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Exploring the Context of LI-Young Lee’s “Mnemonic”


Li-Young Lee is an American poet with a Chinese background, which would usually define his work and themes. Yet, Lee is not merely an immigrant to the United States, but rather he represents transcendentalism, a belief in the rejection of cultural affiliations. His poetry reflects his complicated life, with one poem in particular. Published in his first book Rose in 1986, “Mnemonic” relates the complexity of Lee’s experiences (Bilyak, 600). Understanding the context within which the poem was written is essential in ascertaining its meanings and Lee’s worldview.

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Lee’s Biography

Lee’s writing has been significantly influenced by his origin and family. Born in 1957, he was an offspring of a Chinese family which immigrated to Lee’s birthplace Indonesia. Xiaojing dedicated a chapter to Li-Young Lee in a reference book about notable figures of Asian American origin. In this chapter, the author argues that Lee’s family was influential in pre-communist China, however, the political actions of his great-grandfather forced a negative image on his family (Xiaojing 193). As a result of ideological and social pressure, Lee’s parents fled the country and settled in Indonesia.

Indonesia was also not welcoming to the Chinese as the allegations of affiliation with Communists were widespread. Lee’s father was sentenced to prison for a year and a half, after which he took the family, including infant Lee to a long nomadic trip through Southeast Asia. After several years in Hong Kong, they finally arrived in the United States, where Lee grew up and received an education.

Familial history had a strong psychological effect on Lee’s upbringing. The sense of being outcasts, constant losses, and dislocations predetermined the subject matter of his writing. Being an ethnic Chinese and living in the United States, both cultures shaped Lee’s identity. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Arts. During his studies, he explored Chinese poetry and started writing his poems.

However, most of all, Lee was affected by his relationship with his father. Not only was the son impacted by the paternal interest in poetic preaching, but his father also constituted a major theme of his poetry. The poem “Mnemonic” was written after graduation, and it also included Lee’s memories associated with his parent. When his father perished, Lee continued to write about him, although his emphasis shifted to conquering mortality and meditations.

Summary of the Poem

“Mnemonic” is a piece about emotions, memories, feelings, and regret. It does not have a specific setting, as the majority of verses describe the flow of thoughts inside the author’s head. As with all Lee’s early works, this poem is centered around his father, who is both loving and cold. The controversial actions of his father make Lee reminiscent and fearful at the same time.

On the one hand, Lee sympathetically remembers his parent. Particularly, the sweater that the father gave to him when he got cold symbolizes affection and care. It is a piece of clothing significant to the family. Lee remembers that this is the sweater his father was wearing upon arrival in America. Although it did not belong to Lee, he never returned it and kept it as a reminder of the softer side of his parent.

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On the other hand, the father is presented as a calculating man, not prone to emotions. Lee recalls his father “spanking” him, which he did daily (Huntley 87). Lee is anxious that he would not make his family proud of him. He is illogical and forgetful, while the father had an exceptional memory and critical thinking. Yet Lee thinks that ultimately his father beat him out of love, thus making remembering those incidents sweet and painful at the same time.

Literary Criticism

Li-Young Lee is an unusual poet in regards to his combination of American and Chinese input. Wenying Xu explored the creativity of people with origins similar to Lee in “Eating Identities: Reading Food in Asian American Literature”. One of its chapters focuses on Lee and presents his works as manifestations of “transcendentalism” (Xu 94). The author argues that Lee’s binary cultural upbringing does not define him as strictly Chinese or American. As a consequence, he can transcend cultural barriers and combine two drastically different cultures in his work.

Affiliation to a particular culture or ethnicity can limit a person in expressing their feelings. According to Xu, Lee himself dislikes the idea of being classified as an Asian American poet (108). Lee thinks that cultural identity is an artificial logical construct, while the source of poetry is emotions. “Mnemonic” also showcases his disregard for logical reasoning when he writes about God, his creation, father, love, and spanking. Thus, his primary view of himself does not belong to culture but is an exile.

His conception of himself as an exile persists into his adult life. It is reflected in the sweater that his father gave to him in “Mnemonic”. The sweater had been with them since the time of immigration. It carries the memory of changing life conditions of his family before his birth. Lee himself was too young to remember the event itself, therefore, he developed an outcast mentality from the beginning.

The result is of this resistance against societal affiliations is Lee’s inner controversy. He attempts to transcend cultural barriers, yet he is influenced by Chinese poetry. He rejects ethnic identity, yet reminiscence of immigration and its causes manifest themselves in his verses. Ultimately, Lee’s struggle against cultural labels is what ironically highlights him and his creativity as expressions of the Asian diaspora in literature and poetry.

Interview Summary

In 2002, Li-Young Lee appeared at the Festival of Arts & Ideas in Connecticut, where Dianne Bilyak interviewed him. As is the case of his entire life, Lee referred to his experiences at the Festival as ambivalent (600). He stated that he viewed all participants, including himself on a journey where they try to unravel the feelings they were experiencing. This is remarkably similar to his life’s attempts to identify himself and realize what he experiences.

Lee made an interesting notion that he wants his poems to have a special language. While revising some of his verses, he thought that “there’s not enough destiny in it” (Bilyak 602). He then posits that he attributes his life to fate, including his career as a poet. He started writing as soon as he had begun to learn English, yet he believes that his dislocation allowed him to see the reality not hinged by culture.

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Bilyak also asked him about his family, and Lee’s answers revealed his persisting duality of opinions about them. He could not definitively say whether his father is a positive or negative aspect of his life, reasoning that both are appropriate. Ambivalence also emerges when Lee is asked about his attitude to humorous poems. Surprisingly, Lee answers that he sees himself writing poetry as humor itself. He accepts it and continues writing, which is his accustomed behavior throughout his entire life.


Altogether, a poet’s creation conveys more information about them than they can. Familial history of fleeing China, Indonesia, and Hong Kong solidified Lee’s opinion of himself as an exile. He has two potent memories prevalent in his poems and “Mnemonic” in particular. The first is the relationship with his father that he cannot reconcile. The second is his Chinese origin in the American setting that he tries to devalue, but it is unconsciously reinforced in his writing. Overall, realizing that ambivalence guides Lee’s life and creativity, which is why his pieces are so controversial and complicated.

Works Cited

Bilyak, Dianne, and Li-Young Lee. “Interview with Li-Young Lee.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 44, no. 4, 2003, pp. 600-612.

Huntley, E. D. “Modern Poetry in the Classroom: Exploring Memory: Li-Young Lee’s “Mnemonic”.” The English Journal, vol. 83, no. 2, 1994, pp. 87-89.

Xiaojing, Zhou. “Li-Young Lee.” Asian American Autobiographers: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Guiyou Huang, Greenwood Press, 2001, pp. 187-192.

Xu, Wenying. Eating Identities: Reading Food in Asian American Literature. University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.

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