“It reminds me of Zimbabwe,” Nyasha says as he stares out the car window at the changing landscape of Jamaica’s northeastern coast. Trees with lush, green leaves fringe the two-lane road. Peeking from beyond swaying palms, we see a cobalt sea. A slight breeze passes between Nyasha’s rolled-down window and mine, and I taste salt in the air when my lips part into a smile.
“Except the sea,” he adds. “Zimbabwe doesn’t have the sea.”
My uncle navigates the car past a settlement—too small to be called a town—on our way to the resort where Nyasha and I will soon wed. In the back seat, my hand is laced in Nyasha’s and rests against his khaki shorts. Through the windows I see little shops and stands selling ripe plantains and fresh breadfruit. Ahead of us, hordes of school children in uniforms flock near the edge of the road. Their neatly pressed skirts and trousers make me imagine a Zimbabwe I have never seen.
“The children. The uniforms. It’s just like home,”he says. We hear the laughter of youth catch the breeze and curl in the air. I think Nyasha sees a Jamaica I imagine I know. A place my parents speak of as their first home. Our fingers still entwined, I glance at the engrossed expression on Nyasha’s face and squeeze his hand, already sweaty from the humid air. The scent of my parents’ island floats through the open window, and I smile at the comfort of Nyasha knowing this place even if he has never been here before. He still knows this place, and perhaps I do too.
It is the summer of 1983, and I am not quite four years old. The planes are gone. America is far away. The pain of my popping ears has subsided now. The crowds in the airport, speaking familiar words bent with accents I can’t understand, have become a mere haze. A thick blanket of heat hangs over me, and with each inhale, my lungs warm. Every now and again, welcome breezes blow across my legs and arms.
The faces of uncles and aunts, cousins and friends—all strangers to me—blend together in a stream of brown skin. More brown skin than I have ever seen in one place. People hand me presents. A little tea set. A doll. They pick me up, pluck me from my parents’ arms, and kiss my cheeks. My damp body presses against their hips. Jamaica, my parents tell me. This is Jamaica.
Nyasha and I begin our marriage in South Africa. The place where we first met, we both now call home. Back then, in 2007, he was a Zimbabwean working in South Africa, and I had short-term plans for my time in Cape Town. Teach some students. Conduct some research. Complete the requirements of a grant. Instead, the day I arrived, I met Nyasha.
“Oh. Love at first sight,” people say with a dreamy expression. But I’m honest, and I don’t weave stories that don’t exist. Not love. Not love at first. But some- thing. And that something became something more, until a day in my parents’ homeland on top of a small cliff when we slipped rings on each others’ fingers and made weighty promises about a life we couldn’t yet know. The waves beat against the shore below, repetitive and indifferent.
A start in South Africa feels right. Shouldn’t an immigrant and the child of immigrants begin in a country not their own?
When I am almost five years old, I curve my body against my mother’s leg. My arms wrap around the soft fabric of her pants. The man near my mother reaches for her outstretched hand as it unfurls into splayed fingers. One by one, he takes her thumb, then index finger, middle, ring, and pinkie and rolls them across the black ink. First against the inkpad and then against paper with a small box for each print. One hand and then the next while the hard smell of ink floods my nose.
After the ten squares fill, the man offers my mother a tissue to wipe her hands. She gathers her purse, and I lace my fingers with hers, ink-stained. Perhaps, as we walk out the door, my mother mentions something about citizenship, but this I don’t remember.
Can a name mark a child? Can it whisper to her of distant roads and a horizon dotted with acacia trees? Can it speak of the places from which she descends? I must think so because I insist on a name from Nyasha’s language for the child growing inside of me. I imagine when our plans return us to America, as I know they one day will, a Shona name will stretch across the ocean, binding our daughter to a Zimbabwe she may never know. Nyasha just wants a name we like, so he doesn’t mind the way I ask again and again for more Shona names. After dinner, I relax on our bed. Nyasha kneels on the floor with his elbows sinking into the duvet. Here we talk of the day, and I listen for Shona names to slip from my husband’s conversation. Later that evening, or perhaps another so similar I think them all the same, the slightest flutter taps me from the inside. From where the newspaper spreads across his side of the bed, Nyasha reads an article about a woman named Sekai.
“Sekai means laughter,” he says.
I fall asleep to butterfly kicks and a name to mark a child.
From his seat at the head of our kitchen table, my father takes a fork and fishes for a scotch bonnet pepper submerged in a jar of vinegar. On Sunday afternoons my mother bakes brown stew chicken paired with fragrant coconut rice infused with red kidney beans. Rice and peas, we call it—just like the rest of the Jamaicans in the world. I give little thought to why red kidney beans are referred to as peas. Still, I never confuse them with the tiny green spheres my mother at times takes from the freezer and pours into a microwave-safe bowl.
My father brings one pepper to the surface and sets it on a saucer with a gentle hand. He slices off a thin ribbon before returning the remainder to the jar. Some Sundays he offers me a taste, and I shake my head, “No.” Vigorous and hard. Even a taste of the vinegar would be fire against my tongue and leave me desperate for a glass of milk to chase away the heat.
Instead I return to the plate in front of me. I use my knife and fork to sift through the rice and push the peas to the side. The plate’s edge fills with kidney beans crowding the border as I sift once more, not letting a single straggler alone. “Give them to me,” my father says. I tilt my plate towards his and use my knife
to scrape the pile of kidney beans beside his bit of pepper.
Four hours after we leave my mother-in-law’s home in Gweru, we slip into a small pocket of rural Zimbabwe. When we began our journey, the dawn hadn’t yet shaken off the shadows of night. Now we arrive in humble Wedza under a gray blanket of drizzle and fog. So much fog I can’t even see the large hills my husband later tells me meet the sky.
We come to this place to say our good-byes. From the corner of Nyasha’s grandmother’s home, I watch Sekai press her body prostrate against a cement floor. Her raised head stares beyond the open door to where two chickens skip across the damp earth. From where I stand behind her with my camera, Sekai’s face hides from me. Still I imagine the crease of a smile shaping her mouth. Perhaps she wants more than to watch. As the chickens glide through the drizzle, I think her unseen expression might reveal a longing to reach out and grab hold.
In the months and years to come, as our family makes America our home, I will frame this photograph and say to my daughter time and time again, “That’s you there. That’s you in Zimbabwe looking at your great-grandmother’s chickens. That’s you.” I will tell her about the misty rain hovering over the earth and the way Nyasha’s grandmother lifted her from the car with a joyful song. I will say these things so she can feel the cold concrete through her clothes and against her flattened palms. In her dreams I want her to hear the sounds of the rooster crowing and the tree branches rustling. I want her to taste fine drops of rain on her tongue. So I will tell her this story, believing that one day she will walk down a narrow path in her father’s land and hear a voice whisper her name.
During my final semester of college, I pick up a humanities course to fulfill my graduation requirements. I choose Caribbean Culture and History from a lengthy list of options. Perhaps, I think, I will learn about things I want to know. After a few weeks crammed into a small room with a couple dozen students, my professor discovers my Jamaican heritage. He mentions one or two other students in our class with connections that also tether them to these island nations. “Will you join them on a panel for the class?” he asks.
The morning of the panel, a few of us leave the neat rows of our classmates, turn our desks around, and face the audience. Light from the morning sun pours through the window beside where I sit and introduce myself to students I already know.
“My name is Patrice, and I’m a Jamaican American. My parents immigrated to the United States before I was born.” I think this may be the first time I call myself that. A Jamaican American. Not the child of Jamaican immigrants. Not an American with Jamaican ancestry. But a Jamaican American.
Other students raise their hands and ask me questions about what it’s like to be a Jamaican American. They look to me to explain something they don’t know. I answer their questions. I tell them how cultures mixed in my home. I talk of spaghetti on Thursday nights and brown stew chicken every Sunday. I mention my mix tapes with a track from Bob Marley followed by a track from Brandy. I hear my voice tell stories of childhood, of foods we ate that others didn’t, of relatives who lived so very far away. A life in a sort of in-between place. Not one side of a river. Not the other. But learning how to swim in the current.
I wish my family were on this panel with me. Or at least others like me. I long for people with authority to take my seat and call on raised hands. But who else would have more authority about being the kind of Jamaican American I am than me. Who else?
“Thank you for sharing,” my professor motions to the students on the panel.
My classmates bring their hands together in applause.
“Motsi, piri, tatu, china.” From the bathroom where I bathe baby Shamiso, I hear Sekai counting in Shona. In her bedroom I know she and Nyasha read a book I ordered online called Count Your Way Through Zimbabwe. And Sekai learns to count to ten. Together they read the book, and I develop visions of Sekai speaking Nyasha’s language. Isn’t that what parents do? They teach their children their languages.
“But, Patrice,” Nyasha will tell me later, “I don’t really speak Shona. I speak English.” He’s right of course. Before we married, we shared dinner with several friends, many of them speakers of multiple languages. Everyone else spent the evening talking of how one must hold on to language. How we must teach these things to our children so they don’t lose their culture, so it doesn’t slip from their hands and disappear beyond their reach. Again and again others emphasized the importance of retaining who we are and not letting dominant cultures overshadow our inherited pasts. And I believed the words they spoke.
Towards the end of the evening, Nyasha set down the plate of cake in his hands and said, “I speak English. I know Shona, but I speak English. I say, ‘good morning’ to each new day. ‘Mangwanani’ never enters my mind.” The room quieted as he returned his plate to his hand, brought another bite of cake to his mouth, and asked, “What is culture? Who decides what we keep?”
Sekai repeats the numbers to ten again. “Gumi,” she says a final time before Nyasha pulls the covers to her chin, prays for her, and switches out the light. He leaves the book behind.
I am twenty-four years old the first time I prepare ackee. I pull the can from my kitchen cupboard. A bright picture of Jamaica’s national fruit fills much of the label. The picture deceives a bit with an orange fruit split open to reveal several black seeds and a spongy, yellow flesh. Those who don’t know might think everything they see on the label also appears in the can. I know better. As I twist my can opener around the rim I smell the brine preserving the tender, yellow flesh. Although soft enough to mash between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, I think how much better the ackee will taste when cooked and spooned on my plate.
My mother must have left this can behind on her last visit to the one-bedroom apartment I have only recently started to call home. Standing alone in my kitchen, I slice an onion into half rings and use the heel of my hand to wipe the tears that fall. What should happen next? Heat the oil? Chop the tomato? Rinse and drain the ackee still resting in the brine? All these things, of course. I think of the last time I ate this meal, the national dish of Jamaica. Months earlier my mother came for a visit and I watched her prepare the food. My dish can’t be considered the national dish, as I forego the salt fish—the flakes of dried, salted cod always mixed with ackee in Jamaica and usually in my mother’s kitchen. Instead I chop pieces of bacon and stir them with the onions and tomatoes just like my mother does especially for me. I add the ackee into the pan and blend the ingredients into my version of Jamaica’s national dish.
With no one else around, I pull my chair up to the table and taste the medley of flavors in my mouth.
Sometimes I imagine phantoms. As if voices whisper in my ears and feed fears that my American culture eclipses all that makes my husband Zimbabwean. All that makes him Shona. Because of you, your husband’s ties to his country will become flabby. Because of you, your children will be called visitors in their father’s first home.
“Where do the voices come from?” Nyasha asks me when I try to explain shapeless ideas that hide in my mind.
“People,” I say. The people who ask me why Nyasha doesn’t teach the girls to speak Shona. The friends we know in cross-cultural marriages with children fluent in other tongues. “People,” I repeat. Can such a general word give flesh to what gnaws at my ears?
“Me?” he asks. He brings his hand against his chest and stares at my face. I see his broad nose, his dark skin, and deep brown eyes that warm me on the coldest of days.
I shake my head, “No. Not you. Never you.” He lifts his hand and settles it on my shoulder, reminding me of what we create together.
At age twenty-eight, a year before my wedding, I travel with my mother to Jamaica. My fourth trip in a lifetime. We wake early one morning and journey to the foot of a small mountain. Before us a narrow trail stretches ahead, flanked on both sides by a thick covering of trees. Tiny dewdrops hang on leaves while the sun begins to slide higher in the sky. Woven in with the sound of our footsteps, the whistle of birds continues to call forth the morning. We move towards the top of this mountain—really a hill, I think—as light creeps across the path, the trees, even my bare arms. The smell of damp earth, the tang of tropical flowers, the scent of spicy bushes usher in a new day. As I press forward, I imagine for a moment that the sound of my name rustles through the branches. A song of welcome from another home.
“Both my father’s eldest brother and my mother’s uncle studied in the States,” Nyasha mentions to me one night after we put the girls to bed. He has told these stories before.They have flitted in and around our conversations since our beginning. But tonight I stop and ask again. About Nyasha’s uncle. About Nyasha’s great uncle. You come from people who move, I think and imagine the world compressing from continents into paths that people walk across from Zimbabwe to America. From America to South Africa. From Zimbabwe to South Africa. From Jamaica to America. He comes from people who move, I think over and over again that night when I brush my teeth, slip into my pajamas, press my cold feet against Nyasha’s calves. I wonder how I didn’t hear him. How I missed that. I thought I knew what a Shona man was. I thought I knew all the things he believed he needed to keep. Was it possible all along I saw an empty idea and missed the fullness of this man? I think of my own immigrant parents and their ancestors arriving on the shores of Jamaica in mighty boats after months bobbing along the sea. We both come from people who move across bodies of water and continents. We come from people who shed things and acquire things and then shed more. Accents. Languages. Food. Nationalities.
The things we overlook when we think we understand.
My mother sometimes speaks of loss. Of music. Of language. Of what makes her Jamaican. Each time she visits the island, she calls from my uncle’s home in Kingston or from her hotel room overlooking pristine sand in Montego Bay. “Patrice, I’m moving back.”
She never does.
Instead, on another day, she sits near me while we fold laundry on the living room floor. The smell of detergent and fresh clothes makes the air sweet and comfortable. In these soft moments that allow for one to inhale deep breaths and reflect on all that has gone by, my mother might say, “We should have tried harder to hold on to things.”
I grab Shamiso’s pajamas or Sekai’s socks and fold them. “Hold on to what?” “To Jamaican things,” she says. I think of the familiar foods from childhood, the slow-cooked oxtail, the rice and peas each Sunday, the curried chicken. As these images move through my mind savory aromas compete with the smell of clothes in my hands. For a moment I straddle memory and the present and crave dishes I haven’t eaten in years.
“But you cooked food. So much food.”
“No. Not the food. Other things.” She talks of songs and sayings, the way one’s tongue can curl around a Patwa phrase. She speaks of culture. Of passing down customs and traditions beyond Easter bun and beef patties. And I think of how I pronounce plantain with a short i sound instead of a long a—just like other Jamaicans. I remind myself that the smooth sound of reggae makes my hips sway. I think of all that I do know.
For the length of Nyasha’s American citizenship ceremony, I hold both girls. Sekai and I share the final seat in the front row, and Shamiso sits on my lap. One arm secures Shamiso against me. The other arm drapes around Sekai’s shoulder, preventing her from sliding off the chair. We stay like this while on the other side of the aisle Nyasha recites his oath with the eighty other naturalized citizens. When he walks across the front of the room to receive his certificate, my arms tighten around the girls.
In the final minutes of the ceremony, the lights flicker off, and we sit in a room of darkness. On the screen plays a video of the many faces of Americans. People born in this country and naturalized citizens from the far reaches of the world. The girls begin to squirm, anxious to move their legs and be free from my tight grip.
“Just another minute,”I breathe. “Just another minute, and I can let you go.”My hand presses into Sekai’s shoulder, but in an effort to prevent a cry, I set Shamiso on the floor near my feet. As the lights turn on in the room, the weight of my arm falls from Sekai to the chair.
“Okay, you can go. Take your sister to the corner so we can take pictures.”
Sekai walks with Shamiso toward the floor-length American flags hanging in a tapestry of red, white, and blue. After being wrapped in my arms for so long, the empty space stretches before them. Sekai grabs Shamiso’s hands and laughter spreads across their faces as they twirl in wide circles.