Poet Sjohnna McCray Left Us Rapture
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Published in: July-August 2024 issue.


WHEN Cincinnati-born poet, essayist, and teacher Sjohnna  McCray succumbed to diabetes last summer, barely making it into his fifties, he left behind a trove of remarkable work. Much of it is included in his award-winning book Rapture, a debut poetry collection that plumbed the complexities of growing up in a family with aliases—the studious son, the hardworking Vietnam veteran father, and the demure Asian mother: “In my family we all had our secret identities.” As someone who also grew up with secrets, McCray’s work speaks to me.

            McCray confesses it took most of his life to write Rapture and that his motivation in writing it was to speak to anyone who felt like an outsider. “I mean, my mother was a severe schizophrenic, manic-depressive prostitute and my father drank too much. I was biracial before being ‘multicultural’ was widely accepted. It took me a long time to embrace such oddity—hopefully, the poems will make some other odd person feel more at ease.”

            McCray’s childhood was tumultuous. When his mother left the family, he was raised almost entirely by his African-American father and his father’s family. McCray’s poems chronicle a boyhood spent acutely aware of the ways in which he and his family defied the heteronormative, white, upper-middle-class “standard issue” of American identity. “I didn’t want people to notice the slant of my chinky eyes, the frizz of my half-breed hair, or the smoker’s teeth complexion of my skin. … I wanted the paleness of my classmates with their straight Barbie hair.”

Sjohnna McCray in 2015. Courtesy GPB News.

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Leslie Absher, author of the memoir Spy Daughter, Queer Girl (2022), has written for The New York Times, The L.A. Times, Salon, Ms., and other periodicals.


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