In an exceptionally daring work of cultural criticism and probe into multicultural identity, Sherry Quan Lee takes her readers to the roots of emotional trauma experienced by a woman of color who has attempted suicide more than once. How to Write a Suicide Note (Modern History Press, Michigan, 2008) is a work of prose-cum-poetry exploring the role of cultural background in inhibiting one’s true self from expression, leading to suppression and trauma – the beginning of suicide. As the book’s subtitle serial essays that saved a woman’s life connotes, Lee’s verse becomes the medium through which she reclaims her right and will to live. Her book is, therefore, a life-loving book, and not a collection of ‘suicide-recipes’ (as the title may seem to suggest).
Lee’s remarks and questions about the experience of a Black-Chinese woman, impelled into following the white American values and lifestyle, come in a poignant tone. But, somewhat unexpectedly, there is no sickness as such, which leaves the reader depressed or queasy. One may get a bit confused at first up on making sense of the desultorily-written lines, blending surrealism with self-consciousness. However, the multiple messages on the same page get connected as you move forward through the book. Five divisions of the book present suicide notes – writings that ask question about life, ethnicity, cultural values, and the trauma associated with one’s identity as a minority member of a lower social rank.
More than anything, How to Write a Suicide Note places high value on the written word and the process of writing as pertains the expression of one’s real self. It is through this activity that lost lives and dejected spirits can return to confidence and a revived will to exist. Writing, to Lee, is just a form of life, or sometimes, even greater than life. Here is how she culminates the meaning of writing for her readers:
‘When you can, write
When you can’t, live
When you can’t live, write.’
While seriously concerned with cultural critique and emotional pain, How to Write a Suicide Note is not simply gloom-and-doom. Judging the process of writing as a form of therapy, Lee shows the intimate connection between identity and passion for art. For Lee, writing counters the darkness of social life; for other readers, it may be another activity that gives greater meaning to their lives. What is important to learn and remember from How to Write a Suicide Note is ‘don’t die by your weaknesses; live by your passion.’ It is one of those books that show you why living is greater than suicide.