Rosemarie Robotham, author of the Shebook memoir Jamaica Dreams—a story about first love and a forgotten youth in tumultuous 1970s Jamaica—shares the ups and downs of her writing process.
I wrote most of Jamaica Dreams right after I got back from my most recent trip to Jamaica in January. My mother was very frail, my uncle had died, and all the family had gathered for his memorial service. I had lived abroad in New York City for more than 30 years, and there were cousins and old school friends whom I had not seen since leaving home at 18 to attend college. It was an extraordinary gift to discover that the bonds you make in a shared childhood can outlast decades of no contact. I cannot even begin to express how grateful I am for that. But to meet so many people from one’s past after years of absence is very much like confronting your former self. Suddenly, the hidden girl I was before leaving home was once again visible to me. Being in that place, with those particular people, unlocked something in me, a sense of who I used to be. It felt as if a lost piece of me had been rediscovered and could finally be reclaimed.
Are there any themes, characters or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?
The last house I lived in before leaving Kingston to attend Barnard College in New York City has definitely become a central character in my own personal narrative. That house on Paddington Terrace sheltered everything, the sprawl and tumble of my family, the secret teenage infatuations, the cousins and friends who moved in with us for months at a time (so that the neighbors across the street at first thought we were a boardinghouse), the barefoot walks with teenage friends up and down the baking asphalt, the twilight conversations just outside the front gates, spun out as long as we could before our parents finally called us in; all of it settled in me like so many shimmering fragments that have found, in this story, a permanent home.
When did you first decide you were a writer?
I didn’t publicly own the title until I got my first book published in the mid-’90s, but I certainly knew from the time I was a little girl hiding in my room writing stories that it was the activity that most excited and filled me. Even so, I actually started out in college as a studio art major. But I was taking writing classes as well, and they were more thrilling than anything else I was doing. So I switched gears and became an English major with a writing concentration. That was when I started secretly to think of myself as a writer.
Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?
The quick answer is not really, because I could not begin to write if I let myself think about how a reader might respond to what I am struggling to express. I pretend, while I am writing, that no one will ever read these words; it is the only way I can be completely honest and fearless in the writing. But afterward, when I am done, at some point I will read what I have written trying to imagine my mother’s response to it. In that sense, she is my imaginary reader. I don’t change what I’ve written if I imagine a viscerally negative response from her; I just want to know I have to brace for it. But you know, my mother has turned out to be my most generous reader. She is 92 now, and somehow she has always found a way to expand her understanding of her only daughter to accommodate whatever I might write. And I always felt if my mother could deal with it, then it didn’t matter who could not.
What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?
The greatest risk every writer takes is to tell the truth, especially the deepest, most difficult emotional truths. That’s what makes it all worth it, though. That’s what sets you free.
Have you ever written anything personal that you thought would upset people close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?
In Jamaica Dreams, I wrote about my father’s drinking, which was not something I thought I would ever put in the public square. My father died 18 years ago. He was my life’s best example of goodness and integrity and an impeccable work ethic. He achieved much in his life, even being knighted by the Queen of England for his work as a jurist. This was the face most people saw, but I knew this private struggle he’d had during my growing-up years. It has always been so compelling to me that my father, this towering figure, had this very human struggle, and don’t we all? I really did think my outing my dad’s battle with alcohol like that would upset my family. But I wrote the story anyway, because the way he waged that war, the example he set for me, would give me the tools to reset my course when my own life threatened to be derailed. He showed me how.
What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?
Keep a journal. Start a blog. Write every day. Write about what terrifies you. Write as if no one is ever going to read your words. Listen to how people talk. Tell your story. Tell other people’s stories. Dare.
Want to be swept away in lush stories about new love, family ties and forgotten youth? Read Rosemarie Robotham’s short memoir Jamaica Dreams, only at Shebooks!
Join the Shebooks Life, Love and Risotto Tour and you could win a collection of ebooks and a Try the World gourmet box. Enter here.