“A Family Affair: An Interview with Li Young and Li Lin Lee” – An Excerpt… by Alex Yu and Patty Cooper

Alex Yu: I think there’s some Asian American artists out there that don’t like associating with Asian American groups just because they don’t want to get that stigma.

Li Lin Lee: It’s such a very complicated issue. To me there must be involvement. I mean Asian Americans got to stick together. But at the same time, we have to be careful not to get ourselves all corralled. So I don’t agree with those people who don’t want to be involved either. That’s also a mistake because that makes us weak.

Patty Cooper: So do you feel that way, Li Young?

Li Young Lee: I do. And I feel that more than ever. It’s a hard thing to juggle. You know, because when they introduce Philip Levine to do a reading, they don’t say “here’s the Jewish American poet, Philip Levine.” They just say the “American poet.” When they introduce me, they say, well “he’s the Chinese American poet.”

PC: And he’s escaped from here and he’s been through here and now he’s made it to America.

LLL: {Singing} Born in a chicken coop…

LYL: As a poet, you just want to be known as a poet. You want to be shoulder to shoulder with Whitman, Dickinson and all the other ones that are considered poets. The danger is if an artist thinks of himself as an Asian American artist, I think if it’s a term of empowerment, then we should use it. But if people are saying, well these are the poets, and those are the minority poets, that bothers me.

PC: When I look at your work, it’s about family, spirituality, about being lonely and afraid. Those are things every person in the world has felt and if they say they haven’t, they are liars.

LLL: That’s another thing. A lot of art by Asian Americans is about being Asian American. That’s a very dangerous thing because that’s supposing that there’s something unusual about us. There may be certain things about us that are unique, but ultimately, like you were saying, our experiences are all universal. We have to transcend, especially in art, we have to transcend those – what I call trivial aspects of our existence – and we have to move on to greater issues, that’s really what art is about. It’s not about this momentary thing, like about AIDS. It’s like, ‘I’m going to write all these poems or paint all these paintings about AIDS’. AIDS is a real thing. It’s very frightening. It’s very important in our time. But at the same time, is it art?…