Staceyann Chin has appeared on television and radio discussing issues of race and sexuality, but it is her extraordinary voice that launched her career as a performer, poet, and activist—here, she shares her unforgettable story of triumph against all odds in this brave and fiercely candid memoir.
No one knew Staceyann's mother was pregnant until a dangerously small baby was born on the floor of her grandmother's house in Lottery, Jamaica on Christmas Day. Staceyann's mother did not want her and her father was not present—no one, except her grandmother, thought Staceyann would survive.
It was her grandmother who nurtured and protected and provided for Staceyann and her older brother in the early years. But when the three were separated, Staceyann was thrust, alone, into an unfamiliar and dysfunctional home in Paradise, Jamaica. There, she faced far greater troubles than absent parents. So, armed with a fierce determination and exceptional intelligence, she discovered a way to break out of this harshly unforgiving world.
Staceyann Chin, acclaimed and iconic performance artist, now brings her extraordinary talents to the page in a brave, lyrical, and fiercely candid memoir about growing up in Jamaica. She plumbs tender and unsettling memories as she writes about drifting from one home to the next, coming out as a lesbian, and finding the man she believes to be her father and ultimately her voice. Hers is an unforgettable story told with grace, humor, and courage.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin includes discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions for Discussion
1. Though The Other Side of Paradise is filled with unforgettable stories, which scenes were the most memorable for you? Which were the most shocking, the most inspiring, the funniest?
2. Discuss the significance of the title and what it means to Staceyann. What does paradise mean to Staceyann? How does her depiction of Jamaica compare to what you know about the country?
3. Grandma Bernice was a religious woman and Staceyann was raised to put her faith in God. Discuss the role of religion in the communities that Staceyann grew up in. How did the religious beliefs of the people around her manifest themselves in Staceyann’s life? Discuss Staceyann’s relationship to religion.
4. Delano tries to explain to Staceyann that they are different because they are “Chiney Royal” and are therefore “whiter” than most people (p. 16). Discuss the different ways people in the book talk about race. Are race and class related? How so?
5. The memoir is dedicated to Staceyann’s grandmother, who she credits with her accomplishments. Discuss their relationship. How does it change as Staceyann grows up? How does the incident with Aunt June and the unwashed kitchen knife (p. 46) affect the way Staceyann views her grandmother? What are some of the other major turning points in their relationship?
6. Staceyann and her life are defined by her relentless determination. Auntie tells Staceyann that she “has the living Devil inside [her]” and that “nothing can be done with [her]” (p. 127). How does Staceyann’s defiance and natural inclination to question everything serve her well later in life? Do you think her perseverance was a learned behavior or innate?
7. Describe Staceyann’s relationship to Delano and discuss the role they played in each other’s lives. Discuss the different ways Delano and Staceyann approach their lives—their relationship to their mother, to school, to the various people who took them in, and generally to the adversity they endured.
8. Discuss Staceyann’s relationship to her mother. What is her mother like? Why do you think she made the choices she made?
9. Though it portrays an incredibly difficult and sometimes painful life, The Other Side of Paradise is rarely depressing. Discuss the tone of the book. How do you think Chin achieved that effect?
10. How does everything change for Staceyann once she starts school at Mount Alvernia? How is she better able to thrive in this environment, both socially and academically?
11. Discuss Staceyann’s experiences with sexuality. Her friendship with Natalia, her relationships with Troy and Michael, her relationships with her cousins, and how she comes to terms with being a lesbian. What affect does New York have on her?
12. Do you think Junior Chin is Staceyann’s biological father? Why does he continually deny that he is? How do you think their relationship has influenced Staceyann’s life?
13. Racquel proved to be one of Staceyann’s best friends and when Staceyann tells Racquel she is a lesbian, she is surprised to discover that Racquel is, too. But Staceyann comes out publicly and Racquel never really announces it to the world at large. Talk about the different choices each woman made regarding her sexuality and how those choices may have impacted their friendship.
14. During the assault in the bathroom when Staceyann is in college, she doesn’t scream or fight back much. After it’s all over, she struggles with this. Why do you think it is so hard for her? Why is it so difficult for her to admit that even she has moments of vulnerability and fear?
15. Staceyann’s last words in her memoir are: “The choice to go [to America] is my decision. For the first time in my life my leaving is something I want to be happening to me.” What do you think of this ending?
16. Like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Staceyann Chin’s The Other Side of Paradise tells the story of a gutsy, smart, and endearing girl facing adversity and coming into her own with humor and grace. What other memoirs come to mind? What distinguishes this book?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Staceyann credits much of her success to her grandmother and even dedicates this book to her. Have everyone in the group discuss a person in their lives who had a major influence on how they were raised. Then have everyone discuss their own grandmothers and their relationships with them both as children and in later years.
2. Staceyann is known as a poet and a performer. Check out some of her performance work and discuss the difference between her voice on the stage and her voice on the page.
3. Bring a map of Jamaica to the meeting and look at all the places where Staceyann lived and visited throughout the book, from Lottery to Paradise to Kingston to Montego Bay.
Staceyann Chin is a full time artist. A resident of New York City and a Jamaican National, she has been an “out poet and political activist” since 1998. From the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe to one-woman shows Off-Broadway to acting in Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe and performing in both the stage and film versions of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People's History of the United States, to starring in the Tony-nominated, Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, Chin credits the long list of “things she has done” to her grandmother's hard-working history and the pain of her mother's absence. She is the author of her memoir The Other Side of Paradise and Crossfire, a collection of her poetry.
"A completely absorbing account of how a girl born into denial and contempt can grow up resilient, sane, and full of purpose. She also shows me a culture I knew far too little about -- the everyday life of young people in Jamaica and the threat of violence looming over anyone who might be too independent or queer or outrageous. How wonderful that this outrageous, talented, determined woman has given us her story." -- Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller
"Staceyann Chin's memoir is a heartbreaking feat of unflinching memory and language. Set in a Jamaica far from the tourist brochures, The Other Side of Paradise is Chin's rich and nuanced story of family and abandonment, love and brutality, and a child's struggle to survive and find a home that will accept her. A remarkable young woman emerges, whose gift for poetry has been forged by poverty, religiosity, and a circle of adults who found the child in their care. This is A Portrait of the Artist written for our age. I love this book -- and I am completely hamstrung by the feelings it evokes." -- Walter Mosley
"The human family is a complex ecosystem, a magnificent experiment of righteous diversity. The Other Side of Paradise captures the evocative struggle of one strong but fragile flower. Staceyann breaks our hearts a little, and then brings us safely, gratefully, home." -- Rebecca Walker, author of One Big Happy Family and Black White and Jewish
"Staceyann's courage, sensitivity, and bravery are exposed on these vulnerable pages. Captured is the fire, passion, and light I experience when she performs. Liberating, beautiful, and life-affirming, The Other Side of Paradise is simply incredible." -- Russell Simmons, author of Do You!