Staceyann Chin Tells It Like It Is
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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.