Reviewer Karim Khan (also known as Ernest Dempsey) is a geology graduate and an MA in English Literature. He has authored four books: Islands of Illusion, The Biting Age, Two Candles, and The Blue Fairy and Other Stories. Dempsey is a founding member of the World Audience Inc. and the editor in chief of the quarterly review journal The Audience Review. He is completing is first novel. He also writes essays, freelance articles, blogs, and conducts author interviews. Click Here to read Karim's archived reviews.
Today, Ernest Dempsey, one of bookpleasures reviewers interviews Sherry Quan Lee author of How to Write a Suicide Note: serial essays that saved a woman's life (Reflections of America)
Sherry Quan Lee is a writer, teacher, and program associate. She
earned an AA degree at North Hennepin Community College (and has
since been honored as a Distinguished Alumni), and a BA and MFA at
the University of Minnesota. She is the author of A Little Mixed
Up, Guild Press, 1982 (2nd printing), Chinese Blackbird, a
memoir in verse, (AAR 2002, reprinted 2008 by Modern History Press),
and How to Write a Suicide Note: serial essays that saved
a woman’s life (Modern History Press, 2008).
How to Write a Suicide Note is a poetry book exploring the seldom-told link between life as a Chinese/Black woman in American culture and her struggle for identity and subsequent suicide attempts. Lee’s work glows with depth, spontaneity, and – at times – poignancy. She approaches writing as a community resource and as the culturally-based art of an ordinary everyday practical aesthetic. To her, writing saves lives. Let us see how she relates cultural identity, suicide, and writing.
Sherry, I read How to Write a Suicide Note and found it hard to stop thinking about its message. But before we get to talk about the book and your views, it’ll be worthwhile to learn a little about your life.
I have been a writer since I was young, since second
grade. But it wasn’t until my thirties that writing became an
outlet for me to discover and begin to understand my identity. In the
early 1980s, there didn’t seem to be any books about me: a
Chinese/Black woman passing for white. I cannot pinpoint when I knew
that I wasn’t white, but I have many memories that jarred any
understanding of who I might be, such as relatives visiting only at
night so the neighbors couldn’t see my Black relatives.
In the 1990s, I was working for an independent study program (ISP). Students in the program were full time health care administrators, participating in a low residency graduate program. Many of the women in the program were raising families, had high-level jobs, and were earning graduate degrees. I decided I could too. I quit my job and hoped I would be accepted for a graduate program. I was accepted for both programs that I applied for. It took me twenty years to earn my undergraduate degree (detours of relationships, family, jobs, etc.), but I earned my MFA from the University of Minnesota in two years. I was one of the first to graduate from the newly established MFA program, and the first Chinese/Black woman to graduate (perhaps the first colorful person)! I graduated with a 4.0 GPA in 1996.
Unfortunately, when I graduated I wasn’t sure I was qualified to
do anything! (I was told I couldn’t write.) I had no teaching
experience, although I chose, as an elective, a class on teaching.
The class gave me confidence I could teach, given the opportunity.
Thanks to Carolyn Holbrook, director of SASE: The Write Place, I was
hired to teach a writing class in my community at a local coffee
shop. The students were gracious, and most re-enrolled for a second
term. By coincidence, I was approached to teach a college course in
the schools through Metropolitan State University. After teaching a
class of 11th/12th graders, I knew I could teach any class, any
level, anywhere. Metro State hired me as a Community Instructor. I
taught Introduction to Creative Writing, Advanced Creative Writing,
Writing and Visual Communication, Composition, and Advanced
Composition. I retired from teaching at Metro State two
years ago, after ten years of teaching, to complete my book and
continue teaching in community settings. I also work fulltime for the
Split Rock Arts Program summer workshops and Online Mentoring for
Writers Program, as a Program Associate.
In my family life, I recently became a grandmother. Each of my sons has had a son. It is amazing how different the two babies are in looks, and in personality. I enjoy paying attention to them, to their development, and constantly wonder how they will participate in a world full of turmoil and love. My sons’ father is German/Bohemian; their partners are white. I wonder how race will affect my grandchildren.
There is much in the book, which conveys that it was
born out of your experiences as a Chinese/Black girl who grew up in
white-dominated America. How was it like, living as an ethnic
My first chapbook, A Little Mixed Up, was
published in 1982 (second printing). I was taking a ‘Women in
Literature’ class (later dropped from the curriculum, I was told,
because it was sexist) and one of our assignments was to visit a
bookstore. I visited Amazon Bookstore (a local feminist cooperative
now under private ownership and named True Colors). The
bookstore had no books about me. So frustrated and angry, I wrote
poem after poem, identifying myself as ‘a little mixed up.’ This
was the beginning of what has now been over twenty-five years
committed to writing about identity – in particular, the feeling of
isolation, of invisibility.
I grew up in a Scandinavian neighborhood, passing as white. Passing wasn’t unusual, but often, Black people would pass to get and keep a job, and then return to their communities. My father is Chinese. My Black mother always told us if anyone pressured us, we could be Chinese, but we couldn’t be Black. Strange that I think I remember this because I don’t necessarily know that I knew that I was Black or Chinese. I think our bodies/ spirits sense genetically or emotionally, or both that we are who we are, and my body/spirit told me I wasn’t white. I knew nothing of Black culture; for me Chinese culture consisted of chow mein and Mah Jong. My second book, Chinese Blackbird (Asian American Renaissance 2002, reprinted Modern History Press, 2008), and my most recent book, focus on identity.
Do you think that you were overly sensitive to this
issue and thus affected emotionally to the core of your being?
I am fascinated by the fact that siblings can be so
different. How they think, live, love – and react
differently. How some are affected by this, and others affected by
that. In my family of five siblings, I seem to be the only one that
is obsessed with identity – mine/others, and how ‘who we are’
is complex and ever changing, based on race, class, gender,
sexuality, age, etc. And, how who we are individually and communally
matters in the context of social justice. Perhaps I should say my
siblings and I each have found the best way for ourselves to be
comfortable with who we are, even though that comfort might include
For me, I was uncomfortable speaking, so mostly I didn’t. I studied enough in school to know the answer if I was asked a question, yet I still wouldn’t respond. All of my repressed thoughts and feelings needed an outlet. Writing was that outlet, at least until the last ten or fifteen years. I’ve now advanced from introvert to extrovert on the Myers-Briggs personality test. I can’t stop talking. I’d rather talk, than write; but, I need to do both. I think the complexity of who my siblings and I are also has something to do with environment, how we respond to it. One sister said if anyone asked, she would say she was Scandinavian because culturally that was how she was raised.
When did you first think of committing suicide and what made you actually attempt it?
I think my first attempt was taking a razor blade to my wrists; a very feeble attempt. I don’t remember the details. But I knew it would hurt, so I barely scratched the surface of my skin. Yet, I thought I wanted to die.
What I do know is that my suicide attempts were reactions. They
weren’t caused by depression or illness. Therapists could never
find a medical reason for my behaviors. One said I was quite
normal, very interesting, and went on to discuss his woes! My
Minnesota Multiphasic (MMPI) test results didn’t label me with any
of the possible outcomes: Hypochondriasis, Depression, Hysteria,
Psychopathic Deviate, Masculinity-Femininity, Paranoia,
Psychasthenia, Schizophrenia, Hypomania, and Social Introversion. And
yet friends and lovers – mostly lovers – would often say I had
extreme mood swings and I must be severely depressed, bipolar or
something; but I wasn’t; I’m not.
My second and most serious attempt was after a community therapist said I was getting better, but it would take a long time. There was never anything wrong with me except my husband said I was crazy as an excuse to get a divorce because he met someone else he wanted to marry; he thought I should seek help.
At the same time I was seeing the community therapist, I took
uppers and downers generously prescribed by medical doctors at an
outpatient clinic where I went to group counseling. I was rushed to
the emergency ward of a nearby clinic—near dead. I was angry at the
therapist for saying it would take a long time, equating it with the
fact that he wanted to continue a professionally improper affair with
me. My doctor, when he saw me, after I had been revived by the
emergency physicians, asked if I was going to do it again. I said,
no. He told me to go home.
Or maybe my second attempt was swallowing a bottle of aspirin. Again, I was mad at someone. I was reacting. I was trying to be heard. I waited too long to go to the hospital. When I got there, I was given a quart or more of water to drink to flush the pills from my system, and then was left alone in the emergency room. Finally, after a long wait, I just walked away. I felt like I was underwater. I think once I put a gun to my head for attention. I think twice other people have put a gun to my head.
Sometimes I don’t know what I remember or if what I remember is
true. Friends, however, remember stories about me that I don’t
remember. Early attempts at suicide coincided with being young,
nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one. It was a confusing time. Away
from home, entering the world at large was frightening. I had grown
up sheltered. I wasn’t allowed to roam far from home. I couldn’t
even go to football games at other high schools because Mother feared
race riots (it was the turbulent sixties). I couldn’t join the
Girls Athletic Association because Mother wanted me home where she
knew I would be safe. I wasn’t allowed to date (okay, once, in high
school I went to see Zorba the Greek with a guy I had a crush on, and
I went to one formal dance where the girls could ask the guys)
Going off to college gave me a freedom I wasn’t prepared to handle. Yet, it also gave me an opportunity to be in a diverse community of students. I lived in a dormitory where I met a Black girl whose father worked where my father worked. She told me I was Black! I remember her introducing me to Black hair products such as Ultra Sheen.
Freedom, however, frightened me (again, it was the sixties and a
sexual/cultural/political revolution), as did, what they then termed,
‘new math’. I dropped out of college my fourth quarter, but
finally graduated twenty years later
More recent attempts at suicide happened within the last seven years. Again, I was reacting. I wanted someone to love me unconditionally as a Black/Chinese/Feminist/Mother/Daughter/Sibling, who sometimes smoked a cigarette and drank red wine. A therapist, the first of many to clearly understand my frustration, used the word impervious. She said, “It’s like a feather hitting rock. The rock doesn’t budge, so the feather tries to be more forceful. The rock still doesn’t budge. Eventually, the feather throws Christmas trees, or teapots, or piggy banks – anything to get attention. Feather reacts.”
One attempted suicide consisted of taking over the counter pain
pills. I took maybe a half bottle, or maybe less. For me, the drama
of throwing the rest of the pills on the floor, in an outrageous
display of anger, was effective enough for whatever situation I was
then in the middle of at that time. I didn’t get sick; I didn’t
get paid any attention either. However, I did write a suicide
note. I wrote a note to my children. I had never done that before.
The note saved me. The note helped me understand my own feelings. The
note helped me know I didn’t want to die
Another time, I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I was angry, wanting love and understanding but ‘feather’ was hitting ‘rock.’ For release, I went to my car, which was parked in a two-car garage, opened the windows, and put on some music – playing it very loudly. I was not attempting suicide. But when my friend smelled fumes inside the house, he said I would have died in another two minutes, and eventually he and his dog would have died too. I didn’t know, even though I had the car windows open, the fumes would have been deadly because the garage door was shut.
Sometime after this incident, my sister warned me of reports of a
drug that I was taking that could cause/or lead children and young
adults to attempt suicide. I was taking that drug to stop smoking!
Although I was far from being a child or young adult, I stopped
taking the drug. I will never know if, or how much, or at all the
pills contributed to my most recent suicide attempts. But I do
know that I haven’t attempted to kill myself since, but I still,
occasionally (sometimes binge), smoke
What does the word ‘suicide’ personally mean to
you at this point in your life?
There have been suicides, as well as suicide
attempts, in my family besides mine. An uncle, an uncle’s wife, and
my grandmother – died that way. My niece attempted suicide by
slashing her wrists. Shortly after my book was published, I learned
my teenage grandnephew had attempted suicide by taking
For me, the word ‘suicide’ conjures real deaths, attempts at death, as well as metaphorical deaths. It is a word that startles me, frightens me; it is a word we hear too often, but shouldn’t hear at all. The book title was suggested by a writing friend (the same friend who suggested poetry instead of prose). She said it seemed to her that I was writing suicide notes. Later I added the subtitle: serial essays that saved a woman’s life. This gave balance to the work. Each section begins with a suicide note, but they are notes that are killing off the things that I needed out of my life (instead of me) in order for me to live. For example, killing the white girl (actually killing the white girl also made me more aware of how culturally I am also white, having been raised white – who I am is complicated).
So when and how did you regain complete control of
yourself and come to terms with your ethnic identity
When and how did I come to terms with my identity?
Good question. I believe it has been and is a life-long process.
However, I believe the writing of How to Write a Suicide Note,
and the experiences related in the book (all of my books) are the
backbone of my understanding. I think, perhaps
fortunately/unfortunately, I have had many people in my life that
have made me see more clearly who I wasn’t. I wasn’t
who they were. Their beliefs, values, and understanding of
race/class/gender/sexuality were different than mine which have
evolved over time. They chose to like me for who they wanted me to
be. Period. They refused to acknowledge the complex, diverse person I
Also, I had been in and out of relationships enough times to finally understand how needy I had been for love and affection—and visibility. I was the acquiescent feather that sometimes got ruffled enough to react and throw myself at rock. I was not co-dependent, but dependent (even though I was generally the caretaker in a relationship) lacking any self-esteem to get along in this world by myself. When I recently let go of yet another relationship, I intentionally – actually with great intent – decided to stop whining, stop pleading, stop needing, stop acquiescing, and take control of my life. I knew what I wanted and what I didn’t want.
One thing I wanted was home. My friend didn’t want to share his
home, though he always wanted me to be with him in the country; and,
he had every excuse in the world not to visit my apartment in the
city. Before my relationship with him, I did have the
opportunity to live in some very nice houses (and some not so
nice), but differences (such as class, such as race) often made me
feel not at home.
With intent, I decided I would create a home of my own, on my own. Even though I knew the goal of buying a house was next to impossible for financial reasons, I had faith, and I was a risk taker. Three months later, I am now living in my own (mortgaged) townhouse. I feel grownup for the first time in my life. Now I am ready to be intentional about something else. Perhaps writing as a career, or perhaps retirement, or perhaps retirement and writing. Intention is no longer about needing someone to love me. I now know lots of people love me. I love me.
It is important for me to gather my poems/my stories and piece
them together. I need a final product, a collection of my
meanderings. A book seals off a part of my journey. Each book is a
letting go, so I can move on. Each suicide note was a goodbye so I
could say hello.
Are there a significant number of Black/Chinese or
Black/Asian people in the United States? What is your knowledge
or experience of who they are?
When I was growing up, our mixed race family was
somewhat of an anomaly. Today, there are many Asians in Minnesota.
Minnesota has one of the largest populations of adopted Koreans.
We also have the largest population of Hmong immigrants, and Somalis,
and Liberians. We have Vietnamese families, East Indian families,
Japanese families, and families of Philippine descent. The 2000
Census revealed 84,000 mixed race people in Minnesota or 1.5 % of the
population. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and
Inheritance by now President, Barack Obama made my soul
sing! It said to me, I exist. Today there are groups
and conferences that focus on being bi-racial. One group, Topaz,
is for anyone with a mixture of Black and other heritages. In
the early eighties, I participated in an interracial family workshop
by sharing my writing. I also taught an interracial workshop which
resulted in the chapbook anthology, Chromosomes and
Genes published by Guild Press.
In How to Write a Suicide Note, you mention that being Black is more oppressive than being Chinese. Would you tell a little about it in the context of your personal experiences?
Early on when I started to write about identity,
someone asked me why I wrote mostly about being Black. My response
was, because that was the part of my identity that I was asked to
hide. Now that I think about it, I was probably trying to make my
‘Black self’ visible. Also, the first group of writers I
connected with happened to be primarily Black writers. However, being
Chinese was also a cultural void in my life until, as a writer, I
became involved with the Asian American Renaissance, an organization
that brought Asians of all ethnicities together as community through
art. My father left my mother when I was five, so any Chinese culture
went out the door with my dad.
For you, and some other writers including myself,
writing saves lives. And How to Write a Suicide Note is
persistent on this point. One poem in the book specifically
indicates [Because] Writing Saves Lives. Since you
also teach writing, did you ever include writing as therapy in
I taught a workshop Writing to Save
Your Life, an interdisciplinary workshop for Women of
Color. Some of the students from that workshop continue to write
and share their stories. One of the students later taught a similar
workshop, and she and another writer in her workshop (which I
co-facilitated) are now managing the blog I started in conjunction
with the first workshop! So, yes, in my classes, I introduce my
belief that writing can save lives. However, writing as ‘therapy’
connotes something different for me: it conjures a
feeling that we need to be fixed. Instead, isn’t it the world
that needs to be fixed? We must keep ourselves alive! Keep our
stories alive! So together we can make a difference. I believe
writing can be a necessary part of therapy, but therapy needs to be
facilitated by professionals. While there are professional art
therapists—I am not one.
There are many women of color writers who have saved my life. Their stories familiar-the anger, the pain, the confusion, the loneliness, the abuse, the struggle, the triumph, the beauty, the passion, the creativity, and the love. I use the work of other writers such as Jungian therapist Clarissa Pinkola Estés as well as my own writing, as writing prompts. I encourage students to write the often very difficult stories that allow them to let go of what needs to be let go of, in order to keep going! Here’s a quote from Estés that I find inspiring:
“Creativity is not a solitary movement. That is its power.
Whatever is touched by it, whoever hears it, sees it, senses it,
knows it, is fed. That is why beholding someone else’s creative
word, image, idea, fills us up, inspires us to our own creative work.
A single creative act has the potential to feed a continent. One
creative act can cause a torrent to break through stone”? (Women
Who Run With Wolves, Ballantine Books, 1992, page 299)
I will never forget the angel I met at a Split Rock writing workshop. After introductions and at the end of the class she came up to me and asked if I was the Sherry Quan Lee that had read at the Loft some seven or eight years before. She went on to recite some lines from my poems! We might never know when we have touched someone’s life with our words, but our words can be transformative! I keep some of the letters and notes from people whose lives I have touched. It is not narcissistic. It’s what I return to when I wonder what my purpose in life is. When I wonder if my life/my writing matters. When I’m feeling low down. The kind words others have written to me save my life time and time again.
In Shay Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris (Riverhead, 2000), Eden says:
"...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 exuberant. 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 Anzaldúa, Wang
Ping, Linda Hogan, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Eden Torres, bell hooks,
Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, and
others have given me the courage to discover who I am as I continue
to map my life through writing.
You chose poetry to convey your message. Why not prose, like a conventional autobiography?
David Mura, a previous mentor, suggested I had six or
seven books to write and that I could choose to write them as fiction
or memoir. I started to write memoir (knowing I could never
fictionalize my life), but became frustrated because I was writing
only one to two page stories. A friend commented that the stories
were poetic, and why didn’t I rewrite some of them as poetry. That
opened a door. Within a couple of weeks my prose manuscript was
transformed into a poetry manuscript. Not necessarily prose poems,
but poems originated from prose. They had a quality all of their own.
The structure of the poems, in a sense, was a shadow of my
unstructured, chaotic, traumatic life that moved toward understanding
How does being a woman matter, while also being an
This question reminded me of a college course
I taught years ago. Students were assigned my book, Chinese
Blackbird, as a text. They were having difficulty
understanding intersectionality. How did race, class, and gender
impact my stories? I was asked to explain. Although I understood
intersectionality at an experiential level, I struggled to
articulate the concept in theoretical language. I tried to visualize
it by drawing a diagram with my name circled in the middle of the
page. Other words came quickly—Mother, African, American, Father,
Chinese, relationships, retirement, gender, church, teenager,
education, race, death, class, German, work, children, etc. I made
copies of the diagram and gave one to each student.
Then I told them this story:
Before I was born. My Chinese father emigrated from China to the
west coast of the United States when he was eleven. He sold
vegetables from the back of a truck. He also went to school,
participated in sports, was artistic, went to community college—then
he jumped a train for Chicago and eventually ended up in Minneapolis
and met my mother, a woman who was handing out towels in the
bathroom of a popular Chinese restaurant.
Father wanted a boy. Girls in Chinese culture were considered worthless—of no monetary value. Father left his four daughters and the son Mother was pregnant with for the red haired woman who was also pregnant. I was five years old and fatherless. Mother became Mother and Father. I had neither the cultural experience of being Chinese nor the cultural experience of being Black because I was passing for white.
I attended the Lutheran church and sang in the choir. In fourth
grade, my Sunday School teacher asked if we should allow Black people
to be members of our church. I was confused. The answer was no.
My mother had an eighth grade education. But she earned a high school and business degree when she was fifty-eight years old, when all of her children had graduated from high school. We were raised on welfare and love. Raised on Government subsidies and my mother’s sewing. We were sheltered. We were disciplined (State Fair yardsticks broke on my bottom).
There was also music and dancing and my oldest sisters’ white
I lived in the same house, the same neighborhood for eighteen years.
I asked the students to draw lines from my name to the other words on the diagram. Hint: there could be more than one line from one word to others. When they finished, there were lines everywhere. My story couldn’t be told without the intersectionality of the many aspects of my identity.
The first wave of white feminists analyzed discrimination of women based solely on gender. Women of color feminists recognized multiple and intersecting discriminations. To better understand intersectionality an Internet search provided clarity:
“An intersectional approach to analyzing the disempowerment of
marginalized women attempts to capture the consequences of the
interaction between two or more forms of subordination. It
addresses the manner in which racism, patriarchy, class oppression
and other discriminatory systems create inequalities that structure
the relative positions of women, races, ethnicities, classes, and the
like. Moreover, intersectionality addresses the way that
specific acts and policies operate together to create further
disempowerment. For instance, race, ethnicity, gender, or class, are
often seen as separate spheres of experience which determine social,
economic and political dynamics of oppression. But, in
fact, the systems often overlap and cross over each other, creating
complex intersections at which two, or three or more of these axes
may meet. Indeed, racially subordinated women are often
positioned in the space where racism or xenophobia, class and gender
meet. They are consequently subject to injury by the heavy
flow of traffic traveling along all these roads.”
( am a mixed race not wanting to pass-for-white woman writer
who has moved from one relationship, one house, one job to another
running from prejudice and discrimination from racism and sexism only
to encounter both over and over again. Sometimes I believe love is
possible. Sometimes I believe my next lover will love all of me even
though there is a whole lot of me to love!"
You also touch on your sexuality and the taboo associated with it. How did it affect your social life or relationships?
This is actually quite a complex question. I was married three times, each time to a white male. Race was always a problem. Sometimes being a feminist was a problem. Class differences were a problem. My problems. I could never let go of trying to educate my partners. I understand now, they had no problems with me being a woman of color feminist – they loved me – as long as they could look the other way, as long as they kept parts of me invisible, as long as who I was didn’t interfere with their world.
At a poetry reading, I met a very charismatic woman. I fell
in love with her. As the relationship developed, I was sure it could
be perfect – she was a Chicana, a brown woman - wouldn’t we
understand each other? But relationships are complicated.
Some personality types are drawn to other personality types in
dysfunctional ways. Three years brought us further apart, not closer
together. A friend told me, women of color partners have a difficult
time because we bring together each of our own traumatic experiences
involving race, class, and gender – a triple whammy. Life
and love are complicated. I have always loved women, but married men
Now in my sixties, I enjoy my independence. I don’t need to be in a relationship. Relationships aren’t always about love. Love is all around me and within me. I just need to give love space to be.
At the end of the book, you wrote a poem about the comfort sought in nature, away from the city’s environment. It appears that you have a deep love for nature, which may have helped you heal from the emotional injury and suicidal tendencies.
Actually, I have a love/hate relationship with
nature. I love observing the beauty of trees, of flowers, of birds,
of deer, of owls. But, I can’t dig in the dirt, walk in the rain,
camp in the woods, hike in the mountains. I love water – creeks,
rivers, lakes, and oceans – but I can’t swim. Perhaps nature is a
sign, a metaphor that love can’t be controlled. That the essence of
love is being in awe of the uncontrollable – the thunder, the rain,
the cold, the heat as well as flowers blooming, birds migrating, and
sun shining. Letting go, to live. I do this by writing. It
isn’t easy, I don’t particularly like doing it – but I have no
What kind of feedback did you get from readers, including your family, on How to Write a Suicide Note?
Siblings…no feedback from them, really. They each have a copy of my book. However, my niece has been writing her stories, and knowing that I have influenced her to write is all the feedback I need.
At my publication reading at the True Colors book store, I asked everyone in the audience to introduce themselves (it was a small gathering) – and in the back of the room were my cousin and his wife. This is the family, I was told, not to connect with – my mother’s family. This particular cousin is the son of my aunt whom I had connected with after I left home, at the age of nineteen. His mother, now deceased, was a writer, and a singer. She encouraged me to write. She’s the angel on my shoulder. I hadn’t seen my cousin in years, though his daughter, whom I have stayed in touch with, wrote to me after A Little Mixed Up was published, thanking me for connecting her to her grandmother through my writing.
There have been reviews of How to Write a Suicide Note that didn’t capture the theme of it, or even attempt to discuss the craft of it. Others, like your review, didn’t miss a beat. However, the most challenging review was a review printed in MultiCultural Review, Volume 17, Number 4, Winter 2008, by Lori Tsang. She disagreed that writing could save lives, saying, “as if you could will yourself not to be depressed.” Depression was the word that caught my attention. Were my suicide attempts caused by depression? The review caused me to re-view my work, and to question whether I had inferred that depression was the reason for my suicide attempts, or if I had slighted any of the writers whose suicide notes had not saved them. Was Tsang saying depression, along with being a writer/writing leads to suicide?
Tsang’s view challenged me to think outside my experience and
opinion. In re-reading my book, I realized I did use the word
depression or some derivate a few times, but overall I didn’t
emphasize a theme “trying to encourage and support others
struggling to survive depression.” What I had hoped to convey was
that by killing off parts of myself that were killing me, I could
What is your mantra for living peacefully now?
Living peacefully is always an ongoing goal. It takes intention. It takes work. And often the work is the work of letting go, of getting rid of, of making choices. It’s the work of reading, of listening to music. It’s the work of giving, and receiving. It’s the work of being thankful. It’s the work of being nonjudgmental. It’s spirit. It’s love.
It took years to complete How to Write a Suicide Note and you have told in the book that you write only occasionally, whenever the urge to write controls you. Does it mean that readers have to wait long before they get another gem from you?
My next book is titled Imagining Love. Imagining is more difficult than experiencing. The manuscript, after about a year’s time, consists of twelve rough draft poems. I often carry the notebook with me. In this work, I imagine love is the answer.
Thank you Sherry for taking time to have this conversation!
Thank you for your reviewing How to Write a Suicide Note: serials essays that saved a woman’s life. Some reviewers misunderstand the content and the format entirely. I appreciate your in-depth review, and subsequently your thought provoking questions.