Staceyann Chin: “I have walked long hard roads to get here”

Jamaican poet Staceyann Chin tells Caroline Taylor about her harrowing journey to fame

Staceyann Chin. Photograph courtesy Staceyann Chin

Born on Christmas
day/before morning

fate or kismet/truth or just dumb luck
I have walked long/hard roads to get here…

today

I am exactly
the woman I have always wanted to be

(Getting Lucky)  

I never grew up saying I wanted a public life, or to be a poet, or to be on TV, or any of that…

I was born on Christmas Day. My mother ought to have gone to the bathroom, but my grandmother put some newspaper on the wooden floor, and out I popped into my grandmother’s waiting arms. And there I remained until I was nine, until my mother came back from Canada.

My grandmother was so good to me, and I felt so at home, that I never considered that something was wrong with the fact that I did not have a mother initially. It wasn’t until my brother started visiting his father when he was five and I was three that I wondered out loud to my grandmother why I couldn’t go with him. And she sort of explained that he was not my father; my father was a Chinaman.

My mother left before I was even a month old. Some people in my family think she just bad and wicked…I think she lives in these kind of made-up worlds. And so none of us even really know the truth about ourselves.

Even in her moments of inclination towards truth, she, I think, is unable to get to a place where she can see the truth enough to share it. She has switched languages twice, first to French while in Canada, and then to German.

She came back from Canada when I was nine. Back then, if you were marrying a Canadian citizen, you had to return to Jamaica and be married there. And that is when her story started falling apart—that she was Jamaican and not British, and had two children she hadn’t been paying attention to when she had been raising her fiancé’s child. She took us from our grandmother and put my brother to his father.

But my father was harder, since he was saying I was not his child. So she promised boxes and barrels and to return in two weeks, and left me with some relatives.

I never saw her again until I tracked her down in Germany when I was 25. Still, she knew me right away, and introduced me to my little sister. But those poor relatives she left me with had another mouth to feed, and a fresh little pickney who was telling lies and had so many emotional problems after being ripped from her grandmother and brother. And I was bright and sharp of tongue and reading more by the age of ten than most people in the house, maybe even feeling better than them. I was biracial in a black world, light-skinned with long hair, in a body that was over-sexualised in that culture.

When I was 14, I asked my father for some money and began paying room and board at friends’ houses. I finished high school, went to teacher’s college, and started at the University of the West Indies as a philosophy major. That’s where I came out as a lesbian, and was jumped by a group of boys in the bathroom.

After that experience, I wanted to leave right away, to come to America and make a life. But a professor convinced me to finish my degree. I had been planning to become an academic, but I wanted a different kind of life, and I knew I couldn’t have that in Jamaica.

Every time you move, you can reinvent. Up till I was about 16, I moved maybe three times, and the story of my mother’s abandonment and my father’s disclaimer of me and the shame of that followed me. So I moved from Lottery to Bethel Town and then to Montego Bay, and in the moving I learned I could tell people lies about myself, even if the lies could not be sustained for long. You could still become the girl whose mother was coming for her next week, and revel in the notion that everyone thought you were so lucky. It’s only that you long for. And I kept doing that, but it would catch up with me. When I moved to Kingston, which was the first big city I had been in, it became too difficult to keep all the lies straight, and people kept crossing over.

So I decided, you know what I goin do now? Everyting bad dat had ever happen to me, me go immediately announce it. And by virtue of that, my life was always displayed with all the details, be they good or bad.

But it’s a good thing I made that decision in Kingston. I spoke the speak, and my command of the English language and my education suggest that I have come from less humble beginnings than I have. And if I had come to New York and extrapolated along those lines, I would have become my mother.

I kept a diary and journal growing up, and started writing confessionally when I was maybe 11—uncrafted ranting, a lot of it about my mother. I was a big fan of the Sylvia Plaths and TS Eliots of the world, and my ultimate favourite was Lorna Goodison, who wrote a lot about average, normal, Caribbean people.

It was not until I got to the university, at about 21, that I started to pay more attention to the craft of those confessionals. Those early poems are so bad—the only reason I don’t throw them out is because they can tell something about a young artist later on.

I was in Toronto the other day and Mervyn Morris, one of my favourite people in the world, was in the audience. I told everyone that I wanted to thank Mervyn for looking at one of my first poems and slicing through it so much that when there was one line left, he said, “This is the centre of the poem.” He said, “If you could write a poem elaborating on this one sentence, then we can have a poem.”

And I understood then that the writing process would be mostly editing. I never shared the poems publicly, though, until I came to America. I was missing home so much, and looking for community… And when I walked in to the Nuyorican Poets Café, I thought to myself, here’s a place that’s really a series of misfits. So if I read a poem about being a biracial black lesbian abandoned by both parents living in America who don’t know where she want to go or what she want to do wid her life, this is a place that it would make sense. So I read some of my amateur pennings, and the crowd responded so well…

When I go back to Jamaica, I’ve learned for safety, and the comfort of my friends, I need to hold my tongue. When I was doing Def Poetry Jam on Broadway or even HBO, I didn’t have any mass recognition—even though any time something big happens, the newspapers do a sensational spiel on my lesbianism.

But now, I’ve been on 60 Minutes, CNN, VH1, and Oprah, and My Two Cents on BET J is very popular in the Caribbean. So I’m becoming more recognisable these days.

www.staceyannchin.com