I first saw Staceyann Chin my sophomore year of college while covering her poetry reading for the student newspaper. Before attending, I knew little about her aside from her work with Def Poetry Jam, but as she read a poem about having sex with a woman, she had all the hairs on my arms standing straight up. I wanted to learn more.
While poet/activist/performance artists rarely become household names, Chin has been becoming quite well known in recent years. Between her success with the Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam to her appearance on Oprah, Chin — an out lesbian and Jamaican national — decided to write a memoir.
The Other Side of Paradise tells the story of Chin’s premature birth to a mother who did not want her and an absent father in Jamaica on Christmas Day of 1972.
Her grandmother nurtured and protected Chin and her brother early on. But the three were separated due to financial constraints and Chin was forced into a “volatile household” in Paradise, Jamaica.
The story follows Chin through sexual abuse, coming out as a lesbian in the homophobic culture of her youth and her relationships along the way.
The book, which was released today, has been getting rave reviews.
“A completely absorbing account of how a girl born into denial and contempt can grow up resilient, sane, and full of purpose,” said out author and activist Dorothy Allison, “She also shows me a culture I knew far too little about — the everyday life of young people in Jamaica and the threat of violence looming over anyone who might be too independent or queer or outrageous. How wonderful that this outrageous, talented, determined woman has given us her story.”
It takes courage to write such a candid tale involving many family members, and according to Chin’s Myspace blog, she plans on taking some heat for it:
Yes, these are the stories about my vagina and my grandmother and my boyfriends and my girlfriends and some cousins and some heartbreaks and some abandonment and some chickens and some orgasms and some homes I lived in — all laid out for the whole bloody world to see, hear, dissect, devour and regurgitate. I’m scared out of my panties, but I’m putting it out there anyways. I believe we have a right to tell our stories — no matter how hard, or how many family members will tar and feather us. (And I am expecting that many of them will.)
Walter Mosley, Russell Simmons and Rebecca Walker also sung their praises for Chin’s book, calling it a “heartbreaking feat of unflinching memory and language,” and “Liberating, beautiful, and life-affirming.”
For those of you looking to be inspired, curious about the still-quite-homophobic nation of Jamaica or just want to read a good story about a talented woman’s struggle and strength, The Other Side of Paradise is sure to be a great read.