The Winged Seed
BOA Editions, April 2013
Reading Li-Young Lee’s The Winged Seed reminded me of an argument by economist Tyler Cowen. Cowen cautions against our propensity to impose narrative on everything. He claims that life is not a story but a mess, and that in insisting on making sense by giving it a storyline, we actually exclude and erase much of it. This may sound like a damning statement, especially for writers of nonfiction—and yet it seems that (over a decade before Cowen) Lee followed the same philosophy when writing this book.
The Winged Seed was first published in 1995 and won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. It is sometimes marketed as a memoir and sometimes as an autobiography, but if we have to put a genre label on it, I propose to call it by its subtitle: a remembrance. Lee presents the reader with a series of memories—his own as well as those that his parents shared with him about their own lives.
I say “presents” because while we gradually learn about the political exile of Lee’s parents from China, and his childhood in Indonesia and Pennsylvania, there is a near-total absence of a present-day narrator to provide retrospective commentary on these memories. Lee barely even provides a sense of chronology as the lyrical, engrossing prose slips seamlessly between times, places, suicides, births, debilitating madness, countless deaths, and “strange creature[s] for whom childhood was erased, even as [they] continued to inhabit a child’s body.”
Perhaps the best way to describe the effect Lee achieves is that it’s similar to what it might be like witnessing someone else’s mind directly—to be immersed in their imagination and their memories without the benefit of translation that comes with the act of telling. The result is a sense of incredible intimacy; a closeness that is at times comforting, once you’re familiar with the connections between the family members, and at times very disturbing—as when you learn new layers to the pasts these characters lived. And the intimacy is only heightened in the few moments when a present-day narrator does step in with a direct address to his love, as if the whole book is the kind of revelation we make in courtship.
At the core of this book is an exploration of the winged seed—the seed that can be carried far from its original tree. With vivid and evocative language, Lee depicts how he came to exist so far from his places of origin. Along the way, he explores incredible acts of human cruelty, tragedy and kindness. And the success of his unconventional narrative structure is that it resists simplifying any of these difficult topics; it demands that the reader finish making sense of Lee’s remembrances. The Winged Seed is one of those books that stay with you long after you finish reading: “Memory is salt,” as Lee puts it. “Don’t forget me.”