roots & branches: the beginning

6th grade, English class. The first time I had to draw my genealogical tree for a class.

I was the only one in my tiny middle school class in Martinique with parents from two African different countries, with a Portuguese last name, and who regularly thought, daydreamed and counted in French.

We were learning how to name family members in English, and we were filling each square on top of one of the branches of that genealogical tree with the first name of each of our cousins, aunts, uncles, grand-parents and others.

The tree on the sheet looked like an oak, yet at the time oaks seemed to me too foreign and exotic. Oaks were the trees I would spot in the background of French TV shows;  I was far more familiar with palm trees and mahogany trees, like the ones in my house’s backyard.

I think that now, using tree metaphors to express the idea of origin, of descent, of legacy and of self-discovery has now become something of a cliché, and a part of me wants to apologize for using such an unoriginal and over-used image.

But if clichés are overused, and in this case our tree metaphor, I like to think it’s because many of us can easily relate to such an image. We relate to trees. Like them, we start as small seeds; growing through the seasons, welcoming the beneficial rays of a splendid July sun, combating the cold indifference of a late January morning. We like to think that as time passes, we continue to hold ourselves in the ground, with secure foundations for a lifetime of learning, growing, experiencing.

Put shortly, our foundations – our family, our ancestors, our birthplace, the culture(s) we were raised in – are essential for self-understanding and our sense of personal identity. I won’t go into a long blah-blah about the crucial role of family and childhood experiences in the formation of a sense of self; I’ll leave that to the child psychologists and other experts.

So for this very first blog post, I want to write about the little event that prompted me to come back to these foundations in the first place.

A month ago, on September 25th, along with a few close friends, I had the chance to go to a conversation (a rencontre, in French) and book signing event featuring the former French Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira. The event was taking place at a well-known Parisian theater in the 8ème arrondissement.

Known for the major role she played in legalizing gay marriage and adoption — as well as the ways in which she gracefully faced the intense backlash coming from opponents — she is also acknowledged as an esteemed member of the select club of women of color that have had a place in French government.

During the rencontre, she discussed mostly of her childhood, the writers, musicians, composers and other artists that influenced and inspired her; the way she perceived her own childhood, her perception of the backlash surrounding her time as a Justice minister; but also, most importantly for me, she mentioned the ways she felt at the same time strongly connected to French Guiana yet strongly connected to other cultures, other parts of the world.

She finished the rencontre by a Q&A session with the audience. Luckily, I had to time to ask her one question (!!!) (yes, I was excited!!!); but the question in itself doesn’t relate to the topic I am writing about today, so I will leave that out. 😉

After the end of the rencontre, my friends and I had the chance to buy her new book and to get it signed at the theatre bookstore — after 30 minutes of waiting in line, 30 short minutes that were totally worth it for the opportunity of directly talking to such a figure.

There was something quite lovely about that book signing. Taubira would take a book, and she would listen to each person in front of her talking about themselves before signing the first page. Bear in mind, it was the first formal book signing event I have ever been to.

This allowed for something beautiful to happen. One by one, I had the occasion to witness my friends opening up to her and talking about their goals, their insecurities and their dreams. Trust me, it is quite a fragile and gorgeous spectacle to see your friends shining when authentically opening up to someone and enthusiastically mentioning their growth as students and human beings, their objectives and their hopes.

When it came to my turn, I didn’t hesitate and told her about my own difficulties in growing as a tree when my roots were still quite ambiguous. She nodded and signed, and reassuringly reminded me that I was still walking that path of self-discovery, at my own pace.

On the book, she wrote: “To Daniela, who is looking for who she is to find out where she is going.”

And I think Mrs. Taubira managed to write a pretty good summary of what I hope to accomplish this year. (I don’t care what you think of her as a woman or as a politician, but one has to admit: she possesses quite a unique strain of charisma, and her way with words is definitely one of a kind!)

My two years of undergraduate studies at Columbia taught me that there is no “royal road” to success and fulfillment (both personal and professional). In the middle of my first semester in graduate school now, it is time that I take a look at this path once again, and take a good grasp of all the possibilities, all the opportunities ahead of me. What are the detours, the deviations I will take on my way? I look forward to answering all these questions. But now, I wish to return to the source: time for some inward inspection, putting my thoughts and ideas about myself, the world, before setting sail once again.

This said, welcome to my blog. 🙂