When people ask me what I do as a writing coach, I tell them that I show women writers who are done being silent how to free their authentic voice so they can take “center page” in their writing and in their life. I’ll admit I love a good pun, and while my puns sometimes get gonged—just ask my friend Latesha—“center page” usually elicits a grin.
To read Staceyann Chin’s coming-of-age memoir The Other Side of Paradise is to experience the truth and beauty that resound when a woman who has fought for her voice takes center page. Abandoned at birth, Chin spends her early years in Lottery, Jamaica, with her grandmother and her older brother. A curious, intelligent child, Chin speaks her mind in a world where girls are taught to button it. When her grandmother can no longer provide for her, she is shuffled first to one relative and then another, where she is beaten by her aunts for her “mouth.” But Chin’s illiterate grandmother instilled in her a deep respect for education, which Chin sees from a young age as her ticket to her future. So it makes sense that Chin the writer structures her memoir in three parts that chronicle her education: primary school, high school, and college.
In Parts I and II Chin learns that to be orphaned, poor, and female means do what you are told and not expect anything from anybody, except of course sexual advances from older male cousins, advances her aunt blames on her. Ultimately, she studies and “bites her tongue” and bides her time. But when she gets her hair straightened against her aunt’s wishes, she is turned out to fend for herself. It is a testament to her inner resourcefulness that she not only finds lodging to finish high school but also secures the tuition to attend college.
As a college coed in Part III, she begins to explore her sexual identity in a Jamaica where gays and lesbians are brutally beaten. But Staceyann Chin will not compromise herself. The more she comes out, the bolder she becomes, turning every conversation into an opportunity to proclaim—some might even say flaunt—her sexual identity. Classmates begin to distance themselves from her, which tightens her resolve. In an act of defiance—or perhaps an attempt to secure her identity once and for all—Chin marches into a barbershop and insists the barber buzz her hair.
“I finally look like myself,” she tells the barber. It is a bittersweet moment: as a reader you experience that deep gratification that comes with seeing your heroine rise above her inner challenge; at the same time you are gripped by that page-turning fear that danger lurks outside that barber shop.
Danger is, of course, imminent. In the penultimate chapter, a gang forces her into a campus bathroom. They encircle her and intend to show her with their muscle and their hatred and their self-proclaimed “big bamboo[s]” and “rod[s] of correction” who she is allowed to be. They represent the cultural backlash of silencing against a woman who dares create herself, but it is testimony to Chin’s deft prose that this scene never strays from the emotional truth of her experience. She weaves the transgressions to her body—the gropes and licks and shoves, escalating toward rape—with the painfully slow movement of her thoughts as she painstakingly attempts to memorize the colors of her attackers’ shirts. Chin respects her reader—and her craft—far too much to spell out that we are witnessing a mind dissociating from a trauma in order to preserve itself. But we get it.
In an unbearable irony, it is in this moment of defeat that Chin loses her voice for the first time in her life. It’s true that she’s chosen in the past not to speak words that she knew would earn her beatings. But this is different. This is not a choice. This is an undoing. Under threat of rape, even the sharp-tongued Chin is silenced to her core in a moment that we recognize her as both Staceyann Chin and as Everywoman. Her grief becomes our grief. Rape, we are reminded, is the common denominator that silences women as females across cultures regardless of extenuating identities.
Chin, miraculously, escapes this rape. When a classmate wanders into the bathroom, she pleads with him to help her. Afraid for his own safety, he turns to go. Chin’s old fury rises in full force, words ringing off the walls as she threatens him with the rumors she’ll spread if he doesn’t help her. He complies. But make no mistake. In the end, she rescues herself with nothing less than the sharp tongue that once earned her lashings from her aunt’s leather strap.
By daring to take center page, Chin crafts memoir at its finest: a story of human resilience that transcends her personal experience and awakens the universal desire in each of us to dive into our own courage and surface with our heart’s truth.
Why not experience Staceyann Chin for yourself? On this video, she reads from The Other Side of Paradise and performs a poem that I can only describe as unplugged. Bring on the goosebumps and let her performance move you to a deeper knowing of who you can be as a woman and as yourself in this world. Then read her memoir, an encore that will bring you to your feet, cheering.
To your taking center page,