Staceyann Chin Talks The Other Side of Paradise
Books on the Root talks with poet Staceyann Chin about her new memoir The Other Side of Paradise.
There are many remarkable things about Staceyann Chin's new memoir, The Other Side of Paradise. But what has hit me the strongest is the bold reminder that you never know what someone has been through. I remember seeing her perform on Broadway for Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam. She was strong, defiant, and crazy-talented. But sitting in that audience, I would have never imagined all of the struggles she overcame growing up. She was abandoned by her mother, unacknowledged by her father, separated from the only family she knew, and abused at the hands of relatives. Yet still, in the end, she opened herself up to the possibilities of contentment.
Told through the eyes of "little Staceyann," The Other Side of Paradise is harrowing and inspirational, redemptive and liberating, and it's relayed with the same gusto, depth and sharpness that she exuded on stage that first time I saw her perform.
In my curiosity to hear more about her journey from Paradise, Jamaica to gracing international stages as woman-warrior-poet, I asked Chin to comment on a few passages from her memoir--a kind of behind-the-scenes look. Here's what she told me:
The wide eyes of several children stare at me from behind the half-open doors, like little animals watching. There is a tall man looking at me and scratching his crotch. His rough beard covers a multitude of swollen yellow pimples. He winks at me like we share a secret. Behind him a darkskinned woman in a blue dress leans over the veranda rail and grins at me. I close my eyes and ask God not to let Mummy leave me here. (p. 103)
Because the book was written in first-person present tense, a lot of it was to document what I was thinking and feeling as a girl. It was written like there was a camera lodged behind little Staceyann's eyes. This particular moment in my life was confusing to me. I had never seen that kind of urban poverty before--the small space with so many people or the untended acne. Nor had I seen the kind of silent children that were brave and curious but also equipped with some amount of consciousness about self-preservation. They were equally curious about me, the light-skinned child who everyone seemed to be making a fuss about. Nobody told me that this was my family. They were all foreign to me. And at the time, that wink seemed innocent. I didn't know it then, but now looking back, it felt sexual, and it comes out later in the book that it was. As a little girl, I didn't have the language for what I felt so I wanted to make sure that what I described was within the parameters of what little Staceyann was thinking and feeling.
Although Grandma cannot hear the words, she cries silently as they lower the coffin into the ground. I do not understand why she is wasting her tears on this man, but I hold her shaking hand and cry with her. I wonder if my mother knows that her father is dead. I look around at the strangers who line the edges of the grave. None of them feel like family. (p. 233)
By my grandfather's funeral, I had moved away from the family in ideology and geography. This passage brings me full circle with him. It also highlights the tension that one feels between being loyal to a memory that has tainted a person as a villain and their death. In my estimation at the time, his death should have been cause for celebration, and I couldn't understand why my grandmother wept for a man that she spoke so ill of for my whole life. It was my first experience with how complex family relationships can be, how much those complexities are highlighted in death, and how death brings people together who wouldn't normally be gathered in the same room. There is a certain kind of ritual and respect that is given over to a funeral, especially for black families. Even when you hate your father, you show up when he dies. The fact that my mother wasn't there made her absence notable to me because, again, in death people show up, even in the fractured family of mine. That funeral made me see how much my mother was absent, not just from my life, but from my family's life.
One of the coming-out books says that it is best to look as becoming and as "normal" as possible when delivering the news to family and friends. Looking good makes it harder for people you love to reject you. So I add perfume and put on some lip gloss. If she tells me she doesn't want to be my friend, it won't be because I look shabby. (p. 248)
I was ultimately afraid that Racquel would reject me because her friendship was one of the most important things in my life. It was either having her find out in another way or having the courage to get up and say to her that I'm a lesbian. I think that this is how people deal with things when they find themselves in an unpredictable situation. When there's nothing to do about the situation to make it better or worse, when you just have to put one foot in front of the other and act with some courage because it's the right thing to do, we try to find some aspect of the situation that we can control. Like in the previous passage, the lost of a loved one is something we can't control so we wear the appropriate clothing, stand in a certain way, in an effort to convince ourselves that the loss isn't as big as it is. There was no handbook on Jamaican lesbians coming out to their friends. So I thought that looking good was something that I could control. It's one of the platitudes that we serve ourselves to get through our difficult lives. When we're caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, we say, "I'm going to look at the sky."
"I like how James Baldwin describes New York in Another Country. I can't imagine being in a place where you can just be everything that you want to be. Imagine, Brandt, having the freedom to bleed and obsess and be concerned with the tragedy of your life, your chosen life!" (p. 244)
New York has been that for me and more. I know that it hasn't been that for everyone. I was lucky I came and found that thing I was looking for. I had no expectations. I only wanted to be alive, feel, and experience new things. When you feel as if you're trapped in a situation, I suppose freedom looks very good. The other side is that paradise isn't everything you expect it to be. What I'm learning to do these days is be present in the life that I have and make the life that I have better. I thought if I found James Baldwin's New York from Another Country, I would be so happy. I found that it isn't New York that has made it so, but me being conscious of the smaller things and to not expect too much of the bigger things. I never expected to be a writer or poet here, or for people to know my name. And I realized I would be equally happy if that never happened. I was looking for something outside of myself to save me, but what I really needed to do was plot a path, follow it, and leave myself open for detours, unexpected pleasures and moments of failure. When I thought those lines from the passage, I was in that place when I thought New York was going to be everything. I never imagined that it could be nothing too. I love New York for that reason.
It tickles me to think that from my very first breath, everyone expected me to stop breathing. Against the odds, I surprised everybody. And I must admit that in some of the moments of my life so far, no one has been more taken aback by my own breath than me. (p. 4)
It is so strange the expectations one has for oneself. I was the kind of kid who always went out there and found the monster that needed to be slain and the tree that needed to be cut down or planted. I was always that child but never considered myself to be that kind of person. When I talk to my friends, they are not surprised that I became a writer or activist or loud-mouth talking about unspeakable things. In my heart of hearts, I was always a little girl born without a doctor in a one-room hut in rural Jamaica. I was always trying to shake that as a reality, lie about it, accept it and neutralize it. Today I know that it is a fact about me that is as irrevocable and unchanging as the color of my skin. I suppose what has surprised me most is that a country girl born with no doctor can become anybody.
I try to see who I am now through the eyes of the grandmother who raised me for the first ten years of my life. I think she would have been completely taken aback by how far her little ward has traveled. That is the place I try to live in most. There were so many moments when I should have stopped, died, or shouldn't have gotten to school. I always felt like my life was far more tenuous than other people's. For me to have made it this far both surprises and pleases me. This journey has been one of serendipity.