Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Dissonant Desires: Staceyann Chin and the Queer Politics of a Jamaican Accent

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Dissonant Desires: Staceyann Chin and the Queer Politics of a Jamaican Accent

Article excerpt

Words don't go there: this implies a difference between
words and sounds [...] an absence of inflection; a loss
of mobility, slippage, bend; a missing accent or affect;
the impossibility of a slur or crack and the excess--
rather than loss--of meaning they imply.

--Fred Moten, "Sound in Florescence"

In "Sound in Florescence," Fred Moten juxtaposes the sounds of music with the inability of words to convey the same meanings as melody: "Words don't go there" (213). But what of speech, the sounding of words? Dependent as it is on words, speech may also not go "there," but the "inflection," "accent," and "affect" that Moten notes as missing in words are reinfused in speech, thereby pushing speech into the middle ground between words and sounds. Regional and national accents, in particular, can convey meanings unrelated to the words articulated in speech. Notwithstanding the ways in which such accents may affect pronunciation and consequently obstruct communication, the personal and communal stereotypes attached to accents create an "excess" of communication and meaning, meaning that is often uncontrollable (but perhaps manipulable) by the communicant.

This excess of meaning is most noticeable, as accents are most noticeable, when the speaker is displaced, whether as immigrant or as visitor to a new location. My concern here is with the extent to which this excess inherent in accents aids communication or creates community while simultaneously obstructing communication and communal access. Of particular interest is the dissonance between the words and the sounding of them. Can an accent be incompatible with the words it sounds? To examine this difficult node of accent and meanings, I turn to performance poetry, and to one performance poet in particular: Staceyann Chin, a Jamaican lesbian who has made her home and her name in the United States. In keeping with this special issue on sound, I focus mainly on Chin's performance, although I do include some of her written work. I begin by introducing Chin's work and its reception, situating my concern with sound and community within the various facets of her identity. In the section that follows, I offer a method of evaluating the effects of accents, specifically as they pertain to Caribbean immigrants. Finally, I examine Chin's performances, public appearances, and writings in conjunction with her sexual politics. Due to the popular disconnect between "Jamaican" and "lesbian," Chin's difficulty in claiming both identities in performance and print offers the opportunity to focus on not only the conflicts between the oral and the written but also the less explored politics attendant upon accents.

In describing Staceyann Chin as a performance poet, I am placing undue stress on both "performance" and "poet." She is perhaps most well known as one of the original cast members of the Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, which won a Tony award in 2003. But while the bulk of Chin's activity and popularity springs from her performance of her poetry in varied locations across the globe, she is also a published writer, with poetry and essays appearing in journals, popular magazines, and major newspapers in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. She has published four chapbooks of poetry--Wildcat Woman, Stories Surrounding My Coming, Catalogue the Insanity, and The Mad Hatter: Volumes I and II--and contributed poetry to several anthologies. Her forthcoming memoir, to be published by Scribner, will be her first full-length book of prose. On the performance end, her three one-woman, off-Broadway shows, which incorporate versions of her poetry into dramatic monologues, were well received by New York audiences and critics. She was the subject of a 2001 Danish documentary, simply titled Staceyann Chin, and has also co-hosted AfterEllen.corn's She Said What? and BET J's My Two Cents. Arguably, her most notable on-screen appearance was her segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show's "Gay Around the World" program in the fall of 2007, wherein she discussed the consequences of living as an out lesbian in her homeland of Jamaica. …

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