By Kelly Baker Josephs
The Other Side of Paradise, by Staceyann Chin
Scribner, ISBN 978-0743-2929-00, 288 pp
For those who follow Staceyann Chin’s work, The Other Side of Paradise has been highly anticipated. Like much of her life, Chin’s writing of this memoir was no secret. In addition to the traditional venues of published excerpts and public readings, the relatively new arenas of group emails, blogs, and social networking sites have made the creation of this book a public event. But even having read a variety of pre-publication missives and excerpts along the way, I was still not sure what to expect. Would the book simply rehash what Chin had already told audiences from the Def Poetry Jam stage? During her onewoman shows? In her published poetry?
And this is where I believe readers from those varied communities that follow Chin’s works will diverge in their reception of The Other Side of Paradise. The memoir is about Chin’s childhood. It describes her struggles as outsider, outcast, and misfit in Jamaica, not as outspoken lesbian in the United States. So those expecting the memoir to focus on Chin’s sexuality with any more specificity than that of every coming-of-age memoir will be disappointed. The title does not, as some may assume, refer to the homophobia prevalent in Jamaica — a topic on which Chin has often spoken since her migration to New York in 1997. Instead, it refers to both the physical location of one of Chin’s childhood homes — the other side of the town Paradise — and to the gendered and poor underside of Jamaica, painted as paradise to potential tourists in North America and Europe.
Several Caribbean writers have recently released memoirs of various stripes. Edwidge Danticat presents a poignant family history in Brother, I’m Dying (2007). Lorna Goodison’s From Harvey River (2007) offers a lyrical and sprawling account of her mother’s story rather than her own. More recently, Paule Marshall’s Triangular Road (2009) concentrates on her writing during the 1960s and 70s. Compared to these approaches, The Other Side of Paradise is perhaps more traditional autobiography than contemporary memoir, following Chin from birth to the moment she leaves Jamaica. In many ways, it resembles the first novels of many Caribbean writers who, with heavily autobiographical tones, turned to fiction to describe the singularity of their pre-exile childhood. Immediately, novels like Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street, and George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin come to mind — novels in which getting on the plane or ship to elsewhere serves as the ostensible end of the story.
This similarity, however, is in no way an indication that Chin is imitative, offering the oft-repeated tropes of these forerunners. While readers of Caribbean literature will be able to discern connections — ways in which The Other Side of Paradise might easily be placed in a lineage of Caribbean writings on the basis of more than mere setting — these similarities only underscore Chin’s contributions. The largest of these is the originality of her voice. Already a well-known poet, Chin is not a new literary voice, but she is new to the world of large-scale publishing. Perhaps it is her grounding in poetry that allows her to create such stunning imagery in her prose. From the opening scene of the prologue, in which she imagines the circumstances of her conception, Chin fully immerses the reader in the sights, the sounds, the undeniable presence of Jamaica. She manages to maintain such lush imagery without falling into brochure-like nostalgic language or victim-centred preaching about poverty. For example, Chin vividly describes the trouble that children can create when left to their own devices on a hot summer afternoon:
“We could chase rats!” Samantha throws a rock into the dry gully.
Delano reminds us that the red rats living there are no fun to chase in the summertime. The heat makes the furry creatures lazy, so we end up killing too many. Last summer the stink of their rotting bodies stayed in the air for weeks. And plus, it is no fun to run through a hot cane field in the middle of July.
“All right, Delano, since you knock down everybody’s idea, you tell us what to do!”
Delano sucks his teeth and walks away from her. We follow him. Even the animals seem bored. Under the noonday sun, the pigs are fast asleep in their mud-caked pens; the dried slush cracks on their pink skin. They don’t even grunt when Delano slaps a whole tin of Nestlé condensed milk in the trough. The goats ignore Shane when he tosses young mangoes at them. The cows only glance in our general direction when we tug at their thick nylon ropes.
The children then go on a chicken escapade that Chin relates with a Naipaulian blend of comedy and pathos. In addition to witty insights and asides throughout the text, there are several humorous episodes that end with a sobering reminder of Chin’s place, or lack thereof, in her family and society. Many of the chapters — which are titled with biblical phrases, and could easily be excerpted as stand-alone readings — end with an understated thought or observation from the young Staceyann’s point of view. Such statements, more powerful perhaps for their subtlety, leave the reader impressed with Staceyann Chin, both as writer and subject.
Towards the end of the memoir, Chin begins to tackle the ramifications of her attraction to women. Given the difficulties she encounters in childhood and adolescence, however, and the overwhelming influence of religion in her upbringing (beginning with her birth on Christmas morning), her coming out to herself and her peers seems too easy, too pat. Can it really have been as natural as she paints it, her coming to know herself as a lesbian? But as this does not occur until the last forty pages of the memoir, readers may be more apt to forgive what seems to be an overly casual approach to a subject that Chin’s other writings work to complicate.
Chin’s poetry, activism, and choices in terms of her sexuality are more easily understood when placed at the end of this narrative about her childhood. It isn’t just that she has always been “big mouth Staceyann,” or that the impossible tangle of schoolgirl lies in her past led her to vow always to tell the truth as an adult. It is also that, as she says in the prologue, “in the absence of the most basic facts, I have had to create my own story and, in many ways, set my own course.”
It is this determination to “set her own course” that makes Chin’s memoir cohere. Her course, more often than not, veers into unusual and lonely territory, setting her apart from those around her even as she struggles to belong. Readers may sometimes lose sympathy with the growing Staceyann as she alternates between victim and victimiser, but Chin makes the journey an entertaining and enlightening read. After the turbulent narrative of her first twenty-four years, the epilogue, written over a decade after the close of the memoir, offers a curiously stable and grounded perspective. It leaves you inspired by Miss Staceyann “Marshree” Chin and the course she is still charting.
Kelly Baker Josephs is an assistant professor of English at York College, City University of New York, and the managing editor of Small Axe.