It was 1995 and my mother had only recently died—a full year had not quite gone by. My life had already been uprooted with her passing and added to that was a move from Queens, New York to Decatur, Georgia—talk about extreme culture shock. My adjustment to Georgia took longer than expected and yet my adjustment to my mother’s death seemed instantaneous. I know…one would imagine the death of a parent while the child was so young would be something so impacting that they would struggle to move on from there. No, I won’t get into the argument as some may say that due to my mother’s death, when I was so young, that I may have developed differently—there is solid logic in this argument…but it doesn’t really matter.
I didn’t dwell on her death…I didn’t struggle through it…somehow I was inspired to write; not necessarily about her death—but just to write in general. I think I was inspired by my mother’s death to question, to probe, to think deeply about things—and produce my own answers or conjecture some might say. I mean conjecture at best because what could a person so young really know about the world?
I had always been a pensive writer…just not prolific. Once, in school, the class was given an assignment to write about escaping from something, or someplace, and I wrote about escaping from life. Well, needless to say my reflections of escape from life sent up red-flags and I was made to visit the school psychologist for fear that I may try to commit suicide. Let me put it out there: there should have been no fear of me committing suicide because I was fully aware that my life was destined for great things and I surely didn’t want to cut that short—well not before greatness occurred.
When I moved to Georgia I was lucky enough to be placed in a class with a teacher who quickly realized my talents and quite literally saved me from destruction. My “English Teacher Mom” plucked me from the basic level class after several experiences with my writing and expression; “Densil, I think we need to save you—from yourself” she said (or something that had that essence). She realized that I would soon be tormented by my classmates because I wasn’t thinking or responding like they were and they would eventually turn on me. But with being placed in an advance English class there was no “taking it easy” on me because my new peers were familiar with advance learning—I was thrown in the deep end and expected to swim…not float.
And swam I did.
My trouble in middle school, in high school and in college, let’s be honest it is still my trouble today, is that I couldn’t quite grasp the concepts of writing style. My instructors had an ideal that they believed to be true and I believed that personal expression in writing couldn’t really be tamed in such a way that it would remain personal (grammar and punctuation aside)—I believe that to write is to express one’s individuality and copying style cloisters creativity and personal expression; voice…personal voice.
The first piece which I can recall receiving shattering praise for is a piece that I call “Boxes;” a three segment story reflecting on my mother’s death and personal ownership of one’s life. To me it wasn’t unique or different—it was how I had always been expressing myself, well at least I thought so. But I think why this piece received such praise was because my voice was clear and my story was compelling enough that a reader came along on the journey with me.
With writing is about the journey and the destination.
When I started writing this piece the destination I had in mind was to share excerpts from a book that I had written over the course of 1995 and 1996. As I mentioned earlier I had starting writing more after my mother’s death and the short pieces sort of morphed into something more than expected.
One day my “English Teacher Mom” gave me a magazine that she had pilfered from her doctor’s office because there was a short essay enclosed which she believed I just “had to read.” “Densil I need you to read this and tell me what you think.” The cover of the magazine had a photo of a young woman lying in bed and the reference was to lack of sleep and its impact on personal happiness—I was not intrigued by the cover and was not compelled to read the piece which I was instructed to read. It took me a week before I cracked it open.
The Air Down Here.
“The air in my neighborhood is harder. It’s more thicker, harder to breathe in, harder to see through.” These were the opening words presented by a 15 year old who in my mind could have been me. “I want a better lifestyle. I want to be like the kid in Home Alone. I was looking at him. He’s not really acting. I could do the same thing. He got a chance. I just be thinking to myself, if only I have a chance. But I will. I will get it. I will have a chance.” I read that passage and I was sure the 15 year old was me. I gobbled up the rest of the short essay—which I later learned was one of several essays from the 15 year old’s book “The Air Down Here: True Tales of a South Bronx Boyhood.” Gil Alicea was Puerto Rican-American and I was Jamaican-American; Gil grew up in the South Bronx and I grew up in Brooklyn; his parents were HIV positive, my mother was HIV positive…could we have been any more similar.
I returned the magazine to my “English Teacher Mom” and I told her that the boy was me, that his story was mine and that I had also been writing short essays. She gave me the magazine and it served as an inspiration to keep on writing. I own the book. I own the first edition hardback publishing. I signed the inside cover dated: January 1996. The book sits on my bookcase and the magazine is tucked away in my “memories” box.
I stopped writing, I’ve stopped writing… I don’t write like I used to write. These days I find it hard to find the time to write, but I also find it hard to just write…to put emotions out there in the purest of forms. I question the topics I on which I should write, I over think word choice, I subtract personal feelings from my prose and in the end can I really call it writing? Is it deeply connected to me and the way I want to tell a story?
I want to be inspired like I used to be…maybe it will start here.
Excerpt from “Untitled” (nothing has been edited since writing in 1996):
I grew up with mostly women. I didn’t have a father and I really didn’t think about having a male role model until I was older. The men in my life were my uncles, so I really didn’t consider them adequate role models. The fact that I didn’t have a father made me grow up faster. I had to learn to do things for myself; no one else was going to do it for me. My mother having a job and working all day left my sisters and I alone. We had to take care of each other. Being home alone at such a young age teaches you responsibility but it also cuts out your childhood. I regret not having a childhood; I feel so incomplete without one. I did do little kid things, but I never played silly little kid games.
My childhood was very short. In reality I don’t even remember having one. I had to always stick up for myself, there was no one to do this for me. How would it look if you brought your sisters up to fight your battles. When I was living in Brooklyn I went to school from Kindergarten to the Third Grade. I was treated nice and had lots of friends. It is true that the younger you are the less prejudice your are towards people. I think of how we all got along in elementary school and wonder why things can’t still be like that. Kids would be angry at each other now and then five minutes later they are playing together.
After awhile in Brooklyn, my mother thought it was time for her to go away from home. She wanted to be on her own and raise her kids the way she wanted too. So, we moved to Queens when it was time for me to go to the Fourth Grade. I didn’t want to leave, all my friends where there. My best-friend was there and I knew that there would never be another friend like him. Moving from Brooklyn had tremendous affect on me. It was both in a negative and positive way; more so negative than positive. But I would never give up my time in Queens for anything in the world. That is where a lot of my problems started.
Growing up in Queens was fun but very hard. Going to school was a pain, I didn’t take much time to make friends. By the first month I had made a name for myself. I thought for some time that it was a good name but it soon changed. “You fag why are you always with the girls?” That hurt my feelings because by then I new this fag thing was not good. I protested and said that I was not one, that did no good for anyone. The fact was, that I did spend a lot of my time with the girls and that was because it was easier to get along with them then with the boys.
I just thought that it was pure jealousy that I had all the girls and they didn’t. The names did hurt but what could I do about it. I didn’t stop staying with the girls but I made more male friends. Then I noticed it didn’t change, no matter what I tried. In the fourth grade I had at least four girlfriends and that was more than the rest of the boys and that made them mad. In fifth grade it was the same thing I had girls and they did too, I just had more. My teachers also liked me better.
When I was in sixth grade I think that was when I realized I was mentally ahead of everyone else my age. While other boys wanted a girlfriend for every week I wanted one for a long time thing. I had a few girlfriends in the sixth grade. I had these two girls that every year no matter what I went with them. One was Deanna, I really liked her and for some reason we were always together. The other was Selena, I had feelings for her too. Then I meet Nicky and that was when I fell in love. Nicky and I stayed together for a year and I was very happy with her. I told her that I loved her and when we broke up the final time I cried for days and was depressed for weeks.
During this time I had moved to Long Island. It was on the border of Queens and I mean right on the border. If I went across the street I was in Queens. Also now I was in a new school, with new friends, and now in the seventh grade.
My English teacher brought in this article one day for me to read. The funny thing about it is that she took it from her doctor’s office, but anyway the article was about this boy who had written a book. She had it for me because she said that we had similar writing styles and we seemed alike.
How right she was, I went out to my bookstore and they didn’t have the book so I asked the owner to place an order for it. When it came I was dying to read it so I picked it up the next day. I read that book cover to cover in one day. It was strange because it almost seemed like I was reading my own book.
The other thing that was strange was that when I started writing my second book I never heard of him before. We both are from New York, well at least he was born there I wasn’t. The stories that he told were like stories I have told to my friends. People always say that someone else in the world is just like you, I think I have two people who are just like me and he is one of them.
In one part he talks about seeing shadows of people that had passed on. I see things like that and when I try to talk to someone who can understand me I think a lot of them are lying to me. So I have decided that I want to meet this kid because our brains are on the same wave length. The style I that I have written in so far is like the way he wrote his book.
I have gotten so far with this book and my first book isn’t even finished yet. It is 12:20a.m. and I woke up and was thinking about this so I decided to write it down. I was going to put it in my journal but I thought what a waste when I need to add more to my book. Well, one day I plan to meet this kid because I think we would get along great.