Poet to share his 'language of longing' Li-Young Lee to read from prize-winning works

November 19, 1995|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Despite years of wandering across continents, countries and cities to flee political persecution, Li-Young Lee prefers to call himself a spiritual refugee.

Driven by spiritual longing, the Indonesian-born Chinese writer -- who reads today at Howard Community College -- has harnessed his quest for completeness with God into three award-winning books of poetry and prose.

Mr. Lee will read from his works in a program sponsored by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society at 4 p.m. Tomorrow, he will speak at Hammond High School in Columbia.

"Poetry is the language of longing," Mr. Lee said in a telephone interview from his Chicago home. "It tries to discover why we're here at all.

"My experience as a sojourner in this country is synchronous with my experiences as a sojourner on this planet -- like everyone else's is."

The 38-year-old writer will be introduced by Lucille Clifton, a former Maryland poet laureate and Columbia resident who is a distinguished professor of humanities at St. Mary's College and a writing teacher at Columbia University's School of the Arts in New York City.

"His use of language is evocative and precise," Ms. Clifton said. "There is great music in his poetry. It is so well-crafted, but still felt with the heart and spirit."

Mr. Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to a distinguished Chinese family.

His great-grandfather, Yuan Shih-kai, was the first elected president of the Republic of China. His mother was a member of the Chinese royal family. His late father, Richard, was Mao Tse-tung's personal doctor for a year.

After a falling-out with the Communist Party in the late 1950s, the family fled to Indonesia. A biblical scholar who studied in Hebrew, the elder Mr. Lee started a religious college in which theologians from the West and East participated.

A backlash against Chinese nationals in Indonesia resulted in the elder Mr. Lee's political imprisonment there for 19 months in the late 1950s. Afterward, he and his family were banished to a prison colony, but they escaped to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Japan, where they lived in hiding. The elder Mr. Lee, who attributed their survival to God, became a Christian evangelist.

The family emigrated to the United States in 1964, settling in Pittsburgh, where Richard Lee was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and later moving to Seattle.

Looking back at his turbulent and impoverished youth, Mr. Lee said he initially thought his feelings of displacement were typical of those experienced by new immigrants in their adopted countries.

But he eventually realized that his yearning to belong evolved from a spiritual emptiness, rather than from cultural awkwardness.

"Ever since I was little, I had an unexplained longing," Mr. Lee said. "I felt scattered, dispersed -- part of me in China, part in Pittsburg, part in Seattle. I longed for a state of union.

"For many years, I felt my years of homelessness and not belonging was because I didn't feel represented, until the last few years, when I realized my longing was for God."

Mr. Lee turned those abstract feelings into award-winning books: "Rose," winner of the 1987 Delmore Schwartz Poetry Award; "The City in Which I Love You," winner of the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and "The Winged Seed," winner of the $50,000 Lannan Literary Award in 1995.

His works dart between past and present, weaving together images of China, his strict but compassionate father, the troubles the family endured and Mr. Lee's life today.

"The City in Which I Love You" is based on the "Song of Songs" in the Bible, a love song to God. His most recent work, "The Winged Seed," is a collection of memoirs written in poetic prose about diaspora and exile.

He sees such works as a stepping stone in his journey. "The most noble end of memory is remembering our spiritual home," he said.

The Howard County Poetry and Literature Society will present Li-Young Lee at 4 p.m. today at the Lower Lounge in Howard Community College. Admission is $5; free to students and staff. Information: 730-7524.

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