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Feminism needs to be back in the streets: An interview with poet Staceyann Chin

October 3, 2012

Earlier today I sat down with poet/activist Staceyann Chin, who is the featured speaker at the GVSU Take Back the Night event on the Allendale campus. I interviewed Chin at her hotel room, where she was resting with her 8-month old daughter Zuri-Siale.

I had been listening to her spoken word on YouTube videos in recent days and was amazed at her skill with words, her passion and her insights into the human condition. I was even more impressed with her in person, since she was able to respond to my questions, while giving full attention to her daughter during the interview.

GRIID – I was reading your Facebook page earlier today and noticed that you stated that you yourself are a victim of rape. You also said that the only shame that should be felt, “belongs to the fucking coward who attacked you!” How has your own experience as a survivor informed your work as an artist and as a human being in general?

Staceyann – When you have experienced sexual assault or rape or some form of violation, you understand the problem differently. When I speak about my own experience, it is easier for other women to feel solidarity. This lived experience resonates with survivors.

People can perceive you as a survivor. Your body becomes an example of someone who has kept breathing. Every time I speak out about it, I become less afraid and I take back power from my attacker. My speaking re-affirms the fact that you can keep breathing, living, loving and laughing. The trauma brought about by the assault need not cripple you, in ways that makes you feel alone, like when you are not part of a community of survivors. When I speak out against rape, I feel a kind of uplifting.

We live in an age when the first person narrative is both powerful and provocative. It means a great deal to women to hear or read that kind of personal narrative. It is important because so much of media, particularly TV, will not say things like rape and when they do it is always very clinical or in very legalistic terms. We don’t get from media a more honest sense of rape, the way it feels, the way I felt, the sounds and the smells that come with it. So for me, I have to speak out about it all the time.

GRIID – The Take Back the Night event will be an indoor event tonight, which is different from its origin as a more confrontational action that took place outdoors, often in the streets where women were assaulted. Those Take Back the Night actions were meant to demonstrate women’s collective power, but also to send a message to rapists that their actions would not be tolerated. It seems that the Take Back the Night events have become less political and radical. What is your sense of this?

Staceyann – The change in Take Back the Night might also be a larger reflection of what has happened to feminism as well over the years. Feminism has to some degree been driven indoors. Women were reclaiming their bodies in the 1960s and 70s, but since female identities are so prescribed there is less emphasis on taking control of our bodies. As a feminist who loves bacon, who shaves her arm pits and doesn’t wear heels, I always get people questioning how can I be a feminist and……

The change with Take Back the Night also has something to do with feminism being under attack, where people are saying we don’t need to study gender anymore. Hell, even women’s centers are closing or are near to closing because of a lack of funds. What has happened to Take Back the Night is a reflection of what has happened to feminism in general. The confrontational edge has somehow been lost. Feminism used to be about smashing open doors and now it seems more “diplomatic.”

This is really important, especially since we have politicians talking about “legitimate rape,” which invites the notion that there is illegitimate rape. We have lost that “take no prisoners” edge. We lose some of the power that made us warriors. The current climate may open a whole new wave of action, but we need to take feminism back to the streets. We need to be more visible and demand that society look more closely at the safety of women’s bodies, even little girls’ bodies. Being a new mother has only underscored the need to fight in this struggle. I am in it for the long haul, but having a child means that there is no way I will let anyone harm her, even if I have to use force. The way I see it is if every woman in every part of the world said that rape will end tomorrow or else, you might see a serious change.

GRIID – I saw in one of the YouTube videos you talking about how when White men were involved in Act Up, it was because it affected them, but when people of color are dying of AIDS at a much higher level all of a sudden these White men are not to be found. As someone who identifies as a Lesbian, feminist from Jamaica, how important is it for those involved in struggles to see the intersectionality of justice issues?

Staceyann – If I am only concerned with my body, then that struggle is selfish. If I am only interested in my own rights, people will see how selfish that is. If I am only concerned about Black rights, even at the expense of others, then that is a major problem.

We have to be concerned about the community as a whole. There are poor White, Black, immigrants, women, all kinds of people who are being dispossessed of freedom. Until I am concerned about the global community, then what we are rallying for is to ask permission from the current gate keepers. We should be knocking down the wall instead of asking for permission to the same rights that everyone should have. If we knock down the walls then everyone will have access to the same big, beautiful garden. This is the kind of world I want to fight for and this is the kind of struggle we should be in.

Editor’s note: Since Staceyann Chin is a spoken word artist, it is important that you hear her, so we included a YouTube video of her talking and then reading some of her work.

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