Staceyann Chin Tells It Like It Is
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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.