In an interview with Micah Morgan, Opal Palmer Adisa, award-winning poet, novelist, performance artist and educator, opens up about finding her writer’s voice, and making a difference in the Caribbean. She also shares her advice for painting regrets away.
I’m grateful for my heroines. If you’re fortunate, the dynamic women in your life will move you to action. One such person for many writers, including myself, is author and Distinguished Professor, Opal Palmer Adisa.
Opal Palmer Adisa has written several books including 4-Headed Woman, Caribbean Erotic, The Tongue Is A Drum, It Begins With Tears, Tamarind and Mango Women, Fierce Love, and, Bake-Face and Other Guava Stories, just to name a few. She has edited several anthologies of prose, poetry, and essays including The Caribbean Writer, Volume 24, The Caribbean Writer: Ayiti/Haiti, Volume 25,and ProudFlesh, Riding The Waves of Caribbean Women, poetry, prose, essays and art.
She is also founder and editor of Interviewing the Caribbean, and is launching Ay-Ay: JUnior Caribbean Writer, a magazine for Caribbean Children. Professor Adisa, is a distinguished Professor at California College of the Arts, where she has been teaching since 1993, and presently only teaches the fall semester.
I called Professor Adisa in St. Croix. After four years, her melodic voice was warm, welcoming. Even with so many students, she still remembered my life exactly, reminiscing on old haunts and my relationships during my graduate research at California College of the Arts.
Opal never misses a beat.
“I wrote my first poems in the cemetery. Of course we have duppies and ghosts, but I was never afraid of them.The graves never bothered me, I used to look upon the clouds with the cool tombstones on my back, ” Adisa, a Jamaican national, explained to me, describing the large sugar plantation, her childhood home, a place where she first found her writing voice.
Adisa’s writing revelation came in the form of her own heroine while attending Hunter College in Manhattan. “Growing up in the post colonial era, there were no examples of Caribbean writers being taught in school, or being mentioned on broadcast.” said Adisa referring to her youth, shortly after Jamaica gained its independence on August 6, 1962.
“While authors like E.R. Braithwaite, Louise Bennett, Claude McKay, Edgar Mittleholzer, and Paule Marshall existed, these voices and stories were not always accessible sources of inspiration. They weren’t featured in broadcast, or paper publications. In other words, they had to be sought out,” she went on to reiterate.
Regrets are for the dead
Adisa was not discouraged. When I asked about her methods for getting moving past hardships and overcoming regrets, she said, “I get this from my mother who is an eternal optimist, and who never gave up in the face of adversaries, but always said a way will be made. I think that too is my mantra.
I hunker down, and yes get sad and even morose, then the next day I dust myself off and say let’s see what can be done today, what breeze can I find on which to sail.
Regrets are for the dead, hence the title of my last novel, Painting Away Regrets, which is what Christine the protagonist does, literally, as an artist painter, she paints them away. I write them away and write about all the pain and frustration…
A poetess heroine arose in the midst of scholarly seclusion, and helped prime Opal Palmer Adisa for stewardship.As an undergraduate she found plenty African, Caribbean and African American writers and taught them. Going ahead in the the academic ranks, she found herself without many writers with whom she could identify.
Opal Palmer Adisa met African American poet Sonia Sanchez while completing her Bachelor’s degree at Hunter College. “She was a little black woman, like me and, an entire auditorium of people came out to listen to her . Sanchez is an amazing African American poet whose work I have loved and continue to love even now. She’s such an amazing person with a strong sense of community and social activism…values I embrace ” Adisa said of Sanchez.
Through Sanchez, Opal Palmer Adisa’s inspiration echoes the role she had for many students at California College of the Arts, including myself. She reminds us to be a champion of our own self worth, develop a voice and find community. Adisa went on to receive a Master of Creative Writing, followed by a Master of Theatre from San Francisco State. She completed her PhD from UC Berkeley in Ethnic Studies/English. Adisa taught at UC Berkeley before deciding to pursue her doctorate, and also taught as a visiting professor at Stanford University, St. Mary’s College in Moraga, and the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix.
I’ve never been concerned about money, and now I AM!
Since moving to St. Croix in 2010, Opal Palmer Adisa has produced a play every year with a theme centered around social justice. Her play, Out of Control, which ran successfully last year dealt with domestic violence. This year’s production tackles the difficult hurdle of child abuse.
Of being in the Caribbean, Adisa says, “I know I need to be in the Caribbean at this time. I feel I’ve given so much to the US. Being here has really allowed me to see what I want to do. The needs here, and what I can best do based on my expertise and what I want to do.”
While her passion for social justice is forging the way for Afro-Caribbean feminist theatre, one of the greatest struggles she faces is finding support in the larger art community. “I’ve never been concerned about money, and now I AM! I’ve always been comfortable. Never excess, but enough.”
At California College of the Arts, I was dealing with straight up racism
Later this May, The Co-operative Republic of Guyana will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of it’s independance. Like many nations in South America and the Caribbean, The Republic struggled to find its voice on an international stage. And, even now still within the Caribbean, there is not a medium for our children to speak to each other and the world.
“I started teaching at City College by chance, because I missed the deadline to do my Masters at SF State. The first set of poems I turned in, my professor said, ‘Why are you here? You should be teaching the class,’ I did. Nobody was teaching Caribbean literature in the African American studies department at Berkeley.
At California College of the Arts, I was dealing with straight up racism and resistance, guised behind liberalism from many at the beginning.
They are liberal white people, and you might not assume they are racist, but they were just as racist as the next person because they refuse to see beyond their zip code and they have not educated themselves about the literature and accomplishments of the so called “other” Americans, people of color.
My goal has always been the work of Caribbean artists and writers to be included. It’s really about inserting, and assuring my voice, making sure it is accessible.
Academia wants to subsume the Caribbean reality my reality; it is not subsumed by the African American existence, they are related. It’s a good political design, but it is not practical. We get lumped in an umbrella and we have to fight for that little space, we have to move from the margin to the center. It’s not just about making space, it’s about moving from the margins, concludes Opal Palmer Adisa.
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