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October 29, 2007

More from ...serial essays that saved a woman's life

Suicide Note Number One

Dear Johns,

I can’t love you: Desert. Toad. Tyrant. Temptor. Dung.

You can’t love me: goddess, witch, whore, madonna, love. A reminder. A commodity. An oddity. A life line. A river. An ocean. An oak tree. A spruce tree. Magnolia. Mammy. An embarrassment.

For all your lust and money. I will die. I, unlovable; and yet you loved me. In the dark. Where priests can’t see. I was the guilt, the sin. The desire. The breast. The milk. The honey. The choke cherry

running into the light, into the day of new beginnings. To be shunned. To be patronized. To be pacified. To be abused. To be rebuked. To be invisible.

my vulnerability desired, yet despised. Not to be claimed by you who need me, you who love me, you who hate me. I am secret love. I am other.

I am need. Righteous and ready. I have a name.

I will die by my own hand because love excuses the illiterate, the color blind. History burns me, spurns me, chattels me. You can’t slice deep enough. The knife slips. Menstrual blood frightens you. My breath, sweet as wintergreen, frightens you.

Arrogance is your escape.

Don’t talk to me. Love me in secret. I will hold your secrets between my eyes, until I die. Ahhh, men, so afraid, of not being perfect. I exist to resist


My gravestone already marked beloved.

You who love me can’t escape

and will return. Age makes me ever more lovely. My words will save me. I am too old, now, to bleed.

I apologize for my life, my youth, your religion.

I apologize to mothers and sons.

To die is to grieve is to mourn is to resurrect is to forgive is to know
there are the ones who will miss me, who will
bring me back.

© Sherry Quan Lee from How to Write A Suicide Note: serial essays that saved a woman’s life

How to Revise A Rough Draft

It’s time to stop writing suicide notes.
Time to stop saying goodbye.
Time to stop killing

I have been waiting since birth to live.

Not to be buried in the womb, nor hidden outside the body,
but to beat inside the heart, my heart, your heart
regularly, rhythmically, confidently.

It is time to stop running.
Stop killing the messenger.

I am not the messenger.
(Why did I ever think I was?)

I was the mother of grief, the crying woman. The listener. The comforter. The healer.

No, that is someone else’s story.

I was the judge, the jury, the prison guard.
Righteous, not right.
I threw love out with each new lover

ran from my own convictions. Marathon lover, I ran. Exhausting
the ego and the id. Trying to save myself
from my self-


Halleluja. Glory! Halleluja! I live.

I could have been buried in someone else’s story. Lived someone else’s life.
Dummied down, never looked up.

The blue spruce were locked on one man’s island.
Each pine tree needled with dark secrets.
His and mine.

No, I don’t love you; I need you.

Need sucks like a baby on her mother’s empty breast. Here, take mine. And he did.

And, I let you

last in a series of decade long serial saviors. Loneliness would have killed me deader
than abuse.

Then I took me back.

I can count them. Women and men and houses and jobs and friends.
See them disappear.
No memory.

I spewed them out like a devil woman. Mad woman. Mean woman.
Pounded my fists and weakened my lungs.

How to separate the evil from the good.
How to separate the need from the love.
How to know the monsters from the angels.
How to know the ending from the beginning, life from death.

How to revise a rough draft and make your writing, your life better.

© Sherry Quan Lee from How to Write A Suicide Note: serial essays that saved a woman’s life

Stories that save lives: what's anger got to do with it?

The more I write, the more I understand about writing (how to make it better) and about myself (why I wasn’t better in the first place). One of the things I have learned about myself by writing is I AM ANGRY.

When I first started reading my poetry in book stores and coffee houses I was often surprised, and yes ANGRY, that people would come up to me and ask why I was so ANGRY, why was my writing full of ANGER. Often, at least one audience member was thoughtful enough to take the time to tell me they hoped my life would get better soon!

I scratched my head. Sometimes I laughed. I WASN’T angry. What was he thinking? Life is good, sometimes bad things happen. “Oh well,? I would say, and kept writing, and kept living (running would be a more appropriate verb, but that’s another story).

I write to share my experiences because I know my stories can sometimes comfort or strengthen a woman who has carried her burdens alone, unescorted, uninvited, unable to tell her own stories--yet.

The more I wrote the more I realized I had lied. The audience had been right. My stories were, okay, some were angry. I had much to be angry about.

The more I read writing by other women of color I learned many of us are angry. Wang Ping titled a poem, “What Are You Still Angry About.? The poem moves forward by a lengthy rewriting of family genealogy—along maternal, instead of paternal lines.

What are you still angry about? Make a list. Write that story or that poem.

Toi Derricotte, co-founder of Cave Canem, a retreat for black poets, wrote in the black notebooks (Norton, 1987):

" I want to talk about anger, about how important it is as a part of the process of coming to one’s voice, about how it is inevitable in a diverse classroom. I want to talk about how powerful it is, how dangerous it is, how mysterious, about how suddenly real feelings start to emerge. If we don’t recognize anger, if we don’t allow for it, if we’re not ready, if we don’t in fact, welcome it as a creative force, then I think we’re going to end up blaming and dividing people even more. We hesitate to allow it to happen, though anger is a part of life. (So often ‘life’ is not allowed in the classroom.)"

Anger, I believe, has saved my life. It gave me voice where there was none before. The voice of anger can be found in my poems. I give my students permission to write “angry.?

Nevertheless, I felt guilty and shameful when I had finally acknowledged my ANGER. Black women are angry, right—and in your face with their anger? Asian woman, however, are docile, silent, subservient, right? How do stereotypes fashion who we are, when we really are not anyone but our self?

Edén Torres’ stories have saved my life; she wrote CHICANA WITHOUT APOLOGY giving me permission to be angry:

"We have the right to be angry no matter how long ago the original trauma occurred or how different things were then, no matter how much progress has taken place, no matter how ignorant or well-intentioned our oppressors have been, no matter what change is promised in the future. Our fury is justified anytime we are ignored, silenced, negatively stereotyped, incorrectly labeled, or otherwise not respected. Any occasion in which our history is omitted or lied about deserves our indignant dismissal.90 Until equality and justice become reality, we have a right to be angry." Page 41

Torres also says it takes courage to express our anger because of what people might say about us, or do to us (pages 52-43 in CHICANA WITHOUT APOLOGY). Most importantly she says, we’re not crazy or stupid or out of control!

I AM NOT CRAZY. I AM NOT STUPID. Write a list of what you are not.

Write a list of what you are. I Am Black Chinese Woman Writer Mother Grandmother Hero Lover Wise Witty Robust Wild Friend Survivor Dreamer etc. etc., etc.

You might be asking: what is it she is so angry about?

I am angry about a black mother who had reason to make a choice to pass for white and decide for her children they should pass for white because it will be safer and there will be more opportunities for them even though this means distancing her own family. I am angry that there are people who will say who I am and not listen to me say who I am, or try to understand that I am who I am because a history of racism, and sexism has set itself inside my bones, my flesh, my spirit (But, you’re different. You’re not black. Your mother must not be ALL black. Is your husband black? Why don’t you write about being Chinese? If women changed their attitude they wouldn’t be raped.) I am angry that there were white men whose parents were gracious enough to patronize me, but not gracious enough to let their sons marry me, but they could marry women of color from other countries. I am angry that my sons have chosen to be with blonde women with big breasts. I am angry that I have just written something that I didn’t know I was angry about. I am angry that I have so much anger. I am angry that to survive I must get rid of my anger. I am angry that I must continue to write because there is always something new to be angry about.

Joy Harjo wrote the poem, “I Give You Back?-- “I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear / I release you …. I am not afraid to be angry / I am not afraid to rejoice …. But come here, fear / I am alive and you are so afraid / of dying.?

What is it you want to/need to give back? Make a list. Then give it away in a story or a poem.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes in WOMEN WHO RUNS WITH WOLVES, “What must I give more death to today, in order to generate more life.?

I give death to anger by writing what I am angry about. Again. Again. And again. Between each death I am joyously alive.

“I died once. And then I died again. And then, death had no hold on me.?

“Complacency is a far more dangerous attitude than outrage.?
--Naomi Littlebear, excerpt from THIS BRIDGE CALLED BY BACK, edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa

© Sherry Quan Lee 10/29/07

October 25, 2007

Recommended Books

by Jamaica Kincaid
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st Farrar edition (April 28, 2000)
ISBN: 0374527075

by Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Plume; Reprint edition (January 1, 1996)
ISBN: 0452270987

by Shay Youngblood
Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reissue edition (January 1, 2001)
ISBN: 1573228516

by bell hooks
Publisher: Owl Books; Reprint edition (October 15, 1997)
ISBN: 0805055126

CAUCASIA by Danzy Senna
Publisher: Riverhead Books (February 1, 1999)
ISBN: 1573227161

by Eden E. Torres
Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (September 18, 2003)
ISBN: 0415935067

by Michelle Cliff
Publisher: Persephone Pr; 1st ed edition (June 1, 1980)
ISBN: 0930436067

by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Publisher: University of California Press; 1st Calif. Pbk. Ed edition (October 1, 2001)
ISBN: 0520231120

by Shirlee Haizlip
Publisher: Free Press (January 6, 2004)
ISBN: 0743200535

by Alexs Pate
Publisher: Bt Bound (October 1, 1999)
ISBN: 0613177975

by Nellie Wong
Publisher: University of New Mexico Press (April 1, 1986)
ISBN: 0931122422

by Nellie Wong
Publisher: Kelsey Street Press; 4th edition (November 1, 1983)
ISBN: 0932716148

by Lucille Clifton
Publisher: BOA Editions, Ltd. (November 1, 1987)
ISBN: 0918526590

HALF AND HALF: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural
by Claudine C. O'Hearn
Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (June 9, 1998)
ISBN: 0375700110

by M. Evelina Galang
Publisher: Coffee House Press (April 15, 1996)
ISBN: 1566890403

HOMOPHOBIA : A WEAPON OF SEXISM/Includes Afterword and Annotated Bibliography by Suzanne Pharr
Publisher: Chardon Press; Expanded edition (August 1, 1997)
ISBN: 1890759015

by Suzan-Lori Parks
Publisher: Dramatist's Play Service (November 1, 2000)
ISBN: 0822217562

by Gloria Anzaldua, Sonia Saldivar-Hull
Publisher: Aunt Lute Books; 2nd edition (May 15, 1999)
ISBN: 1879960567

by Paul Monette
Publisher: Harvest/HBJ Book; Reprint edition (June 1, 1995)
ISBN: 0156002027

Publisher: Aunt Lute Books (July 1, 1990)
ISBN: 1879960109

by Ana Castillo
Publisher: Plume Books (September 1, 1995)
ISBN: 0452274249

by Wang Ping
Publisher: Coffee House Press (April 15, 1998)
ISBN: 1566890683 PLUM BUN
by Jessie Redmon Fauset
Publisher: Beacon Press (December 15, 1999)
ISBN: 0807009199

QUICKSAND and PASSING (American Women Writers Series)
by Nella Larsen
Publisher: Rutgers University Press (April 1, 1986)
ISBN: 0813511704

by Nikki Giovanni
Publisher: Quill; 1st Quill ed edition (May 1, 1995)
ISBN: 0688142346

by C. K. Williams
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (September 30, 1995)
ISBN: 0374524556

by Audre Lorde
Publisher: Crossing Press (April 1, 1984)
ISBN: 0895941414

by Maya Angelou
Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (August 7, 2001)
ISBN: 0375505962

THE BLACK NOTEBOOKS: An Interior Journey
by Toi Derricotte
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (June 1, 1999)
ISBN: 0393319016

THE BLUEST EYE (Oprah's Book Club)
by Toni Morrison
Publisher: Plume (April 26, 2000)
ISBN: 0452282195

by Kathleen Norris
Publisher: Riverhead Trade; Reprint edition (April 1, 1997)
ISBN: 1573225843

by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (June 23, 1998)
ISBN: 0375701214

THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET (Vintage Contemporaries)
by Sandra Cisneros
Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (April 3, 1991)
ISBN: 0679734775

by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip
Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (January 27, 1995)
ISBN: 0671899333

by Zora Neale Hurston
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics (December 1, 1998)
ISBN: 0060931418

by Cherrie Moraga
Publisher: 3rd Woman Press; 3rd ed edition (November 1, 2002)
ISBN: 0943219221

by David Mura
Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (June 16, 1997)
ISBN: 038547184X

by Clarissa Pinkola Phd Estes
Publisher: Ballantine Books (November 27, 1996)
ISBN: 0345409876

by Linda Hogan
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (May 1, 2002)
ISBN: 0393323056

by Joy Harjo
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (August 1, 1996)
ISBN: 039331362X

by Maxine Hong Kingston
Publisher: Vintage Books USA (June 1, 2000)
ISBN: 0072435194

by Naomi Shihab Nye
Publisher: The Eighth Mountain Press (October 15, 1994)
ISBN: 0933377290

by Julia Alvarez
Publisher: Plume Books (December 1, 1997)
ISBN: 0452279186

October 22, 2007

From how to write....notes that saved a woman's life

Next to the last note: It’s not about the man and the dog

though they both keep barking. It’s not about good writing or bad writing.
The woods or the inner city.

I can write notes forever, and might have to
to live. It’s okay. It’s okay.

It’s also okay to not write. To not write notes. To not write suicide notes.

It’s okay to put away the putting away.
The putting away of concrete things.
The putting away of judgment, of being judged.


wherever we are, whomever we are, we are remembered.

The color red may be remembered, but not the dress or socks.
The red that is you will be remembered. Is remembered

not the poem that you wrote, but it’s aroma, its taste, its texture, its sound.

The writing is not good or bad. The man and the dog are not good or bad.
The woman, the husband, the sister, the brother-in-law, the teacher, the minister are
who they are.

I used to believe in purgatory, always
attempting to escape,
and getting nowhere

the paradigm is magic.
Life with a sorcerer’s hand—the witch and the writer.
Allusions. Illusions.
I can make my fake self disappear

the invisible seen, the silent heard, the fearful unafraid; angels triumphant!

Living is hard. Writing is hard. The dark clouds invite us to rest, to mourn,
to gather our black hats and swords.

I’m not who you think I am; you’re not who I think you are.

It’s all in the shuffling, it’s how the cards are dealt. It’s all in who is holding the cards.

Now you see me, now you don’t.
I am not today who I was yesterday.

I cannot write today what I could have written yesterday and tomorrow
ghosts will appear and angels. Slight of hand

missing the movement, the moment, the transition, the process
conjured by one’s private muses.

There are no rules.

There are no rules, there are only familiar recipes that haunt us, that speak to us,
that call our name, and demand that we stir the pot and boil the soup.

The man and the dog disappear. Abruptly.
The sun softens in the west and the evergreens lose their sharp needles.

I practice magic.

A word here, a sentence there, a poem, a story.


Mix snakes and rabbits and choke-cherry trees.
Mix black eyed peas and string bean chop suey.
Mix tuna noodle casserole and apple pie.
Mix and stir, shake and shout, and turn myself about

freedom. F R E E D O M each letter a note in the song,
in the singing, in the longing, in the giving, in the receiving.
Last line, end of the line, end of the poem, the story, the book sets us free
then, begins again.

It’s my words and how I write them.
My ghosts and my angels and how and if and when and why I receive them.
It’s my madness and my happiness and how I perceive them.
It’s what I want to give and who I want to give it to.

Stir the pot or let it simmer.
Jump in or taste what’s cooking.
Smell the dream or toss the nightmare.

Truth is smooth like jazz, hot like Tabasco, wet like whispers, salty like pork, sassy like laughter, smart like girl friends, slick like water.

I want it to not hurt.
I want it to not waste my time.
I want it to be nobody’s fault (it is).
I want it to not be fatal.

I want it to sing. I want it to laugh. I want it to dance. I want it to embrace. I want it to soar. I want it to live. I want it to live. I want it to live. To live. I want it.

The man and the dog. I want them to live (just not with me).
I want the woman to live (just not with me).
I want the child to live (just not with me).
I want to live.
I want to live.
I want. To

write. Fewer
suicide notes.
Fewer notes.
I want to write love.
I want to write love letters.

This is a letter of love.

© Sherry Quan Lee 10/21/07

It’s True What They Say, I Am A Writer

Yes, I have a writer’s curriculum vitae ten pages long.
Each line item is a step in a long journey of survival.
I write to survive.
I started in second grade.
I should have started in kindergarten.
I should have started the day I was born.

I remember only what I want to remember.
The rest of it I make up or avoid.
Imagination is the same as truth.

I am not as bad as I imagine.
I am good.

Every word, every phrase, every verse, every paragraph I write
is a blessed breath, a will to live,
a protest against invisibility,
a protest against death.

I am a writer.

I teach writing.
Yes, writing can be taught.
I can teach you.
I can teach you to create a curriculum vitae.
Each line item a blessed step in your life’s journey.

Writing can save your life.

The first photo taken of me was in front of our stucco house
on a hill in South Scandinavian Minneapolis. I am dressed
in blue silk Chinese pajamas with tiny pink frog closures.

The mandarin collar is choking my smile.

I am looking away from the camera.
Down the street.
Past the Lutheran church.
Past the houses of little blonde girls who attend the Lutheran church
Sunday school with me.

Past the family I don’t know.
The family that does not recognize me.

The family that dignifies me by binding my feet
in black brocade Chinese slippers.
The family that poses me in front of the dolly buggy
where the blue-eyed baby-doll is comforted
by my brown-arm embrace.

Caretaking, for me, comes from a history of caretaking.
It’s hard to shake. Mama shook it, though.

Mama shook her black mama, her black siblings.
She shook her black grandma and the plantation owner’s son who claimed
he loved her. Great-grandma said no and meant it.
But she accepted the gift of a pig.

(We do what we have to for survival.)

My mama’s family had dignity. Integrity. Didn’t matter, though.
Babies were still born.
Women were raped.

Mama shook the south and southerners and black Baptists.

She shook so hard, like Black Sambo giving away his purple shoes and hat.
My sisters and I were the rich, creamy butter she got in return for all her glory.
All that shaking, though, didn’t make Mother thin.
She was fat in lies and deception.

She was fat from carrying five babies, fat from sheltering, protecting
those babies into adulthood. She taught us to fit in, to blend, to hide,
to be invisible. She also taught us, if the neighbors and the school children didn’t believe we were white—be Chinese. Be exotic. Wear embroidered silk,
play mah jong, eat chow mein.

Mother fantasized about Chinese men.
She read romance novels about British ladies and Asian men.
She loved my Chinese father.

We could be Chinese, she said, but only
when necessary; we could never be Black.

Mama shook so hard. She shook so hard Daddy disappeared.
I was five years old.
The only history I don’t have to imagine is a five year old girl in Chinese pajamas
in front of a doll buggy in front of cement steps, in front of a stucco house on a hill in an all white Minneapolis neighborhood.

I seductively paraded my baby Asian exoticism at the Powderhorn Park doll buggy parade

(sadness can easily be mistaken for seduction).

This is the first line on my curriculum vitae: 1953, I am five years old,
my daddy has disappeared.

What is the first line on your curriculum vitae?

On a day when you are sad, when you are feeling lonely, when you don’t love yourself very much
get a notebook, a purple pen.
Write a book.
A memoir or maybe you’ll call it fiction.

Take your time, don’t rush.
What is it you remember?
What is it you have imagined?
What subjects do you want to cover?
Name the chapters.
How do all the chapters interrelate?
What is your theme?
What carries your journey as a hero forward, and back, and forward?

Then, put your notes away.
Wait a day or two or a week or a month.
Wait until the next time you’re feeling sad, you’re feeling lonely, you’re feeling worthless, you’re feeling you have no purpose in life.
Then, with, or without, your notes, begin.

Not necessarily at the beginning, the chronology will sort itself
when it needs sorting. Begin with what’s on your mind now!
What obsesses you? Who are you mad at, in love with, jealous of?

I am Chinese and Black, but grew up passing for white.
My theme is overcoming invisibility and silence.

Your theme will slowly become visible as you write, the more you write.
When you discover it, name it.
Say it aloud.
Remember it.
Imagine it.
Write towards it.

My theme is sewn together in words on paper bags, note paper, in journals; words published and unpublished.
Words read to small audiences and large audiences.
Words that were mostly imagined.

Imagination a vehicle to understanding.

© Sherry Quan Lee 10/21/07

Stories that Save Lives

Leslie Marmon Silko in "The Storyteller's Escape" (STORYTELLER, Seaver Books, 1981) wrote, "The storyteller keeps the stories / all the escape stories / she says 'With these stories of ours / we can escape almost anything / with these stories we will survive.' "

As a writer I often wonder if my writing gets better as my life gets better or if my life gets better as my writing gets better. I do know that I have been writing about identity for almost thirty years and the writing and the life depend on each other.

Gloria Anzaldua wrote in THIS BRIDGE CALLED MY BACK, "I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you."

I started writing about identity when I went to a feminist bookstore and realized there were no books about me, a mixed race woman, Black and Chinese. I wrote poem after poem which eventually became a chapbook, A LITTLE MIXED UP, published by Guild Press in the early 80s.

I write because I have to. If I didn't write the silence would be unbearable. There would be no place for the anger, the pain, the loneliness to disappear. If I didn't write love wouldn't be possible.

Love is the essence of the mapping of who I am. My curriculum vitae is a map of my journey towards a holistic life. each line on my cv a blessing and a hope. I have other maps. My chapbook, A LITTLE MIXED UP; my memoir in verse, CHINESE BLACKBIRD published by Asian American Renaissance in 2002; and my almost completed manuscript, HOW TO WRITE A SUICIDE NOTE: serial essays that saved a woman's life. Each map embraces all of who I am integrating race, class, gender, age, etc. into my stories.

Eden says in BLACK GIRL IN PARIS by Shay Youngblood, "...and between my tears words began to bloom on the page, one after the other. Words crowded each other, trying to lead me out of despair. I was exhuberant. The maps I'd made were guides to my interior. I remembered all the places I'd been, all the things I'd seen, and I caught them in my imagination. Jimmy was with me and Langston too. I wrote to understand where I had been, where I was going, to make sense of the world that had led me to the small room on the edge of the abyss."

Writing by colorful women writers has kept me alive, along with my own writing. Writers like Audrey Lorde, Joy Harjo, Evelina Galang, Toi Derricotte, Nikki Giovanni, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Wang Ping, Linda Hogan, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Eden Torres, bell hooks, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, etc., etc. etc. have given me the courage to discover who I am as I continue to map my life through writing.