On Emergence and Transformation: A Timeline Essay
June 1, 2022 § 17 Comments
By Patrice Gopo
At my husband’s grandmother’s home in rural Zimbabwe, I watch my toddler marvel at chickens scampering through the yard. The drizzle on our skin, the aromas in the air, the color of the foliage, the bed in the back room, together these images return me to a moment in my history. My mind reaches for hazy memories of a single childhood visit to my grandmother’s home in rural Jamaica.
Two years into my journey as a writer, I am puzzling through an essay. My daughter in rural Zimbabwe. Myself so long ago in rural Jamaica. I have rich scenes of being in Zimbabwe and Jamaica. I also have paragraphs of endless reflection, a desperation to explain why these experiences matter. There are essay attempts falling short, essay attempts I struggle to finish.
Two years into my journey as a writer, I am puzzling through an essay. My daughter in rural Zimbabwe. Myself so long ago in rural Jamaica. I have rich scenes of being in Zimbabwe and Jamaica. I also have paragraphs of endless reflection, a desperation to explain why these experiences matter. There are essay attempts falling short, essay attempts I struggle to finish. Still, the story lingers, waiting for a pathway to emerge.
My daughter sits near a map hung at the eye level of a three-year-old. She points to South Africa and says, “That’s where I was born.” She points to Zimbabwe, her father’s birthplace, and Alaska, my birthplace. Finally, her index finger rests on Jamaica, my parents’ homeland. An essay begins to take shape, an expansive essay covering continents and countries, reaching across decades, weaving together generations past and future. An essay that speaks of love overcoming borders. An essay portraying the loss that exists when people leave their places of origin.
When I submit that essay, I receive a polite rejection. When I ask a friend for feedback, she tells me, “Patrice, this is five essays and not one.” I shelve that project because I think my friend is correct. However, I’m not ready to start over and see what I’ve written as a launching place for something more. An image remains, though: my daughter’s index finger touching a map of the world.
A writing teacher asks the class to write about a memory associated with a bed. I choose my grandmother’s bed where I napped long ago in rural Jamaica. Later I write about my husband’s grandmother’s bed where my daughter napped in rural Zimbabwe. I structure the words in a braided fashion, moving back and forth between each moment.
The final paragraphs of reflection arrive when I sit in the balcony of my church. Words tumble into me, the connective tissue for the essay arriving when, in theory, I should be singing the song lyrics and listening to the sermon. Instead, I listen to the words filling my mind, capturing them as if they were a divine message.
The essay “Before” is not my first piece of flash and certainly not my last. However, writing “Before” unlocks something within me, and I find a writing flow I’ve never experienced in the past. Essay after essay after essay, each encompassing similar themes about race and immigration, place and home. The themes are golden threads linking the work into a much larger story. My friend was correct when she told me my one essay was five essays. Or perhaps she was wrong. My one essay was actually a book of essays.
With my essay collection in the world, “Before” accompanies me to nearly every reading. “My favorite essay,” I explain to each audience as I begin or conclude with images of my daughter napping in rural Zimbabwe and me napping in rural Jamaica.
During a conversation with a few fellow writers, one mentions her forthcoming children’s book. An idea skirts around the edge of my mind, a seed wanting to grow. Could “Before” become a picture book?
A flash essay is not the same as a picture book. Surely, though, they aren’t strangers. Perhaps distant cousins of some sort. Both rely on compression and the weight of each word. Still, there is much for me to learn. This story, though, is asking that I study the craft of writing picture books. This story is asking that I continue to tell it in this new form.
I’m struggling to translate “Before” into a fictional picture book. I’ve already changed the perspective from the mother’s to the child’s. I’ve shed the braided structure. But I need a reason this little girl’s mother talks of naps in other countries. This need is a puzzle without a solution. Until a day arrives when I remember my daughter’s index finger pointing to a map of the world. I give a version of this feature to the little girl in my manuscript. Once, I thought that detail meant for an essay. Instead, it was meant to be reimagined in a picture book.
A UPS envelope arrives on my doorstep. For days, it waits in my office because I know the contents I will find. A book. A picture book. My picture book. An early copy my editor mails to me. And so I wait for a day when the frantic activities slow to calm, and I can sit with my family and unwrap this story of us. Because that is what this book is: moments captured in my memory, emerging into an essay and later transformed into a picture book.
On a quiet Sunday afternoon with my daughters (now plural) near, I slide the book from its package, open the front cover, and read them a story as familiar as a map of the world.
Patrice Gopo is an award-winning essayist. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Catapult, Creative Nonfiction, and Charlotte Magazine. She is the author of All the Colors We Will See, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her debut picture book, All the Places We Call Home, will release in June 2022. Patrice lives with her family in North Carolina. Please visit www.patricegopo.com/subscribe to learn more and subscribe to her newsletter.