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The Winged Seed: A Remembrance ()

The Hungry Mind Review's 100 Best 20th Century Books


Lurking within this memoir is a seemingly interesting story about Lee's father--a Christian preacher, once Mao's physician, he fled with his family to Indonesia, where Li-Young was born, but was imprisoned there by Sukarno.  He managed to escape and the family eventually ended up in Pennsylvania where he ministered to an all-white congregation.  A combination of strict religious beliefs and traditional Chinese views on filial duty, apparently made for a Father who kept great emotional distance from his children and became something of a Godlike figure himself--all powerful but unknowable.  That's what I gather anyway; but the story is told in such obfuscating prose that it's almost impossible to know for sure.

Here's a sample paragraph:

    And then he set out on an unnumbered wave and, being right-handed, pulled the boat opposite the
    clock, which reads 5:04 A.M.  And as long as my father rows ahead of me, there can be no place.
    Place there is none.  And rest is the interval between my woman's eyes, or my dark hammock slung
    between her and China, where I walked once after dark, and stepped into a clue the roses were
    leaving, for I was in the city of roses, Tientsin.  So I stood there a while, the perfume fanned gently
    by bicycles passing from dark to dark.  A while ago, I wept in my dream like a heartbroken child
    for my father's shoes, and now I see there is no boat abandoned that the sea does not take back, haft
    to haft, and every gunwale, board, nail, each shape of departure Chinese boatbuilders I come from
    planed into the timbers.

Granted, some context would help a little, but that series of words simply does not make sense.  At first I was willing to cut Lee some slack, for one thing he's a poet, so you don't really expect straightforward narrative, and then English isn't his native language; I guarantee I would make less sense than that if I tried writing in Chinese.  But ultimately authors have some minimal responsibility to communicate their ideas and, unless his ideas are actually this confused, he fails to do that here.

Then I started looking for links to add to this review and I found an interview where he was asked about the writing style he used for the book:

    IB: Was it something that evolved then?

    LYL: Yeah, it was my fascination with the possibility of writing an extended prose poem without
    revision. Trying to be as naked as possible in the language, you know. Mistakes and everything.
    You know, I was noticing, Kara, that a lot of times when I write my mind drifts and I used to like
    revise and revise all the drifting quality out of the writing. The longer I wrote, the more I felt what
    if that drifting quality was a very natural and good thing? That book was a kind of experiment for
    me just to see if I let my mind drift, wherever it went, what would take shape? To find a natural
    shape and form, or shapeliness, to my mind - without revision. I was just letting my pen go.

    IB: So, you did not revise The Winged Seed at all?

    LYL: No. I'm very embarrassed about some of it because it seems too raw, too naked at places. And
    yet it seems like that was part of the enterprise. That was part of the risk I was taking just to see know, to not edit myself.

    IB: Why did you make that decision? Was it just the experimentation, or...?

    LYL: The longer I wrote, the stronger my editorial voice became. So sometimes even before I
    wrote a sentence down, my critical and editorial voice would say, No, that's not good enough. I
    wanted to get rid of that. I wanted to get past, or under it, or around it somehow. That editorial
    voice was killing, I think, creativity. It was killing the impulse to take risks, to say something
    stupid, to say something disclose too much.  You know, that editorial voice was so
    constricting and controlling, I needed to really just break free of it, you know, and allow myself to
    say whatever came to me. So, it really is a struggle inside of me for freedom and control.

    IB: Do you feel that you were successful in getting rid of that editorial voice?

    LYL: No, because even as it reads, when I'm reading The Winged Seed, I keep thinking: No, I
    should have edited this part, I should have translated... And I feel like I'm still working on it.

Okay, for future reference, here are three things I don't want when I pick up a book: I don't want an author who decides not to listen to that nagging "editorial voice"; I don't want a story that purposefully includes writing with a "drifting quality"; and I don't want reviewers telling me that the writing is "lyrical."


Grade: (D-)


Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: NAKED IN THE LANGUAGE An Interview with Li-Young Lee (Kara Revel, Independence Boulevard)
    -MOONRABBIT BLUES Asian American Literature and Featured Writers Reading Room: Li-Young Lee
    -BIO: & Links & Study Questons (WW Norton)
    -BRIEF BIO: (Bedford St. Martins)
    -AUDIO: Persimmons by Li-Young Lee, read by the author  (WW Norton)
    -POEMS: poetry of  Li-Young Lee
    -ARTICLE: Author tells life of travel in new book (Branden Pfefferkorn)
    -AWARD: Schwartz Poetry Award (NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Deciphering Victorian Underwear, And Other Seminars  (Anne Matthews, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of  THE CITY IN WHICH I LOVE YOU By Li-Young Lee (Carol Muske, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of ROSE By Li-Young Lee (Matthew Flamm, NY Times Book Review)
    -BOOK LIST: Lyrical:  The author of "White Oleander" picks four novels and one memoir that read like poetry. (Janet Fitch, Salon)
    -BOOK LIST: Booklist Editors' Choice '95 Adult Nonfiction (ALA Booklist)