Garifuna Griot


It starts as a slow warming. Pink and orange blush in the pit of the belly spreading like a quiet murmur rising from questioning eyes. It was in her shoulders, traveling toward her forearms in swift, unhalting motion, turning the deep hue of daybreak at its reddest. She was trembling…”

And so begins one of the unfinished stories yellowing in a bin of composition notebooks, journals and spiral notebooks that have moved with me through out the years. The main character is about to smash the windows of her boyfriend’s car. Yeah, this is before Jazmine Sullivan’s hit made smashing car windows melodic. I made it poetic first. 

My first stories captured the teen dramas that preoccupied kids growing up in 1980’s New York complete with cameos by favorite artists like LL Cool J, New Edition and my favorite Rakim. The characters wore gazelles and bubble gooses, dyed their flat tops and severe angular cuts with kool-aid and peroxide and a hip-hop swagger that was missing from the Harlequin romance novels that sparked my imagination.

I could not have known then that churning out two novels in a single summer was an incredible feat –and in an adulthood–an impossible one. Back then I ate, slept and breathed words, driven to obsession when I cracked the spine of a composition notebook. Even if a few pages were filled with science notes or blue-inked cursive, I cut those pages out and before me blank pages morphed into a world. A world that I would pen in my neat, tiny print.

I have always loved writing.

On the eve of a new year, I am close to completing a project I have been working on for years. I can trace the beginnings of the idea back to a conference I attended in Arizona in 2005 — a young girl grappling with family traditions that shaped her, but didn’t necessarily fit a new world sensibility. A scene flashed across my mind—an unexpected loss, but I didn’t have the luxury of lazy summer months to follow the images to a complete story. There were bills to pay, obligations to meet and life to navigate.

I hadn’t grown up to be a professional author. I was a teacher and I had work to do. It had been years since I attempted writing stories. My freshman year of college found me focused on writing poetry–a shorter medium that allowed me to express myself in an allotted amount of time and then get back to whatever obligation was scribbled in my planner.

But the idea insisted on being written: In drips and drabs, essays and poems the idea began to take shape.

I couldn’t believe the amount of time it was taking to tell a story. Wasn’t I same the girl who sat at the dinner table with pen and page ride beside her, taking quick bites so I could get back to the conflict unfolding? Why was this taking so long? Years?

Impatient, I flirted with the idea of polishing one of the works finished in the 80’s. Sister Souljah, E. Lynn Harris and Zane write in the style and cover some of the subject matter that my seventeen-year-old-self tackled. Maybe I could just edit…But one look at the grammatical errors and the juvenile responses to real life issues and I knew that that would never do as a debut — my debut. I had written those stories with no idea that Real housewives and Hip-hop wives would make my 1980’s world of ghetto glitz and uncouth antics socially acceptable. Despite this fact, I couldn’t revert to a teenage perspective and knew that I had to tell a story that stirred my soul.

I came across Sandra Cisneros and her account of the Chicana experience in Chicago. I discovered Edwidge Danticat and admired the tales of Haitian history and Haitian promise she spun from her passion for her people and then came Junot Diaz. Junot Diaz spat the Dominican experience onto city streets in rough, deliberate Spanglish and I heard my own love for street vernacular, Latin flavor and African rhythm. These writers confirmed that my story had to be added to the cannon of cultural writing that captures the human experience in a color and rhythm that would be distinct to my Garifuna-American experience.

And so 2013 is but hours away and I am thrilled about the next leg of this journey with a story that made its first appearance in Sedona, Arizona and just last year gathered to punta drums during my grandfather’s memorial service in a muddy yard in Tulian, Honduras.

I thank both my heavenly and earthly father for the gift of word and the story of the Garinagu unfolding this very moment.

2013, here we come!

One thought on “Garifuna Griot

  1. Dear, dear Susan,

    Thanks for this insight into how the novel you’ve been thinking about and has been churning in you now for so many years will finally give birth in 2013.

    I look forward to it . . . and will celebrate with you once you feel it is finally set down and complete (never finished, as all writing is just a pause before the next unanswerable question).

    By the by, while working with a young Latino helping me clean up from the Frankenstorm; this time a section of boxes in the basement which have obstructed Bebe’s getting to the washer and drier, I found something special about you in one of the boxes. I’ll send to you tomorrow.

    Always with fond recall of you, the author of “Sweet Chocolate,” one of my star students . . .

    Feliz año nuovo!


    Stanley H. Barkan, Poet/Publisher Cross-Cultural Communications 239 Wynsum Avenue Merrick, NY 11566-4725/USA Tel: 516/868-5635 Fax: 516/379-1901 E-mails:; Profile: (Summer 2002 Issue) Video: Reviews: http://www.thepedestalmagazine (Apr 21-Jun 21, 2010, Issue 57, Reviews) Interview: 1_JanFeb_2012_Global_Correspondent_Helen_Bar-Lev_Snow_and_Voices_Activities.htm Link: IMMAGINE&POESIA

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