April is National Poetry Month: Staceyann Chin

Born and raised in Jamaica and living in New York City, Staceyann Chin is a spoken word poet and performance artist. From the spittin’ her words at the Nuyorican Poets Café to her solo performance Border/Clash at The Culture Project, Chin’s work as a has the ability to quickly capture an audience and take them back with her to the hot days of her childhood in poor neighborhoods of Lottery or Bethel Town or Montego Bay, the places that inspired the title of her newly published memoir The Other Side of Paradise. With linguistic wit and raw emotionality, Chin uses her life experiences (abandoned by her mother, sexually assaulted by homophobic peers) as fodder for her work. Her performance lacks the egoistic self-righteousness and of many politically-oriented poets; in addition to pointing out the devastating consequences of the mistakes of others, Chin isn’t afraid to tell you that she has made mistakes too.

I breezed through Chin’s compelling and readable 278-page memoir in just three days, and was disappointed only because the book had ended. Perhaps it was partly my desire to extend the story further that I talked with Staceyann about writing The Other Side of Paradise and what role poetry has played in her life.

Flavorpill: You’ve been successfully working as a poet and performer, when did you decide to put that on hold to write a memoir?

Staceyann Chin: I had been writing autobiographical poetry for so long — snippets and stories about my past. The responses I got from my audiences were good, so I felt like it was a relevant tale. There are so few memoirs from writers who hail from the Caribbean. It seemed a natural progression to put it all together in one comprehensive prose tale.

FP: Though The Other Side of Paradise ends when you are in your mid-20s, the book primarily focuses on your early childhood. Why was it important to stay with a young Staceyann?

SC: I suspect I stayed with the story of young Staceyann because I believe she really was the heart of this tale of survival. I wanted to write a universal tale about a girl who survived hard circumstances, a girl without parents, a girl with a spirit and a belief in her own abilities to rise above those challenging surroundings. I feel that that story is more common than we care to admit in Africa, in the Caribbean, in America.

FP: Is it difficult for you to write with such raw honesty about the painful events of your past?

SC: I wrote this story far away from the gaze of the audience. The process was only difficult because of memories that were difficult to remember. It wasn’t so much a struggle to be honest, but a hard to stand in the memory, the knowledge that those things did happen to me. The harder part has been to share it with the world, in the form of reading and talking and being open to the criticism that comes with putting one’s story out into the world.

FP: You have a unique way of blending humor with topics that can be pretty unsettling, like real or threatened sexual violence.

SC: The blend of humor and hard truths gives me the room to say things that people may otherwise find too challenging to sit through. It also allows me to strike a balance with my own fear of saying these things, and the urge to speak my own history.

FP: This book shows the power of resilience for a young girl with a kind of tumultuous upbringing that breaks many people in similar situations. What kept pushing you on when time and time again the people in your life failed you?

SC: I try to not to think of it as them failing me. I now understand that the people who had me in their care were people without resources, people who had experiences that marked them, rendered them unable to care for me in the ways that you or I may deem appropriate. I did not fully understand that when I was growing up. The older I get, the less I can hold any grudges. And I can’t say I know what kept me going. I suspect it was my grandmother’s indomitable will to keep going no matter what made her want to stop. I watched that for the first 9 years of my life. It stayed with me. And I’m glad it did.

FP: People tend to know you from your spoken word background, yet poetry barely makes an appearance in your memoir. Why did you choose not to focus on this aspect of yourself?

SC: This story was not the story of the poet. Perhaps that will come later. This was about the girl who would eventually find her way to poetry.

FP: How has poetry affected your life?

SC: It saved my life when I came to America. It gave me words for things I could not yet say out loud without metaphors and verse. It gave me direction, and a place to put my anger, and missing Jamaica, and meeting the brand of racism found in America. Poetry saved my life.

FP: How do you want your work to affect others?

SC: I want every girl who imagines herself invisible, or sees her story as missing from the history we document, every boy who says, “I don’t see myself between these pages” — I want them to begin the telling of their own stories. Perhaps in such a collective telling, there may be a grain of truth that survives us.