Finding Paradise

Staceyann Chin read from her new memoir, The Other Side of Paradise, last night @ Barnes & Noble Union Square. I got there an hour and a half early to flip through it, skimming over the front cover endorsements by Dorothy Allison, of Bastard Out of Carolina fame, and Walter Mosley, who sat a few rows up from me.

The memoir chronicles Chin's life as the illegitimate daughter of a Jamaican mother, who abandoned her shortly after birth, and Chinese father who never claimed her -- as she was shuttled from family member to family member, subjected to abuse and violence, before coming out as a lesbian, and leaving Jamaica for good. Her life is the stuff good memoirs are made of: shame, denial, abuse, neglect, and a heavy dose of alienation.

But what Chin does with it -- better than most, and likely owing to her performance art background -- is write with a naked honesty that is affecting and liberating, not giving a damn what anybody else thinks. She spoke about her fearlessness, saying, "When you don't have parents, you don't have those expectations." She felt free to be who she was -- "unruly," in her own words -- and loved enough by the people who were in her life to make her own choices.

It's the kind of liberation that is essential to creating authentic art, whether it be novels, plays, or films. A willingness to expose the truth of what it means to be black, female, Jamaican, and gay, no matter what the world may think.

As for the book itself, I found Chin's lyrical descriptions captivating, though her dialogue was a little stilted. It came off much better performed -- in her singsong, syncopated voice -- than read silently. Overall, The Other Side of Paradise is more than worth a read, if only as a guidebook for living out loud.

Chin issued a challenge to her audience, stating, "If you want them to keep supporting us [read: black, women, minority, or gay], buy the book."


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