Sherry Quan Lee, MFA, University of Minnesota, teaches Creative Writing at Metropolitan State University. She is the author of Chinese Blackbird, a memoir in verse, published in 2002 by the Asian American Renaissance, republished 2008 by Loving Healing Press/ Modern History Press, and How to Write a Suicide Note: Serial Essays that Saved A Woman’s Life, Loving Healing Press/Modern History Press, 2008. Her most recent book, Love Imagined: A Mixed Race Memoir was a 2015 Minnesota Book Award Finalist. Currently she is the 2015-2016 poetry mentor, along with Sean Hill, for the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series in Poetry and Creative Prose. Her current project is a text book/memoir about writing, tentatively titled Alternative Approaches to Creative Writing: A Mixed-Race Woman’s Writing Journey. http://www.blog.sherryquanlee.com
- What impact did racial issues have on your childhood? What was your school life like?
Tough question, but where else to start but the beginning. First, I just want to say, as a writer, I recognize that what I remember, how I remember it is my story, not necessarily the story of any other family member. Also, my story changes the more I write about it. Well, not my story so much, but my understanding of it. I am Chinese (by my father) and Black (by my mother), but grew up passing for white. Race wasn’t discussed in our household. It was like a ghost haunting us, hovering over us, but never becoming visible. Just as I was never truly visible because I thought I was white, and I wasn’t. Yet, when race was brought up, such as in Sunday School when the teacher asked if we fourth graders thought a Black family should become church members, I thought to myself, wasn’t I already a member? Also, my mother’s family could only visit at night when the neighbors couldn’t see them. Did I see them? Did I know who they were?
- Has your relationship with your parents affected how connected you are to different aspects of you racial identity?
I had no relationship with my father; my parents divorced when I was five. Maybe that is why I so desperately wanted to know that my mother loved me. She must not have because she made me lie about who I was. I didn’t understand until I was in my thirties, that she did love me. That’s when I let go of need, and focused more on understanding. A writer friend encouraged me to understand my mother from my mother’s perspective; that’s when my writing delved deeper into who she was and why she made the choices she made. That’s when I began to learn about the history of Blacks in America.
When I first started writing about identity, I mostly wrote about my mother and her family. Some folks would ask why I didn’t write about my Chinese identity (I I think they thought it was a more exotic story). I answered; because I need to discover the side of my family I was denied. Later I realized, I didn’t know much of anything about being Asian, either. However, in the mid-nineties, I was introduced to the Asian American Renaissance (a non-profit focusing on connecting Asians via the arts), and began to explore being Chinese beyond white rice, chow mein, and mahjong.
- Do you have any siblings and if so what is/ are your relationship(s) with them like?
I have four siblings. Three sisters and a younger brother (my mom was pregnant with my brother when my dad left). Our relationship with each other is like a roller coaster; one is speaking to this one, not the other one, and round and round it goes. Basically, we love each other, but our experience with race differs. Some of us are more private about race, some of us (me) are obsessed with it, and some are just so oh never mind. They acknowledge it but don’t let it, at least openly, interfere with their lives. Interestingly, there have been 14 divorces amongst the five us. I can only say that, for me, race and/or sexism were the reason I left three of my four husbands.
- Do you feel you have been affected by any racial stereotypes?
I wrote a poem, “China Doll” published in Chinese Blackbird:
I am not a China doll. I am not a Geisha slut. I am
not. Oriental. Exotic.
Eastern. Fantasy. I’m not. I wear my mandarin
frog closures for me. Because I can. Because I am. I
wear my silk,
my brocade. I am beautiful. Delicate. Okay, some stereotypes
me. Silent. Passive. Accommodating. Were me.
Exotic. Were me.
I was brought up to be the character Liat in ‘South Pacific’, so yes my Black mother married to a Chinese man, stereotyped her daughters to be exotic. My mother glorified her beautiful Chinese daughters, probably to hide her own inability to accept being Black. Probably because she grew up living a Black experience that was fearful. But did she know the history of the Chinese in America?
- Have you ever wished that you were monoracial?
Monoracial. No. Never. Though, I sometimes wished I had darker skin (I actually thought, just recently, that my perception of my skin is lighter than it really is). I spent a lifetime trying to figure out who I am, and embracing all of who I am, but not because I wanted to be one race. I’ve come to accept that I am Chinese. I am Black. I am Chinese and Black. I am either; I am both. And now, I’m learning to accept that, yes, culturally I am so very white.
- Do you feel more connected to a particular part of your racial identity? Has this changed over time?
In a sense, I don’t feel connected to any part of my racial identity. I hope that’s not negating anything I’ve said previously, but what I’m trying to say is I don’t ever think I will feel completely comfortable in any relationship. I don’t purposely “pass” or wear a mask. Chameleon may seem cliché, but that’s what it sometimes feels like, even with very close friends and family. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very outspoken. When I look back at my writing over the years I’m actually taken aback by how outspoken I am, but I try to respect other people’s space. I try not to be judgmental. It’s complicated. When I’m with Black friends do I feel more Black? With Asian friends do I feel more Asian? With white friends do I feel more Caucasian? Maybe, but in my mind I can’t separate all of who I am.
- Do you celebrate/ honour your mixed race identity in any specific ways?
Not really. I guess you can say my writing is a celebration of who I am but I don’t know of any holidays. I’m not much for holidays, that celebrate being mixed-race. Actually, Loving Day is celebrated in June, (June 12 officially) in many communities, but I’ve yet to be involved. St. Paul, Minnesota has had three celebrations: http://www.lovingday.org/past-celebrations.
Note: I always wondered how my mother and father were legally allowed to marry, but Minnesota is one of several states that allowed mixed-race couples to marry.
Perhaps, for me, it’s not about “celebration” but learning as much as I can of the social and political implications of being “mixed race.”
- How do you feel about the representation of mixed race people in the media?
Media? I was all smiles when I first viewed the Cheerio’s commercial; I thought it was very well produced. I shouldn’t have been surprised however when UTube was compelled to take down the video comments because of the prevalence of negativity.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to know who in the media considers themselves mixed race or not, but there does seem to be an over abundance of light skinned Black or mixed-race women and men in commercials and print ads, thus promoting stereotypes about mixed race people. We’re not all light-skinned and thin. Also, there’s such a blatant omission of Native Americans, chicanos/chicanas, Asians-and most POC in the media.
- Does race frequently play a role in your life today or are there times when you think of it more than others?
Unfortunately, as much as I’ve learned about the history of people of color in America, and as much as I’ve written towards understanding my own identity, (history and identity are inseparable) – race is almost always on my mind. I am mostly over being angry, anger being quite the impetus to write, and I am learning to recognize when I’m being judgmental; but the older I get, the less secure I am in knowing what I believe. And that’s troubling. Of course I firmly believe in justice, but to hover in and out of different communities makes me ever so vigilant of trying to understand everyone’s perspectives and to sort out my own. But I’ve never felt I belong in any particular community, not even my own family, although I know I am loved and supported in many. The role race plays in my life may be subtle, sometimes, but it is constant.
- Has being mixed race impacted or affected your experiences and choices romantically?
Romance: actually, my books all focus on the intersections of race and romance. Actually, all the ‘-isms’. Racism, sexism, classism, and, more and more, as I turn 68, ageism. It’s complicated. I have yet to understand, but applaud, mixed-race couples that have successful relationships, whether straight or gay. To begin with, my mother expected me to only date white men. To end the story, I could say, I did, mostly. I live in Minnesota. But that wouldn’t be fair. It’s much more complicated. I think this section from my memoir, Love Imagined, is at the heart of why I generally left relationships:
“What would you do if you had been in my shoes?”
“I don’t understand,” he says, “I would never have been in your shoes.”
“But imagine if you were.”
“I can’t,” he says.
Mixed race perspectives are often marginalized or completely ignored in discussions on race. What do you feel we offer, as a group, to race discussions?
Your question made me consider how my voice comes across in discussions of race. Do I bring a mixed-race perspective to the table? Is there a single perspective? The truth is, there are many perspectives, but if I don’t speak up it’s surprising, but likely, that someone will think I am only one of them. And, of course, my feeling is I am one of them, and one of them, and one of them and … a combination.
I’ve been trying to connect with numerous mixed-race groups such as the Topaz Sisterhood and Khakis (a Minneapolis/St. Paul Group) to discover if there is a particular “mixed” agenda. I don’t think there is one agenda that all mixed-race people would agree with. Some groups are more social, some more political, some more academic. I appreciate the A Mixed Race Feminist Speaks community because it discusses the complex intersectionality of race and gender, etc. This community promotes conversations that highlight a number of perspectives.
If you’re asking me, do I believe all mixed-race people should identify only as a mixed-race, I would say no. Mixed race is a huge umbrella. Under that umbrella are many individual stories, and it’s the individual stories that will add unique perspectives to the whole. Our individual identities are a complexity of multiple identities. Border crossing is a constant, unless we self-identify as a single race – not mixed.
What would you like the future to look like for people of mixed race heritage?
I hadn’t read science fiction since high school but I’ve started to read it again. I include a discussion of it in my creative writing classes because sci-fi is about imagining the future, and POC are writing Sci-Fi. Most recently we have the anthology, Octavia’s Brood.
I’ve spent so much time considering the past, I haven’t thought much about the future. I’m not sure how much longer I will be around to experience the future, but I hope future generations of the growing population of mixed-race people choose to know who they are, the history of their family, the history of the United States (if that is where they are from), and to not white-wash their existence in order to be “comfortable” because ultimately, they won’t be.
Sherry Quan Lee’s Blog
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