Monday, May 04, 2009

The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin

The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin has everything going for it—dramatic circumstances, poetic voice, emotional depth, and even some moments of humor between the more brutal ones. Sharing her story about growing up in Jamaica, abandoned by both mother and father, Staceyann and her brother, Delano, are shuffled from home to home. In spite of the constant shifts, Chin manages to fight for her education, a foundation that will eventually lead to her leaving Jamaica and moving to the United States. Between the poverty of her grandmother’s home and her eventual move to New York City, Staceyann is faced with racism, sexism, and the constant danger of being used and abused for who and what she is. What Chin manages to do brilliantly is to immerse the reader in her childhood, using dialect to flavor her narrative without its becoming distracting. Her experience as a poet and performer infuse her story with beauty and truth. The details of her narrative are so tightly woven that the memoir reads like a novel. And unlike so many memoirs I’ve read, there is no glossing over to get to the happy ending. Chin is brave enough to end her memoir with a sense of hope but no real closure. While other writers hastily clutter the final chapters with events to offer the reader the type of closure life rarely affords, Chin manages to end her memoir at a point that is both satisfying and natural if not conclusive. The reader is definitely left wanting and hoping for more, with the inevitable questions drawn from the author’s brief cover bio hanging in the air. When Chin arrives in New York, how does she go from immigrant to poetic force (with multiple appearances on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry) to one-woman-show performer in her own off-Broadway show? And at what point does she go from her own realizations to advocacy, appearing on Oprah, and being encouraged to share her story by writing what I hope will be her first memoir? With so many memoirs being labeled “inspiring” I am loathe to add one more to the burgeoning list and yet Chin’s story is exactly this—inspired and inspiring. I look forward to seeing where this remarkable woman will take herself and her voice next. I only hope that on her book tour our paths cross. I’d like nothing more than to thank her in person for her brilliance.