Poet shares stories of identity struggle

A mixed-race lesbian immigrant poet from Jamaica, half Chinese and half African American, Staceyann Chin is a petite woman with big hair who refuses to be pigeonholed into any one of those identities.

Staceyann Chin
Staceyann Chin seized the attention of her audience as she read an exerpt of her recent book.

An individual who embodies otherness on many levels – race, gender, class, familial status, sexual orientation – she finds poetry in simultaneously belonging everywhere and nowhere. During her performance on Friday night, Chin used her spoken-word poetry to explore the fault lines and distinctions that emerge around her complex identity.

Before starting her performance Chin asked that everyone in the audience move up closer to the stage. “I was abandoned by my parents, I have issues,” she quipped. “I need everybody close to me.” Such jarringly personal statements became a leitmotif of the evening. The audience came to know Chin through her pronounced Jamaican lilt, candid voice and raw, naked honesty that was both moving and liberating.

Chin’s exuberant and theatrical performance was punctuated with sassy, indignant and often raucously self-mocking excerpts from her memoir, The Other Side of Paradise. Leafing through the chapters of her book, Chin told us of her birth into poverty and abandonment by her parents. As a child, she suffered abuse, neglect, rejection and molestation; nonetheless, she does not carry her victimization as a burden but reflects on what those experiences meant and how they shaped the fabric of the person she has become. Speaking intimately and humorously of her first (disastrous) masturbating experience, early (failed) heterosexual relationships and later lesbian encounters, Chin retraced her path with a liveliness that belied any pain or underlying sadness towards her impoverished adolescence growing up in Jamaica.

Although many Americans see it mainly as a laidback spring break destination, Jamaica is far from idyllic: The country’s widespread violence against gays and lesbians has prompted human rights organizations to label it as the most homophobic place on earth. Jamaica’s major political parties have passed some of the world’s toughest anti-sodomy laws, and hate crimes against homosexuals are largely condoned. As an out-of-the-closet half-Chinese lesbian in Jamaica, Chin is forced to contend with racism, sexism and the constant danger of being abused on the basis of her sexual identity. Attacked by this constant aggression, she fled the poverty of her aunt’s home in Jamaica and moved to New York City in the 1990s.

“New York in the late ’90s was the best place to be an out, loud, black-biracial lesbian looking to divulge. A friend told me you can’t throw a rock in the Village without hitting a lesbian, so I moved there … so I could hit lesbians with rocks,” Chin joked. Picking up lovers by the fistful in New York, her emotional journey still continued as she struggled to live without country or family.

An iconic performer and one of the most original voices of her generation, Chin tells the story of what it means to be a gay, black, Chinese, Jamaican woman with the courage and conviction to push back against a world that continually tried to silence her emphatic voice. Brilliant and brutal, the story she unravels is also affecting and beautiful. Her play includes vignettes of love poems dedicated to women and free-verse political outcry against the homophobic backlash and sexism she experienced in America and Jamaica alike.

Chin ended her performance with a powerful reading of a letter she had written to the unborn child she conceived despite so much difficulty, judgment, uncertainty and medical complications. “I want to make a pact with you; that you and I agree to be forgiving and loyal and honest and filled with compassion for each other and for other people who fall short of being the people we would wish they could be,” she said. “I would love it if you joined us in giving the hatefully ignorant, right wing, conservative bastards who want to take away a woman’s reproductive rights and/or categorize and value people based on the color of their skin … It would be sweet revenge to raise a child who will spend a lifetime attempting to undo all that. But I promise if you choose not, I will love you still.”

Indeed, sleeping on the lap of Chin’s companion was her infant daughter in the audience, a testament to the conviction that family and love holds strong in the face of racial oppression, homophobic violence, class tension, sexism, ageism and all the other -isms people use to draw a line around those who are different or susceptible to victimization. Politically and socially, society has a long way to go, longer still in places like Jamaica, where homophobia pervades social and political activities. However, Chin and her little girl are living proof that victims of sexual assault, violence and poverty can not only endure but also overcome.