Li-Young Lee 1957–
American poet and autobiographer.
Lee is the author of two acclaimed collections of poetry, Rose (1986), which won New York University's Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award, and The City in Which I Love You, which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Deeply personal, Lee's poetry explores identity, particularly his sense of being part of a vast, global Chinese diaspora.
Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to parents who had been exiled from China. His maternal grandfather had been the first president of the Republic of China, and his father had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong in China before leaving for Indonesia. In Jakarta Lee's father helped found Gamaliel University, where he taught English and philosophy. In 1959 the family fled from anti-Chinese persecution in Indonesia, embarking on a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, arriving finally in the United States in 1964. After studying theology in Pittsburgh, Lee's father became a Presbyterian minister in a small town in Pennsylvania where Lee attended high school. Lee continued his studies at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Arizona, and State University of New York. He has taught at Northwestern and the University of Iowa.
Lee's background and upbringing are reflected in several issues that recur in his poetry, which explores the question of individual identity in a world where people have been uprooted from traditional cultures, but have not found complete acceptance in their adopted lands. His desire to understand and accept his father, whom he both loves and fears, is the central motif of Rose, while the nature of his own identity dominates his second collection, The City in Which I Love You. Lee records his experiences with great detail, often connecting seemingly disparate and occasionally abstract thoughts with a single image, such as a rose, persimmon, or cleaver.
Lee's poetry, particularly those poems in his second collection, has been lauded for its emotional depth and skilled use of language. Many critics have sought out Lee's poetic influences, noting Walt Whitman in particular, although the majority agree that his finest poems, such as "The Cleaving," depart from American poetic tradition. Several scholars have focused on the significance of Lee's Chinese heritage, which has sparked some critical debate. Zhou Xiaojing has responded by claiming that such readings "are not only misleading, but also reductive of the rich cross-cultural sources of influence on Lee's work and the creative experiment in his poetry." Zhou added, "Li-Young Lee's poems enact and embody the process of poetic innovation and identity invention beyond the boundaries of any single cultural heritage or ethnic identity."