The middle child of three, born into a solidly middle-class family, you could say I’ve typically hidden from attention while quietly craving it. My answer to this was to bury myself in books. Both voracious readers themselves, my parents filled our home with books, some categorized by genre and author in my father’s study, others haphazardly piled on random shelves throughout the house. I loved combing through them.
It is only in retrospect that I can see how early my father’s love for books took hold of me as I have always felt more closely aligned with my mother: I chose the same academic courses she had; I was desperate to attend university abroad, where I majored in French, as she had; and my affinity for foreign languages is unquestionably a result of absorbing the lesson plans my mother prepared for her students. I would sit on the carpet of her bedroom where she would be perched on her bed, surrounded by textbooks and the accompanying cassette tapes. I pored over the sample conversations (“Bonjour maman!” “Bonjour les enfants!”), giddy over the lilting speech, and I took far more pride than was warranted in having learned to spell to 10 in French! (I know, eye roll.)
I was excited to study French and Spanish in high school. My mother also seemed ecstatic at the prospect of having a student at home whom she could drill in French and Spanish, with “home” notebooks–separate and distinct from my school notebooks–containing page after page of vocabulary and grammar exercises and sentences to be translated. But in the olden times, as my Peppa Pig-obsessed daughter would say, the only professions grown-ups seemed to value were doctor, lawyer, or engineer. A frequent comment from my parents’ friends was, “Languages? What are you going to do with that, teach?” The way that last word was spat out made it clear that I most certainly was not supposed to do that (but I did anyway, for a brief time). Yet, despite the absence of a clear career path, I stuck with languages, trusting that a way forward would emerge. And boy did it.
It is not possible to thank my mother enough for the
drudgery single-minded dedication to my success that would not allow me to give up. Because of her, I persisted even when upper-level classes challenged me to work harder to excel. Her understanding of the restlessness that drove me opened up opportunities to explore other countries from an early age. The teacher in her was always on the lookout for ways to expand our world, and I have very fond memories of my family hosting kids from Martinique and Venezuela, whose families reciprocated by welcoming me into their homes. When I was 14, I hoarded my allowance for months so that I could contribute to the cost of a three-week educational trip to France. I have since returned many times for education and pleasure, but the wonder I felt on that first trip has never dissipated.
Unexpectedly/fortuitously, almost two decades later, I stumbled across an entry-level position in the translation department of an international organization. It was the perfect fit. I was passionate about the organization’s mission, my small team of Caribbean-born colleagues became my family, and every day I felt that satisfying click of the perfect word gliding into place as we rebuilt narratives and transformed ideas from one language to another. I counted myself among the lucky few who have been able to make a career doing what we love, and I thrived in that environment for over 15 years.
“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”William Shakespeare
Then life turned upside down. I cannot claim that I always wanted to be a writer, but I suppose there were hints. Although I have no recollection of being aware of racism or ethnically based discrimination as a child, when I was 12, I got it into my head to retell Little Red Riding Hood as Little Black Riding Hood, complete with illustrations. Not surprisingly, though, my scrappily stapled together magnum opus never found acclaim outside of my family. Or within my family, come to think of it.
Now, exactly 30 years later, I find that there are stories inside me that I need to tell. These stories would never have evolved were it not for my daughter. I hope they will help her understand herself and her place in the world and in my heart.