Until Judgement Comes: Stories About Jamaican Men

Written by Brenda Payton for Oakland Tribune, The (CA) on

When Opal Palmer Adisa talks about writing, you understand why she likens her muse to an irresistible lover. There's an obvious affair going on between the woman and words. And the love child is her impressive body of work, including poetry, short stories and novels.
Whatever form, she infuses her stories with a rich imagery that recalls the lush vegetation and bold colors of her native Jamaica. 

Her latest book is a collection of short stories about seven Jamaican men, Until Judgement Comes: Stories about Jamaican men.

"I wanted to present a different face of Jamaica. For a lot of North Americans, Jamaica is a vacation place. It's not a real place. I wanted to bring the tangible people to the reader," she explained. An Oakland resident, Adisa has lived in California for more than 25 years.

In the book's introduction, she proclaims her love of men. "To say that I love men would be an understatement. I love men. Love the manliness of them. Love their posture and stance. Love their sugar raw, tamarind smell . . . ."

The first story, "Brethren," is about a cane cutter, inspired by the men Adisa saw working on the sugar estate where she grew up. Her mother was an executive secretary and community liaison.

"I befriended the kids and the first time I visited their house I was shocked they all lived in one room. A husband, wife and three children. Two streets over we had a three-bedroom house with a living room. I was aware of the disparity. That childhood image haunted me,"
she said.

In another story, a young man is mistreated by his mother because he reminds her of his father, who left her.

"You hear women who are so severe with their sons. I wondered what happens when they grow up," she said. Initially she saw the character as a criminal in prison, but decided he would turn away from that path and triumph. This story was particularly difficult for her to write.

"I was afraid because in the Caribbean, motherhood is sacred. How was I going to show something different? But I couldn't be scared. I had to speak the truth." She's braced for the response to the story when she takes a trip back to Jamaica later this summer.

Adisa said she had written most of the stories, but they weren't a collection until she was at a writers' residency in Brazil.

"That's where they came together. That's when I found the link. The characters became clearer, I could see and smell them. And I found this woman."

She wanted the collection to be about men so the presence of a woman character seemed contradictory. The presence persisted nonetheless.

"She was raised by her grandfather and that's where she gets her wisdom," Adisa explained. The female voice introduces each story.
"She is the link."

Brazil is also where she found the inspiration for the work she is grappling with now, an epic poem called ""Crossings.""

"I was at the festival of Yemanja (goddess of the sea) before sunset.
The priests and drummers were in the boat with the offerings. I said to the wind, 'I want to be on that boat.' Two elders who knew I was a writer said 'Come with us.' I waded out in the water, holding my camera up to keep it from getting wet, and scrambled on board."

"Out there, my eyes filled with tears. There was the image of who I think was my great-great-grandmother. I can't describe the face. She was squatting, not in the New World, but in her home in Africa. And she said, 'Some of us knew we had to come.' She was saying the slave trade and slavery were vital and necessary for the transformation of the new world. Shortly after, the sun sank in an enormous crimson pool and the priests began to unload the boat of the dolls and flowers, all the things they brought for Yemenja."

In Adisa's view, the awareness expressed by the woman in her vision can help liberate the descendants of African slaves in the New World from slavery's enduring legacy of victimhood.

"Despite everything, all the chaos, I believe our resilient spirit is the saving grace of this New World," she said.

It was a powerful image but she said she's struggling with the poem.

"I don't want it to be a novel. It doesn't feel like a novel," she said. "It's not coming in a fluid way, it's not a rush. I thought it would be done." She's hoping her visit home will inspire her writing.

"I need the ocean. I need to go off in the country. A quiet beach, trek through the river banks. I'll go to Port Royale where many of the slaves came to the island," she said. "In my work, there are two things I'm grappling with. Healing and love. We need to heal our minds, bodies and spirits. Sharing love, we can heal."