explained further: "I am the person I am because I am a mother, and I knew when I was 12 years old that I would be a mother, and even then I was thinking about the kind of mother I wanted to be.
"My (three) children have allowed me to grow and stretch in ways I never thought possible because they are all so different, and I always tried to be conscious of their respective needs and act accordingly. I have not always been successful as there is no blueprint and sometimes, even when I do the best I can, consciously, I might still not, for that particular child, do what s/he thinks is fair or thoughtful."
Opal says that a lot of what she writes about comes from this keen awareness of being responsible to help shape and guide three lives to be responsible to themselves and their community, to love themselves and to choose happiness above all.
"Those are the values I set for myself as a parent, and I would like to think I have been measurably successful. So, as I write, I want my work to affirm those values."
Out of this desire to affirm her values, to speak the truth and celebrate life, joy, and a future and, at the same time, leave a legacy for her children, there has grown a desire to help other parents, to parent more consciously and become parents of the 21st century.
She has been doing a parenting show on KPFA, public radio for the last four years, dealing with every imaginable topic, but certainly challenging ones, like drugs, adoption, talking to your kids about sex, special kids, divorce, co-parenting, etc.
Out of that experience and the many invitations she received to speak on the topic at various places came the idea for the parenting book she is working on now.
"Many children in the USA and elsewhere are being shuffled back and forth between two homes (like my children and many of their friends, who are the product of divorced parents).
"Our children don't have the freedom we did," she continued, "the world seems less friendly, and most don't have a community or a village, even though we give lip service to that concept; most children are not having meals with their family at the table daily, or anytime, for that matter,"
With all the pressures and demands of work, the desire to progress, peer pressure and media interference in today's world, many parents feel disempowered, she said. "I hope my book will serve as guide as well as inspiration, will get parents to look closely at what kind of human being they want to raise and do what it takes to make this happen," she said.
She left Jamaica as a young girl in the 1970s. Today she says, "It was never my intention to stay away from Jamaica so long. Although I visit yearly I have not lived there, and as I get older I miss it more and more."
Now, after many life struggles - "around teaching and making time to do my writing, around marriage and making time to do my writing, about taking the time to actually write when I wanted to do something else, and learning how to write around and with my children," she has begun to make plans to return to her homeland.
She hopes to return in the next two years (if but for half the year). "My long-term goal," she explained, "is to build a writers' retreat so other writers can have the time and space, like I have been fortunate to enjoy, to complete various manuscripts."
Opal hopes to teach part-time; help establish an MFA programme, which is the reason why she left in the first place - (and, she says, such a programme still does not exist).
"I left Jamaica in 1979 for California as I wanted to pursue a Master's in Fine Arts degree (a terminal degree, which allows one to teach on the college level) in creative writing, but UWI did not have such a programme, and they still don't. I know there is a need for such a programme as Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean produce many important writers, all of whom have to leave to study.
"I would like to help establish such a programme with an emphasis in Caribbean literature/writings. I know this programme would attract both Caribbean and North American writers. Moreover, I was one of the persons who developed and implemented the MFA in Creative Writing at California College of the Arts, where I currently teach in both the graduate as well as undergraduate programme," she said.