In our Fall '09 edition, On The Issues Magazine writers and artists address
the politics of feminism, race and a new progressive movement.

Defying Labels With Fearlessness
Review by Courtney Zehnder

"Am I a feminist or a womanist? The student needs to know," Staceyann Chin begins her poem, “CrossFire.”

Chin continues with her answer:
I am afraid to draw your black lines around me I am not always pale in the middle I come in too many flavors for one fucking spoon…

“CrossFire" reads like a living, breathing organism, with passionate rants against the stigma of being raped and the need society has to stereotype and keep people in easily understandable--and, therefore, manageable--categories.

Out poet and activist Staceyann Chin released her memoir, The Other Side of Paradise, earlier this year. Chin chronicles her journey from an impoverished, abuse-ridden childhood in Paradise, Jamaica to her decision to move to New York City where she became an accomplished college graduate. In it, she never loses sight of the fire and intensity that pulsates through all of her poems. This change in medium for Chin, who is known primarily for her performance art, not only re-emphasizes that she will always defy labels, but also acts as an ultimate assertion of the importance of one’s own voice.

In this incredibly earnest and unguarded work, Chin stresses the strength and beauty of personal truth, the healing that comes from being honest about one’s past, and the need to tell one’s own story because no one else would ever do it justice.

Oppression Is Linked

Prior to the release of her memoir, Chin was known best for her riveting stage renditions of her poems. She is most recognized for her participation in the Nuyorican poetry movement and the Tony Award nominated Def Jam Poetry Slam. I had the privilege of seeing her perform a poem and an excerpt from her memoir at Stonewall's 40th anniversary, and Chin was nothing short of captivating. She is fearless on stage and that fearlessness is not lost in her transition into memoir writing.

Chin's memoir gives a voice to members of the LGBT movement that often get silenced or ignored. Although the gay community is often designated a minority, there are minorities within that minority. The face of the gay movement is still overwhelmingly white and male; the face of gender consciousness white, straight and female. Chin’s work gives loud and beautiful voice to feminist lesbians of color.

During her performance at the Stonewall anniversary event, Chin stressed that "all oppression is linked." Not talking about women in LGBT dialogue hurts the LGBT movement. Not talking about race in feminist dialogue hurts the feminist movement. Like most of what Chin does, her artistic work documenting and expressing the personal effortlessly shifts into a political statement that cannot easily be ignored.

Owning Self

While I was initially surprised that this memoir only covered her life until she moved to New York, it became clear that this project was intended to shine light on what made Chin who she is. She lets her poetry, activism and other projects speak for who she is today.

Chin grew up half-Chinese, half-Jamaican, left to live with her grandmother and half-brother after both of her parents abandoned her. The book begins with the best story Chin has for explaining her conception, including the man she thinks, but can never confirm, was her father. Her grandmother was a victim of abuse and never received a formal education. This relationship is central to the work, being Chin’s one real source of love and stability, as well as the clearest indicator to her that she needed to get an education.

The Other Side of Paradise is testament to the power of education. Chin fought hard to get hers and she details that journey beautifully—I found myself always rooting for her. Education was not a luxury for Chin: it was a means to break a cycle of abuse.

This memoir is, in addition, a cry for women everywhere to embrace their bodies and to have agency over them. She chronicles her first menstrual cycle in graphic and hilarious detail. She uses scientific terms like "haemoglobin-red" and "a flow of menses that is recognizable as life force." Her body is doing what a female body should do, initiated into something great. She puts the pad on wrong, causing herself pain and leaving the reader wincing with laughter. Not every woman would have insisted on that scene as a necessary inclusion in her memoir. For Chin, it is about being unashamed to be female. By owning any biological aspect of one’s body that a patriarchal society labels “gross” or “weak,” one cannot be relegated to status of “less than,” at least not in spirit.

Chin’s memoir screams on every page that her spirit will not be broken. As a victim of sexual abuse, including incest at a young age, it is significant that Chin sees her body as something powerful and beautiful and not as something to hide or hate. Neither she nor her womanhood is to blame for what happened to her.

Unsurprisingly, as a child, Chin was prone to speaking her mind, standing up for herself, acting “unladylike” and getting into constant trouble. Whether questioning her aunt's authority or confronting classmates who had a problem with her openness about her sexuality, Chin would not be silenced. And, most of the time, no matter how much anger is in her voice, expressions of humor, curiosity, warmth and a need for justice are there, too. She drives home that there is no one way, no right way, to be a woman.

Courtney Zehnder studies English, Philosophy and Religion at Marymount Manhattan College. Earlier this year, her essay "The Art of Existentialism" won third place at Marymount Manhattan's First Annual Philosophy and Religious Studies Essay Contest. She lives in New York.

Also see “Beginning With the Children” by Eleanor Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see Faith Ringgold, The Art Perspective in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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