I was about eight years old when I mastered the art of packing a bag. Each summer for several years my mother would send my brother and me with a week's worth of clothing and bottles of bug spray to attend Concordia Language Villages—a foreign language immersion camp in Minnesota. Upon arrival we would go through “customs”, which consisted of camp counselors removing anything from our possession that might entice us to communicate in English. Books and magazines in English were considered contraband and were not allowed at camp. These were the days before cell phones and our now seemingly constant connectivity.

The minimum age for enrollment at the camp was nine or ten years old, but my mother convinced the camp leadership that I was sufficiently responsible and cooperative to handle camp. Plus, my older brother Timothy would also be attending the camp in case there was a need for his support. This was laughable considering that Tim could be counted on to be a troublemaker and I a peacemaker. In any event, they capitulated, and I was the youngest girl in my cabin—probably the youngest person at camp, though I never noticed. Each cabin was named after a region of France or another francophone country. You might live in Marseille or Port o Prince. In this year, most of my other cabin mates were particular white, tall, and pretty by white standards. One aspired to become a model. In contrast I felt very brown, petite, and homely—I wanted to be a doctor.

One small round white girl was the exception to the rule, and she and I became fast friends. This was not surprising because before camp started I sent letters to several other campers. I don’t recall the criteria I used to determine who should receive a letter, but the small round white girl received one, and we were pen pals for weeks before I made my way to Minnesota. The small round white girl came to camp with a tiny suitcase, and though I’ve never been to a circus I can now imagine what it might be like to see twenty clowns emerge from one small car. It was the small round white girl who taught me how to pack a suitcase with maximum efficacy. The trick, I learned at age eight, was to roll each item of clothing tightly before placing into a suitcase.

The other trick was to pack less shit.

Jamaica Aali standing in front of a cabin at Concordia Language Villages
Standing in front of a cabin at Concordia Language Villages


The passage above is an excerpt from Pack Those Bags, Jamaica Aali's unpublished autobiography.