FEBRUARY 4: The Other Side of Paradise (2009)


Happy February 4th everyone! In celebration of
February being Black History Month, we here at 365 Days of Lesbians will be bringing
you reviews of some of our favorite literature created by Black women who love
women. Today we’re kicking this series off with The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir by Staceyann Chin.


I was first introduced to Staceyann Chin’s work back in 2013
when I was a sophomore in high school. I had become obsessed with spoken word
and slam poetry; it was my daily routine that I would come home from school every
day and watch Button Poetry videos on YouTube while I did homework. One day,
I happen to come across Staceyann’s poem “Catalog the Insanity.” The video is a little old and grainy, but you can still feel the fire of her words.
At 15, I was slightly scandalized that a woman poet was using she/her pronouns
and talking about “the smell of her cunt.” I searched for the video so many
times over the next couple of weeks that the true spelling of catalog couldn’t help but be drilled into my
head (think Gwen Stefani and bananas). That summer I bought The Other Side of Paradise. 

Staceyann Chin is a lesbian, a mother, and a Jamaican poet who
now lives in New York City. When I was reading her memoir, I forgot all of that
– Staceyann was just the little girl sitting on her grandmother’s floor getting
her hair braided, the teenager dealing with her mother’s abandonment, and the
woman who made it out of girlhood despite all of the abuse and neglect, and yet
still refused to be silent. The Other
Side of Paradise
is truly one of those autobiographies that reads like a
work of a fiction; it creates a world you don’t want to leave, only for you to
turn the last page and realize this wasn’t some imagined creation of the author’s
mind but a real place lived in by real people – this was someone’s childhood
memories. And as one might expect the process of going back and revisiting
childhood traumas would result in a sloppy, eternally-dark and hopeless story, The Other Side of Paradise is anything
but. The entire novel feels like you are watching a young Staceyann claw her
way out of a hole, giving each patch of dirt a small kiss before leaving it
behind. It takes a lot of strength to render one’s lived traumatic experiences
with love; the Jamaica seen through Staceyann’s eyes is bright and bustling
with life even though her experience of her home country is marred by poverty
and years of abuse. When I first read The
Other Side of Paradise
and as I re-read it now, I can see parts of my own story
in that dichotomy – beauty and squalor existing together. At the end of the
novel, when Staceyann make her way to New York City and wonders who is she now
and what to do with this new lesbian identity, it didn’t feel like the sun had
finally come out, but that the sun had been there all along peeking out through
the cracks in a door that was just finally starting to swing open.