For Montclair Local

Writing had been a dream of Juanita Gaskin’s for years. 

“I don’t want to waste another minute,” the Montclair resident said. 

Gaskin, a photographer who has owned her own company since 2003, recently self-published her debut collection of poetry, “Renaissance Dreams, Life’s Journey Through Poetry.” 

She said she’s not interested in sales figures. She just wants her readers to find her message uplifting.

“If people read my work and their hope is restored, that’s all I need,” she said.

Gaskin joined the writing group at the Montclair Public Library a few years ago. She said the members were “encouraging and motivating, and that kept me going.”

“I hope that ‘Renaissance Dreams’ inspires,” she said. “Everyone should follow their dreams, no matter how long it takes.”

Gaskin, who grew up in Harlem, was about 10 years old when she realized she wanted to write. She began with snippets of poetry and imaginings. But when she was young, her family moved around a lot, and those early writings were lost.

It was disappointing, she said.

“At one point, I lost my confidence and I stopped writing,” Gaskin said. “Then, in my late teens and early 20s, I began to write again.”

She contemplated publishing her poetry for more than 40 years. Then, last year, something inside her compelled her to finally move ahead with it. 

“It took a while. There was some time in between my decision to publish the book and the actual publication. Eventually, everything came together,” she said.

Gaskin, who is turning 75 this year, decided it was finally time to make her dream a reality.

Tragedy struck her family 30 years ago, when they lived in Far Rockaway, New York. Her son was shot when he was 20 years old, and his spinal cord was severed, leaving him with quadriplegia. Now Gaskin, as the head of her household, cares for him.

Her book includes poems about her depression. Writing, she said, helps her cope. 

“Writing brings clarity and courage,” she said. 

In a publicity announcement for the book, she said the title “Renaissance Dreams” itself “refers to the rebirth of passions delayed and of hope to come.”

“I walked through dark times and managed to walk into the light,” she said. “It becomes a battle with the self, when you reach for a goal with no one there to help you through or cheer you forward. You wonder whether you have the strength to keep fighting. But you must believe in yourself. It takes a positive mind to get you where you truly belong.”

Writing isn’t the only goal to which Gaskin returned. She’d attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, majoring in advertising and communications, but didn’t finish. In her 50s, she returned to school, at Montclair State University, and earned her degree.

There is a photo of the Eiffel Tower on the cover of the book. What is the French connection?

Some of Gaskin’s favorite authors and poets relocated to France during the 20th century, and she longed to follow in their footsteps.

“James Baldwin, who was born and raised in Harlem, immigrated to France in 1948,” Gaskin said. “Langston Hughes, who was an important part of the Harlem Renaissance, first lived and worked in Paris in the 1920s.”

Twenty years ago, Gaskin attended a music conference in the south of France.  As someone who had never traveled and had never been out of the United States, she said, her stay in the country was an inspiration.

“As soon as I retired, I returned to France in search of Richard Wright,” she said. That is to say she searched for him figuratively; Wright, the author of “Native Son,” moved to Paris from Chicago in 1946. 

“I made a pilgrimage to his home. When I went to his house I felt connected to him,” Gaskin said. “Wright was inspired by the freedom he experienced during daily life in Paris. I felt the same way.”

A few years ago, when she decided to leave New York and relocate to the suburbs, a friend suggested she move to Montclair.

“She brought me to Montclair and I saw [what would become] my house,” Gaskin said. “I moved with my family two years ago.”

She said she loves living in Montclair. “It’s friendly, green and quiet. Everything is nearby and convenient,” she said. “It’s a perfect place for us.”

Gaskin’s literary heroes — Wright, Baldwin and Hughes — were each as notable for their insights into issues of racial and social justice as they were for the eloquence of their writing. 

Does she have any advice for members of the younger generation, who are living through America’s historic reckoning with justice and inequality? 

“I tell my children and grandchildren to read and to know and to understand our history,” Gaskin said. “We keep talking about it. We are in the midst of change.”

“These are not new challenges,” she said. “Remember when Rodney King said, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ We all have families, we all have jobs, and we all have difficulties. Let’s keep the conversation going. Let’s keep working for peace and justice.”

Gaskin believes that working hard to achieve your dream, even if it takes a lifetime, is the key to fulfillment. 

“Hold on to your dream. Keep working on it. Don’t let fear get in the way. “I started my own company despite fear. I never would have traveled if I let fear stop me,” she said. “I would never have published my book if I listened to fear.”

“Renaissance Dreams” is available on Amazon and via