Staceyann Chin’s Reading and Performance Contemplates Tragedy, Humor and Discomfort

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Her afro dyed red, arms swinging heavily with two bags in hand, and casually dressed in baggy cargo pants, Staceyann Chin entered LPAC unnerved. She addressed the audience comfortably from the beginning, comparing the ensuing experience to sex in asserting that, if her audience would “lean in” and allow themselves to truly feel, “hopefully by the end of the night [they] would finish.”  She said that her introduction was just the “Kumbaya section” of the evening, and she was right: Chin’s more or less provocative jokes about sex and race evoked a slight sense of discomfort in the room. However, it was a time of ease for there was nothing one would consider soothing when she began reading portions of her memoir.

During Thursday night’s reading, which was scheduled in light of the Clothesline Project, Chin shared works from her memoir, The Otherside of Paradise: A Memoir. The book centers on more troubling pieces of her life, particularly her experiences with sexual abuse and with meeting the man she believes to be her father, but also includes lighter, more humorous moments. After reading some of these stories aloud, Chin performed several spoken word pieces.

Chin spoke about the impact of words in the face of trauma. “You have to give her the voice in which to articulate the pain … The bullhorn to scream her survival,” Chin said in reference to her daughter, and to all daughters. Such a statement exemplifies the power that Chin believes a voice can have, and how much she values her own.

Chin allowed her voice flexibility while she spoke; growling screams, then shifting into smoother spoken words, and softening abruptly into breathy whispers. Some poems were laced with remnants of stories Chin had read from her memoir, while another, “Common Truths or Why I Love My Pussy,” revealed her passion for feminism. “We can stir our hips and dip them in footprints of blood, mark the path of a nation, a world, a universe of possible peoples charting a familiar course, I am a girl become woman now.”

Chin’s admiration for women was apparent in every story and poem; women are the center of beauty for her. Each poem seemed to be accompanied by the intention to provoke discomfort, uneasy thoughts, and an acceptance of the existence of those thoughts. But each poem consisted of lines to soothe such emotions and to quell the spirit in some manner, whether through humor or with a more hopeful message.

In “Feminist or Womanist” Chin addresses the extreme distresses of sexism, homophobia, racism, and other forms of discrimination. While the poem sat heavily within the audience, Chin included some lighter humor, while maintaining a truthful undertone. For example, Chin recited the following line from “Feminist or Womanist”: “Christ was a middle eastern Rasta man who ate grapes in the company of prostitutes and drank wine more than he drank water.” The poem appeared to move the audience in a serious way while providing some relief, but not overshadowing nor negating the words said before or after.

The first memory she relayed from her memoir was laced with these moments of humor. She described a scene in which her cousin, Andy, mocked her and told her that she would one day marry a Rasta man. The situation seemed innocent, depicting an older cousin picking on a younger cousin. Yet, quickly, the tone shifted: Andy sexually assaulted her one night when the people with whom she normally shared a bed were away. After waking the house with her screams, Chin was not met with sympathy from her Aunt. Rather, her Aunt demanded that she respect Andy, claiming that if she showed respect to him he would not touch her. Chin emphasized the injustice of such a statement and, she said, such injustices fueled her ability to grow from the experience and to strengthen her voice.

Chin also discussed recovering, or not quite recovering, from trauma engrained in her memory, and encouraged those who had experienced similar traumas to recover through living. She said, “Being able to eat sushi and burgers and Sloppy Joes and tell jokes [is] the best revenge to the trauma from the fucking ignorant asshole who came up and changed your life in some unchangeable way.”

While Chin discussed the realities of sexual assault and rape with compassion and insight, she did not address male or transsexual victims and survivors. When waiting for Chin to sign their copy of The Otherside of Paradise: A Memoir, a student questioned Chin about this omission. Chin responded, saying that, in other performances, she has addressed the topic and she had hoped to speak on it. However, due to lack of time she chose not to.

Chin’s presence provided some illumination on deeply complex issues. Chin asked her audience, particularly those who have had similar experiences, to evaluate their pain through a new lens, a lens in which life could be partially renewed. She spoke on this renewal when answering one student’s question about Chin’s decision to return to the people who have pained her. After Chin explained that she felt these people were greatly dispossessed and that she did not confront most of them, she said, “You find meaning in your own life. You find power in your own voice. It’s not about trying to erase what happened. It’s about opening other doors for you. It’s about ways of seeing. It’s about learning to see it through different lenses.”

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