Patricia Powell’s learning life
People, ultimately, are the driving force for Patricia Powell. She’s interested in their stories, their hardships, their joy. She makes it a point to talk to her friends from the East Coast weekly. Her connections with her students are personal and created through conversation more than lecture. Her colleagues praise her willingness to learn and listen. It is living well — body, mind, spirit — that makes up Powell’s focus and that motivates her actions.
Though she leads the English department at Mills College and has four published novels, Powell has no authoritarian affect about her craft. She is as eager to learn as the students who attend her classes. She asks probing questions: “How do you feel about that?” “What was that like for you?” and gives the impression that she is constantly gathering the details that comprise the thoroughly human characters in her books.
In 1982, Powell, age 16, moved from Jamaica to the United States, to live with her mother for the first time in her life. Her great aunt, Nora, who had raised her from the age of three months, died shortly after Powell arrived in the U.S.
Powell and her mother didn’t get along at all.
“We fought for all kinds of reasons,” Powell said. “We fought because I was queer, we fought because I didn’t want to go to church, we fought because I was angry at her for giving me up, we fought because I didn’t have language to talk about how much I was missing my great aunt.”
Born May 4, 1966 in Spanish Town, Jamaica, the reasons for her displacement into the household of her aunt have never been made clear to her. She believes that she was the result of an affair, though her mother hasn’t ever spoken to her about the circumstances of her birth. Powell gathered snippets of information from her aunt and grandmother, but Powell’s mother said she was “making things up” when Powell tried to make sense of her origins.
In high school, Powell was a dedicated student and attended an after-school program for gifted kids. The director of the program took her students to Wellesley College and suggested they apply. Powell did and was accepted. After leaving for college at 18, she never returned to her mother’s.
She entered college with the intent to study economics — the “practical” choice. College mentors’ advice followed suit with the counsel Powell had received in high school: she should write. One of her high school teachers gave her an anthology of black women’s writing that included Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and told her that, one day, she hoped to see Powell’s name in a book like that.
Flunking economics, Powell took a creative writing class on the advice of a friend and started what would become her first novel, Me Dying Trial. Writing this helped Powell to work through the loss of her great aunt, to whom the book is dedicated.
She completed the novel for her senior thesis at Wellesley and used it to apply to graduate school, at the encouragement of her advisor, who thought she should get her master’s. Powell, still thinking practically, had wondered if she should get her doctorate in English, for teaching. In Jamaica, she’d never been aware that writing as a career was a possibility.
She didn’t feel much attachment to the five graduate programs to which she applied and her reason for accepting Brown University’s offer of admission was practical: they’d offered her the most aid.
Now, over twenty years later, Powell’s presence in the classroom is one of serene, somewhat detached engagement. She asks a lot of questions and, sometimes, guides her students through a meditation before asking them to write.
Sit back in your seats. Really be in the room. Put all your electronics away. Close your eyes, she told her advanced fiction workshop on their first day of class last fall. “Now, relax your anus.” The students, sitting around the table with their eyes closed, giggled. “If your anus is relaxed,” Powell said, “you’re really relaxed.”
Cynthia Pinto, or CF, is a graduate student at Mills and has worked with Powell in Mills’ Place for Writers, putting together programs and events for the graduate writing community.
Powell has a “calming influence,” CF said. “She’s extremely supportive and attentive.”
CF is most impressed by Powell’s willingness to learn from her graduate students; this is something her undergraduate classes have remarked upon as well.
Though Powell has held such distinguished positions as the Martin Luther King Visiting Professorship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and served as the Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard University — a position she held for six years — she doesn’t carry a heavy ego with her into her dealings with students or colleagues.
Powell is English department co-chair alongside Dr. Ajuan Mance, who has known Powell since 1988, when they met at Brown. She said she felt fortunate to co-chair the position with someone who was such a “thoughtful, compassionate, and creative thinker,” and also “a very clear and effective communicator.”
Tonianne Nemeth, executive assistant for the English department, recalls working with Powell before she took on the position of co-chair. Nemeth remembers that she felt Powell was someone she could laugh with, though Powell began to lead the department during a time of upheaval.
“For her to still be here, and to still teach, and write — I have to say, that in itself is pretty amazing and shows you what kind of character she has,” Nemeth said.
Powell’s ability to pull through and keep up with all of her responsibilities is something that Nemeth attributes to her humor.
“She’s very interesting in that she has this humor and this laid back style,” said Nemeth, “but when she’s serious — I don’t even know she’s being serious, because of her style — she’ll just all the sudden be very quiet and say, ‘no, seriously, this is what I mean.’”
Powell lives with her partner of five years, Helen Klonaris, in the Berkeley Hills. Klonaris is also a writer and she teaches at Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
Their home is bright, tasteful and uncluttered. An outdoor balcony overlooking the Bay and a deck off the entryway are ideally suited to writing. Powell said she moved to Kensington for the community; she knew other teachers who lived there.
Powell is unassuming, relaxed. She has tidily short-cropped, graying hair and an unlined face. Though she’ll turn fifty in May, she looks no older than forty, wearing mismatched slippers and sitting in her sunny living room.
Powell is happiest now, she said, in her forties. She’s published four books and has a fifth, a memoir, that hasn’t yet been picked up by a publisher. With each book, she was working through something. The writing has helped deepen who she is and heal her various wounds — the loss of her great aunt, the strained relationship with her mother (on the advice of her therapist, she hasn’t spoken to her mother for three years).
Powell started her second book, “A Small Gathering of Bones” (1994), on the train ride home from a friend’s funeral. After he died, she realized the disparity in Jamaican literature when it came to stories of gay men, and wanted to write a story that would represent some of the struggles she’d observed: family estrangement, dealing with serious illness, societal rejection. It is with these things that the book grapples, and Powell remembers one of her most rewarding experiences as a writer happening as a result of its publication. At a reading in the UK, Powell was approached by men who thanked her and told her how wonderful it was to read a version of their experience in her book — an experience that wasn’t dealt with by many authors in a way that represented them as fully human and with respect.
With her third novel, “The Pagoda” (1998), Powell took on the project of not only going back in time, but also of portraying a challenging main character: Mr. Lowe, a Chinese immigrant to Jamaica with a mysterious past. Powell is faithful to her characters’ struggles and, as she did with her previous books, immerses her readers immediately into the fully realized world of her protagonist through deft descriptions of the setting and vivid character detail.
Powell’s most recently published novel, “The Fullness of Everything” (2009), is a story of return. Powell’s first main character, Winston, must return to Jamaica after an absence of 25 years. The novel deals with death and dying, and the shifts in relationships that lead up to and follow loss. Powell doesn’t shy away from the anger and sadness her characters need to express; the result is honest and heartrending prose.
Though it is apparent that Powell has found success in many ways — as a writer, an academic and a teacher — it is not this success or the pursuit of it that defines her. She doesn’t seem to have pursued success at all, but to have followed her interests and gone wherever felt right at the time.