MWM Community Spotlight: Sherry Quan Lee
Updated: Dec 31, 2018
The MidWest Mixed Community Spotlight Series features local artists, educators, and leaders
reflecting on their Mixed or Transracial identities.
Sherry Quan Lee
Author of Chinese Black Bird, How to Write a Suicide Note: serial essays that saved a woman’s life, Love Imagined: a mixed raced memoir (Minnesota Book Award Finalist); and editor How Dare We Write: a multicultural creative writing discourse; forthcoming 2019 And You Can Love Me: a story for everyone who loves someone with ASD-all LHP/Modern History publications.
Oh So Wild and Oh So Beautiful
I am Sherry Quan Lee, formerly known, in my 30s, as A Little Mixed Up which is also the title of my book of poems published in 1982. Today I am 70 years old and still writing about my mixed-race identity. I believe identity is defined by intersectionality and is ever changing. In other words, who I am is more than race (which is a social construct). It is culture: family, home, environment, education, economics, gender, sexuality-oh so many things. I don’t like labels because labels confine us. Perhaps that is why I write. Narrative offers discovery for both the writer and the reader. Narrative allows more than a singular perspective. Instead it relies on descriptive detail and introspection.
My father is Chinese. My mother is Negro. But I was raised White. I didn’t know I wasn’t. (We could be Chinese if challenged, we could never be Black.)
Although my father left when I was five I ate white rice and drunken string bean chop suey and played Mah Jong. I also ate government commodities. I didn’t know sweet potato pie or collard greens.
I lived in a neighborhood of mostly Scandinavians and went to a Lutheran church. In fourth grade we were asked if we thought a black family should become members of our church. They were not admitted. I was, I think, the only Chinese girl in grade school, junior high, and high school (except my siblings).
I loved my Barbie and Ken dolls and sewed clothes for them-and sold them for 25 cents. I worked scraping lunch dishes in front of my white peers in school. Part of my salary went to my mom and in turn her AFDC (aid to families with dependent children) was reduced. Welfare is how my family mostly survived.
I didn’t have a male teacher until my math and choir teachers in junior high. I never had other than White teachers until college (but the teachers of color could be counted on one hand and were mostly one term visiting instructors). I had a lesbian professor who later was fired because apparently her class Women in Literature was biased; yet, my intro to Literature class taught by a male professor omitted all but one woman-Sylvia Plath-and no writers of color. He said it was his class his choice.
My mother was a stay at home single parent with an 8th grade education. When she was 58 years old she earned a high school degree and a business degree. I was first in my family to earn a college degree, including an MFA when I was 48.
I left the neighborhood when I was 18, reached out to the Black family on my mom’s side that I hadn’t known about. Yet, it wasn’t a dream that they could visit us in our white neighborhood at night when the neighbors couldn’t recognize them. Race. Class. Gender. And so much more.
It wasn’t until my 30s that I realized how much my mixed-race identity affected who I was and how I journeyed through space. My brown babies made me realize who I am is larger than myself. Although I had come out my freshman year in college as not the White girl I was brought up to be, my children were the reason I no longer held back anger, didn’t look the other way, didn’t sit still. When my youngest was three he was labeled, in nursery school, as Black (didn’t matter he was also Chinese, Irish, German, and Bohemian). A few years later he said to me, “Mom, I like Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson is Black just like me and he has my name.” I bought him a Michael Jackson outfit but his dad wouldn’t allow him to wear it. His dad was just the first husband I ran away from.
I was in my 30s when I began writing about identity. It was in my 30s I begin to develop my true critical self.
Fast forward forty years. I am still writing about my identity. It seems very narcissistic. But writing teachers often ask what are you obsessed with and then they will divulge that we will likely write what obsesses us over and over and over again. I find that to be true. But I also have discovered the more I write about identity the more I understand it, or at least come up with new questions to ask of it.
I am now writing about what is it I understand about identity after so many years of trying to understand it. I often start writing by writing poetry, but poetry leaves more room for interpretation for both the reader and the writer. So then I try writing prose which I hope is more precise, and less open to interpretation. Three of the things I am writing about: 1) the estrangement of family; 2) how do others perceive my physical presence/how do I; 3) what is it I haven’t yet done that I am supposed to be doing? Here are some excerpts:
I will only appear if you love me. My lineage tainted by J. Crow. Yet cells inside our bodies replicate and revise. I do want it—family, whoever you are, to come clean and reveal yourselves: not who you were or can be. I am not yet a sibling, not even a daughter. I am only a look in the mirror without condemnation.
Mother said to cover my face with lies, but deceit isn’t my game. Even when I was made of powder and gloss, my portrait was self-loathing. They loved who they thought I was they loved who they wanted me to be. After their arrogance, after my flower blossomed red, after each evening of bloodletting, I battled with knowing crazy believing there was nothing else except giving.
Nowadays I dance alone, no contempt of body. Listen, I thought I was brilliant, while all the time dying, but death is nothing. What was then more complicit is now more critique.
At 70 madness is a pleasure and a respite. I was never insane (although I did three times try to drown myself with pills). I flourish in texture and color and pattern. I am not in the center, but gravity doesn’t hold me down. I endeavor not to control, but be out of control, but mostly not to be controlled.
Sleeping is the easy way out of rejection, of responsibility, but what comes with it are nightmares of guilt, of shame. Every January I update my resume. Have I done anything productive the year before or snoozed? The younger I was the less time I had the more I accomplished. The older I now am the more time I have; have I accomplished anything? The critics ignore me. Good for them.
I forgive me for every time I question my existence. I forgive me for every time I let hate outweigh love. I forgive me my trespasses as well as yours. I forgive my feelings of doubt and of shame. I forgive what I haven’t done enough of. I forgive my inability to forgive; some things aren’t forgivable: slavery, lynching, and rape—the separation of families to name a few.
I have lost so many people over time, but at 70 the long term memory brings them back, both the wicked and the wise. It’s a caravan. Mother, for me, it was never White. It was never right. It’s a rainbow. I am Buttercup: humble yet invasive, poisonous, yet alluring. Oh so wild and oh so beautiful. So enduring.
At age 70 I look in the mirror more often, not less. I take selfies. I want to know what I see. I want to know what you see. I’m not frantic or afraid, I’m curious. The charade is over, although I didn’t create it, it created me until I rejected it some 40 or more years ago. I will never be funny, enough, although I often dreamt of being a clown or a stand-up comedian. Being serious was a warning: life or death? My heart is still beating.
Now that I am older, age complicates who I am, along with race and gender, and class, and so much more—but doesn’t stop me from loving myself. In fact, it is, perhaps, the greatest reason I can love myself. Because I’ve done the work. Because I wrote my life. And, so, at 70, I no longer write only because I have to. I also write because I want to.