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Sherman Alexie and Li Young Lee: Comparative Essay

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The love for poetry and writing can begin with the simple routine of listening to the soothing voices of parents reading a bedtime story. Unfortunately for some, such as Sherman Alexie, the sweetest routines are not a part of their everyday life while growing up. Defying the odds at a young age, Alexie survived life-threatening health conditions, bullied because of his appearance and an absent father. As a boy, he was much influenced by his maternal grandmother, a spiritual leader of Spokane, who died when he was eight. Because of his health, he was unable to compete physically, so he became instead an avid reader. Growing up around alcohol addictions, Alexie himself picked up the deadly habit, however, after he caught his big break in 1990 publishing “Hanging Loose”, he has credited his work with giving him the incentive to stop excessively drinking. Li Young Lee, born in 1957, Jakarta, Indonesia also grew up with a brash story: migrating from country to country, family imprisonment and death. Through it all, Lee was fortunate enough to have stories read to him, although his care for poetry did not begin until he attended the University of Pittsburgh. Both Sherman Alexie and Li Young Lee draw on their personal and historical experiences to write about alcohol abuse and one’s beliefs, inviting readers to know who they have come to be.

Similar to their backgrounds, both Lee and Alexie’s poetry correlate yet oppose one another. Alexie evokes sadness and resentment, yet leaves readers with the sense of respect and compassion. Involved with crime, alcohol, or drugs, Alexie’s protagonists struggle to survive the constant battering of their minds, bodies, and spirits by white American society and their own self-hatred and sense of powerlessness. For example, “Good Hair” is a poem about Alexie’s youth and stories strung into each strand of his long hair. As he was questioned for the reasons as to why he cut his hair, some simply asked if it was because he looked Indian, if it was because of his murdered father or if it was because of his sister’s death and her funeral. For example, “Did you cut your hair after booze murdered your father? When he was buried, did you baptize him with your braids?” Alexie was able to take a simple action such as cutting his hair and twist into a story about nativity. His works primarily cover themes like poverty, racism, and alcoholism which were common problems faced by the Native Americans.

Lee’s poems depict an eerie silence as he uses his personal experiences and memories to relive his haunting past. His poetry vividly paints his memories of the refugee experience and stories recounted by his family members. Lee’s work is also influenced by the classical Chinese poets Li Bo and Tu Fu whom he was taught to recite as a boy. Equally important is his father’s Christianity and Lee’s consequent exposure to the King James version of the Bible, Which still remains a powerful source of inspiration for him. He explores the question of individual identity in a world where people have been uprooted from their culture and have not found acceptance in their new land. Many immigrants remain silent about their past lives, and their silence adds to the confusion and loss of identity that characterize the immigrant experience. Lee faces the complex issues of displacement as he seeks to understand earlier generations of his family. Lee talked about his belief in the oneness of all things in an interview with Tina Chang for the Academy of American Poets: “If you rigorously dissect it, you realize that everything is a shape of the totality of causes. What’s another name for the totality of causes? The Cosmos. So everything is a shape of Cosmos or God. It feels like something bigger than me—that I can’t possibly fathom but am embedded in.”

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The central idea in Alexie’s “Good hair”, shows his dark humor and sarcasm “Hey, Indian boy, why (why!) did you slice off your braids” is a line repeated throughout the poem. Alexie wants to know why this boy cut off his braids when they were significant to his culture. They showed the world that he was a Native American and he was proud of his hair. Throughout the poem, Alexie asks the boy several sarcastic questions about the reason why he cut his hair such as,” Did you weave your hair with your siblings’ and mother’s hair, And pray that your father grave-awakes and climbs your braids?” He simply cannot understand why the boy would do such a thing. America has taken over the lives of Native Americans, so why not keep one of the only things you can to show your heritage, your braids.

The central idea in Lee’s “Self Help” emphasizes Lee’s feelings of alienation once entering the United States. He conveys how he never felt at home in the US, that it was his ‘adopted country’. He never felt like he truly belonged and explains how even though starting over in a new country seemed like a good idea, once his family moved, the promise of a fresh start and new opportunities faded. This is a piece of work that looks back on his father’s painful imprisonment and its effect on the family.

Both poets conveyed there such pain in the poems they have written. They showed the struggles they have faced growing up, they showed the torment they’ve endured. Both Sherman Alexie and Li Young Lee draw on their personal and historical experiences to write about alcohol abuse and one’s beliefs, showing us how you can overcome abuse and neglect at a young age.

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