Suoni per il popolo

Suoni Per Il Popolo Interviews: Joy & Justice - A Conversation between Staceyann Chin and Shanice Nicole

Written By: Shanice Nicole

A few weekends ago, I woke up way earlier than I usually do on a Saturday morning and called Staceyann Chin. I didn’t know what to expect but anyone who knows her, can be sure to expect the truth.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Thank you to my sister friend Leslie Nikole who transcribed the 45 minute conversation.

SN: So is this going to be your first time in Montreal?

SC: Yes, I was born in Jamaica. My mo

ther left when I was born. Montreal was the city she went to. Until I was about sixteen, my mother, in my head, was in a city called Montreal, and there was an expectation that I would live there - that she would come and fetch me to live there. And then she never did. She never came back for us.

So when I came to the US and became a poet, people started inviting me places to speak. I’ve had maybe three or four invitations to come to Montreal, but it’s never quite worked out. I wonder now if it was an emotional response, as in, “I’m not quite ready to go to Montreal” On this trip, one of the things that I hope to do is to just go and stand in front of the house that she lived in. I know the address, I know the phone number. Actually, I’ve met a woman who was actually raised there; her parents bought the house from my mother when she left Montreal. And so I’m going to go stand in that house that in my brain forever was the house I was going to live in.

SN: Wow. So this is not just a regular old city.

SC: No it’s not any old city - it’s an experience. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m sure it will be many things but I certainly will be, for the first time, in conversation with myself around that city, inside that city.

SN: That’s really powerful. And thinking that Zuri is going to be coming with you as well. I’m not sure if she

’ll be with you when you do that visit but just to even be in the same city as your daughter while visiting your mother’s home. I’m really happy that you’re coming.

SN: So I have a few questions…

SC: Oh you can shoot right ahead into them, I don’t need any prep, just ask away.

SN: Okay great. So I am familiar with y

ou mostly through Instagram.

SC: Okay so Instagram, which is like my more present life.

SN: Yeah and so that was my introduction to you and your work. So over the past few weeks I’ve been watching YouTube videos of your performances and talks which gave me such a different insight. It’s a good reminder that Instagram can only capture so much.

Reflecting on what you just shared about your mother and this city, I’m thinking about themes you discussed in a past interview on the importance of seeking family, finding somewhere to belong, and also that fear of being alone. Can you share more about that and if you feel like it is still a continued process or journey?

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Photo by Bridget Badore

SC: Seeking family, sure, but that’s like standard textbook abandoned child- where your first wound came from, your interaction or lack of interaction with the first person with whom you have any relationship. I was conceived in my mother’s body, and lived there, and then I came from that body, and then she left. And we l

ive in a world where that relationship is so deeply valued that we are taught to feel as if something is broken when that first separation happens between yourself and the body that hosts you to life. And considering the absence of my mother, coupled with not having a lot of people who could step in to take my mother’s place, nor the capacity or resources to do so in a way that would really care for me. So I always have that in my brain and in my heart as a quest.

I think that becoming someone else’s mother has certainly mitigated some of the damage around the socialized expectation of motherhood - a long sentence but there’s so many things in it that are specific that I’m not necessarily sure that this relationship with our mother, the way that we think about it, if it’s really real or if it’s just constructed. But whatever it is that I carry about motherhood has been mitigated; whatever pain I carry about the history, my own history with motherhood, and my own childhood has been mitigated by the arrival of my own child. And so the mystery has been taken out of parenthood for me because I’m now on the other end of parenting. And the joy has been replaced - well I don’t know if replaced is the right word - but the joy has been the joy I imagined was lacking in my own relationship with motherhood and family is now present in my life in a very big way, in a very consistent way, in a very joyful way. And so, I don’t know.. if deep sorrow, coupled with deep joy… you know there's a kind of balance that both of them provide together simultaneously. I feel intimately more balanced now in myself as a human person because I think I have so much sorrow around past familial history and I have so much joy in my present familial history or familial experience that there’s a kind of dissolution that has happened. And now I feel just alive and present mostly.

One of the things I do worry about is my own history with intimate partner relationships. I’ve had a long history of relationships with many partners, and those relationships can last from anywhere from a year or two to four years and in the heteronormative definition of relationships I feel like those relationships would be seen as failures because they didn’t last forever. But in my own experience looking back at them now, I feel like I learned so much from them that I would go as far as to say that my life as a person who has relationships has been a roaring success because I’ve learned so much about myself and have had the opportunity to love so many different kinds of women and in the distant past men as well who have taught my so much about life and love and responsibility, and many of these people now live in my global community of constant love, who continue to love me and have begun to love my own child.

SN: Wow. Okay I think I’m just going to keep saying wow. Please bear with me. I really appreciate that piece around how heteronormativity shapes how we think about relationships. And of course patriarchy too and how we’re all deeply impacted by these systems.

SC: Yes and whether it’s relationships, or gender, or bodies - we are often pushed into boxes that do not at all make room for the people who might not be so easily convinced into those boxes or the people who themselves feel completely unsafe or unseen or invisible or deeply oppressed inside of those boxes. It’s beginning to become increasingly clear that there are things that haven’t really served us, and so we are smack in the middle of reordering or at least doing away with some of the orders that those in power thought were a good idea.

SN: I think that tension is clear and visceral and there seems to be a shared feeling of being at a tipping point.

SC: Yes but the tipping point isn’t always how we like to think of it. I don’t think all the things are in the same tipping point. I think that there are different pushes in different areas and in different countries. I do know that we’re in a place of deep shifting and so all hands on deck. All people who believe in a better world, who have ideas for a better world, all of us who believe in human rights, all of us who believe in the importance of the voice of the people being considered in making a new world order - I believe that all of us have to be fighting tooth and nail to be at the table. If we can’t be at the table, to protest and make sure our public opinion is swaying the people who we elect, and that people are themselves making sure that their voices are heard whether it be voices of dissent, voices of acquiescence, voices of support, voices to push back or voices to protest - I think we all need to be engaged. There’s so many of us on the planet and so few people are making the decisions about what’s good for us. And so few people are benefitting from the policies that are put in place to protect. I think if globally more of us were participating we would probably have a more common good philosophy that informs what our new world would look like.

SN: Absolutely. It makes me think of two of your quotes. One was, “Go out and change the world you live in. It is the only world you have. Change that motherfucker!” And the other was, “If I have any desire and yearning to be a part of history after I’m gone, it is the yearning to be on the right side of that history.”

SC: Definitely. I believe that we are participating in a global discourse, in a political discourse, in a discourse about power and powerlessness - whether you actually go out to vote or not, whether you open your mouth or you are silent. Audre Lorde once said, “Your silence will not protect you”, but I also feel that if even when you don’t speak - when you have the ability to speak and you don’t speak - you are being compliant with the dominant narrative. So if you intend to support the dominant narrative, then please go ahead and remain silent. But if that is not your intention, then yes, you have to create the opportunity to speak and you have to find the opportunity to speak - it is imperative. And sometimes the moment comes unannounced and so what you have to do is you have to make sure you have a deep knowledge of what you would like to say if you were ever faced with the opportunity to speak so that when that time arises you aren’t at the same time trying to figure out what it is that you want to say, but instead you are only charged with uttering the thing that you have always known you needed to say. You just have to figure out where it is that your door or window is.

SN: Yes I also think we have to be mindful and nuanced when we talk about readiness. It’s often about the readiness of the collective without recognizing that there are some people who have been ready and/or have always been moving and taking action. And then there are those who haven’t had to get or stay ready or feel that same experience of threat because of apathy and comfort. We’re seeing that in some ways around the recent rounds of attacks on abortion and reproductive health. Even for myself, it makes you question when you think about issues, when you feel emboldened, when you feel impacted. Because abortion access has forever been an issue.

SC: And is it now becoming an issue?

SN: Well it’s just interesting in terms of how public conversation will shape the way we think about things being new or relevant or not. So I think about how a lot of middle to upper class, cis, straight white women are feeling really impacted right now. And so because it impacts them, that informs how the conversation happens even though Black and brown women have been struggling and fighting for reproductive justice forever.

SC: Even within our communities we have fewer resources, particularly those of us coming from spaces like in Jamaica where they are just beginning to have conversations about abortions. It’s illegal in Jamaica and right now they’re trying to figure out how it is that they can begin a conversation about making access more possible. So the dismissive perspective of, “Oh my God it should be alright already” is in itself a kind of privilege and a blindspot for people who live in places where this might not be the reality.

And therefore it makes us uncomfortable to talk about things that don’t impact us and maybe even annoy us or peak our interest. But I feel as if different conversations need to invoke different policy points because there are so many different rooms around human rights that we have to become dexterous in being able to address numerous topics in different spaces. You can’t just be a pro-choice activist - you have to be pro-choice and your political platform has to be intersectional in order for it to work because there are so many things working at the same time and so many conversations that need to happen simultanously for real progress to occur otherwise we’re really fighting for the progress of a privileged few. It’s important that we also talk about that there’s always activism going on regarldess of whatever the current hot-sexy topic is - whether it’s immigration or abortion or sexual abuse. From the beginning of time there have been women who continue to do this work and do it when it’s not sexy.

I want to wrap up this conversation because I have to go feed my child soon but the other thing I wanted to say is that one of the things I find amazing about where we are now in the world, is that I feel like brown people, queer people, immigrants, women who are survivors of sexual assault, children who are survivors of neglect and sexual abuse and all kinds of difficult things, men who are survivors of all those things, we are now attempting to live with less shame and therefore we are able to access more joy. And so these small celebrations that allow us to see ourselves as human and successful and beautiful - those conversations are very inspiring to me. It’s a wonderful thing to experience, that even as we witness the global onslaught against almost every human right we have progressed on in the last sixty years, we are in a time that we are the most visible. We just need to keep pushing towards more visibility and more inclusivity. And we don’t just want a seat at the table - we want to be on the screens and in the books, we want our stories to be centered.

True progress cannot happen unless we centre the most vulnerable. And that group changes from perspective to perspective, or depending on the room we’re in, or what time in history we’re having the conversation. And so we have to be light-footed enough to switch positions and change focus, when it is required in order to push the conversation to include all the other bodies that are being oppressed. Because at any given moment there are several groups of people that are being oppressed simultaneously and we have to come up with some new structure for advancing the human rights conversation. And all this we have to do while remembering joy, because people who themselves are without joy become tyrants.

SN: I really appreciate you bringing it back to joy. I’m thinking about another past interview where you were discussing radical joy and your grandmother. And what you said was that you weren’t sure if you had ever witnessed your grandmother experiencing joy but you did witness a fullness. And I think about how through generations, her fullness was able to create space for the joy that you’re now feeling, and how that joy that you’re now feeling is creating that for Zuri. And even with everything that’s happening around us and in the world, for that joy to still be present is so transformative.

SC: For sure and I mean joy is the thing that reminds us what we are striving for because even if we can’t have all the things that we want, if we are consistently experiencing small aspects of the world we want to create, if we are creating that inside of our friendship groups, if we are having evenings where we can at least create the world we want to live in, that reminds up tomorrow on the picket line, that reminds us tomorrow at the protest and at the rally and at the march, it reminds us tomorrow at the hearing you’re testifying at, it reminds you as you go into that office to try to make room for women of colour, if you’re going to homes to talk to women who are dealing with sexual atrocities in their past, then you can carry that joy with you and remember that the world you’re working for is possible. If you’re not experiencing it, it’s very easy to believe that the world you are working for is an impossibility and an unattainable experience. And you have to continue to create those things in your everyday life so that at every turn you will be reminded of a world that seems out of reach. And if you can touch it sometimes then you can remember why you’re working.

SN: Wow. Thank you so much.

SC: Thank you very much for such a serious conversation so early in the morning. It will definitely inform the rest of my day. I’m going to try to hear my own words and laugh as hard as I can, and think of my daughter, and try to give her so many of the ways in which memory can serve us in a positive way. Whatever she’s going to experience in life, whatever difficulties she may face, I want her to remember that on a Saturday morning in Brooklyn we skateboarded and we laughed and laughed so hard that the juice came out through our nose. I don’t know but we’ll see and I’ll keep you informed on Instagram!

Staceyann Chin, Shanice Nicole, and Kalmunity will be performing as part of Suoni Il Per Popolo on Sunday, June 16th at La Sala Rossa. Get your tickets here.

Shanice Nicole is a Black feminist educator, facilitator, writer, and (out)spoken word artist. Her writing and work intimately explores experiences of race, health, sexuality, oppression, and freedom - all of which form the many layers of her Black womanhood. She believes that everyone has the power to make change and the words of her favourite poet Maya Angelou resonate deeply, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." See what else she has to say @ShaniceNicoleSpeaks on Facebook and Instagram.