Keisha-Gaye Anderson

the door

Painting Away Regrets: A New Novel by Opal Palmer Adisa, Ph.D.

March 26, 2012

Fiery. Inspiring. Transformative. Opal Palmer Adisa’s writing captivated me the first time I heard her read one of her signature poems, “The Tongue is a Drum.”

An accomplished poet, Dr. Adisa has also penned twelve books and numerous essays. She is an educator, speaker, and ethnographer, whose Jamaican roots play an integral role in her work. And she doesn’t shy away from exploring subjects like sexuality, trauma, and African spiritual retention in Caribbean culture.

Dr. Adisa was kind enough to talk with me about her latest novel, Painting Away Regrets.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson: What was your inspiration for your latest novel, Painting Away Regrets?

Opal Palmer Adisa: My desire to write a novel that explores sexual attraction, love, incompatibility, family, ancestral connection, as well as my own divorce, and what I learned from that experience. But the novel is by no means autobiographical. Yes I pulled from some of my own history, but I actually interviewed thirteen women and two men who had experienced divorce to get to the substance of that part of the novel, which is the second half.

Like all of my works, this novel is also about healing—how do we heal from the daily traumas that impact us? And for me, divorce is a major trauma, even though it is so commonplace currently. I think people in this society are bleeding all over the place and spraying their blood/pain on each other because they are not taking the time to heal.

This novel is not about one thing. Well, it is about life, specifically the lives of Christine and Donald, and their explosive sexual attraction, their love, their incompatibility despite their love, and how as a result, they begin to slowly destroy each other, which leads to their divorce.

However, an underlying element of this novel is the pursuit of one’s dream, true passion. Christine, the protagonist pursues law and practices for many years because it is practical and a good source of income, but at heart, she has always been a visual artist. So, during the turmoil of her marriage, she finds her way back to and through her art, and is and therefore able to reunite herself. Her unification provides the bridge that reconnects her to her Jamaican spirituality, her connection with ancestors.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson: How is this text different from your previous works?

Opal Palmer Adisa: Each work is different just based on time frame, but also, I believe each writer keeps examining the same theme but in diverse ways.
I have not written about divorce and the failings of a marriage before. I have not written about Blacks in the Diaspora and our relationships—African American, Caribbean, African and what it means for us to come together and move apart. I have always written about sexuality, but not in the explicit manner that I have in this work, and sexuality as the driving force in a woman’s life.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson: A lot of your writing deals with the themes of personal transformation and confronting one's fears. Talk about that in terms of the characters in Painting Away Regrets.

Opal Palmer Adisa: Wow! That feels especially big for me now that my father has recently died. We are always in a process of transformation, either actively, meaning that we are consciously working through some issues, or unconsciously, we are spinning in our own mess, refusing to stop and take a look at how we should do things differently.

The two main characters in the novel, Christine and Donald, are going through personal transformation, but Christine is more actively engaged in this, partly I think because of her relationships with her deceased grandmother, who nudges and guides her through dreams. Contrary to popular beliefs, transformation is not a singular journey; it requires a community that is there to buffer and hold you safe while you navigate that journey and space. Christine has that in her sister, her best friend Jasmine, and her parents, with whom she is close.

On the other hand, Donald, who is estranged from his family, and lives in his head as an intellectual does not undergo a similar transformation, which he needs. Instead he continues to bleed and splashes his blood on everyone he meets, especially the very people he loves.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson: Talk about the role that African spirituality plays in this story and what moved you to incorporate this aspect of spirituality in the text.

Opal Palmer Adisa: I have studied African religion, especially the Yoruba tradition, which has one of the largest influences in the New World where Black people have spread out. Yet it is still perceived by the larger society, as well as by many people of African descent, as a minor and somewhat subversive, superstitious religion, even when glaring parallels exist with Judeo Christianity.

My work is also about retrieval, returning Black people to their nascent selves. Also, I know that African spirituality has been at the heart of every successful revolt, and has been an empowering force in the lives of Black people who walk in their own shoes. Incorporating this element in the novel is part of my larger agenda of self-determination and cultural continuity. The novel reveals what happens to Christine when she moves away from this path, and how her salvation is dependent on her returning to core, to her African-Jamaican spiritual roots to be healed and emerge whole.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson: How do your Caribbean roots influence your writing?

Opal Palmer Adisa: It is who I am at the core. It is present, always is and will be. I think Toni Morrison said she wrote books she wanted to read. I do the same. I keep saying, why hasn’t someone written about this aspect of Jamaica/the Caribbean? And the answer is, well Opal, do your job. Write about it.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson: What are your thoughts about the evolution of Caribbean literature?

Opal Palmer Adisa: I love how it keeps growing; I love that so many women are writing; I love the range and variety. Yet, there are still so many areas that have not been explored, so many more writers who aren’t given a chance of an audience. The literature is making strides, but still has not broken in to a North American audience. The average American still does not know Caribbean writers; we are not household names.

Ever so often one gets let in. Before, it was Jamaican Kincaid, now it’s Edwidge Danticat, but who and where are the voices in between, both before and after? I am not sure what needs to happen to burst the door wide open for us, but it has not happened yet.

Thank goodness for Peepal Tree Press, that keeps expanding its list of Caribbean writers. Thank goodness for the survival and resilience of the various Caribbean communities that keep producing writers, and thank goodness for the readers, who keep seeking and reading our works. Let’s keep forging ahead.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson: What do you hope readers will take away from Painting Away Regrets?

Opal Palmer Adisa: That love in isolation is not enough; it has to be grounded in shared beliefs, culture, and understanding. That each of us is responsible to heal ourselves after each hurt, rather than burying it or using it as a hose to spray and hurt others. That each of us must pursue our dreams and abandon fear and live fully.

Life’s path is never straight and narrow and we must be prepared to take the bends in the road and lean in. Sometimes we might get bruised, but that is all apart of the growth process and the learning curve. We must be open to the unexpected and be prepared to act, which is what Christine does.

This novel, Painting Away Regrets, is a process, the story and the reading; it is its own Bible to be read slowly and studied.

"Life is a series of doors; step through mine and enjoy the view."
--Keisha-Gaye Anderson