(SPOILER ALERT! Stop here if you haven’t already read this book.)
On a soggy Wednesday evening, several avid readers gather at the International Examiner’s offices. As eggrolls, chips and popcorn are spread across a table, someone rips open a giant bag of wasabi-flavored peanuts. The 3rd Edition of the InspirAsian Book Club is on!
Organized by editor-in-chief Diem Ly, who initially hoped to create it with friends until she realized that not all of them like to read, the book club was opened to the community.
After Diem emailed us a list of titles, the majority voted for “The Other Side of Paradise”—a memoir penned by spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin. The clever title refers to the Jamaican slum where Chin grew up while alluding to the underbelly of a heavenly state. The daughter of a black mother and Chinese father (who never claimed her), Chin was shunted among various relatives after her mother abandoned her and her grandmother could no longer care for her. Chin’s narrative—including abuse, poverty, rejection, religious dogma, and sexual coming-of-age—ends positively mostly because of her determination and intellectual prowess.
After giving us handouts replete with discussion questions, Diem begins the conversation by inquiring of everyone’s motivation to join the book club. Kathy Ho, a program coordinator for the Vietnamese Friendship Association, says it’s a good way to get back into reading, while Christine Loredo, the communications director for the International Community Health Services, admits it’s the first time she’s ever finished a book for a book club. For me, reading leads to writing and I hope to complete a novel I started in 2004, ironically about an AfroAsian family in the Caribbean.
We all agreed that Paradise was moving and another member, Ammara Kimso, confesses that she “cried a few times”. As for Chin’s writing style, a tool she used well to elicit emotion, both Kathy and Diem found the story unfolded for them visually—like a movie. And although Melinda Mizuta, the communications coordinator for the Asian Counseling Referral Service, thought the book was a “slow read” due to its use of Jamaican dialect, I whipped through it in 4 1/2 hours because of the patois, which I learned during my Caribbean residency and travels.
Upon an evaluation of how Chinese came to be on the Jamaican island and their relationship with natives, we discussed how European colonizers brought Chinese indentured servants to the West Indies, and the impact of imperialism and black African enslavement on the subsequent destruction of indigenous groups like the Arawak and Taino.
This leads to a conversation about the term “Chiney Royal” used by Chin’s brother (son of a different Chinese father) that set them apart from darker-skinned blacks and resulted in particular treatment from those around them. Christine thinks Chinese were accepted as whites while Bely Luu reveals that lighter skin is desirable in her ethnic Chinese family. Ammara adds that it’s also an issue in Cambodia where divisiveness by skin color was instituted by colonizers.
Because Chin’s grandmother was a big influence on her in the story, Diem asks about our own role models or those in our lives who have made the most impact on how we view ourselves. Not surprisingly, most of us name our mothers although Christine adds her father, aunts and uncles, while Kathy says her grandmother, who raised her from age three, treated her as a daughter.
Eventually “coming out” as a lesbian was monumental for the author. Although she initially had boyfriends, Bely thinks she confused affection with love. Melinda says the lack of physical demonstrativeness within Chin’s relations reminded her of her own family’s lack of physical affection.
“The Japanese,” she explains, “You go for a hug and they walk away.”
Ammara, who has seen Chin in person during a spoken-word performance, remembers the author’s powerful presence. And we discover that while throughout her childhood, Chin’s outspokenness landed her in trouble, it was also the source of her own survival through pain and confusion.
“That was her strength,” says Ammara, “She would not have survived (without it).”
As we say our goodnights, we beg Diem for our next reading assignment and for that unfinished bag of wasabi-flavored peanuts.
To join the InspirAsian Book Club and participate in the next book selection, e-mail Diem Ly at [email protected].