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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866

Li-Young Lee 1957-

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Indonesian-born American poet and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Lee's career through 2001.

Though born in Indonesia, Lee is reckoned among America's most promising contemporary poets for his multicultural blending of literary motifs. Lee has written only a handful of award-winning poetry collections, yet he has engaged readers with his musings on childhood and alienation as well as his explorations of family relationships, particularly those between father and son. Widely praised by critics for their gentle tone, humble voice, and lyrical form, Lee's poems have often been stylistically and thematically compared to a diverse range of poetry in the Asian, European, and American literary traditions.

Biographical Information

Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 19, 1957, the son of a former personal physician to Chinese chairman Mao Tsetung. In Jakarta, Lee's father also helped to found Gamaliel University where he taught English and philosophy until 1958, when he was arrested during a period of intense anti-Chinese sentiment. Shortly reunited, Lee and his family later fled Indonesia in 1959, traveling through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan until 1964, when they finally settled in the United States. Eventually declaring American citizenship, Lee attended high school in Pennsylvania and later enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, where he received a B.A. degree in 1979. He subsequently attended both the University of Arizona and State University of New York at Brockport and later lectured at several American universities, including Northwestern and the University of Iowa. In 1986, Lee published his first book of poetry, Rose, which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. In 1989, Lee was featured on Bill Moyer's Public Broadcast System (PBS) series The Power of the Word; he also received a fellowship from the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation. 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 entitled Book of My Nights (2001).

Major Works

Drawing upon a range of lyrical conventions from classical Chinese poetry and Biblical palmistry to nineteenth-century Romanticism, the recurrent themes of Lee's poetry generally include his perceptions of the Chinese diaspora, his understanding and acceptance of his own father, and his identity as formed in relation to his native and adopted languages. The poems of Rose 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, while he removes a splinter form his wife's hand, an adult Lee 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. Themes of loss, exile, and dispossession mark the content of both Rose and The City in Which I Love You, Lee's second collection. “The Interrogation,” for instance, relates images of political turmoil and violence from Lee's childhood in Jakarta. Other poems in this collection meditate on feelings of cultural alienation or marginalization experienced by Lee in “foreign” societies, as an exile. Suffused with “unorthodox” imagery and pervaded by unsettling dark visions, most of the poems of The City in Which I Love You deal with Lee's love for his wife and son, but...

(The entire section contains 19370 words.)

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Lee, Li-Young (Poetry Criticism)