It's One Big Happy Family season here at This Writer's Life. In celebration of the book's paperback release I have asked a number of the writers from "One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Polyamory, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love," to reflect upon how things have changed (or remained the same) in their own lives since they wrote their essays over a year ago. Further, I've also asked various writers I admire to discuss their wild, messy, loving, non-traditional families as well. Below, Staceyann Chin talks about her happy family:
The Fishbowl and the Family
by Staceyann Chin
At its best, self-examination helps us to understand our flaws and to move toward being better human beings. At its worst, it is narcissism run amok. Most memoirs are a little bit of both. In an age where people are obsessed with reality TV, the memoir is the king of books. From Augustin Burroughs' Running With Scissors to Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle, from Karrine Steffans' Confessions Of A Video Vixen to Bill Clinton's My Life, everyone is telling a personal story that everyone else is reading with unbridled fascination. These tell-all accounts of unlikely celebrities, ex-presidents, and broken families line the shelves of bookstores. The protagonists of the successful ones become overnight sensations with movie deals and speaking engagements where they are encouraged to reveal even more about their lives, and the lives of their loved ones.
Generally a portrayal of surviving some unusual event or series of events, a good memoir takes the reader on a journey of endurance and discovery. It requires the rendering of living beings as interesting characters in a story. You have to decide if your mother is a villain, or if your father is a saint. You have to find where those boundaries crisscross and make for arresting drama. And you have to protect the identities of the people you are writing about. All this you do without the mask of fiction. Memoirists, as opposed to fiction writers, have to remain true to the facts. Else they are called to task for misrepresenting, misappropriating, or outright lying. The catch twenty-two of the memoirist's conscience resides in that tight space between truth and cloaking; the more accurate the rendering of the tale, the more personal the revelation. The more personal the revelation, the more the writer risks the stability of the intimate relationships in question.
Why would anyone choose this life?
I became a memoirist purely by happenstance. I left Jamaica to escape the violent homophobia I had experienced there as a lesbian. The discovery of racism in America, and the realization that New York City was no utopia jump-started my pen. I began with angry poems delivered in NYC poetry cafes. I moved up to one-woman shows off Broadway, personal essays in the NY Times, and poems on HBO. By the time I finished my own memoir, The Other Side of Paradise, I was completely addicted to the art of self-examination.
Early on I fancied I would turn to fiction after I got that story out. But fictional characters do not excite me as much as real people do. I love to dissect the details of what happened and why it happened. I feel more alive, more present, when I write about events I have endured, and the people with whom I have endured. Even though it complicates my intimate relationships, there is a truth that becomes apparent to me when I examine the nature of those relationships. I experience kind of communal high-five when others confirm a kindred experience. I feel less alone when I share my triumphs, my failures. This exercise is proof to me that everything in the universe is connected. Perhaps even evidence of a shared consciousness. This is my religion, the interconnectedness of humanity. Everything you do affects someone else, even if you do not intend it.
I first wrote because I needed somewhere to put the difficult details of my life. I so admired writers with the courage to lay their lives out for the rest of us to peruse. Back then I was not thinking about who could object to what I wrote. I was young and in love with rebelling. I easily gathered the broken pieces of my life and made narrative of them. I foolishly thought my family would applaud my making something whole of so fragmented an existence. Instead they are ashamed of me for being so loud, so lesbian, even if they are secretly proud of me for being on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and being able to pay my own rent, or theirs sometimes. And there is a rock of mistrust upon which all our interactions rest. They believe something is really wrong with me for telling so much to so many. They see how much I enjoy the unveiling and are wary of close relationships with me. They treat me like I am an outsider, someone who will break the code of silence that is the unspoken pact of the family. After all keeping secrets is what makes you an insider.
Less than a year after shaming my family with the publication of The Other Side of Paradise, I am already obsessed with the elusive facts of my mother's incredible life. I am attempting to write down the things I do not know about her, the events that have made her into the ghost who disappeared from our lives last summer. I spend my days googling her, her ex-husband, and the addresses of homes she no longer occupies. I work hard at wooing relatives into divulging her secrets. I ache to know who she was before she had me, who she became when she had me, and whether she had to change again in order to survive leaving me. Perhaps it is a fallacy, but I believe I may learn something of who I am through knowing her.
I can't say with any certainty that memoir writing occupies any moral high ground. Many who live with us will tell you otherwise. When most of us who write memoir are honest, we admit that everything is fodder for the page; everything that happens between me and my sister, me and my girlfriend, me and the grocer who is homophobic, could make it into a blog, or an essay, or the next book. There is no boundary between the writer and the lover, the writer and the daughter, the writer and the friend. Over the years I've certainly got better at cloaking identities, but I always pull directly from my experience. My imagination is infertile. I have no ability to create a scenario out of thin air. So I have to make do with what happens to me. The result is a strange gulf between what I feel as the events are unfolding and what is revealed to me when I eventually reconstruct the experience for my writing. If left untended, this gulf widens with time. Which means if I want to remain truly connected to anyone I have to exert constant effort to remain present in both arenas of consciousness.
Girlfriends have begged me not to write about them. Some have threatened, others have pouted, and one even left me because I could not create clear boundaries between what we live and what I write. For better or worse, I am wired to make narrative of everything. Writing my life helps me to make sense of it. When something happens that confuses me I write the sequence of events as fast as I can. I read that draft and make notes. Then I draw conclusions. Then I edit that draft. If that draft still does not make sense, I repeat. I do that over and over again until I get a draft that reads free of inconsistencies. By the time I am done I am clearer, more able to come to terms with my confusion.
Memoir makes me see things more clearly. So regardless of the hazards, I continue to live in the proverbial fishbowl; writing and rewriting draft after draft, allowing others to peruse the details of my existence through the foggy lenses of my version of a life in progress.
Staceyann Chin is the recipient of the 2007 Power of the Voice Award from The Human Rights Campaign, the 2008 Safe Haven Award from Immigration Equality, the 2008 Honors from the Lesbian AIDS Project, and the 2009 New York State Senate Award. She unapologetically identifies as Caribbean and Black, Asian and lesbian, woman and resident of New York City.
A proud Jamaican National, Staceyann's voice was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where she spoke candidly about her experiences of growing up on the island and the dire consequences of her coming-out there.
Widely known as co-writer and original performer in the Tony award winning, Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, her poetry has seen the rousing cheers of the Nuyorican Poets' Café, one-woman shows Off-Broadway, writing-workshops in Sweden, South Africa, and Australia. Chin's three one-woman shows, HANDS AFIRE, UNSPEAKABLE THINGS, and BORDER/CLASH all opened to rave reviews at the Culture Project in New York City.
Be it on 60 Minutes, or in the New York Times, Staceyann has a reputation for telling it exactly like it is.
Staceyann is the author of the memoir, The Other Side of Paradise.