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From Her Dad To Her 'Jamish' Roots, A Poet Pieces Her Story Together

Growing up in 1970s England, Salena Godden stood out. Her mother was Jamaican and her father was an Irish jazz musician who mysteriously disappeared from her life when she was very young.

In her memoir, Springfield Road, the writer, poet and musician tells the story of finding her personal identity, beginning with the word she made up to describe her race: Jamish.

"It's kind of ... a mix of being Jamaican, Irish, English," she tells NPR's Arun Rath. "It's the name I gave myself."

Interview Highlights

On growing up as a child of color

I was the only brown girl in the playground, definitely — in the village, actually. And, of course, being mixed race was really unusual. People didn't really know what to call me. Half-caste, I suppose, but that felt like half of something and I'm definitely a whole Salena. There is not half of anything.

On what she imagined her father was like

If I played up, if I wrote poetry, if I started dancing around, my mother would say, "Oh, you're being just like your father." And in that way, I started to sort of piece together who this mysterious man was.

He was a great talent. He played with Miles Davis; he played on the [Beatles'] Sgt. Pepper album; he played with Salena Jones the jazz singer — that's why I'm called Salena. And he did all these remarkable things, but he was also very mysterious and absent. And so I wanted to know who he was.

I would have loved to know him. I think we would have had a great laugh and [drunk] a lot of whiskey.

"It was very much like putting together a jigsaw. You have, like, a story that someone tells you and then you have a photograph and then piece together slowly who you are."

On piecing her father's story together

It was very much like putting together a jigsaw. You have, like, a story that someone tells you and then you have a photograph and then piece together slowly who you are. I don't think it ruins it too much if I tell you I found out I have a sister and we have the same father but different mothers. And it was so fascinating to meet her and to get her side and her mother's stories of my father. Some of the mannerisms, some of the way she behaves, her dirty laugh is very, very similar. So there [are] certain things she does that are definitely nature.

On when she started writing poetry

I have always written. It's always been the thing I do. ... When I was a teenager, I used to earn cigarettes by writing love poems for girls to give to their boyfriends. I'd do a roaring trade at Valentine's. Terrible poems like, "Steve, don't ever leave." And then they would give me, you know, two cigarettes for that. ...

The trick was to try and figure out how to get paid, how to make it my job so that the thing I loved doing was what I did all day, which was what I was doing all day anyway, if you see what I mean. Yeah, and when I've tried to have jobs, I'm still writing. I've worked in pubs and stuff — I'm still behind the bar writing it all down.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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