Six Questions for Writer and Activist Staceyann Chin
Welcome to "Six Questions," a new Page Turner interview series with authors about their work. Today we talk with Jamaican-born writer, activist, and performance-poet extraordinaire Staceyann Chin about her new memoir, The Other Side of Paradise, a chronicle of Chin's childhood that includes her survival of parental abandonment, poverty, abuse, sexual assault, and her eventual coming out as a lesbian in her deeply homophobic homeland. Page Turner talked with Chin about lessons of survival, otherness, the writing process, feminism, and her upcoming documentary on her quest to become a mama.
Page Turner: You've said that people can get caught up in the particular details of your family history, and your struggles with poverty and abuse in Jamaica, but that all people everywhere suffer and survive. What is the lesson of survival in The Other Side of Paradise?
Staceyann Chin: In a very kind of oversimplified way, it is that survival is about endurance. It isn't about any particular magical moment; it isn't about any particular path that one takes. It is the act of enduring, and enduring through a myriad of things—be it being left by your mother, or not being claimed by your father, or being lesbian in a country where it isn't safe. Or it can be something as different as enduring homelessness, or navigating a parent who finds it hard to let you go, who lives in your life only to tell you how to live that life, or who remains as a kind of voice that will always be pushing you to do what they want and not giving you the room to do what you want.
One thing I've learned about life is that it's dynamic, it changes. And so change is always something to contend with. But I also know that on the other side of that kind of immediate jarring that can come with change is a kind of peace. And that moving from the before-change to the after-change is the act of enduring.
PT: Your memoir is also about otherness and its relation to our sense of identity and to place. What was it about otherness that you wanted to explore in the work?
SC: Everyone is othered somewhere else. And the way that media is played out in the world just now, aspects of some people or some lives or communities are more accessible to certain people all over the world than others. Because of the nature of time and space and geography and all those kinds of laws of physics, you can't be everywhere all at once. And so when you move from one place to the other, you can be othered.
And that movement need not be time and geography specific. It is the way that African-Americans or black people are othered in North America and particularly in the U.S.A.—that the concept of the African-American body is not an issue of other on the continent of Africa, but because those bodies were moved hundreds of years ago to here, then they're othered the way that white people on the continent of Africa might be othered. But the specifics of that otherness might change—meaning the way that black people are treated in America is not the same as white people are treated on the continent of Africa, because of the history.
But the feeling of otherness is a common thread. The way that I'm othered when I say that I live in America, that I constantly have to explain or give information about myself, or make a case for my normalcy almost every day somewhere. And it's the way that the LGBT community has been othered because heteronormative has been the order of the day for so long, and even the way we use language—that "his" or "him" is a default when we only have one place for a pronoun—that others the female identity, the female body.
I suppose I was othered because I'm Chinese and I'm living in Jamaica, because I have no parents in a circle of people who did have parents, because I was outspoken and loud and would say things that sounded untoward to other people.
But having gotten responses from people who have read the book, I have to admit that everyone has confessed a place of otherness to me. People who I would think have completely been assimilated or normalized or accepted in mainstream culture have confessed that they've wanted to be as outspoken as that child in the story. And they've struggled with the ability to speak out, and they've remained silent ... But they look at my life now, and they think, my goodness, it doesn't always have to lead to excommunication from my community or not having a place to be in the world—that the sky's not going to fall simply because you voice an opinion that might seem unpopular or antithetical to the status quo. ... I'm not even talking about people who want to become activists. I'm talking about people who want to say to their mother, you remember my childhood a different way from the way I do.
PT: What's it like to receive all these responses?
SC: The largest portion of emotion is taken up with gratitude, a kind of validation of my journey. I'm also a little frightened by it, because the evidence of so many heavy silences that people live with—the things they don't say, the things they don't deal with, the things they don't even admit to themselves...to have those things be voiced to you is, at the same time, humbling and frightening.
You just don't imagine that people are leading such normal lives around you with so many things. My story is so kind of weighted with, you know, your mother left you, you're an abandoned child, your father didn't claim you, your grandmother couldn't read, you were dirt poor, you lived in a third world country where you turned out gay—all these things seem a little off the wall. ... There was always a kind of abnormality about me. I was always anomalous, and I started to pair that anomaly with my being loud. So I began to couple the identities [and believe] that these things were happening only to people who were speaking about them.
And then to discover that ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times the number of people remain silent. It reminded me that silence does not mean absence of abuse or trauma or terror or survival of some terrible things. That people who walk around and look quite normal, and wear pumps and skirts and have a perm and go to a job at nine in the morning and are always kind of very sweet to you and seem like the all-American girl—in a lot of ways, they have also survived things and have learned to quiet the details.
PT: What was your writing process like for the memoir?
SC: My only intent was to tell the story I remember. And so things changed, because I started to see that there were things missing that I didn't remember. And because I didn't remember, it took my editor pointing it out to me and asking specific questions.
What was hard for me was deciding what stories to tell, because you can't put everybody in your life in your book, and you can't put them in order of importance. You have to put them in as they relate to the thread of the story you are following. So, I knew I wanted tell the story of my mother, the story of my father, and I couldn't leave my brother out and I had to have my grandmother in there—and I had to tell the incidents that affected me, regardless of what stories I wanted to tell. So my relationship with my aunt, who actually had me move out of her house, would have been an important story to tell because it was a turning point. So, even if I didn't want to talk about my aunt, I had to.
I had to really ask myself about the nature of my relationships with these people. I had to really kind of pull my lens away a little bit and get a wider view, and see. My mother couldn't be just the demon, and even my father—the man in the book who is kind of my father, but not really, I don't know—I spent a lot of time deciding how to tell that story, because for a long time I kind of believed he was my father and, therefore, that made him a bit of a prick. But if he isn't my father, he's a bit of a saint. So it was hard to tell that story, because I had to step away from my own abandoned, little-girl self and find myself in a place where I could see all of the possibilities, not just what I believed.
PT: What is your relationship to feminisms?
I'm a feminist, and I would go as far as to say I'm a womanist, too, for women of color to heart-understand what I'm saying. I dream of a world and work toward a world every day where gender does not limit the spaces that anybody can go. And I think that the women in the seventies and sixties—and between then and now—have done a remarkable job. The women who have held the torch of feminism when they move forward—the Lisa Vogels, the bell hooks', and the trans community spaces that purport that genitalia and chromosomal makeup should not dictate whether I want to wear a dress or pants or become a doctor or a nurse, or any of those things—are important. They are building blocks that need to be either broken up and built up—rebuilt so we can move toward a free world because of gender and certainly sex.
I feel we have a long way to go, because of some things that have hindered our progress. I feel like things get complicated every day when I say I'm a woman and I identify as a woman, and I want to drive a truck or I want to dress in male clothing. I feel like the those voices in the transgender camp who posit that if you behave in a male way, then that means you're male, are wrong. I fight and rally for the right to be anyone I choose to be, and that choice should always be mine to make, and that because I dress a certain way or because I move through the world in a way that you perceive be male, it does not make me.
The hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine identities that are being valued these days worries me, because the true process is having the choice to be not just anyone, but everyone—every one of those identities: a woman who could rock a pair of heels and, you know, move through the world in stilettos and low cut shirt and get her hair done and have a pile of makeup on her face today, and the next morning, put on her sneakers and wear a T-shirt and pull her hair back and put on a tool-belt and be truly anything.
All of us have the right to be free and choose, and our bodies are our own. But I feel that in the hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine days that are present now, I worry about the spaces in between that I choose, and I wonder if there's going to be space for me in that as a lesbian and as a woman who identifies as a woman.
PT: You're working on a documentary now about motherhood. Will you tell me more about the project?
SC: The working title of the project is Baby Makes Me, and it's about the nontraditional path that women take toward motherhood—if you are a single mother, if you are a lesbian of color, and if you choose to have a child outside of the hetero-normative idea of family. So, women who adopt, women who use donors, women who go out and have a one-night stand and don't even say anything to the man—or they say, "I will raise this baby," women who choose to raise a baby with a second mother, without a partner ... what are the challenges?
We're going to hang the narrative thread on my own journey toward motherhood. That will be the spine of the film, but the film is really going to be exploring the steps, challenges, and perhaps the triumphs for women who are largely single or not partnered to men.
I'm walking the path right now as we speak. I'm on my way, and I don't know what will happen eventually. Some women have had nine, ten attempts, with the doctor saying everything is fine, and then they don't get pregnant. Babies don't tend to stay on any schedule, so I don't know if I will ever be pregnant. I don't know if my body can do it, or if the documentary will end with me throwing up my hands and getting another cat.
Author photo by Melissa Mahoney.
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