Most of us will know Staceyann Chin as the Tony-nominated co-writer and performer of Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. Some among us may be familiar with her poetry and with her Off-Broadway one woman show (“Border/Clash: A Litany of Desires”) and her performances at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Pittsburgh Daily. She is a host on Logo’s After Ellen internet show “She Said What?” and a co-host of BET’s My Two Cents. And…she’s been on Oprah and 60 Minutes.
Following the publication of her The Other Side of Paradise she will be known as an accomplished prose writer. The book is at times a painful one to read, as it follows Chin’s life in Jamaica as that of a precocious girl abandoned by her mother and unclaimed by her Chinese father who grows up under the vigilant care of a Christian grandmother. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune (excerpts follow) Chin speaks of the painful episodes she narrates in her book—of her premature birth, of being shuffled among abusive relatives, to her departure from Jamaica following a sexual assault by 12 men in a university bathroom because she was an “out” lesbian.
When did you decide that your life story needed to be told?
I was so mad at having to leave Jamaica (in 1999) because I was a lesbian. I was very much taken up with the details of my own present trauma, you know missing Jamaica, wanting to be an out, proud lesbian in America, very shocked and angry about discovering racism here. The more I started to write about my own life, the more people responded. So it became a kind of balloon, a kind of snowball effect that kept growing and growing. It really took 10 years (to write).
How would you say the prose-writing process differed from crafting stanzas?
Poetry is a craft that allows you to hide behind things. I found that there is a way that I could be honest and still hide behind the metaphors and the verse and the performance, and the prose gave you no such room.
So I had to admit that my mother left me, it wasn’t my haiku – Chinaman left her/black child in her belly/rock stone in her heart – where people are distracted by how poignant that might be. That’s very different from the fact that I had to write down that my mother left me with these people and she didn’t come back. Or that she beat me when she came. There’s nothing poignant or breathtaking or beautiful about that as a reality.
Your book addresses themes of identity, from contacting your father to coming out as a lesbian and being sexually assaulted. How did you write such emotionally charged scenes?
It was the hardest thing because I couldn’t construct the story and put how I was feeling in the first draft or else I wouldn’t have had the courage to write it down.
My process was that I had to write down the factual, tangible, describable things, and fill in (the) feeling later. And it was like pulling teeth because (my editor) would have to say to me: “How did you feel?” It was draft after draft after draft.
Why did you name the book “The Other Side of Paradise”?
It’s only pure caprice luck that the neighborhood that I actually lived in (in Montego Bay) is called Paradise.
And there’s Paradise Crescent on one side that I lived on and then there’s Paradise Acres, which was the wealthy side. And I spent so many years wanting to belong to the other side of Paradise. Actually, when I left my aunt’s house, I actually moved to the other side of Paradise and discovered that it had its advantages – there were freedoms and safeties there that I hadn’t thought possible – but it was still not as green (as) I imagined it. And I guess the true meaning of that is that both sides are maybe necessary – that a life fully lived has its traumas, its sorrows and its triumphs, and its moments of grand laughter.