September 16, 2014—the official publication date of my memoir, The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms and Survival in the Caribbean. It’s also the day that I will finally be at the end of my long road home.
I mean that in the metaphorical sense, the hero’s journey some say, the return to one’s self. I wrote the book to help me find my way back. Today I am thinking about the event that inspired me to begin writing about my childhood. It was a fateful meeting with an author who was an expat in the Dominican Republic that set me writing, and began my backward journey on the perilous path of memory to find myself. I recently submitted a story about that meeting to author Sonia Marsh’s “Gutsy Writing.” You can read the full essay there.
Here is an excerpt from that piece about the events that marked my return to the storms of the past.I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room in California thumbing through Travel Holiday, escaping into worlds far away. I encountered an article by Alastair Reid about Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic where I grew up. Titled “My Several Selves,” it was about being at home wherever you are. On staff at The New Yorker, Reid lives in New York but for many years he wintered in a simple dwelling on a Samana hillside, writing and translating works by Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, and other noted authors. I went home that day and wrote a letter to him about how I hoped to meet him when I next traveled to the island. His handwritten reply arrived the next month saying he’d be delighted to see me. He had no telephone on the island, but reassured me he’d likely be there all winter. And so I traveled that December to my childhood home in the Dominican Republic, site of my expat family’s coconut farm… on an isolated beach in a country we’d left decades ago. Having spent two weeks visiting the village I’d not seen for years, I arrived at the nearby harbor. I was now on a mission to find a writer I’d never met on the far shore of the Samana peninsula. My vague instructions were to get to the village of Samana and find a ride eastward 12 kilometers, and then to ask anyone to lead me to “Don Alejandro.” I’d not crossed this bay for over thirty-five years. The dock was wet with gaps that made any foothold challenging. Heart pounding, I hoisted my backpack and prayed for safety. Alastair Reid (known locally as Don Alejandro) greeted me as if he’d known I’d pick that day and time to show up in his clearing. We talked for hours, about writing, about the lure of this island despite its troubled political history. When it was time to leave, he presented me with a book and walked me up to the road until a crowded pickup came by. I crammed myself into the back, avoiding a squirming pig, trussed and unhappily serving as someone’s seat. In Samana, I found a small inn and settled in to read. The tattered volume, written by an American in 1958, was titled Trujillo, Little Caesar of the Caribbean. It was published when I was 12 and living in the village of Miches. An account of Generalisimo Trujillo and his reign of terror, it never would have been allowed in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo’s rule. I felt I was reading forbidden material. For all our years on the island, our lives depended on not ever speaking ill of the dictator. This book was an entry into what I wasn’t allowed to think about for all those years. I read until my eyes hurt, trying to reconcile the factual portrayal of one country’s nightmare with my parents’ decision to raise a family under such a government. A crowd of emotions welled up and I cried for longer than I can remember. I understood only dimly that this trip was just the first step on a longer journey to reconcile my own disparate selves. And now I was to begin a new journey, much more dangerous than crossing a bay in storm-tossed waters. It was now time to bring family secrets and stories to light, and just maybe, find some peace about the meaning of home.
Fast forward to 2014, and I am thrilled to have completed my memoir and the long journey.
I’ve learned a lot, and as they say “no matter where you go, there you are” … I hope you will be there to join me in celebration at my book launch party, October 11 at Book Passage in Corte Madera. You can RSVP here.