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In the Words of a Slam Poet

14 Apr 2006

An nterview with Staceyann Chin, Chinese-Jamaican, slam poet, feminist and social activist

Staceyann Chin’s journey from a displaced, abandoned child in Jamaica to an award winning, internationally recognized slam poet is one worth telling.  It’s no surprise Simon and Schuster have snatched up the publishing rights for her memoirs, which she is currently writing.

Chin describes herself as 5’4, 110 pounds, with a huge afro.  A sneaker, comfort casual kind of girl she almost never wears makeup and doesn’t grow her nails, the last she admits is probably because she’s a lesbian, although she gets passes from men due to her “teeny, weenie shirts”.  An outspoken, social activist and staunch feminist, Chin has a lot to say to anyone willing to listen.

Born in Jamaica to a Chinese father who never acknowledged her and a Jamaican mother who later abandoned her, Chin was raised by her deaf grandmother until she was nine.  Through a series of events, she was passed around from one relative to another, waiting in vain for her mother, living in Montreal, to send for her.  Chin credits her strong sense of self to this difficult period in her life.

“It gave me a freedom of self identity because I didn’t have a mom or dad who required anything of me,” says Chin over the phone from her home in New York.  “I would try things philosophically and if it didn’t fit I would cast if off.  If it did fit I would keep it.  It gave me a far less shakable notion of self.  Challenging me on how I feel isn’t easy.”

Although Chin’s father was never present in her life, he contributed heavily to her education.  Having loved literature from a young age, “I would always mutter Merchant of Venice, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, under my breath at school,” Chin would earn a degree from the University of the West Indies in Philosophy and Literature.

It was here at age 21 Chin came out as a lesbian.  Shocked by the community’s response to her sexual preference, the outspoken Chin moved to the U.S.  However she was quickly confronted by yet another struggle.    “When I came to America I was surprised that the privileges I was afforded in Jamaica by being light skinned, no such privilege existed in America.  So I became involved in that sociopolitical struggle around my sexuality and around my race.  Since then it has kind of widened to include people in the African Diaspora who are marginalized.”

In New York she found her groove with the artistic, underground political scene.  After an invitation to a reading at a trendy café, Chin was introduced to slam poetry and encouraged to create a one woman show.  She performed frequently at 45 Bleecker Theatre one of the premier political theatres in New York.  She also became one of the poets in Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam televised on HBO which later garnered the Tony Award for its run on Broadway.  Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and 60 Minutes.  The film Staceyann Chin was released in theatres in Denmark in 2001.  Chin’s one woman show, Border/Clash, a coming of age autobiography was produced and mounted in New York last summer.

Chin describes her work as political and agitative, unafraid to speak what’s on her mind. “In some circles it’s considered very radical, particularly in the commercial main stream.  I meet so many reporters and people that say, I want to do something with you or have you on a show but you are not 8:00pm American prime time.  Commercialized America is not concerned about what happens with water, money, food and resources on the continent of Africa, or what’s happening to the poorest of poor in the Caribbean, or what’s happening to immigrant voices.  Those aren’t popular topics unless the News says so and only for a minute.”

Chin is profoundly aware of making the most of her opportunities to inform and educate for the greater good.  “I believe that I work hard to stand in the tradition of voices I respect most.  Those voices have to do with evoking change and challenging the status quo, living a life that is resistant to a way of life that renders some people free and some people not.”

Her inspiration comes from authors such as James Baldwin, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and the Canadian Caribbean voice of Dionne Brand.  On a political note, she is moved by the likes of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and some of the social teachings of Michael Manley.

“The more I pay attention to such voices as Walter Mosley, Harry Belafonte, and Che; I have to know that I can’t just be concerned about black people in Jamaica or black people in Brooklyn.  I have to always be concerned about the larger community in which I live….I try to encourage each of us to be self indicting regarding the condition of the world we live in.  We are all kind of judged by the guilt of association.  I’m beginning to think of my own part in the culture of consumption.  How many lights do I use in my house?  Do I take the train more than I take a cab?  We are all responsible for what is happening with the oppression in Sudan.  With travel it has made our borders collapse and crash.”

A staunch feminist, Chin is indignant with recent conversations on this subject.  “I’ve been ranting about this supposed post feminist movement.  Post feminist is like saying we are post racism.  I don’t even understand the conversations around it.  When did I become equal?  When did the black community come out and say the black woman has as much agency as the black man within the context of family, work and intellect?  It hasn’t been done yet.”

When asked about her Chinese heritage, there is a thoughtful pause.  “With a name like Chin I am constantly asked about it.  If my name were Jones there wouldn’t be so many questions.  How I came to be politicized in America is by being black.  I look black.  I have a huge afro on my head.  I speak about issues largely concerning black people.  Even the word Asian is weird to me as it conjures up the Japanese and Chinese culture which seems very different from me.  But I know that I yearn for the thing that would legitimize me with the Chinese community because I feel like that would have been like my father.”

The absence of her parents in her childhood is one of the reasons Chin is seriously considering having a child.  “I would consider adopting because I want to save a child from the concentrated parentlessness that I had,” says Chin.

Her current relationship is something she is a bit more evasive about.  “It’s a tricky question.  I am seeing someone now.  It’s good, but as with all things one must move forward with as little expectation as we can manage not to have.”

Chin is excited about the future as she pens her memoirs.  “I want to write a book that will inspire and educate.  I want to move people into spaces they wouldn’t consider.  I want to take this person who they think they have nothing in common with and make them see the commonalities.  It’s an ambitious but exciting project.”

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