Date: 2010.11.14 | Category: Assignments, Imagining Love, The Art of Writing | Tags:

    What “triggers” your writing?  For me, it can be a movie, a book, a photograph, a map, a memory.  But, often, it can simply be a word.  Last Spring, in a writing workshop, the word I chose for a triggering subject was silence.  If I hadn’t been interrupted, perhaps I would still be writing, still finding the true subject, the deeper meaning.  However, I’ve revisited silence, revised it, and in so doing recognized how my stories are my stories and they return to me like winter returns to Minnesota.  Each story a snowflake -snowflakes are snowflakes but if you look closely, each are unique like the rhythm, the tone, the texture, the format of each of my very same stories. A writing teacher once told me that each of us has a story we will tell over and over and it’s okay.  What a blessing he didn’t tell me it’s not okay.

    (Recommended reading for writers: The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo)



     My mother’s words were sewn shut, stitched like the four identical dresses my sisters and I wore, hand crafted by Mother’s intuition, likeness creates invisibility, we looked like all the neighborhood girls though our hair was black our legs thin, our feet small we even went to the Lutheran Church praying to God the Father because our Father disappeared and we couldn’t claim him though we tried by playing Mah Jong on hot summer days teaching the neighborhood girls it gets complicated who was fitting into whose life, and chicken subgum chow mein was just part of our diet like Campbell’s Soup and Wonder Bread and turkeys from the Salvation Army at Christmas; at Christmas our dresses were red velvet and frilly and girly until they weren’t and they were simple and seductive and maybe that’s when the silence was broken, not with words but with images and the faith that stitches could be undone, but it would take work, the skill of a craftswoman, an artist, a magician, a hair stylist because one of us had thick curly hair like Mother’s, one of us had silky straight hair like Father’s and yes one was beauty and one shame hot combs and gas flames and it’s complicated pretending to be someone in order to escape being someone else, someone like the Black man who killed Susan Smith’s children ask Cornelius Eady how it feels to be a myth, to be mythical, to know you will die sooner or later by someone who wants you dead or not or just temporarily and Mother just wanted us safe and to marry the white lieutenant so we sang over and over and over again you’ve got to be carefully taught how to be exotic like Liat and talk happy happy talk because Oriental has always been exotic, the women, not the men, well actually the men too, exoticized, and Asian men are rhyming about the complexity of their identity and I wonder if my mother ever desired the language and the permission to say what it was like to be a Black woman passing for white and her right to be safe but neighbors had guns Father was on the run and Mother shut doors and closed windows locking in four daughters and a son (and it wasn’t the first time Father had left Mother often he left late at night to shuffle tiles at Maj Jong tables where bets were large and the winnings small and men were Chinese and some of them like my father wanted to be white like my mother wanted to be white but neither of them speaking to the other of desire each reaching for the gold pot differently one by hiding the other by assimilating and the children sat on red stairs spying, unafraid, how could they fear what they didn’t know how could they know their life was a game and the winner was the one who couldn’t be found who could keep the masquerade, who would not ask questions who ate the raspberry Jello with bananas who didn’t see relatives hiding in the dark except one fair skin cousin because in South Minneapolis neighbors drove Ford trucks and drank Hills Bros. coffee and boycotted Blacks from entering the Church until the new minister and his wife arrived with three adopted Black children but even then I had to be cautious and wore white to communion as if white could forgive my sins still the minister walked by me with the wafers and the wine as if he didn’t know I was a member of the congregation, baptized and confirmed, I sang in the choir, I taught Sunday school, I was married in the Church all this against my mother’s wishes because the Church collected money on our behalf to help with our roof or our mortgage or some humane thing but the money our neighbors thought they had given to us never touched my mother’s hand but I didn’t understand Mother’s shame I only knew as a girl that God was my father, literally, and I needed him, maybe wearing white was uppity of me even though I had been wearing white since the day I was born so I looked for other gods in other neighborhoods and at sometime understood why mother stitched her words and her desire inside her womb until the day she died while Father was not celibate at all and my brother who Father claimed didn’t exist was conceived maybe even the same day as his ½ brother or maybe a day too early or too late and that’s why Father wouldn’t claim him and maybe why the amphetamines claimed my brother at a young age when being a father should have claimed him or were the drugs the only answer to a young man’s son dying of a crib death on my birthday maybe my younger brother and I understand things my older siblings don’t we all cope with our sorrows differently, separately, yet how could my sisters and I manage without alcoholics and drug addicts who will fix a toilet, paint a room, tile a floor and even if it’s about the money there is love in the give and the take the need to both help and to need help it is the love that gets lost in the silences because it is never not about love but fear is not just any ol’ emotion it is hung by a rope, it is kkk, slavery, it is Chinese men working on a railroad who can’t marry someone white or bring their Chinese wives to America it is history that I am tired of telling because it takes too much oxygen and I want to breathe love to let love escape from the narrow crevice of my life because love had to be small it had to take a back seat to my anger even when I didn’t know why I was angry when I didn’t know the complexity of little girls growing up fatherless, and poor, and girls, and not white but not not white silenced invisible unidentifiable but now I speak, unafraid, I speak, I write even though at times I don’t know proper English, don’t know what a word means, only how it feels  and it makes sense that my family spoke in tongues that the neighbors couldn’t understand but neither could we grade school gave me Dick and Jane and Sally and Puff and Spot and college was also a playhouse of  confusing characters although I earned A’s I didn’t learn anything useful some scholars owned language the way some men own some women and women were about property as much as language was about position and we want everyone to be literate but we don’t want everyone to be equal and certainly not rich it’s not about I didn’t do it I wasn’t there I’m not a racist  it’s about love, it’s about love from her not so privileged view looking out locked windows in a house on a hill surrounded by a white picket fence where Mother kept her words to herself,  it is her story, her love I embrace, the story I tell, lovingly, over and over, that keeps me.


    Sherry Quan Lee

    April 23, 2010

    Revised November 11, 2011

    Revised November 13, 2010