Li-Young Lee

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2005, 12:00am

Writers from China's diaspora

When people ask poet Li-Young Lee where he's from, his first answer is Chicago. At times, he might add that he was born in Indonesia. 'But I insist that, although I was born in Indonesia, I'm Chinese. I don't want people to think I'm Indonesian - my people were persecuted by the Indonesians.'

Lee's origins are complicated. Indonesia is where his father, Lee Kuo Yuan, a former physician to Mao Zedong, fled during the anti-rightist campaign with Lee's mother, a great grand-daughter of the notorious warlord Yuan Shikai, who replaced Sun Yat-sen as president of the infant Chinese Republic.

In Indonesia, the elder Lee helped found Gamaliel University, but had to flee again in 1959 to escape anti-Chinese persecution. The Lee family lived in Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan before settling in a small Pennsylvania town.

Since the publication of his first book of poems, Rose, in 1986, the 47-year-old writer has become among the most acclaimed US contemporary poets. Not surprisingly, given his family's history, themes of exile, loss and dislocation figure largely in his work.

'Exile seems both a blessing and a curse,' Lee says in a soft, almost meditative voice. 'A lot of my friends who are writers have said to me, 'You're so lucky to have this background to write from'. And I guess in a way I am lucky, but I wouldn't wish that experience on anybody.

'The literature I love the most is the literature of ruins and the experience of exodus.'

As is apparent from his poetry collections - Rose, The City in Which I Love You and The Book of Nights - Lee's late father was the dominant influence in his life. 'He was a man of huge intellectual and artistic talents,' he says. 'He was reading and translating the Bible and the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and he loved Shakespeare and opera.'

How did he become a poet? 'My father read to us constantly from the King James Bible,' he says. 'And because he had a classical Chinese education, which meant he had memorised 300 poems from the Tang dynasty, he would recite those poems to us as well, and we would recite them back to him. My memory was so bad, I could never do it very well, but I did learn to love poetry.'

At the University of Pittsburgh, Lee had intended to major in biochemistry, but found himself increasingly drawn to poetry. He went on to study poetry at the University of Arizona and State University of New York before moving to Chicago. Lee spent two decades working in a warehouse to help his wife, Donna, raise their two sons. 'As the years went by, I started publishing books,' he says. 'My supervisor had all of my books in his office.'

Lee says that fatherhood confronted him with the enormity of his responsibility. 'I thought, 'This has got to be serious'. In this culture, everything is up for grabs. But a father is a kind of compass for a child - even a father who has died. So when they come to talk to me, I want them to know that north means north.'

A self-described insomniac, Lee still prefers to write poetry at night, but these days, he makes his living giving poetry readings and teaching around the country. He still lives in Chicago, now in a three-storey house on the North Side.

The living arrangements follow that of a traditional Chinese family, with three generations - his mother, himself and his twin brother, their wives and their children - under the same roof. Lee's sensitivity is revealed in his widely anthologised poem Persimmons, which recounts how his sixth-grade teacher slapped the back of his hand for his failure to differentiate 'persimmon' from 'precision' when he understood at a more fundamental level the difference between those and other words.

Although his work contains myriad references to his Chinese ancestry - one poem describes relatives recalling China and another refers to being 'exiled from one republic and daily defeated in another' - Lee doesn't dwell on issues of culture.

As he once told the literary journal, Kenyon Review: 'I have no dialogue with cultural existence. Culture made that up - Asian-American, African-American, whatever. An artist has to discover a dialogue that is essential to his being ... that it is no longer cultural or canonical, but a dialogue with his truest self.'