WHAT MATTERS TO ME IS STORY
It’s been six months since my memoir in verse, Septuagenarian, debuted. I think about this as another Minnesota poet, and another, and another has released another book of poems. I think about how different our voices are. How different our techniques. I am less about craft and more about subject. Perhaps because I was told I didn’t learn how to write in graduate school, I didn’t want to prove them wrong. Or, perhaps, because I was told that what I wrote about wasn’t trendy, I did want to prove them wrong. Trendy not why I write, but that what I write matters (if only to me). As Deborah Keenan said about my book:
Sherry Quan Lee writes with a purity of intention. She has no interest in certain kinds of poetics that conceal, or only honor, adornment. She has her gaze on the long sweep of her personal history.
What matters to me is self-awareness and healing and to know and accept that I am strong—that I am okay. What matters to me is story. And knowing that mine is only one story, but stories intersect no matter how different they may seem, at least that’s been my experience. Sometimes it’s a similar time and location, a tragedy, a celebration, gender, culture, sexuality, race, age—family.
Yet, since publication, I have seldom opened my book to read what I had written. Out of fear or out of closure I’m not sure which, maybe both.
Recently I finally let go of dollars to find a streaming service where I could watch Queen Sugar. I am on Season 4. Every episode of the entire series has my emotions roller coasting as I come to it from my history and my experience. Nova is an activist, an artist. She wrote a memoir telling family stories, divulging secrets. Her family is unforgiving.
Beginning seven years ago my sisters one by one turned from me. If there was an excuse it was, to me, senseless; one sibling yelling she hoped my writing friends took care of me. One sibling saying my highs and lows were too much for her. And one sibling refused to come up with an excuse. Were they afraid of my truth-telling? Was I wrong to share our stories? Did my writing have nothing or everything to do with the separations? Two of my three sisters gave me permission, the other sister I respectfully left out of my books. I even changed my last name (another kind of separation).
I hope Nova and her family can reconcile and forgive. Yet for me, separation feels healthy, but sad—I can’t stop grieving. Is truth-telling for a greater good if the truth be told continues a history of separation? Does a writer/an artist have control over what they write? Are we born to disrupt? Can our souls/our spirits handle the repercussions, the displacement?
My most recent book struggles with the theme of separation. The separations that have cursed my family. Black families/slave families were separated by the auction block, if not that assigned duties and gender were other forms of separation. A female slave assigned to house duties-including the duty of fulfilling the master’s sexual improprieties. And from those liaisons, babies of various skin colors/mixed-race babies—my great-grandmother–added another dimension to the separation of families. Black men were lynched.
Separation was created by laws that kept Chinese immigrants, who came to work in America as cheap labor, from bringing their wives. West Coast Japanese were separated during WWII most in internment camps, some joined or were drafted into the armed services, others were able to attend college in Minnesota. My Chinese father joined the Navy because he wanted to, leaving a wife and two young daughters’ home in Minneapolis while he fought the Japanese from a ship out at sea.
My story is complex (as yours probably is too): poverty, passing, fear, anger, divorce, addictions–separations. Each poem, each book releases and sets aside who I was to create space for who I am. Yet who I was has a way of creeping into who I am so I will never be free enough to be happy; but I am emotionally healthy which comes from years of learning, of therapy, of listening, of reading–of truth-telling. Minnesota is a choir of many voices, many songs; poetry. Colorful/diverse writers inform me, connect me, keep me from becoming idle, from being satisfied. Keep me alert.
Maybe today I will open my book, Septuagenarian, and re-remember a life I have lived. 73 years-old. I have no regrets.
Sherry Quan Lee
© September 6, 2021