Healing Words: an Interview with Opal Palmer Adisa
by D. Scot Miller
Dr. Opal Palmer Adisa is a literary critic, renowned storyteller, author of thirteen books, and tenured professor at the California College of the Arts. She also does workshops on writing, using literature to examine sexism, racism, and homophobia.
This interview originally appeared in Mosaic #23, December 2008
Born in Jamaica, Professor Adisa connects with the griot tradition to involve audiences, and her book of poetry, Tamarind and Mango Women, won the 1992 American Book Award. Her novel, It Begins with Tears, was recommended in Great Books for High School Kids: A Teacher’s Guide to Books that Can Change Teens Lives. As a mother of three and former artistic director of Watoto Wa Kuumba, an Oakland children’s theater group, she has spoken and taught on issues of parenting, going as far as to host a regular show on the topic at Pacifica Radio station KPFA.
With a first-hand understanding of the Caribbean storytelling tradition, Dr. Opal Palmer Adisa has brought tales, songs, and musings from Africa and the African-American experience to Oakland and the world for over thirty years. We were fortunate to catch the busy and influential writer/mystic for a phone interview. Even over the phone, Dr. Adisa weaves personal narratives that traverse time, space, and experience with a rare candor.
D. Scot Miller: When did you come into the griot tradition?
Opal Palmer Adisa: My tradition developed from my grandfather, my grand aunt, and growing up around people who told stories.
My maternal grandfather was a storyteller, not an official storyteller, but he would tell us stories. My mother used to send our sister and me out to the country for about two or three weeks and my maternal great aunt, who died four years ago at 102, was a consummate story teller. Jamaica gained its independence in 1962. We didn’t get TV until 1962. And it would come on in the evening and go off at midnight. What Jamaicans did at that time, what most people in the world did before TV, they would tell stories. Even after TV came out, we would sit down and tell stories. At that time, the most popular kind of stories were duppy or ghost stories. She would tell us stories and I was so afraid I wouldn’t want to sleep by myself. I didn’t want to go to the bathroom by myself!
I came to the states a little before I was sixteen. My brother had graduated from high school and moved to New York to be a journalist. I left Kingston and did my last year-and-a-half in New York and attended Hunter College. When I was there, I had a wonderful teacher who had storytelling classes on Saturday where we would work with children telling familiar stories and changing the ending. It occurred to me that I had duppy stories and Anansi stories that were not being told.
I went back to Jamaica in 1975 and worked there as an education officer and TV producer for children’s shows until August ’79. I wanted a masters in creative writing because I was writing and being published regularly between ’76 and ’79. I was looking for the poets and there was Kammau Brathwaite and Mervyn Morris. I contacted them, showed them my work, and established a relationship. Kammau Brathwaite was my mentor. He published me in his magazine, Clavicle, and got me published in the states in Nimrod when they had a special Caribbean issue.
DSM: Is this where you first got involved with radio?
OPA: I had one of the first poetry radio shows in Jamaica in the ’70s, and when I went back, I had a call-in show for teachers.
Though my degree in education media focused on television, radio is still exciting in the Caribbean. In rural areas, a radio show is the best way to communicate. There are so many talk shows that people listen to and call.
DSM: How do you feel about Oakland right now?
OPM: The Bay Area has been wonderful to me. I lived in San Francisco for a year and through a guy I was seeing, I came to Oakland. I could not imagine living anywhere else.It’s nurtured my creativity. The temperament of Oakland just felt right for me.
I entered my masters as a poet. I started out as a storyteller in the griot tradition. While I was waiting to get in at San Francisco State I took a class at City College with Lesley Simon who taught a poetry class. She asked me, “What are you doing here? You’re not at the level of these students.”
She told me about Poetry for the People and asked me to become a member and teach the class. She recommended me. I was the only black in the program at that time, there were a lot of North Beach poets. This is where I met Jack Hirschmen. Each of us produced chapbooks of our work at the end of the semester. John Kerr asked me to get my best poems together and he showed me how to do it. They published my first chapbook, “Market Woman.” It gave me my entrée in to the poetry scene in California.
I took a short story class at State and realized there were these stories from Jamaica I wanted to tell. Stories I had from Jamaica that were not being reflected, and it was from that class that my first book of short stories went on to get published. All of the stories I started in that class got published in that first collection, Big Face and Other Guava Stories. It was the first Chelsea Street book to be reviewed in the New York Times and ended up being taught in schools in South Africa, England, and Italy. And that really surprised me. I’m always surprised because I look at the stories and am surprised that I wrote them. I’m amazed how long the stories have lived. It’s four stories about four rural Jamaican women. When I came to the US it was the height of the Black Power Movement. My brother and his friends were students of Black Power. I grew up with Afros and big earrings, and as a result of the Black Power Movement there was a deep appreciation for things Caribbean because it’s about reflecting on your own life.
DSM: How did you become an authority on parenting?
OPA: When I came out to California in 1979, I didn’t have any money. I had to work. I could teach part time but I didn’t have a teaching credential. So before I went for the masters I decided I would get a teaching credential in early childhood. I was a head teacher for a while, which is where a part of my sensibilities around parenting developed. When I was working with black parents in and around the Presidio, I noticed that many did not have the skills to be a parent. I partnered with a sister named Marsha King, who used to be the head of childcare in Oakland and Fruitvale who had asked me to do storytelling. I did a series of storytelling for her and we ended up forming a very successful children’s theater company for about four years with seventeen kids. I did all the writing and the drama about Caribbean and African history. In 1980, we were the first to do a Kwanzaa piece in the Bay Area.
I started to look at what it meant to be a parent. When I had my own kids people would ask me for advice. A social worker asked me to a workshop and I never say no to anything. It was very successful, so I did another. That’s how I ended up doing the parenting show for NPR for four years.
DSM: You never say no to anything?
OPA: I don’t. When an opportunity comes to me, if it’s not utterly offensive, but something that’s going to give me an opportunity to grow and exercise in a way that I haven’t, I’m going to say yes. I’m going to learn what I need to know to master that and be successful at it. I tell my kids that. I know that Caribbean people are known to be resourceful—my mother was a very resourceful woman. She raised us by herself, and back then, people didn’t just throw away things; if something was wrong, you learned how to fix it. My mother would tinker with things that other women would not because they had husbands. So she learned how to fix things and she never said no. She played the organ at church, started a drama group for the cane workers, and she started a credit union. If someone was in need, she never said no. She went ahead and did it. I get that trait from her and I’ve passed it on to my kids.
DSM: Have you been involved with the arts community a lot the last few years?
OPM: I used to be very involved in community projects, but lately I’ve wanted to get more writing done. I didn’t feel like I was being as productive as I wanted to be. A lot of my friends who were much older have died without finishing projects. Writing is the most important thing me now, and I wanted to get some stuff out, which is why I’m going to Jamaica. I want to leave work behind. Right now I just want to do the work.
DSM: How would you define craft?
OPM: Craft is having the time to make your sentences shimmer. I look at Jamaica Kincaid. I may not always agree with her point of view, but her sentences are incredible. She’s a wicked sentence constructor! She has been fortunate that she came here as an artist, married the grandson of a founder of the New York Times and has the luxury and time to write full time. I look at Diaz’s book The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, and I love the humor. I love the voice. He has had the time to be a full-time writer and it shows. Alice Walker had the time to write full time. I think it makes a big difference in what you write, how you write, and how much you produce. It took me four years to finish my first novel because I was raising kids, teaching, working in the community. My sister took my kids for two weeks for the three summers I finished my first novel. One week, I wrote twelve hours a day. I got a residency in North Carolina and wrote for twelve hours a day. That made a big difference in the flow. I wasn’t trying to catch up or remember. No kids banging on the door. I’m proud of my first novel, but it took four years. When I have the summer or three months, I think it affects the quality and flow of what I write. It affects the craft.
DSM: What do you think is the power of the word?
OPA: For me it’s healing every time I write, regardless of what I write about. Every time us, as black people, write about us and our stories it’s part of a quilt that is making us whole. Our entrance into the new world was fragmented, the middle passage did that, and writing is about healing that rupture, that kidnap, that breakage from history, that one-third human we’re still trying to throw off. The word is balm. The word is healing. The word is the thing that is making us whole.