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Spoken word artist and political activist Staceyann Chin lowers her voice a few decibels to deliver a surprisingly quiet and touching memoir about growing up in Jamaica in the 70s and 80s. Though she’s born in the small town of Lottery and lives out her adolescence in the town of Paradise, Chin’s early years are far from lucky or idyllic. Abandoned by her mother at an early age, Chin and her older brother are raised by their maternal grandmother in an impoverished neighborhood. But even in a place that has witnessed more shameful tragedies, Chin is immediately cast as an outsider because of her light skin—evidence of a foreign, non-black paternity. Her status as a “white girl” elicits everything from admiration to envy, but such perceived privilege is not enough to spare her the grief of feeling like an unwanted child.
Chin’s grandmother, in an attempt to place her charges in better homes, establishes a series of arrangements with extended family members, but each time, Chin’s outspokenness and non-complacent behavior manages to sever those precarious ties. To complicate matters, Chin begins to blossom into a young woman, and so she begins to understand the dangers of her beauty and sex within a social structure that forced her grandmother to endure an abusive marriage and that most likely left Chin’s mother no choice but to exploit her own body in order to leave the poverty she was born into. Such a fate awaited Chin were it not for her grandmother’s constant encouragement and Chin’s will to better herself through an education. Chin’s tenacity and independent thinking, qualities that labeled her a troublemaker in many of her early foster homes, are what eventually allows her to move beyond being “the daughter of the Chinaman who owns the furniture store down the street” to become the pride of Paradise.
Written with plenty of sharp dialogue and little sentimentality, The Other Side of Paradise is a captivating portrait of an artist as a young woman. Chin reconstructs the details of each home and heartbreak with meticulous detail, which is why it’s disappointing that her post-Jamaica period in New York City as an out lesbian (a narrative thread that begins on page 240) comes across as summarized and without substance. Indeed, Chin’s adult years, despite her coming into fame and success, are not as engaging a read as the memories of her youth. The book, to its credit, does steer clear of the more conventional coming out and immigrant stories, but the exploration of sexuality—a theme that Chin explores with complexity in her performances—seems oddly absent here. Nonetheless, this memoir is a rich, inspirational story that will allow her fans a more intimate look into the humble beginnings of a woman who was once a poor girl determined to have her voice heard.
THE OTHER SIDE OF PARADISE
By Staceyann Chin
$24, Hardcover, 288 pp.
Rigoberto Gonzalez‘s body of work includes books of poetry, novels, memoir, and children’s books. His most recent book is the young adult novel, The Mariposa Club (Alyson).