A seed, like a refugee, can drift with the wind and take root in a distant land. A seed, like a memory, can lie tiny and inert until something impels it to grow huge. A seed is both child and progenitor, both dead and alive.
This complex metaphor is at the heart of this memoir by Li-Young Lee, who made his literary reputation as a poet ("Rose," "City in Which I Love You") and tells the story of his Chinese immigrant family's life with a poet's intensity.
That story, in linear form, is this: Lee's great-grandfather was Yuan Shih-k'ai, the first president of modern China (1912-16). His grandfather was a rich man, a swindler and a sadist. His father was a historian, a Christian theologian and at one time the personal physician to Mao Tse-tung. Turmoil in China prompted the family to move to Indonesia, where Lee was born in 1957.
There, the Chinese community suffered violent repression by the Sukarno regime. Lee's father, then vice president of a university in Jakarta, was imprisoned (though, Lee says, he was "one of the most nonpolitical persons I've ever known"). Soldiers ransacked their house. His mother wore herself out bribing officials so she could visit her husband in prison and a mental hospital. One of Lee's brothers died of meningitis.
After their escape--which the father viewed as a miracle and which confirmed him in his new vocation as an evangelical preacher--the Lees lived in Hong Kong. In 1964, they came to the United States. Lee's father became pastor of an all-white Presbyterian church in a working-class town in Pennsylvania. As a teen-ager, Lee was his father's secretary, copying sermons, visiting shut-in parishioners and assisting at church services.
"The Winged Seed," however, is not linear. Nor does it focus on the "big" events, such as the escape, that a novelist would emphasize. It works, rather, as memory does: It proceeds by association, skips around in time, doubles back on itself, blurs and clears as it passes through the bright, flawed lens of the narrator's recollections of childhood.
The narrator, Lee himself, lies awake in bed in Chicago beside his sleeping wife. Even her nearness can't ease the solitude in which he wrestles with the past. Images flash into his mind, from his own childhood and from stories he was told:
* Of the founding of the family's fortune in a 19th-Century dispute over fishing grounds. A representative of each of two warring clans plunges his arms into a caldron of boiling oil and walks home. Both die. Lee's family, whose champion lives a little longer, wins.
* Of a 14-year-old servant girl who hangs herself because of harsh treatment in the "Old President's" household. Her dangling foot appears out of the gloom amid the rafters of an ill-lit sewing hall where generations of seamstresses have slowly gone blind.
* Of his father having to sit, as punishment, outside a room in \o7 his \f7 father's crumbling mansion where a mad, syphilitic uncle is chained to a bed.
* Of his mother, in a train station in Seattle, overcoming her own fear and exhaustion to show a bewildered, homeless young American mother how to feed a baby.
Lee's primary struggle is with his father. After Sukarno had the elder Lee arrested, his absence was an overwhelming presence in their house; now, dead 13 years, he is still the most living person in his son's world.
Yet Lee, as a boy, saw his father only in awed or fearful glimpses: as an ailing body to be washed, as the prayerful would-be healer of Lee's childhood muteness, as a tyrant whose beatings failed to wring a cry from either of them, as an artist who seemed to steal Lee's identity by drawing him. This man of God who integrated his family so successfully into American life represents all the good and evil in Lee's Chinese heritage. But how do the pieces fit together?
In his compulsion to communicate all this, Lee moves from a poetic prose to an uncompromising poetry, when only the authority of his voice sustains us through stretches of pure metaphor and we have to trust--as we find we generally do--that the words flying past us carry the seeds of sense.