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Jamaica’s No Paradise

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A new memoir set on the island promises much.

by Terri Schlichenmeyer.

StaceyannChin
Staceyann Chin

The picture looked so perfect. You weren’t really looking for a vacation destination, but the smiling faces on that poster made you want one. Happy couples on sandy beaches or green hillsides, astride horses, or with snorkels over their noses.

Romance. Relaxation. Regeneration of the soul, all promised.

You can’t wait. Your bags are packed, and you’re anticipating the time of your life.

ParadiseHave fun. Just don’t look too hard behind any façade because, as you’ll see in The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin (Simon & Schuster: Scribner), some people don’t just get handed The Good Life. They have to fight for it.

Performer and author Staceyann Chin made her debut two months early. Her mother, Hazel, who hid the fact that she was with child, gave birth on the floor of a rented house in Lottery, Jamaica, in her seventh month of pregnancy. The baby’s deaf, elderly grandmother refused to believe the tiny child would die.

“Me just tell everybody fi keep them mouth shut because this little girl here going to live and live and live,” she said.

Shortly after giving birth, Hazel left the infant and her three-year-old brother with Grandma, and disappeared. Everyone said she had gone to Canada.

When Staceyann was barely four years old and Grandma could no longer pay the rent, the trio moved in with relatives. Uncle Harold was a policeman. Aunt June was abusive, especially to Staceyann, whom June thought was too willful. Beatings were a common occurrence for infractions, even as Harold and June’s own children got away with much of the same behavior. When Staceyann was 11, Aunt June had enough and shipped her to yet another relative, this one in Paradise, Jamaica.

But paradise was lacking there. The house was filthy and cramped. Staceyann learned to sleep wrapped in a sheet to avoid being raped. School was her only respite, though she had to hide her life from classmates. Yet the willfulness never left her.

It turned to strength.

I struggled with this memoir, because I enjoyed it and I was disappointed in it.

The first part of The Other Side of Paradise is so beautiful and peaceful. I absolutely loved the way the dialogue is written, giving it a perfect island lilt, lush; so vivid, you can almost hear it.

The middle of this book is painful but triumphant. Readers will cheer because we know that author Staceyann Chin is going to persevere, and her spunkiness is exactly what we want to see.

But the ending of this book disappointed me. Chin’s anger appeared so quickly that it caught me off-guard. I expected her revelation of lesbianism, but it felt like she was daring me to oppose. Everything up to this point was filled with empowered strength and triumph, so the venom, though justifiable, was a surprise in its too-quick, without-warning harshness.

Still, because of the beauty and emotion in this book, I can’t not recommend it. Just beware that The Other Side of Paradise is probably not a good choice for a vacation read.

Photo caption: internationally acclaimed out poet, political activist, and author Staceyann Chin is well known to poetry aficionados, bringing her commanding presence to off-Broadway stages in New York, poetry workshops in Denmark, and Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old, and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terry Schlichenmeyer is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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