sistahs and solidarity—performing sex and politics

October 2022

Staceyann Chin, Crossfire: A Litany for Survival (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019); 216 pages; ISBN 978-1642590258 (paperback)

d’bi.young anitafrika, dubbin poetry: the collected poems of d’bi.young anitafrika (Toronto: Spolrusie, 2019); 389 pages; ISBN 978-1999038908 (paperback)

Crossfire: A Litany for Survival by Staceyann Chin and dubbin poetry: the collected poems of d’bi.young anitafrika are unabashedly and unapologetically loud, brash, and vulgar in their articulations of self and their explorations of what it means to be Black, queer, womxn, activist. The creativity of these books of poetry is a wave crashing on the sand, a climax at the height of passion, always raging and never quiet.

Both books meditate on subjectivity, family, and community. For anitafrika, family is an unbroken line between inheritance and community where selfhood is realized, whereas for Chin family is complicated, discontinuous, and fragmented, yet produces an assured selfhood in the tension between loss and desire. In these two volumes, Chin and anitafrika offer us twenty years (or thereabouts) of unquiet creativity, of explorations of the imperfect self as it exists in an imperfect world, moving from Jamaica to North America but always fighting for a better life for all. These personal stories are embedded in an ethos of activism and engagement with imperfection in order to bravely create something new.

Crossfire, Chin’s first published collection of poetry, is the expression of rage, sexuality, fragility, and growth over twenty years of the artist’s career. In her preface Chin reflects on writing, offering a candid description of self-doubt and success. “These poems are a map of my life,” she asserts (4). Time and space are the prevailing themes in Crossfire. The volume offers an exploration of the author’s movement from Jamaica to America, and the always-looking-back/nostalgic gaze toward home (What is home?). Beginning with the poem “Crossfire” and ending with the poem “Long Distance Love,” Crossfire is bookended with stories of love and sex held tenderly in the shifting movements of time and space, reflecting the implications of these imprecise measures of Chin’s life.      

In “Long Distance Love,” Chin addresses a lover, wondering when the two will see each other again, and memory builds with the choices Chin makes, symbolized by the anaphora of words like add and life across the first seven stanzas: phrases such as “add one small miracle,” “add the lesbian bit,” and “add the leap into a long distance love affair” are interspersed with “living in a place like New York,” “life on the stage is no small feat” (200), and “my life is not the life of Emily Dickenson [sic]” (201). Nostalgia creates a web of longing, with the thread of hope shaping a new way to understand distance and time until the lovers see one another again. “Crossfire” is a political and satirical poem responding to those passive-aggressive questions of identity that are so common for mixed-race and lesbian feminists: “Am I a feminist / or a womanist / the student needs to know / if I do men occasionally / and primarily am I a lesbian” (9). The “need” to know is both humorous and dangerous, as well as ironic (much of Chin’s work is ironic), followed quickly as it is by a demand to declare sexuality. What are you? The student needs to know. The response is reasoned and feminist, moving beyond questions of sexuality into issues of sex and violence. In the end, each day is a new possibility, one for better questions and even better answers: “always without breath or definition—I claim every single dawn / for yesterday is simply what I was / and tomorrow / even that will be gone” (11).

The theme of sex and violence permeates Crossfire. In “Words Like RAPE,” Chin reflects on the tension between aestheticizing and documenting sexual violence. The repetition of the word rape interrupts the text in a constant refrain. Defying a censorious editor who asserts, that “[w]ords like rape . . . / are best omitted / from a carefully crafted poem,” Chin ironically juxtaposes her unflinching account of sexual assault with formal symmetry and lyricism. If at the end of the poem’s first stanza the censor’s insistence on silence aestheticizes the rape, “rendering the occurrence / a contained operatic / beauty” (85), by the close of the poem, the word’s naming and poetic treatment leads to healing rather than suppression, “rendering her survival / an uncontained operatic beauty” (87).

Much of Crossfire is written as address, as pieces of conversations or of letters sent and unsent. However, the address to another is always a return to the self. Though she is writing an apostrophe to her lover in “Why I Be Writing You Poems,” Chin is learning about herself: “learning to love us each / separate / tearing in parts” (170). Whether speaking to/about family, friends, or lovers or telling hard truths about racism, colonialism, and homophobia, Chin is always looking to evolve as a person, as a poet, and as an activist. Encapsulated in the violence of its title, Crossfire is a collection of poems meant to disturb and declare that Chin has not just survived but thrived in a life not easy. Crossfire is a call to action, as well as a coming home for an author adrift in the space between Jamaica and America, then and now. Chin is caught in the crossfires between cultures, sexualities, and poetic articulations; her survival of violent trauma is as significant as her adherence to her art in the expression of truth. In her introduction to Crossfire, Jacqueline Woodson asks us to “[s]tep into the crossfire” (ix), and this is the challenge: to step into the violence and come out the other side into a litany for survival.

If Crossfire is about time and space, anitafrika’s dubbin poetry is a meditation on inheritance, both what the poet has inherited and what the poet leaves behind. Community and collaboration prevail in this collection. Like Chin’s volume, anitafrika’s also includes an opening reflection by the poet. In the artist statement that serves as a preface, anitafrika tells us that “this collection is an offering” of their “decolonial queered black feminist performance praxis” (16), which operates out of a dub aesthetic. The work is that of a poet/dramatist/performer putting the colors, rhythm, and politics of Jamaican/Canadian dub poetics onto the black-and-white pages of the published book. Born into dub, anitafrika learned its performance through the work and words of their mother, dub poet Anita Stewart, and dubbin poetry is replete with this inheritance. Motherhood and dub are always intertwined in the text, like “dub/poetry birthing hxrself through a canal” (26). anitafrika honors Stewart in their poems “mxma” (29) and “my first love, my everlasting love” (246) and ends dubbin poetry with their own experiences of mxtherhood presented in excerpts from the play once upon a black boy.1

dubbin poetry is a collection of previously published poetry and plays along with solo performance pieces, and it includes the new book of poems, black love matters, only available in this collection. Their previously published volumes—art on black (2006), rivers and other blackness between us: (dub) poems of love (2007), and oya (2019)—offer ruminations on mxtherhood, colonialism, feminism, sexuality, performance, and the love that holds them all together. anitafrika also includes excerpts from their triptych of previously staged or published dramatic trilogies—the sankofa trilogy (blood.claat; benu; and word! sound! powah!), the orisha trilogy (esu crossing the middle passage; shx mami wata & the pussywitch hunt; and lukumi: a dub opera), and the first play of the ibeyi trilogy (androgyne). dubbin poetry ends with excerpts from the anitafrika method, a guideline to an artistic practice originally pioneered by Stewart and further developed by anitafrika, and from the play once upon a black boy, a bittersweet conversation between a mxther and hxr sxns on the world’s ills and the collective responsibility to change it for the better: “together / we will break these chains / I love you both very much” (374). In bringing these works together, anitafrika elucidates the relationship between poetry and performance that dub instantiates. The mix of genres in this collection mimics anitafrika’s movement between mediums; crossing over the bridge of dub and the play of language, moving between Jamaican Nation Language and English, anitafrika is “tongue tied / twisted around dis macka fence / of language / of life” (“dis ya tongue a twist,” 59).

For anitafrika, dub poetry relies on being unafraid of searing truths while supporting and being supported by a community of care. dubbin poetry loudly and beautifully calls out harsh truths, reminding us of Black struggles and the perpetuation of injustice in a world still subject to colonial inheritances. In “revolushun (iii),” anitafrika decries that “from days not so old / they sold and hung our souls” (52) but also declares that hatred is contagious, looking at the perpetuation of homophobic and racist violence (54). In “blood” anitafrika worships menstruation, “wondering from [where] / di shame around my cunt came from.” Recalling Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poem about the violence of South London in the phrase “five nights of bleeding,” the poem repeats “blood” and “I bleed I bleed I bleed I bleed I bleed I bleed I bleed” (119). These references reflect the violence recounted in Johnson’s poem while also presenting menstruation as simultaneously political and enchanting, a spell woven around the beauty of the body.

Like Chin’s work, dubbin poetry is as excruciating as it is restorative; the language of the poems hooks into old wounds, lancing, cleansing, healing. In “meditation on self-recovery part 1,” anitafrika writes of the trauma of childhood sexual abuse and incest, reflecting on childhood from the perspective of an adult, understanding that their aunt “was dependent on the economic presence / prowess, power of hxr mxn, xncle sam” (255). However, the child that still exists is in pain:

and all I feel is pain
again and again
all I feel is pain
again and again. (254)

The rhyme and repetition haunt the page. The trauma is reflected in an adult’s fantasy of going back in time and hurting the perpetrator the way hx hurt them, of making hxm bleed instead.

Pain and trauma, proclaimed in solidarity in order to bring about healing, are where Crossfire and dubbin poetry meet, with each author dedicating a poem to the other as survivors and sistahs. In “Take Back the Night,” a poem dedicated to anitafrika among other victims of sexual abuse, Chin recalls that she “was afraid of the dark” (Crossfire, 81). The I of the child, the victim, the traumatized, becomes the we of survival, of motherhood, sisterhood, of women “now marching” (84). In “sistahly solidarity,” a poem dedicated to Chin, anitafrika writes of “dreams in purple solstices / and staceyanns” bringing into vision possibilities of a revolutionary collective (dubbin, 145). These two writers have offered us poetry collections that speak to decades of experiences as queer, Black, feminist, diasporic, Jamaican radicals. Their works in these books are also eloquent, doing various things with language, in turn luxurious and sparse, humorous and loving. Crossfire and dubbin poetry are nothing less than a call to action, but they also urge us to collectively “breathe fully / feel deeply / [and] act compassionately” (“a dub poet once said . . . ,” dubbin, 377).


Natalie Wall is an interdisciplinary researcher focusing on Black women’s performance, artivism, and antiracist praxis in the Caribbean diaspora. Her “Catching Bullets with Her Ass: Matrilineality and the Canadian Dub Poetry Tradition in the Work of d’bi.young anitafrika” appears in the November 2021 issue of the Journal of West Indian Literature.

[1] My use of x in gendered terms while reviewing anitafrika’s collection honors anitafrika’s own use of x to queer these terms—for example, in pronouns like shx and hxr—“to challenge the gender binarity of the English language, to be inclusive of all genders and to bring our awareness to how we relate to representations of gender.” d’bi.young anitafrika, quoted in Mila de Villiers, “Get to Know Dub Poet d’bi.young anitafrika ahead of the SA Book Fair,” Sunday Times, 20 August 2019,