Li-Young Lee 1957-
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.
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).
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 some are also colored by the poet's memories of past times with his father, with whom the poet here strongly identifies. Romantic in tone and lyrical in style, the autobiographical The Winged Seed recounts the events of Lee's constantly interrupted childhood in Indonesia, Macao, Japan, and the United States. The title of Lee's memoirs alludes to his father's incessant habit of carrying a pocketful of seeds wherever he went, as a kind of remembrance. Book of My Nights again returns to issues surrounding Lee's Asian heritage and family, his sense of cultural alienation as a Chinese exile living in America, and his doubts about adequately perceiving his own cross-cultural identity.
Most critics have praised Lee's intimate poetry for its tender tone, elegant form, and poignant memories, although others have also discussed the role of “memory” and “family” in his verse, focusing on Lee's turbulent childhood and his life as an American citizen and artist. Many reviewers have labeled Lee as a “Chinese-American” poet, maintaining that his experiences as an Asian èmigrè to the United States inform much of his work, but some scholars have asserted that Lee's thematic concerns are universal, resisting the conventional urge to confine readings of his poetry to an ethnocentric context. Nonetheless, 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. Acknowledging Lee's poetic voice and unique vision, however, most critics have agreed that Lee's contributions have invigorated the first-person, “confessional” poetry of self-examination that has characterized much contemporary American poetry since the 1960s.