I didn’t have a suit. My mother always tried to buy me the right things to keep up with the in-crowd, but it was a strange spring in our household, with my father chasing after the source of his severe headaches. I wore instead a ladybug-print sheath dress that my mother made, modifying the pattern for my chunkiness. I liked the dress, but I hated being the different one.
Over the years, I’ve come to accept and even like and flout my difference. In a sea of jeans-clad college girls, I wore skirts. I did my homework reading in the empty student lounge instead of making the flirtatious study scene at the library. Even within my “theater freak” crowd I gravitated to character parts instead of aspiring to stardom. In my newspaper jobs, I was happy to be on the fluff fringe instead of reporting hard news. And I married someone as contrary as me, so we did everything backwards: We owned a house, then decided to rent instead; he started out in private practice, then moved to government service; while others started families and bonded over the kids, we traveled and became friends with those whose children were already grown.
Today, when my sister calls me “the weird one,” I am weirdly happy. And when my friend buys me a mug that says, “You are wonderfully quirky,” I display it with pride.
Even so, I am sometimes surprised when I discover that others don’t think the way I do. Because I long ago stopped trying to follow the crowd, I am puzzled by those who seek out the crowd. Both the way I travel and the way I write show the difference.
Before Tom and I found North Caicos, we were like others who went on vacation searching for paradise. We found several places to enjoy crystal waters and white beaches while never giving up the creature comforts of top hotels and well-stocked food-and-drink establishments, but didn’t really connect with any of them until we spent a week in July slapping at mosquitoes and laughing with the locals at a bar where you served yourself and chipped the ice for your drink from a frozen bucket of water. On North Caicos, we got down to the basics of “paradise,” without the imported Polynesian décor, Jamaican accent imitations and the bubble between tourists and those who live and work on an island.
Occasionally we’ve gone back to the safe way most Americans travel—a tour group, a cruise—but we’ve found those experiences a bit shallow. They do, however, remind me that my travel expectations are different from those of many. That’s why I warn family and friends that North Caicos is not for everyone.
I’ve been slower to realize that the same is true of my fiction writing. When I began writing island-based stories, I was interested in how people cope with both the promise and restrictions of island life. What happens when your children ignore the beauty and possibility of the land? Let’s explore the double-edged sword of development. How does it feel when a young person’s dreams are squelched by family obligation? Yes, these questions come up everywhere, but I’ve been trying to look at them through an island perspective. I believed that others who visited these sunny islands would be as interested in them as I am, and that they would become my readers.
What I’ve learned, though, is that many readers are much like travelers, not so interested in exploring as in having their clichés reinforced. Give them a spy caper with bikini-clad girls and umbrella drinks, or a beach-based romance in which everyone is rich and attractive. Don’t remind them that some people, even those colorful locals, become thieves or cheat on their spouses or sell their birthright to make a living.
I suppose that if I want my fiction to do better, I should listen to the agent who told me I need more Caribbean dialect and beach descriptions in my stories. But that would be like rejecting my mother’s homemade dress and insisting that we go shopping for a suit. No. Although my readership might be small—well, tiny—I will write what I need to write. North Caicos isn’t for everyone; neither is Jody Rathgeb.