PROFESSOR Opal Palmer Adisa grew up at Caymanas Estate in Jamaica in a very traditional home, but her adventurous nature made her go against the status quo — a trait which would later chart her course in life.
“I was a tomboy. I was not interested in housework or cooking; I've had two bike accidents and two knee surgeries; I've jumped out of a plane with my son; I've fished in the Amazon for piranhas; I swam with blue dolphins and I've done things that are not considered 'feminine', but they are things that I enjoy, and rather than working in the house I'd rather do my garden, grow my herbs, thyme and escallion,” she told All Woman.
She added: “Another example was my time at Wolmer's in the 60s. The headmistress was very British, you weren't allowed to speak the Jamaican creole, and I never felt they were appreciative of our “Jamaicanness” and wanted us to be something we weren't. At that time people were very traditional. I spoke a lot, I was nosy and always told stories I could defend, so my mother thought I'd be a lawyer and my sister would be a doctor and my brother an economist.”
But a young Adisa said she remembers going to a private grave in Caymanas Estate against her mother's stern warnings, lying on the cool tiles, looking at the sky and writing about whatever she thought the clouds resembled.
At 13 years old she had her first poem published in the school magazine at Wolmer's after her teacher submitted it, which was an assignment to write about the sounds she liked to hear.
However, it wasn't until she got to Hunter College of the City University of New York while pursuing a bachelor of arts in communications/educational media that she discovered her love for writing.
“The college had a series of readers and I went to one of the readings and saw this small black woman reading her poems and I was blown away. I thought this is what I wanted to do. It awakened the desire in me. Then I met LeRoy Clarke, a Trinidadian artist and writer and very dear friend. I had a folder of poems which I gave to him since he was a writer. He called me and said, 'You're a writer'. That was an affirmation, as he was known in Trinidad and the New York area as an artist and writer, so I started taking it seriously,” she said.
Thereafter, she met other poets like Mervin Morris and Kamau Braithwaite and had her poems published in newspapers, before returning to Jamaica where she did a stint at the Educational Broadcasting Services as an education officer/radio producer at age 20, developing radio and television programmes for schools.
Adisa left shortly after and pursued a master of arts in theatre/directing at San Francisco State University in California, and a PhD in ethnic studies/literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
To date, she is an award-winning poetry and prose writer, with 21 published pieces, inclusive of three children's books and a notable novel It Begins With Tears (1997). She has served as head of the diversity programme at the California College of the Arts, was one of five faculty members who started the master of fine arts programme with creative writing, and became a distinguished professor at the same college. She was the coordinator for poets in schools in Alameda County, California, where she trained poets to go into public and private schools and teach poetry. She has been a resident artist in internationally acclaimed residencies such as El Gouna (Egypt), Sacatar Institute (Brazil), McColl Centre, (North Carolina), and Headlines Centre for the Arts (California).
Today, Professor Adisa is new university director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI, succeeding Professor Verene Shepherd who held the post since 2010.
One of her main plans is to adopt a school and work with students from kindergarten to grade 12, educating them about the impacts of gender justice. She also wants to partner with the business community to offer university scholarships to the students.
“When you ask people about their sense of gender, many don't know how to articulate it. They think it's women against men, and it's important to dislodge that notion and educate the public. We're not just for women, we're for gender justice and we're just as concerned with women who are victims of domestic abuse as we are with men who are the perpetrators. If we don't get help for both, then that system [of abuse] continues. If we don't look at what's happening with our men in prison, for those women who want mates, what does that mean? Even more importantly, what does that mean to our development that 70 per cent, such a high population of the youngest, is locked away? They are not contributing, the economy is stymied. Why is it that boys are failing, girls are succeeding, and how do we make the shift so both can succeed?”
Before returning to Jamaica, Professor Adisa spent summers in St Croix, US Virgin Islands, working with the domestic violence unit and their women's coalition. She wrote a play for the communities after interviewing women about such issues. She is also conducting her own research on child physical and sexual abuse as well as elder abuse, which she has reflected in a play titled Old but still dancing.
Professor Adisa also enjoys walking, nature, the beach and photography, from which she is hoping to do an exhibit in November. Her philosophy is to live life large and fully.