How the love of books helped a woman find her purpose as a writer.
I have always wanted to write.
Words seduce me. Reading tumbles me quickly into worlds I have no balance for.
Books became my protection as I grew up as a brown girl in “do or die” Bed Stuy Brooklyn during the 1980s to immigrant Afro-Latino parents from Central America. When I was five years old, my cousin asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I distinctly remember my response: I wanted to marry Bob Hope (humor me, I am a child of the ‘70s), own a pig farm (I have been a vegetarian for over 20 years) and I wanted to become the next Louisa May Alcott (of Little Women fame). Fast forward 40 years and I have finally made my way back to my five year old dreams. But, the journey was a tumultuous one.
Age 5 was also my induction into U.S. racism as I was once pushed aside on a busy Florida street while with my Latina-looking mother and sister, by two White men who called me nigger and berated my mother about teaching me “my place” (I was expected to move aside on the sidewalk for them to pass).
That moment told me that no one was going to protect me from the world but me. So, I cloaked myself in books and ploughed through the minefield of education; Catholic all-girl high school where the competition was fierce and the students of color a handful along with guidance counselors who never saw me. I was left to navigate the world of college applications alone. Yet, the library continued to be my oasis as I devoured books, entering worlds of scents, language, sensibilities, politics but mostly I sat alongside powerful female characters who triumphed in a world that was constantly silencing.
My love for literature grew and after years of hard work, I entered academia. 16 years in, one day I just paused. It was after I had become a tenured Associate Professor of English, having devoted countless hours teaching the books I loved from The Farming of Bones (Edwidge Danticat), A Long Way Gone (Chris Abani), So Long a Letter (Mariama Ba), Our Sister Killjoy (Ama ata Aidoo), Kaffir Boy (Mark Mathabane), The God of Small Things (Arundathi Roy) to Bruised Hibiscus (Elizabeth Nunez) and many others, that I realized I needed a divorce from academia.
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What a moment it is to come to a full stop in a life that has been carefully crafted- portfolios, student reviews, conferences, publication deals, tenure and promotion packages- to just put it down and graciously bow to my need to live another life; a life as a writer. I walked away from it all and started from scratch with my daring family in Costa Rica, my maternal homeland.
I now sit inside a writing life because it was impossible to walk away from my purpose. I know I can ease into any classroom setting, commanding a space where I do not feel like a fraud. Yet, the page; the story which needs to be told fills me with both terror and anticipation. I am adding my words to a conversation in Costa Rica which is not taking place. I am writing a novel about slavery in Costa Rica; about the lives of Africans, both freed and enslaved, whose stories have never been in the history books of this country or in the memory of the region beyond the mortar and brick legacies they left. And so, I write.
I do not have any magic solution; no morning routines and journal entries or mind maps on my wall. I also do not have the luxury of just writing every day; I must have paying work so that I can feed my children and contribute to my household along with my husband.
Yet, somehow, the pages come.
Sharing my work is terrifying; I have read parts of my novel aloud in three workshops settings and my palms start to sweat hours before I utter my first word. I am a newborn; trusting my listeners with my most exposed self. I have never been on this side of the process before. I am an expert in literary analysis; I can massage themes and metaphors out of any text but when I look at my writing; it is like seeing your child for the first time; wonder and fear twined together in a gasping moment of profound awe.
All the obstacles of being a black woman claiming a writing voice combined with writing a re-visionary history while convincing myself to see the novel through to the end is at times overwhelming. I have jumped into writing with a belly flop yet grace seems to line my fingers as my characters appear, living on the page. I am grateful that it has only taken me 40 years to get back to that true space which I put into words at age 5.
Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, a writer, professor and founder of the Tengo Sed Writers Retreats in Costa Rica, moved to Heredia, Costa Rica with her family from New York in June 2014. She is now accepting applications for Tengo Sed IV Writers and Yoga Retreat in Jan 2017.