Sherry Quan Lee's Love Imagined: A Mixed Race Memoir

In Love Imagined: A Mixed Race Memoir (Modern History Press, 2014) Sherry Quan Lee writes about her experiences growing up in South Minneapolis with a mother from a black family who passed as white and a Chinese father. Lee elaborates on her subsequent adolescence and adulthood as she grappled with her mixed and covered racial identity. Lee had very little connection to her father after her parents divorced when she was still young, and as with other Chinese immigrants from earlier in the twentieth century, he was disconnected from his own family, so Lee never really grew up around other Chinese people.

love imagined book cover

I remember coming across Lee's name a few years ago when I looked around for Minnesota-based Asian American writers, but I never had a chance to read her earlier publications. Her name came up again for me in the context of a new collection of essays, A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, edited by Sun Yung Shin. In Love Imagined, Lee offers numerous anecdotes from her childhood when people said outrightly racist things about black people, not realizing that she was black; at the same time, in later chapters, she also notes that many of her childhood friends, later in adulthood, mentioned that they always knew she was black and Chinese, even if they never acknowledged it publicly. Lee's writing captures perfectly the way race tends to operate in Minnesota--either as outright racism (especially in the mid-twentieth century) or as a concerted attempt to not name it.

One of the features of this memoir that was most interesting to me was Lee's inclusion of photocopies of diary pages and letters from her family. Seeing the handwriting directly offers a bit of the personality of the people she's writing about. For example, she provides excerpts of a diary her father kept and gave to her before he died, and the diary offers some glimpses into his life before she was born. Lee also provides lengthy transcriptions of some of this writing to illustrate how her family wrote (or did not write) about race and their own family history. This first-hand account of individuals and families who passed as white is important, and I imagine historians and literary critics alike will find the book useful for exploring race in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, especially how passing created disconnected families and silences.

The overarching idea that structures Lee's memoir is that of shame. For her, although she understands her mother's passing as white as her need to protect her children and give them more opportunities than they would otherwise have had, Lee herself has carried with her a sense of shame about being black because of the secrecy of her family. She also writes a lot about her romances, including four marriages that ended in divorce. And she writes about sexual encounters--some that she welcomed and others that were sexual harassment and rape.

Overall, Lee's memoir offers an unflinching account of a woman's life in Minnesota as a mixed race person. She struggled and continues to struggle to make meaning of her family and life, understanding that writing is one way that she can make sense and also share her perspective so that others might find a kindred spirit or learn about a different life.
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