What Led Me to Write
Panama Fever: Digging Down Gold Mountain and White Gold
I was always drawn to the written word, from my early childhood in Los Angeles, and then from when my parents brought me back to live in their native Jamaica when I was nine years old. However it was music, my first love, that blessed me, as I enjoyed a long and successful career as a violinist playing solo concerts, Broadway, opera, and for jazz, classical and commercial recordings and Hollywood films. Yet for all those years the 'writing bug' never left me. No matter how hungrily I read, there were always other stories vexing my brain and tormenting my heart, desperate to be heard. The telling cry would come after my father died and I returned to Jamaica.
As I sorted through my father's papers I discovered that my grandfather – a man I knew virtually nothing of, and had never met – had been a railroad engineer in Panama during the early years of the 20th century, and that my father had actually spent some time in Panama as a very young child. While this discovery was the catalyst which sent me in search of the valiant characters who left their West Indian families and risked their lives to help build the world's most famous canal, the early seeds of my interest in Panama came from Marcus Garvey's widow, Amy Jacques Garvey, who first told me of the heroic men and women who helped to build and maintain the historic Panama Canal over many decades.
I was a scruffy schoolboy living in Kingston when Mrs. Garvey used to invite me for tea. She had recently finished Garvey and Garveyism, her loving biography of her distinguished husband and her memories of his work and their dramatic life together were like vivid crystal. She was clearly pleased by my eagerness to hear her stories about my famous relative and seemed determined that I grasp both the essence and the complexities of her great man. I remember her stressing that it was the abuse of his Jamaican countrymen working in Panama that convinced Marcus Garvey to start the Black nationalist movement that would finally “destroy the old slave mentality.” She was adamant that although it took French brains and American money to conceive the Panama Canal, it was West Indian sweat and blood that built it, something which the world at that time refused to acknowledge. Looking back, I now realize that my two novels of the Panama Canal construction are in some small way my thank you to dear Amy Jacques for those inspiring afternoon teas.
Before I learned about my grandfather’s work in Panama I had assumed that the Jamaicans and other West Indians working on the canal had all been common laborers. As I would discover, the symbiotic tie between the isthmus and Jamaica dated from the 1840’s when the California Gold Rush spurred North American investors to build the Panama Railroad. Jamaica, being close by and inhabited by underemployed English speakers, became a handy source of cheap labor. By the time the French began their failed canal effort in the 1880s, there was a ready pool of workers to enlist, not only as diggers but also as stenographers, cooks, carpenters, mechanics and engineers.
I originally conceived Panama Fever and White Gold as one book, covering both the French and American periods. But the more I learned about those courageous men and women who left their loved ones to work in Panama and the depth and variety of their experiences, the more I realized that in order to properly tell their stories, I would need to write two books: Panama Fever: Digging Down Gold Mountain, which covers the period when the French tried to dig a sea level canal and failed, and White Gold, covering the period when the Americans took over the construction and lifted the canal over the Continental Divide but also introduced Jim Crow laws to the Canal Zone.
In a break from my two part tale of the Panama Canal construction, my new project, tentatively called Crossed Hearts, moves to the United States in 1962 during the rising tensions that would precede the long-pursued 1964 Civil Rights Act. Based loosely on my parents' experiences following their arrival in the United States from Jamaica in 1946, becoming U.S. citizens, and my own memories of the drive we took across the country from Los Angeles to Miami as they returned home to Jamaica in time to celebrate their island's independence from British rule in August 1962. The story interweaves their experiences, from their early struggles in New Orleans where my father attended university after giving up his successful pharmacy practice in Kingston, to New York, Canada and finally to Los Angeles where they settled, with the experience of their 9-year-old son during the family's Southern trek across country as he struggles to understand the rising tension between his parents as a once happy marriage dissolves in bitterness over the two week journey.