Staceyann Chin Tells It Like It Is
Staceyann Chin is standing at the front of the room, barefooted, in cargo pants and a fitted tee, her trademark hair tied up in a rubber band at the top of her head. She walks slowly down the aisle of folding chairs as she reads, her lilting Jamaican voice alternately booming out of her slim frame and settling down into an emotional, faltering half-whisper. Chin had flown from her home in Brooklyn, New York to San Francisco, stopping in 30 cities in the span of four weeks, to publicise her new memoir, The Other Side of Paradise (Scribner), which chronicles her childhood in Jamaica.
For over an hour she has the crowd—mostly queer women, with a sprinkling of men—in the palm of her shapely brown hand. She reads to them about her mother, who abandoned her shortly after she was born, about her first period and her misadventures with a sanitary pad, about her cousin who sexually abused her, and finally, she read to them about her first meeting with her estranged father, who, to this day, refuses to acknowledge that she is his daughter. Chin tells her story with disarming honesty and good-humored frankness and the crowd responds, rolling with laughter, nodding in recognition and shaking their heads knowingly.
Chin is, by nature, a performer and her voice comes through loud and clear even when her words are read silently to oneself from the page. Like her presence at the front of a room, The Other Side of Paradise is captivating. Those familiar with Chin’s work will find a fresh re-telling, rich with detail and charged with emotion. And those just discovering this outspoken, award-winning poet, playwright, activist, feminist lesbian, will find a woman whose unflinching account of her own troubled childhood makes her copious talent as a writer all the more remarkable.
Why did you decide to write a memoir?
I think it was a natural progression because, you know…I was a poet only for about two years, and two years after I kind of came onto the poetry scene, I immediately went into theatre. I have done four one-person shows in New York City. I teach writing workshops. I’ve been a lecturer, I’ve been a keynote speaker, I write essays, I’ve been a blogger, and so it seemed only natural, you know, and as a feminist and an activist, that I try other mediums. And if you only are working in one medium with the same story, you can get bored. So, it kind of seemed natural that I would try my hand at prose. Each medium allows you to do different things with it [so] I think that my readers, my regular fans, will discover something completely new in this text.
Is prose a more revealing form than performance poetry?
It is definitely the most revealing of my work. There’s a way that, when you are a performance poet and you kind of live in the adult voice, there’s a way that the more brutal truths acquire a kind of sensational lascivious…even if it is direct and fierce. As an activist and woman and feminist, that there is a kind of playfulness when I’m standing on the stage in a tank top that is cut low, and a push-up bra and, you know, there is a kind of sexiness when I say—even if what I say is radical—there’s a kind of attractive appeal that happens to the stage performance at work that is not visible when you are reading about a little girl who is 10-years-old. And who is vulnerable within the context of, like, discovering her first period or being abandoned by parents or meeting a man who she suspects is her father. There’s nothing, you know, tantalizing and interesting in a sexual way about that child. There is a level of vulnerability that I have never been able to show.
Right, and onstage, you have the distance of it being a performance.
Right, and you…have a little control over your audience. You decide when they laugh, when they ache, when they mutter angrily at things, and even after you’ve made them sad, you can quickly pull them back with a little witty remark that causes them to, kind of, collapse into hilarious laughter. There’s a way that you cannot do that in a chronological mapping of your own life, that—the tragic moments, you have to spend time telling them. With a book, you know, you spend maybe two days, if you read it all in one sitting, which, no performer allows you to spend two days with them. There’s…a detailed and deep-seated emotional ark that can be allowed in a book, more so than in performance. And also, you can’t control what [your reader] thinks in the same way, because your physicality isn’t in front of them. So, in a performance, there’s a reminder that this person has survived; whereas, in the book, you know, you have to stay with a kid who does not yet know she will survive.
The detail in the book is incredibly vivid. Was it more of a remembering for you, or a re-imagining?
I think, in our personal stories, it is always a little bit of both because you have to forget—to survive some things, you have to forget them. And so, to recreate them you must reinvent them, and if you have a good editor and a good team of people around you, they can hammer away at that reinvention and bring you closer to a memory. Part of it is, you know, my grandmother talked a lot about when I was a kid. A part of is it part family folklore, and part of it is what they remember, and the other part is how they put those two things together, and how they reinterpret those things. And so, I would say that sometimes, I wasn’t sure whether it was a yellow dress or a blue dress that I was wearing, but I remember that how I felt about the dress remains true still today.
You know, sometimes I struggle with walking into a room and thinking, I wish they knew about the little girl who had to wash her own hair at night or who had to wash her own sheets when she was nine, or who had to brave her biggest fears by going to beg this man [who she thinks is her father] to help her to go to school. I wish that they knew that kid. I wish they didn’t just see this kind of, you know, brash, quirky, sophisticate, you know, with her precise pronunciations and her history of traveling. I wish that I could say to people who see that face, that this is not all that is here.
How do you feel about your mother now?
I mean, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. You know, difficult lives are just difficult, and if my mother had stayed it would have been difficult in one way and if she had gone, if would have been difficult in another way. And it’s the lack of support that I think that my mother had, you know, as a poor black woman with big dreams. She, she wanted a life beyond the small one room that her mother had. And so, she could have that life, or she could stay and look after these two children. And, you know, she chose, and she was 23 years old. You know, I’m 36 right now and considering parenthood and even now, it is scaring the bejesus out of me.
Did writing about your childhood make you think differently about motherhood?
Yes. I want to have a baby, badly. I’ve been in and out of relationships over the last couple of years and I finally got to the place where I said, you know, I’m having a baby—partner or no partner. I’m going to be a parent, because I feel I have something I want to offer. But I was just talking to a bunch of women this week, where I was kind of losing my mind a little bit, thinking, how do I guarantee that my pathology and neuroses…[how do] I prevent those things from informing how I parent? How do I, as a lesbian parent—if it’s a boy, how do I teach him to be a good man without him aping some of the kind of heterosexist ways that exist in the world? So it really made me question, and writing the book, I had to really take note of how deeply I was affected by the things that happened to me.
When you come out in the book, it’s like you’re rejecting so much of what was taken for granted before, maybe not by you, but in your culture. Was it an either/or situation for you?
It was, you know. I mean, in the epilogue I think that I talk about the regret, that I wish I hadn’t been as brash or forthright or dismissive of other people’s feelings about my sexuality. But…I was just young…and angry and a know-it-all. But, a lot of people’s responses—people don’t always have a problem with your sexuality because they think that it’s wrong and that you’re going to go to hell. Lots of times, people think that it’s a bad road for you to go down and they love you and they don’t want you to make those choices. Many people don’t understand that for some of us, it’s not a choice.
And then, you have to understand that when you come out when you are young, it’s not just that you are coming out and telling people.
And especially for those of us who come from communities of color, where respect for your elder is the most important thing—and so, when you say to someone, “I’m gay and you have to deal with it,” you’re not just saying “I’m gay,” you’re not just kind of giving a little leaflet with some information on it to these people—you are being disrespectful and you are going against what was planned for you. And it’s not as simple as just needing to tell people and explaining to them that you’re gay.
Did you come out to your grandmother?
I think that, I never said to my grandmother, “I’m a lesbian,” because I don’t think that word exists in her vocabulary…but, I took my girlfriends home to meet her in the same way [I had taken my boyfriends]. And I was as affectionate with them and she gave us advice in the same way. And so, I think there are some people for whom words are not important. And my grandmother, when it came to the really important things—if she made you a sandwich, you would know that that meant she loved you and she didn’t have to sit you down and say, “I really want you to know that I love you.”
You write that you owe all of your success to your grandmother’s work.
I think she worked enough to make sure that I would succeed. You know, when I say “work,” she did more than her fair share of work in the world, and so on the days that I rest, I think somehow in the weird, stupid, airy-fairy balance of the world, I feel as if I can take a day of rest because of how much grandma worked.