Sunday, July 17, 2005

REV: StaceyAnn Chin slam poet

A Def Poetry Jam of Her Very Own
By
FELICIA R. LEE, July 17, 2005, The New York Times

A PART-BLACK, part-Chinese lesbian immigrant from Jamaica, Staceyann Chin finds poetry in belonging everywhere and no place in particular.

"I was born with an otherness attached to me," said Ms. Chin, a thin 32-year-old with a fat cloud of dark, kinky hair. She sat on an overstuffed sofa in her Crown Heights apartment on a day off from her new Off Broadway show, "Border/Clash: A Litany of Desires," an autobiographical, one-woman play. "I never belong to any one space, but I have a place in all the others' spaces," she added in her pronounced Jamaican lilt. "The gay-lesbian community is so white here. I am in the black community, but I am queer. I have a foot in the Asian community."

As her fans from Broadway, where she stood out in "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam," or devotees from her early days at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe probably know by now, Ms. Chin was born into poverty and abandoned by her parents. Growing up an outsider, a smart, light-skinned girl who loved girls, floating in a sea of dark bodies that embraced convention and questioned her choices, she imagined New York as a kind of refuge. And in 1997, she came to claim her place in it.

Her ascent has been fast, with her theatrical appearances, a CNN interview, an essay on the joys of immigration in The New York Times.

Now, with "Border/Clash," which is playing at the Greenwich Village theater the Culture Project, she is using her spoken-word poetry to explore and play with the false distinctions, the contradictions, the fault lines that arise around complicated identities like hers.

She is part of a generation of black and biracial writers between the ages of 25 to 40 who have not done enough to tell their stories, Ms. Chin said. And what stories they could tell, she said: living in the shadow of 9/11 and AIDS; born after abortion was legal and segregation was illegal, and when being biracial was no longer tragic.

Ms. Chin's story starts on Christmas Day, when she was born to a Jamaican mother and a Chinese father whose relationship was never clear.

In "Border/Clash," she tells the audience of her "need to show my crazy mother" and no-good "father what they missed when they decided not to stick around to watch me walk or run." Her tone is sassy, rageful and sometimes softly self-mocking, though the diagnosis of self-obsessed comes up, too. The play also includes vignettes of love poems to women and free-form howls at gay-bashing and other outrages.

Sitting in her quiet living room, Ms. Chin said she continues to fine-tune her essentially political voice into something more personal. She is writing a memoir, for instance. "The 'oh, I'm a revolutionary' voice is not nuanced," she said. "I want a voice that is more informed by different kinds of things. There are tons of things to be angry about in the world, and I am angry, but we have to be more strategic."

About a month ago, for example, she went public about an incident that took place in Jamaica, when she narrowly escaped being gang-raped by gay bashers. The incident is dramatized in "Border/Clash." "I am not as angry about that incident as I am about the phenomenon of that kind of violence," she said. And she added: "It began a dialogue with Jamaica. It took me out of the realm of being just a crazy lesbian poet," as people realized the life-and-death stakes for some outsiders.

As for her parents, Ms. Chin proclaims onstage that she is her mother's voice, a voice that was silenced early by sexism and poverty, among other things. She says she has now forgiven her mother (who left Jamaica for Canada) for not making a home with her. But Ms. Chin grew teary when recalling how she first met her father at the age of 9. A furniture-store owner, he was married to a Jamaican woman and had a family. He gave Ms. Chin money over the years but never acknowledged her as a daughter, she said.

"He never called me anything but young lady," she said. They are no longer in touch, except perhaps in the way that his absence lurks in her work.

"I am a body/ a poem/ a pen/ a story just beginning/ broken in some places but whole in most," Ms. Chin declares in a "Border/Clash" vignette.

Most days I am who I want to be
a girl with more than just arms and
abandonment issues
more than this reactionary
racial-ized
radical
rhetoric
laced with humor to make me go down easier.


Easy or not, she has has a lot more to say, said Ms. Chin, so So she keeps pecking away at the memoir. "I want to inject this face, this history and the history and faces of women who look like me into a canon that does not reflect me," Ms. Chin said. "I am not anomalous. There are millions of people like me. I'm a story only because of the society we live in."

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