Born early on the floor of her grandmother's house in Jamaica, Staceyann Chin's life started with a bang. No one knew her mother was pregnant and Staceyann was so small, few expected her to survive. She did survive, with the love and help of her grandmother, but life for Staceyann would be full of difficulties and heartbreak, a struggle to survive and find her authentic self.
The Other Side of Paradise is Staceyann Chin's memoir of growing up in Jamaica, moving from home to home, working hard to get by, discovering who she is, and coming out as a lesbian. It's a moving portrayal of the lives you don't see while on vacation.
Shortly after she was born, Staceyann's mother left for Canada and while everyone knew who her father was, he wanted nothing to do with her. Her grandmother tried her best to raise Staceyann and her brother, but after only a few years they were separated from each other. Staceyann went from home to home, staying with family, friends of the family, school friends, and eventually on her own while she worked hard to finish school and go on to university.
Throughout the book your heart hurts for the difficulties she faced. The poverty she experienced while her father had a well to do business nearby, the abuse and degradation she faced by the people whose homes she lived in (often her own family) is heartbreaking. No young child should ever face what she did. But Staceyann knew what she wanted and that was a better life. She took care of herself, reached out to the family that didn't want her, and fought for the money needed to keep her in school.
While she was in university, she began to understand who she was and what she wanted in life. She came out as a lesbian, which in a country that still has buggery laws on the books and well-known musicians sing about killing gay people, this is a big and brave step. Staceyann talks about the backlash she faced from other people on campus, how others hid their sexualities, and how those who did support her did so quietly or behind closed doors.
Today, Staceyann is a poet and performer in the United States. It is evident throughout this book that writing comes naturally, one breezes through the pages even though they contain tough and difficult subjects to read. She makes it easy for readers to jump into the world of Paradise, Jamaica and gain a great understanding of the conditions she grew up in.
When people are talking in the book she does write their words in Patois. This lends a feel of the island to the book and an understanding of the people. I understand Patois so I didn't have any difficulties with it but people unfamiliar to the language may have some problems, however it seems to be written in a pretty basic way for accessibility.
My only criticism with the book is I wanted to understand more about Jamaican culture and how it affected her. Jamaica is a country full of many different races, however, Staceyann's biracial background could have meant a different sort of treatment. She did mention times where the texture of her hair or colour of skin was noted but I would have liked to know more about her feelings about this. I also would have liked to know more about her feelings about the way homosexuality is treated on the island. Violence against homosexuals is a very real thing there and she did have her own experience with it, however, I wondered if she had deeper feelings than she let on. I got an understanding more of how her experience played out rather than how it affected her emotionally. I think there are a lot of social issues in Jamaica that Staceyann has experienced firsthand and she could have contributed more to the conversation rather than focusing so much on her childhood and a little on her adult life.
Overall, this is a really good memoir and one that will take you somewhere you're not familiar with, give you a glimpse of a life and world you may only learn about through books. It is an important story to tell and Staceyann Chin has been strong and brave in sharing it.