Monday September 23rd 2019

The Other Side of Paradise – A memoir of growing up poor in Jamaica

Pros: well written, interesting story

Cons: challenging to sympathize with the main character at times, many depressing experiences

The Other Side of Paradise is a memoir by Staceyann Chin. I first became acquainted with Chin via the website AfterEllen.com, where she was a host on a short-lived web talk show. I found her to be a very interesting, confident, well-spoken woman and was eager to learn more about her life in this book.

Plot

The Other Side of Paradise is Chin’s story of growing up as an outcast in Jamaica. The story starts when Chin is quite young and she and her half-brother, Delano, are being cared for by their maternal grandmother. Shortly after Chin’s birth her mother leaves the country and her father, a Chinese businessman, denies their relationship. Throughout the course of the story Chin is bounced from home to home as she is sent to live with various aunts and uncles.

There are a number of running themes throughout the story: poverty, class, race and abuse. At the start of the story Chin is being raised by her grandmother who has no money. Throughout the story, when Chin is sent to live with other family members she is often seen as a burden because they can not afford another mouth to feed. As she moves from home to home Chin experiences drastic class differences . At some homes there is no electricity or running water – the norm in her early years. As times goes on she visits other homes where they have color tv, a maid, and other modern luxuries – all of which amaze her. Chin is a very intelligent child and as a result she is able to get into a prestigious high school. At high school she makes friends with some of the most wealthy families on the island, while she herself is still very poor. As the reader, we have the pleasure of exploring these class differences through the eyes of a child.

There is also an ongoing exploration of race in the book. Chin is half Chinese and as a result has fairer skin than all her cousins. This leads to constant problems from family and peers at school who her attack her for her skin tone. Abuse is also seen throughout the book. The aunts she stays with often verbally berate her, tell her she is worthless and she is often beaten as a form of punishment. There are also multiple attempts at sexual abuse throughout her life in Jamaica.

My Thoughts on the Book

I had a challenge reading the book because Chin does not paint herself as a very pleasant character, particularly when she is a young child. There were so many instances early in the book when I wanted to reach through the pages, shake her and tell her to knock it off. All of her life she is a guest in other people’s homes but yet she continues to act snotty and mouth off at her guardians. Everytime she acts out she suffers the consequences only to do it again. If only she could shut up and say “please” and “thank you” it seems her early childhood would have been much easier. Of course, if she had quelled her fighting spirit at a young age perhaps should would not have become the woman that was able to escape her life in Jamaica.

I was disappointed that the book did not spend more time on Chin’s life as a young adult. I felt 75% of the book is comprised of her early childhood and then we quickly rushed through high school, two colleges, then leaving for the US. I would have liked to have read a chapter of her life as a young 20 something experiencing not only America, but New York City for the first time. I can only imagine she has a lot of interesting stories to tell about getting acquainted to American culture and city life in New York.

The last chapters of the book also explore her realization that she is a lesbian and her coming out story. Jamaica, to this day, is notorious for their extremely homophobic culture and practices. When purchasing the book I was quite interested in reading about her experience living openly as a lesbian in Jamaica. Unfortunately, this was a very small piece of the book.

Conclusion

Overall I have to give Chin major kudos for telling an honest tale of her life. As a child she is not always the most likeable character and many of the intimate details of her experiences will make the reader cringe. At times the story is depressing and you can’t imagine things getting any worse for this child and yet they do often get worse. I would have liked to have spent more time with the grown up Chin that left Jamaica so that I know she is okay and has a better life than the girl in the book.

Also posted to Epinions

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