The shape of “I”
By Charmaine Valere
I Name Me Name, by Opal Palmer Adisa
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781-845-230-449, 160 pp)
A well-supported theory about contemporary writing on ethnic identity — the kind written by immigrants based in the United States — is that it tends to follow the lines of a familiar autobiographical plot: the story of becoming American. Such writing often contends with problems of assimilation, self-reinvention, and cultural translation, and questions of language, memory, gender, and place. And, like most autobiographical writing, ethnic-identity writing in America tends to follow a trajectory which moves from deeply personal, solitary introspection, to the familial, the communal, and to some form of political activism — from an “I” to a “we” — that is full of longing, full of definitions of belonging, and insistent on recognition.
Jamaica-born writer and professor Opal Palmer Adisa’s I Name Me Name (her eleventh book) is a collection of carefully constructed “I” narratives and verses, and one photograph, which fit the above description of contemporary ethnic-identity writing. The book questions, affirms, confronts, exposes, celebrates, and defines the life of a female immigrant from Jamaica who is mother, family member, academician, feminist, activist, lover.
The book’s first image is a photo of a young child, a girl, seated and posed for the photographer. Opposite is the first poem. It is a collection of descriptions and declarations written in lower-case first person —
i am . . .
i that is the granddaughter of edith & ezekiel
and anita & richard . . .
i that comes from an isle
a much smaller place than an island
i that is an . . . immigrant . . .
i the intellectual . . .
the womanfari i
— all packed tightly into the shape of a letter “I” (upper-case).
Following that tightly packed and assembled I-shaped poem is a disassembled version, in a more traditional verse form. This method of assembled presentation of self followed by a disassembled version of the same is repeated throughout the verse section of I Name Me Name. Some verses in the collection ascend and descend in step-like formations, others move from one side of the page to the other, others are chanting rhythms. In addition to the messages about the structural flexibility of self one can gather from the verses, Adisa’s methods of presentation create movement and action, encouraging the reader to become fully engaged in the performance, so to speak.
Method and form are clearly key to the constructions of self in I Name Me Name, and so are the persons who have influenced the writer, as well as events that have occurred in her lifetime. Adisa pays tribute to many of the people and events that apparently helped shape her sense of self. They span the length and breadth of geographic space, time, and subjects that only the vigilant artist can summon together in one place. Tributes (in verse) to women include Phyllis Wheatley:
i had another name
a name given to me
by my mother and father
a name that connected me
to my people
him beat me him touch-touch
me up him spit pan me
nothing don’t left for him do me
but him could never
make me believe him over me
there is and always will be a difference
between a woman and a lady but i was both
who was more
she freed nelson’s voice
for her people
words need you
they live inside you
in those dark sweet places
only your lover and children know
and Anita Hill:
but how to keep smiling
when your boss
is telling you the
deeds of his penis.
(Later in the book, Adisa pays tribute in prose to women like Toni Cade Bambara, Barbara Christian, and June Jordan, notable women writers she identifies as personal and intellectual friends and mentors.)
Everyday women are also singled out for praise and tribute. She highlights some women of West Africa who “bow low to men” —
in a land where men
— and makes a promise to sisters behind bars: “i’ll not allow you to be forgotten / i’ll carry you in my words / for your children.”
Included also are tributes to male figures, ranging (just as with the tributes to women) from historical characters like Nat Turner to contemporary figures like Michael Jackson — “cause it does matter / if you’re black or white / it always mattered” — to everyday men:
i’ve seen you
tickling your wife
laughing into her
working every day
sometimes two jobs
why they say you don’t exist.
When I Name Me Name switches to prose, the reader may initially miss the engaging movement and rhythm of Adisa’s verse, but what is lost in style is gained in intimacy. One gets the feeling of a narrator who invites the reader to sit in her living room for a private chat. And once again, as with the verses, the chat is wide and encompassing in subject matter and place: she may relate a Jamaican childhood story about her mother or her sister just as easily as she will rattle off a list of other writers (mostly from her academic life in the United States) who have influenced her writing. Repeated narratives also make connections between Adisa’s verse and prose. Moving between the two forms and back, the images are strengthened and reaffirmed, and the reader can follow her coming to awareness of several aspects of her self — personal and cultural recollections and questions, or even images of sexual molestation:
he thrusts me on the bed lies on top of me
pushes his tongue a rubbery plug
in my gagging mouth
i taste cigarette
he said nothing
i had no words . . .
I don’t remember any woman in the community warning us against taking a shortcut through the cane workers’ yard, or playing hide-n-seek there or watching out for E. with his big hood always held in his hand, pointed at us . . . I would probably have buried my memories forever if one female student in my creative writing class hadn’t broken down and read her memory of being raped by her high school teacher . . .
i tell my daughter
to tell me
if someone anyone
her private parts even if
they threaten to kill her me
All these narratives — personal and political, verse and prose — seem to flow seamlessly from the same source.
I Name Me Name’s most notable area of weakness (for this reader, anyway) may be its tendency to lecture at certain points, which may offer clues to its intended audience. For non-student readers, though, it will still succeed at what it appears to set out to do: it demonstrates, through vivid and varied combinations of art, politics, and the personal, that one’s definition of identity (ethnic, immigrant, or otherwise) can be as imaginative as one chooses here in America.
Charmaine Valere is an adjunct professor of literature at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. Born in Guyana, she writes about Guyanese and Caribbean literature at her blog, The Signifyin’ Woman.