- Not Sound but the Memory of Sound
Of my childhood in Jamaica, comprising nearly my first nine years of life, I am left with scraps of memories. Many are non-sequential impressions, fleeting sights, smells, and sounds that startle me with their force when they arrive, sometimes unbidden, on my doorstep. But these specters of the past refuse to behave. They fidget and won’t sit still long enough for me to line them up. Mischievous children, they play hide-and-seek or run away, glancing over their shoulders to laugh at my feeble efforts to catch them.
In the summer of 1981, the year I entered the United States, my three younger sisters and I had been taken out of Kingston by our maternal grandparents, in response partly to the breakdown inside our home, partly to the political upheaval in the city and country at the time. The period of slavery notwithstanding, the decade of the ’70s into which I was born remains one of the most violent in Jamaica’s history. When my sisters and I arrived in America in 1981, for a variety of complex reasons, including U.S. immigration policy and the expense encumbered by my grandparents to get us all here, we landed without our parents. My mother would join us a year later, but days after I arrived in Miami, my father died suddenly.
The first time I went back to Jamaica was in 1995, nearly fifteen years after my departure and after this entangled loss of country and father had occurred. By then, I was in my early twenties, a student in a graduate creative writing program. A strange sequence of events occasioned my return. The director of my MFA program was the patient of a physician who’d been, for years, leading [End Page 123] annual medical missions to an infirmary in Lucea, a small, rural town in the parish of Hanover on the island’s north coast. At one of her appointments, Joyce’s doctor mentioned that he thought it would be great to have a writer accompany them on the upcoming trip. Someone, he felt, should preserve the stories of the elder residents at the infirmary. “As luck would have it, I have a graduate student from Jamaica,” she’d told him.
I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what I was going there to do. I wasn’t an oral historian but an aspiring poet. I identified readily as Jamaican but was painfully aware even then of the quicksand nature of my identity: I hadn’t returned to the place of my birth since parts of my family and I had, in our minds, fled. And while every poem I was writing kept pulling me back to Jamaica, I found myself unraveled by the thought of actually stepping foot in the country.
The day our group was to depart from BWI, a freakish snowstorm hit the Baltimore/DC area, shutting down airports, canceling flights. The group of us—and my now-husband who had come to see me off—were put up at an airport hotel. I was a wreck that night and came close to backing out of the trip altogether. I who professed not to believe in signs kept telling Steve, “This is a bad sign.” It was too much like my leaving Jamaica had been, too much like the eerie feeling I had carried inside me for years, that I was living a life on repeat, the needle of a turntable stuck and scratching out the same bars of the same song.
The day I’d left Jamaica for good, we missed our first flight. When my grandmother arrived at our home, she found my parents gone, my sisters and I unpacked and unkempt, our passports missing, the house in disarray. That day, we sat in Manley Airport waiting standby while my parents, elsewhere on the island, were attending Bob Marley’s funeral. That day, when we finally got out on the last flight bound for Miami, the feeling in me began—no, that’s false. It could not have been then as then I was most likely full only of the...