“People have been trying to kill me since I was born.”
The line opens “Immigrant Blues,” the autobiographical poem by Li-Young Lee that illuminates his family’s history of traumatization, assimilation and survival. China’s Cultural Revolution led to the torture and murder of Lee family members, and Li-Young’s father, once a personal physician to Mao Zedong, relocated his wife and children to Indonesia, and from there they fled to the United States.
“Without a vision, people perish,” Li-Young told a Clark audience that gathered in Dana Commons on Dec. 1. “Members of my family who did not have a vision didn’t do very well. The ones who had a vision, or a piece of a vision, or a glimpse of a vision, could make it. [This was] a vision of a future, a vision of what a human is supposed to be; a vision of a human mission where suffering isn’t meaningless.
“Without an image of what a human being is supposed to be we’re lost.”
Watch the “Creativity and Resilience” program.
Li-Young Lee was joined by filmmaker Katja Esson and film producer Alison Granucci for the Difficult Dialogues seminar “Creativity and Resilience,” the culminating event of the fall series “Educating … for what?” The series supported Clark’s Liberal Education and Effective Practice initiative, as well as the work of the Higgins School and humanities faculty in a Mellon planning proposal.
The springboard for the Dec. 1 session was a screening of Esson’s film, “Poetry of Resilience,” which traced the stories of six poets who survived Hiroshima, the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Kurdish Genocide in Iraq, the Rwandan Genocide and the Iranian Revolution. The documentary, much of it shot at a poetry conference in Great Barrington, teems with heartbreaking recollections of how entire families were decimated by violence, but relates how the poets have fought off despair through their writings and emerged to celebrate the gift of survival.
Esson described herself as “a very positive person who believes in the human race,” yet said that core belief was challenged by the stories covered in her film. She recounted seeing “mountains” of bones and skulls in Rwanda, some with visible bullet holes and ax marks. At a memorial to the slain in Rwanda, she was shaken to read the statement of a survivor: “When they said ‘never again’ after World War II, was that just meant for some people and not for others?”
Young-Li recalled attending a conference featuring many of the poets featured in Esson’s film (Young-Li is also profiled in the movie).
“When I heard their poems I thought, ‘These were meant to be heard,’” he said. “We need to account for human suffering.”
Young-Li compared the artistic process, including writing poetry, to a form of yoga that must be practiced and honed. Addressing the seminar’s central question of “Educating … for what?” he noted that the majority of people are trapped in their own narrow existences and are essentially “unconscious” to the world around them. “Maybe we educate for consciousness,” he speculated.
“We have a public self, a private self, a secret self, and art is a way to get in touch with all of that,” he said. “We project onto reality. Have we projected things onto reality that aren’t there; are seeing things in reality that aren’t there? There’s a profound alchemy that happens when we read poetry deeply; we disentangle our projections on the world.”
Alison Granucci related the story of a Vietnamese poet who was imprisoned for 27 years. In that time, he composed 700 poems in his mind — the process helped him survive, he said. Upon his release the poet immediately set about writing down all 700 poems, and when the last one was completed, he never felt compelled to write another.
In their remarks, the Difficult Dialogues audience returned to the theme of resiliency. Parminder Bhachu, professor of sociology, described cracked teapots that are soldered back together, with the adhesive material making the pot even stronger than it was in its original form. “People who are damaged are also the people who can survive,” she said.
Fern Johnson, professor of English, noted the scene in the Esson’s film when an Iranian poet breaks down while reading his poem about the injustices that were wrought on his family. He regains his composure and follows up with a smile and a quip: “I ruined the poem.”
“He has this balance somehow,” Johnson said, asking Esson if the other poets profiled in the movie were equally composed.
“When I went to the conference and looked at these people, I did not see victims, I saw artists, I saw poets,” Esson said. “That is why the scene so important in the film, because he sees himself as poet first. … The poems were an act of courage, of hope.”