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Li-Young Lee's Journey to Himself

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The Stranger

Li-Young Lee's Journey to Himself

By Cara Jepsen

For a short time in the late 1940s, poet Li-Young Lee's father was Mao Tse-tung's physician. "When it became clear that the communists were going to win, a lot of the generals just switched sides," says Lee. "My father, who was attached to one of the nationalist generals, went over with the communists and ended up working for Mao. They actually became very close but had a falling-out over ideology." Eventually his father fled China, though perhaps not entirely for political reasons: "My father hinted that he and Mao had some of the same girlfriends or were in love with the same woman."

Leaving a son in the care of a grandmother, Lee's father took his wife and daughter to Jakarta, where he helped found Gamaliel University and taught philosophy and medicine. Lee was born in 1957. Almost two years later his father was thrown in jail by Indonesian dictator Sukarno, who deemed his contacts with foreigners as dangerous.

Lee's mother visited the prison every day, bribing guards to allow her to visit her husband and lobby officials on his behalf. Before leaving, Lee recalls, she would make the children go through an elaborate drill in preparation for the fires that periodically swept through their village, where many of the houses were still made of thatch. Lee's nine-year-old sister gathered valuables and rounded up the family and servants at the front gate, where she was supposed to wait to see if the flames would spread to their house.

While their mother was gone, Lee says, soldiers often came to the house demanding bribes. Many Chinese neighbors were arrested. Lee's father's personal possessions and photographs were seized, and once the family was told that he had died in prison. Lee's evocations of that time have a dreamlike quality, one that permeates his memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance.

"The book has a meandering and migratory, wandering quality to it, which is exactly how my life has felt, up to about a few years ago," says Lee, who has also written two books of poetry. He'll read from his work at noon this Saturday at the Printers Row Book Fair. "I guess I wanted to evoke the feeling that identity is somehow murky and unknown to us. That's why the passages in the book are mystical, metaphysical....I was not so much interested in getting dates and events right but to get the feeling of what it actually feels like to be a person whose soul is filled with all of this stuff. It's not orderly, and it's unlit or badly lit, and you can see some of it and some of it you can't."

Lee's memories range from going with his nannies to watch elaborate stage shows ("Not one of us remembers what the plays were about," he writes) to the uncomfortable day his father was released for a surprise visit home while his mother was trying to see him at the prison. "He looked different, gaunt, feral. And he smelled a little," Lee writes.

"We were almost relieved to see him go." His father was in prison so long that Lee's sister thought the posters of Su-karno tacked up everywhere were pictures of their father.

Eventually the family was or-dered to accompany their father to another island. With money sewn into their clothes and Lee's sister's doll, they boarded a ship guarded by soldiers. Lee, who was four, hadn't started to speak yet. "My parents told me that about a mile out of the harbor I began to speak in complete sentences in Bahasa, and they were shocked," he says.

The family was saved by a stroke of luck. "A small chartered boat pulled beside the ship, and the captain said he was there to pick up some gentleman. The guards looked at their list, and the name was not on it. He said, 'The boat's paid for. I don't know what to do.'"

The captain was an ex-student of Lee's father. "My father said, 'Since the boat is paid for, can you take us to Hong Kong?' The guy said of course. We were gathering our things and the guards came over and asked if he had papers to leave the boat. My father said, 'All I have are these passports,' and handed them to the guard. The guard should have seen by the name who he was. But he looked at them and said, 'OK, you can go.'" Lee's father, who had undergone "a conversion experience" in prison, attributed the escape to divine intervention.

"All I remember is that on the shore of Hong Kong, a huge Christmas tree was all lit up. The whole island was full of light. It felt so refreshing, so free." The next day, Lee recalls, "We were walking around Hong Kong and my parents were giggling like two young newlyweds because they just had escaped with their lives and kids, and they were eating ice cream on the streets."

In Hong Kong Lee's father became a popular Pentecostal preacher. After stints in Japan, Singapore, and Seattle, he enrolled at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and the family settled in Vandergrift, a white working-class town where parishioners referred to Lee's father as "our heathen minister." Lee says he never felt like he fit in. "They weren't particularly enlightened," he says.

After Lee's father died in 1980, the family spent several days burning his papers in an oil drum. "My mother is used to giving up things," Lee says. They decided to move to Chicago. "We wanted to be in a big city, where there was more ethnic diversity and ethnic tolerance. We visited New York for a while, but that was unmanageable, so we came here out of the blue."

The extended family--including Lee's grandmother, mother, wife, brother, sister, and their families--pooled their resources and bought a large house in Uptown. "When we were little we had heard stories of huge Chinese families living together," Lee says. "We always fantasized about doing that. We wanted to live together, I think, because we felt very alienated on the outside. When we were outside of the family we had to explain ourselves, but when we were together we felt like we didn't have to explain everything."

In 1990 the family traveled to China. His mother, who is from a prominent, well-to-do background, visited her family's cemetery only to discover that the markers--including two 15-foot lion sculptures--were gone. Pigs fed from troughs near the graves. Later they discovered the sculptures had been put in a public park. After the revolution, they were told, students had ransacked the graves looking for gold and jewels.

Discovering his family's past and writing about it are part of a continuing quest for Lee, who says he still feels a sense of shame for being different. "There is no accurate representation of me in the culture--there's no authentic representation of anyone--and I began to realize there was something even prior to my own personal history," he says. "It's like the Zen question: What was your face before you were born? I had to figure it out."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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