Arts & EventsFeatures

Staceyann Chin inspires Puget Sound students

Wednesday, March 28, a woman walked casually into the audience of Schneebeck Concert hall fresh off the airplane and carrying an infant in her arms.  Staceyann Chin had indeed arrived.

Chin hails from Jamaica and is an activist, writer and a perpetual performance artist. She is often known for her participation in “Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry Jam.” Yet no matter what prestige she has acquired, or what medium or art she partakes in, she is first and foremost an uninhibited version of herself.

Since her coming out, Chin has become an LGBT activist. She helped write the Broadway show Def Poetry Jam, and has written several of her own novels and compilations of her experiences, as well.  She is also a spoken word performance artist, putting on shows such as the one students enjoyed at Puget Sound last week.

“She shakes up your world,” senior Caira Ortiz said. Even though Ortiz had not heard of Chin before her visit to Puget Sound, she found Chin to be an amazing inspiration.

“Before she came, I started to get into this stasis in life. Things were good. But I hear Staceyann and I hear her story and suddenly I know there’s so much left to do. I think it’s important that we have speakers who remind us that we can’t just sit around hoping things turn out better. If we want to change something, we need to give it voice and fight for it,” Ortiz said.

Chin’s life has not been an easy one. She grew up in Jamaica with a father who was Afro-Jamaican and a mother who was Chinese-Jamaican. When she was only a baby, her mother left for Canada, returning only once over the course of her childhood. She was raised by her aunt alongside many of her cousins and other family members.

After settling and standing on stage Chin requested the spotlight be removed off of the stage, and the light be brought up in the audience. This request alone set the stage for the casual and personal setting Chin desired to establish.

Chin was originally scheduled to arrive at Puget Sound in November, but had to cancel due illness. Since November, Chin has had a child. With such a great life change, Chin recognizes her presentations may change too.

“I’m not quite sure what creature of performance I will be,” Chin said.

After several minutes of glib conversation about her pregnancy and C-section, Chin moved to read from her memoir published in 2009, entitled The Other Side of Paradise.

“I’m on the other side of paradise,” Chin said.

While reading from her memoir, Chin ran out into the audience, spoke to them and danced around the space yielded to her.

Reading the words off the page being too conventional for a performance reader such as Chin, she hopped off the stage and walked between the rows of the audience, putting emotion and feeling into her reading that was not only astonishing but extremely amusing. She performed her life in front of the attending students by animating each character—each real person who took part in her childhood—with a unique voice and opinions.

She involved those who attended the event greatly through her active reading.

Chin read three excerpts from her memoir. Each of them was set in her younger years as a nine-year-old girl, experiencing changes in her life. During one of the excerpts, Chin described her first period. After looking out into the audience while reading her memoir, Chin laughed.

Chin shared some very personal experiences from her life. Her first passage showcased her experience with a cousin she lived with and how he took advantage of her several times and sexually harassed her. Despite the sad tale, she was also able to confirm her empowerment of fighting back. One night when her cousin entered her room to molest her, she stabbed him in the hand with a sharp pencil.

Her second reading involved the more light-hearted tale of how she got her first period. She constantly reminded her audience that the life she lived in Jamaica was one very different from her life in the United States, especially when concerning young women. Although many girls are not thrilled to start their menstrual cycle, Chin retold her story with a comic air.

Trying to figure out how to handle telling her aunt was a different matter than simply dealing with it herself. Her aunt was mostly concerned about her new ability to get pregnant—even though Chin had no intention of having sex before she knew she was ready; she did not even know if she wanted to get married.

As she had read earlier from her novel: “I [didn’t] want to marry nobody.”

When Chin narrated her tales, she did not simply recite them, she became them. Her body would morph and resemble each character she described as her voice changed to suit the character too. Every action that took place she mimed adeptly, and created an image of her words on the stage and in the audience with ease.

Later on in the lecture, Chin moved to the topic of love. She described her interactions with her first boyfriend and she read several letters of correspondence between her and another boy. While describing the correspondence, Chin was frank and comically dry.

“If a boy is stimulated mentally, he will forget about the feelings of the flesh. You could see I was a lesbian back then,” Chin said glibly.

The lecture took a more serious turn when Chin read poems that accented her calls to activism in numerous venues.

Chin’s energy was ever increasing during the lecture, and her poems, haikus and spoken word performances moved the audience to long periods of applause and cheering.

After Chin finished sharing her work, she prompted a question and answer session where she answered questions about coming out, writing, surviving adversity and even parenting.

When asked what to do to prepare one’s daughter for the world, Chin had a moving response.

“Give her the power of reading. That way she can control the worlds that she enters,” Chin said.

To give the full effect of Staceyann Chin’s lecture could only being achieved by attending a performance of hers.

Every moment of Chin’s performance was quotable, and no descriptions could do her energy and spirit justice.