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Considered one of America s most important contemporary poets, Li-Young Lee grapples with questions about family, love, and exile via evocative lyrical experimentation.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An International Childhood
Li-Young Lee was born on August 19, 1957, in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents. Lee’s maternal great-grandfather, Yuan Shikai, had been China’s first Republican president (serving from 1912 to 1916), and his father, Lee Kuo Yuan (known as Richard), had been a personal physician to Communist leader Mao Zedong. But Lee’s parents had escaped to Indonesia after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, where his father helped found Gamaliel University. The family did not stay in Indonesia long after Li-Young’s birth, however. That nation was rife with anti-Chinese sentiment, and Lee Kuo Yuan, who spent a year in jail as a political prisoner, fled Indonesia with his family in 1959.
The Lee family lived in Hong Kong, Macao, and Japan before settling in the United States in 1964. They lived for a time in Pennsylvania, where Lee’s father studied at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and then became a Presbyterian minister in East Vandergrift, a small mill town. Lee went to high school in Pennsylvania and earned his degree in biochemistry from the University of Pittsburgh in 1979. His meeting with the poet Gerald Stern led him to begin seriously writing poetry, and he went on to study creative writing at the University of Arizona from 1979 to 1980 and again at the State University of New York at Brockport from 1980 to 1981.
Immigrant Work by an Immigrant Writer
Lee’s international childhood is well featured in his writing. In 1986 Lee published his first book of poetry, Rose,which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. The poems center on Lee s painful memories of his family s emigration from Indonesia and question his relationship to the past and with his family, particularly with his father. ”The Gift,” for example, recalls the time when Lee’s father cut a metal splinter from Lee s hand as a child. During the painful procedure, his father tells him a story to keep his mind off the knife and the pain. Later in the poem, as an adult Lee removes a splinter from his wife s hand, he remembers his father s earlier care and tenderness. In another poem, ”Rain Diary,” Lee recounts his father’s struggling and bravery in the face of political upheaval in Indonesia. The success of Rose led Lee to be featured on Bill Moyers’s Public Broadcast System (PBS) series The Power of the Word in 1989 and to receive a fellowship from the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation.
Lee continued to build his reputation and impress critics and readers alike throughout the 1990s. The City in Which I Love You, Lee’s second poetry collection, appeared in 1990 and was selected by the Academy of American Poets for its Lamont Poetry prize. In 1995 Lee published the autobiographical The Winged Seed. Since then, Lee has written a third collection of poems titled Book of My Nights (2001). Lee has taught at several universities, including Northwestern University and the University of Iowa, and he currently lives in Chicago with his wife and their two sons.
Works in Literary Context
Lee s work draws upon a range of lyrical conventions, from classical Chinese poetry and biblical palmistry to nineteenth-century Romanticism. The recurrent themes of his poetry generally include his perceptions of the Chinese Diaspora, his understanding and acceptance of his own father, and his identity as it has been formed in relation to his native and adopted languages.
Poetry of the Chinese Diaspora
Lee’s poetry exhibits his sense of being part of a vast global Chinese community. His writing explores the impact his heritage has on his identity s dimensions and textures. He has been praised for expertly representing the aspirations and concerns of post-1965 Asian Americans. The Asian immigrants arriving on United States shores as a result of the 1965 immigration reforms came from a multitude of distinct cultures, so that today the term Asian American includes Laotians, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Thai, Hmong, Indians, Sri Lankans, and Chinese from Hong Kong or Taiwan, as well as those from traditional immigrant countries such as Korea and China. The ”philosophy that Lee ponders in his writing explores the question of individual identity in a world where vast numbers of people have been uprooted from ancestral cultures but are not totally accepted in their adopted lands. In a sense, Lee’s poetry is about the desire to establish boundaries in a world where some boundaries—such as those of a nation—no longer exist.
This diaspora theme often merges with others, like his relationship with his father. Lee frequently writes about figuring out where his father’s identity ends and his own begins, and about discovering his cultural and artistic lineage. The poems in Rose, for instance, center on Lee’s memories of his family’s escape from Indonesia and introduce many of the themes that have become constants in his body of work: love, family, exile, loss, and mortality. His father’s presence is important in Rose and also becomes a constant in his writing, not only as a personal and mythical father figure, but as the source of the evocative biblical imagery and powerful language that permeate the poems. Lee’s father taught him Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty as well as readings from the biblical book Psalms, and the blending of these lyric forms is evident in his writing.
One of the most striking technical characteristics of Lee’s poetry is the use of a single image that serves to thematically and structurally organize and unify the poem. Indeed, Lee’s poems challenge the traditional linear narrative structure: central images link discrete scenes, allowing the poet greater freedom to shift from the concrete to the abstract. This method makes it difficult to separate Lee’s poems into thematic categories, since each poem is often a synthesis of multiple themes that draws vitality from their links to diverse life experiences. The narrative structure, though discontinuous and subject to many digressions, allows for a coherence that is supported by the central connective image. The result, as Xiaojing Zhou explains in The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1998), is ”a capacity for multiple aspects of experience and plural perspectives within one poem.”
Works in Critical Context
Lee’s highly autobiographical poems have been praised by critics for their tenderness, elegance, and passion, as well as for their insightful perspectives on memory and family within the Chinese Diaspora experience.
The City in Which I Love You
Critical reaction to Lee’s collections has been favorable. Writing about The City in Which I Love You in Christianity and Literature, Walter A. Hesford argues that ”motifs, images, and verses from the Song of Songs serve to unify the collection” and that Lee has composed a ”distinctly Chinese-American rendition of the biblical Song.” Lee’s engagement with biblical text, according to Hesford, ”does not constitute a critique but a resigning of it, one that restores its erotic, soulful, tribal qualities often lost or ignored in orthodox appropriations.”
Many reviewers have labeled Lee as a ”Chinese-American” poet, maintaining that his experiences as an Asian immigrant to the United States inform much of his work. Other scholars, however, have resisted the conventional urge to confine readings of his poetry to an ethnocentric context, asserting that Lee’s thematic concerns are universal. In ”Inheritance and Invention,” for example, Zhou Xiaojing argues that largely ethnocentric readings of Lee’s poems are ”not only misleading, but also reductive of the rich cross-cultural sources of influence on Lee’s work and of the creative experiment in his poetry.” She points out that Lee’s cultural influences include classical Chinese poetry, the King James Bible—especially Psalms—and his firsthand experience of life in Asia and America. She concludes that his ”position of straddling different cultures and histories leads to an expansion of his conceptual and perceptual horizon,” which in turn leads to renewed creativity. Zhou claims that Lee’s art transcends ”the boundaries of any single cultural heritage of ethnic identity.” Even as Lee is regarded as an author with universal appeal, most commentators have situated his works within the cultural context of other Asian American poets, such as Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, and David Mura, detecting similar thematic and stylistic concerns.
- Hesford, Walter A. ” The City in Which I Love You: Li-Young Lee’s Excellent Song.” Christianity and Literature 46 (Autumn 1996): 37-60.
- Marshall, Tod. ”To Witness the Invisible: A Talk with Li-Young Lee.” Kenyon Review 22 (Winter 2000): 12-47.
- Neff, David. ”Remembering the Man Who Forgot Nothing.” Christianity Today 32 (September 2, 1988): 63.
- Pinsker, Sanford. ”Review of Rose.” Literary Review 32 (Winter 1989): 256-262.
- Yao, Steven G. ”The Precision of Persimmons: Hybridity, Grafting and the Case of Li-Young Lee.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 12 (April 2001): 1-23.
- Xiaojing, Zhou. ”Inheritance and Invention in Li-Young Lee’s Poetry.” MELUS 21.1 (Spring 1996): 113-132.
- Li-Young Lee. Poets.org from the American Academy of Poets. Retrieved October 10, 2008, from http:// www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/291.
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