12/10/2013 01:37 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

'Covering' Female Sexual Desires

I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. And, for the longest time, a photocopy of the image of three nubile women would hang over wherever I was writing. At one time I walked around with a replica of it in my purse. When I fall in love, I really fall in love, and I love having my love objects close to me. That's just the kind of girl I am. And so, yes, I admit it, Koren der Harootian's painting, "Three Graces" had me hooked from the first time I laid eyes on it.

Now I realize that the painting took me back to the idyllic landscape of childhood, of summers spent in my grandparents' and great-grandparents' houses in the tiny district of Nonsuch, high in the purple-blue mountains of Jamaica. Here, in this gorgeous little district, all the cousins would meet up on those hot lazy days, eating fat stalks of striped sugar canes, making guava jam with my grandmother, catching crawfish in the now heavily-polluted river that runs through the district and going on walks with my great-grandmother, that wonderful maker of patchwork quilts, as she went selling milk early in the mornings. It was a time of bliss.

Closing my eyes, I can still see stars so big and so bright and seemingly so near that the first time I took my then-baby sister on a trip to the island from our New York home, she asked a friend of mine to reach up and pluck one of the stars from the night sky for her. The stars were that close. All of this came back to me the first time I saw Koren der Harootian's "Three Graces," and the painting remains for me primarily an image of childhood, of innocence, so much so that when it finally came time to choose the cover of my first novel, The River's Song, a story about coming of age in Jamaica, I knew exactly which imagine I wanted -- and subsequently got -- for the cover. It was Koren der Harootian's beautiful painting.

So in love and happy was I with my book, with its cover, with my life in general then, that I was wholly unprepared for how that particular cover -- of all my to-date five published books -- would become a smorgasbord of female sexuality and the problems of representation of the female body.

To begin with, there was the day I walked blissfully into my office on campus and, with hands trembling slightly, showed my book to a co-worker. All the years I had worked on the book -- my first published novel -- first as a grad student, and then on my own, chipping and chipping away at it. The trips I had taken to the mountains of Mexico, the beaches of Morocco, talking to my characters, trying to get to know them better, trying to get them to know me better, letting them know it was OK to trust me with their story. I especially wanted Annie and Gloria, the main characters of the book, two girls on the cusp of womanhood, to know that they could trust me as they explored their developing bodies and their burgeoning sexuality. I knew that if I allowed the girls space to tell me their story, it would become a story that the right publisher would publish, which is exactly what happened. The right publisher liked the book and decided to publish it and finally, after much listening and learning and rewriting, it was time to decide on the cover and Koren der Harootian's beautiful painting popped right into my mind. The publisher agreed immediately with my suggestion.

But I have digressed long enough and it is time to get back to my co-worker, a linguist from India, who had only one question about my book when I showed it to her: "Why are the characters on the cover of your book naked?"

I should have seen the comment as a harbinger of things to come.

I thought it only curious when the book was described as "atypical of Caribbean literature because of its description of a young girl's sexual awakening." Teenage girls in Jamaica are like teenage girls anywhere else, I remember thinking to myself, and they have sexual feelings that they want to explore and express just like teenagers anywhere else do. But even then I started hearing, deep inside of myself, all the voices from my childhood, all the things that had been said around me about the female body and female sexuality, the constant exhortations from the nuns at the Catholic girls' school I attended, that we girls should be wise, not foolish, virgins, for "what sweet nanny-goat will surely run her belly."

But here again, I digress from talking about the cover of my book.

It so happened that, shortly after The River's Song was published, someone was looking for books by Jamaicans to take to a trade show. I happily asked my publisher to send along my book and my publisher happily complied. I waited anxiously to hear how all the books, mine included, did at the show. The woman who attended the trade show was a nice woman, quite generous and diplomatic. She had gotten my book, yes, and it had even made it with her to the trade show, but, well, the cover.

Jamaica, for sure, I thought. Where else could there be problems with what for me was a pretty benign cover?

Then I ended up in Morocco on a Fulbright fellowship, and the cover did not go over so well there either. That's to be expected, I told myself. Although Morocco is a fairly liberal Muslim country, it is still a conservative society. Morocco, for sure, I told myself.

But when my book cover started causing haggling at a large liberal arts college in one of the boroughs of New York City, it dawned on me that there might in fact be something highly problematic or even challenging about the cover, and maybe now, in hindsight, I thought I might want to take a firm and long look at the cover again. Maybe there was something that I should take note of for next time. After all, could people in such disparate parts of the world all be wrong? There had to be something to this that I was not seeing.

It took me a while to see past the idyllic images of childhood that the painting represented. Surely it wasn't the "nudity" because outside of the barely visible nipples, nothing really was showing. Then slowly, it started to dawn on me that what might have caused the problem was the self-contained world that the women inhabit; how the girls reference each other for an understanding of their bodies and their sexuality; how abandoned they seem in exploring not only their bodies, but the bodies of the other girls around them. Here are girls, I finally realized, who are wholly liberated in an entirely female place and an entirely female space. Here was power inherent in a positive female sexuality that needs only the company of itself for its own enjoyment. Oh, yes, I could see now why this cover would bring so much trouble.

As I look back on the covers of my books, all of which I choose instinctively, I'm astonished how much they mark the changing moments of my life so far, this journey that I'm on, whether it's me looking back on my island-home from a distance and being completely stunned by its amazing flora and fauna, for example; or whether it's my embrace of community or even my embrace of the other. Now, in looking closer and closer at the cover of The River's Song, I see my years-long interest in female sexuality. This searching, this yearning, this wanting to know more. This self-enclosed and strangely beautiful world; this forging ahead and along; this doing it together as a strong community of women. The danger and the desire and the beauty of it all.

I hope you will take the time to participate in my ongoing exploration of female desires here

Until next time.