Staceyann Chin makes loud sounds with her mouth for a living. Whether in the Tony Award nominated Broadway show Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam or in one of her several one-woman shows, on 60 Minutes or on Oprah, this Jamaican-born writer/activist has made a career out of fighting for your rights out loud and on stage. With her forthcoming memoir, The Other Side of Paradise, she tells her own story of growing up gay in a violently homophobic culture. She talks to Gay Life about the new book, the need for LGBT centers where you’d least expect them, and cups of sperm.
What is the value of story-telling for you?
I think of the kind of story-telling I do, which is story-telling with an activist agenda, is a way to slip some medicine down with some sugar because people get to come out and laugh and be inspired and listen to an entertaining story and you get them to see a gay person as a human being. You get them to see a black person as a person who is just like them with feelings and emotions. You get them to see an immigrant who has the same words in her mouth. They are just spoken with a different accent.
What is your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
I don’t have a favorite thing I’ve ever written. I’ve written some things that have made me very proud, but I don’t think that I’ve written anything that is as satisfying as the story of my life. I can’t hide behind a lot of metaphors. In a memoir you’re not really allowed. A memoir is plainly told. This happened to me. That happened to me. It made me sad. It made me happy. This was funny. This was not funny. There’s a way that when you tell the story as plainly as it happened, and you pay attention to making the story as universal in its humanity as you can possibly arrange, what you get is an incredibly honest tale where people can cry and laugh and sigh and quarrel and mumble and get angry and at the end of it, feel like my money was worth picking up this book.
I’ve read some of the book and I would not characterize it or describe it as “plain” at all. I certainly, at times, was cringing and laughing out loud and feeling sick to my stomach, so I think you’ve done a really fantastic job and I’m looking forward to sitting down and reading the whole thing.
I’m ecstatic. I’m always excited when gay papers come to me because I know that they’re not going to trash me and talk about how gay I am. My being gay is not something to measure how gay I am or how not gay I am. It’s just a fact in the gay community that I’m a lesbian. And we know that being gay or a lesbian doesn’t mark me as a lumberjack, nor does it say I’m Shane from The L Word. I can be anywhere in between all of those things. I can be just like a straight girl, but I date women. In our community I don’t need to explain that I don’t have to be any one thing or stereotype that they see on TV.
Why write a memoir?
I think primarily because there aren’t enough stories that span my identity, my differing and various identities, in the canon of literature that I think is available to most of us. So, I think I write first as an act of resistance, as an act of documenting my own history. I write to put some faces that are absent from the mainstream into the mainstream. You know the list of my identities…I’m gay. I’m Caribbean. I’m Jamaican. I’m a woman, a feminist. I’m a lesbian. I’m black. I’m Asian. I’m an immigrant. All of those things. I think these stories are important and we’re in an age where memoirs are interesting to people. Throughout time, people have written memories, written about their own stories, true life tales. From slaves to poets to politicians to ordinary people who just want to create a snapshot of a life they’ve lived. So, I think I really started as an activist agitating and talking about issues of homophobia and racism and gender discrimination, you know, feminism…and I used my own life as a platform for those conversations for such a long time that it made sense, when I had the opportunity, to put all of those stories together and write a book.
What’s the process like for you writing this book?
I think it was painful in a lot of ways. It was liberating in a lot of ways. And, overall, it was a cathartic experience, and it was also illuminating in that it showed me parts of myself more clearly. It made me realize that things weren’t necessarily as black and white as I had thought them in my youth. That some people who do terrible things are good people who are struggling with difficult moments and some people who do remarkable, kind things have the capacity to be very cruel in other moments. So, I think a kind of balance has swung over me since I’ve written it. The parts of me that are concerned about human rights see things more on an international level now. I feel as if our world is so collapsed in out itself. Borders are disappearing, and so the LGBT rights of people in Iowa are not disconnected from the LGBT rights of in South Africa. Human rights is a universal issue. It’s an urgent issue.
What do you think needs to happen? Can you imagine some sort of event or some person coming along that would drastically change the situation…that would shift things in terms of human rights around the world?
I don’t think that any one thing will drastically make everything better. I think throughout history we’ve had different movements that have culminated in some kind of resistance, some kind of political action that changed things for a particular group of people. Say the Civil Rights Movement, with the marches and the bus boycotts and all of that particular series of events culminated in desegregation. The events around Stonewall in New York City kind of snowballed into the gay rights movement. And, of course, the culmination of events concerning politics and poverty and people being upset and needing to see something different in Washington culminated in a different kind of political action that was based primarily on the voting. The reign of the white male president in America has at least been stemmed.
Other groups can think, now that Obama is in office, perhaps we might be able to get a gay president in there or a female president. When you look behind us, say, a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, children’s rights, women’s rights, the rights of black people, LGBT people…all those people were living in drastically different situations. They had far less freedoms than they have now. But, the culmination of those actions has made it so that a larger group of people can enjoy more freedoms in our society. What we need is a continual push. Look at what is happening with gay rights with reference to gay marriage. It took us forever to get Massachusetts, right?
For a long haul, people talked about gay marriage as if it was the impossibility of our times. I feel as if we keep pushing, the dominoes will fall. We will see that things change over time and I just want to make sure that my body is pushing in the right direction, in the direction of being right. I want to stand on the right side of history for all of the groups that I support.
o, I don’t know if it’s one action. If you automatically give gay people the right to marry completely tomorrow, there’s still poor people in this country. There are still women who are being raped. There are still children who do not live in homes. There are still children who are at the mercy of the economy.
Can you say more about the intersections and all of the different identities that you represent and how they manifest in your life?
It’s very interesting at this nexus in history to be a person who spans so many identities. I feel sometimes that I am constantly at the crossroads. Ten years ago when I was young, I was very angry about the fact that I couldn’t be as loud and as gay and as proud in the black community. Nor could I be as black and as Jamaican in the lesbian community or the gay community, which was largely white at that time. Now, I feel it’s getting more complex, because now it has not just to do with my blackness or my gayness, but it has to do with what economic bracket I fall into. The fact that I’m Jamaican complicates it further. The fact that I’m a radical feminist also informs everything. So, I might be privileged or oppressed depending on where my feet go.
And so it’s a very interesting thing. I constantly have to be code-switching in terms of figuring out what language, what mode of communication works better when talking about human rights. It’s almost as if I move from one country to the next. It’s so different. You constantly have to make all kinds of choices to see how it is that one can live in a world that is comfortable. And, that is just my experience. Then you have other people who have even more labels that subcategorize them and puts them in different groups and makes it so they can move here and they can’t move there. If I were a Muslim girl who is lesbian who wears a hijab, it would be an entirely different experience although there would be similarities with it.
I feel like with the advent of movies like Slumdog Millionaire and having a black president, with the kind of international world encroaching on the American experience and the American experience long encroaching on so many other places, that the idea of a limited, carved out, isolated geography is falling. With the internet….I mean, with Skype, I can pick up my phone and talk to a person in Jamaica or in Iran, which means a lot of people are having long-distance relationships, so the issue of LGBT rights in other countries becomes more pressing to LGBT people in America.
o, there’s a way that the lesbian identity has become so much wider, the gay identity, that it’s kind of become a big mush and no one quite knows how to identify as easily anymore the people that are oppressed and, therefore, we do not know how to push forward and say, “This is the group we’re looking out for.” It becomes a kind of hodge-podge of a conversation that needs to lean toward human rights as a coalition issue, as an issue that we need to share, be it black or gay or whether we believe in gay marriage or we don’t have enough food to eat because all of a sudden, the girl who is in Trenton, New Jersey who is under siege because she can’t live in any neighborhood but the one in which boys are homophobic to her, she has so much more in common with an older woman who is 76 years old, who is a white and lives in Iowa, who doesn’t have any money and has to live in an unsafe neighborhood.
What do you think about the gay community being open to the expansion of a gay identity? I know with Prop 8 there was a lot of backlash from certain groups of people…
Yes. They were saying that the black vote lost the fight for us.
What do you make of that?
One, my back goes up, I get a little defensive because I’m black. People of color are not born with a homophobic gene. Today, I was talking to two lesbians. We were riding in a car and I said, “Name me one LGBT community center that is in a neighborhood of color.” I can’t think of one.
I can’t either.
Right, which means that there is something to be said about the relationship between communities of color and the people that spearhead these movements and conversations around LGBT rights. From a Jamaican perspective, Jamaica is on the map as a place that is culturally homophobic and violently so. There is a way that we talk about Jamaicans as if they’re innately barbaric and they really should stop what they’re doing. But, we as LGBT activists and as LGBT people who agitate for more freedoms for us, we don’t necessarily take into consideration the suffering, the lack of freedom that many communities of color experience on a day to day basis and how it is that we might be able to have a breakthrough if we should say, “We are not only just fighting for our right to be free, but for your right to have basic resources for your children…to be able to send your kids to school.” I feel like when I walk into communities with a concern for what is happening in those communities, then those communities flower open in terms of being able to have a conversation about my right as a human being in the world.
If these centers are not there, then we become a kind of oddity, a kind of foreign entity to those communities. The LGBT communities across the US, across the world, offer more than just, you know, a place to date gay people. They offer condoms to people. They offer soup. They offer reading workshops, they offer all kinds of resources. If those places were set up in places where people other than gay people need those resources too, and need them as much as gay people need them, then it widens the umbrella of the LGBT movement. How much more headway would we make if we were feeding young black boys, if we were giving them workshops and showing them how to find jobs in the LGBT building? How much hate could we eradicate if such were the case?
I think you should open one. Would you ever do that?
If I could get the money, I would open one.
In Jamaica, I would.
I’m actually going home. I go home to read every chance I get…to read my poems and to perform there. I’m actually going home for a huge literary conference and I’m taking my book home on Memorial weekend, which is brave, not because I’m a brave human being, but because I cannot be in America being on stage and being the kind of brave I am here and I’m unable to go home.
I hope nothing happens. People have been unhappy with my readings, but people have also given me standing ovations. So, you never know. You just have to do the work wherever it is necessary.
Do you think you’ll ever get married?
Marriage scares me, but I think I should have the right to be scared if I want to. I don’t know if I’ll ever get married, but it bothers me that some people can get married and some people can’t. I don’t necessarily want to go to Withalachochee, Florida, but I should be able to if I want to.
What’s been your greatest accomplishment?
I think that I am proudest of the fact that after all I’ve been through, I still have the ability to love someone and be kind to the people that I love and be kind to strangers and still work on behalf of the rights of people I don’t necessarily represent…because when you go through difficult things, it’s easy to get bitter and terrible.
What’s been your biggest disappointment?
My biggest disappointment I suppose is that I don’t think I have been amazing at mending the relationships…. between the people who have hurt me most in my life and I think sometimes they come up in my interpersonal relationships and my partnerships. I would say that I’ve been so chicken that I have not gone ahead and started my family and had that baby I’ve wanted for about 6 years. I’ve been so scared to become a mother.
I don’t know. Maybe on a subconscious level, I’m worried that I’ll revisit some of the horrors that were visited on me on that child. Or, maybe out of selfishness about giving up my life that is now to be able to parent a child. Am I making sense?
Yeah. I’m just thinking about what you’re saying.
I just wish that three years ago, four years ago, I just would have gone ahead and bought some sperm online and got knocked up.
(Laughs) Do you feel like now you can’t?
I feel like I’ve made the decision to do it, so I feel like I’m going to do it, but I still haven’t swiped the credit card, so to speak.
(Laughs) You’re at the register, but you haven’t paid.
I’m at the register, but I haven’t paid for my cup of sperm.
Gotcha. Do you have any last words?
I want to say for every person out there who reads or who watches TV, if you do not see yourself in those places…your cousins or your aunts or your mother or your friends, pick up a pen and write up a story, pick up a camera and make a documentary, pick up a guitar and make a song. If you do not write your own self into history, there is no guarantee that anyone else will, and when history is done and written, it will be as if you were never here. So, if you want record of your own body having lived here and now, make that record so that it will be there.
Go get The Other Side of Paradise in bookstores now. Come see Staceyann perform live in Baltimore, May 15th. Check out www.baltimoregaylife.com for more details.