Yiyun Li memoir ‘Dear Friend’ reflects her dance with
death and love of life
By Lou Fancher
Oakland-based Chinese American writer Yiyun Li is a binge reader.
“I read dead authors. I read contemporaries, but I don’t follow what’s hot,” she says in an interview. “Sometimes, I read best-selling books years later, like Zadie Smith’s; I read all of her books, chronologically. I could see how she changed and developed as a writer. She’s not as interested in sexual relationships as she is in siblings. If I had read one book, I wouldn’t have seen that pattern.”
Disrupting her own pattern of non-autobiographical fiction, Li’s new collection of essays, “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life” (Random House, $27, 201 pages), is an incisive self-dissection of the 44-year-old author’s history and life with books. Exposing literary practices that include annual re-readings of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and Melville’s “Moby Dick” —the former for its epic realism, the latter for details revealed with each rereading — Li includes in her book memories from her childhood in Beijing, experiences she had after immigrating to the United States in 1996 to study immunology and instead becoming a writer and American citizen, and insights gleaned from reading the books, letters, diaries and journals of William Trevor, Ivan Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen, Anton Chekov, Ernest Hemingway and other favored authors.
Poignant and dramatic, yet told in the vivid, unadorned language found in her award-winning novels, Li’s book describes a recent two-year period during which thoughts of and attempts at suicide were her preoccupation.
After graduating from the University of Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in science, Li shifted her focus to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, receiving an M.F.A. in 2005. Her stories and novels have earned the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, California Book Award and publication in the New Yorker and Paris Review. She is a 2010 MacArthur Foundation fellow and teaches at UC Davis
Asked about her classroom priorities, she says arousing students’ curiosity is primary, but the rest is fate. “I don’t think writing can be taught. I can teach them how to read. I read as a writer: I know why this narrative works, not that one. I share this information.”
She often doesn’t immediately know her lessons’ outcomes. “I tell them that if you’re not driven by a burning desire to know your characters, you’re not going to write interesting characters. If characters lie to them, they should be able to tell. If they themselves lie (while writing fiction), they should be better at it. Years later, someone will write to me and say they got it. You never know which seed is coming up in the end.”
Nor does Li know precisely the ramifications of revealing her innermost thoughts about suicide or the ongoing dialogues she conducts with dead authors. Li frequently initiates her works as non-argumentative conversations with favorite writers’ specific sentences. “Trevor died in 2016 and isn’t accessible in a living way. I read him because I want to keep his presence. His work is here, and that conversation through reading his work still goes on.”
A most-common question asked of Li is why she writes only in English, instead of Mandarin. “It’s two parts. I used to say I’m not ready for Chinese readers to read me. It’s a nice way to say I don’t want my books translated. Art has to be precise, that’s one concern.”
But books are also interpreted, and Li says that people in China might read her as an author who betrayed her native language. “I think I’m a stubborn person that I want to be read, not on political terms.” Her internal world, she adds, is lived entirely in English.
About suicide, Li writes deeply and unflinchingly in “Dear Friend” — yet says in the interview that the act is “fundamental” and in the moment of it happening, it is separate from country, culture, even language. Turning the spotlight on her depression with the same ruthless interrogation she performs on characters in her novels, Li says, “There are thoughts and feelings that are less explored, not allowed to have space because we use words like “distorted,” “flawed.” Which means we have to shut it down, close the door. I am giving full rights for these things to exist. Why can’t we say suicide is a way to kill time? It’s not challenging others more than challenging myself.”
“Dear Friend” began with one essay and a conversation with her editor, who asked if she would need to “feel protective” of Li if it were published. “The real protection is to be honest and write without hiding anything,” Li says. The original ending of “To Speak Is to Blunder but I Venture,” she says took two years for her to change from a “false, uplifting” phrase to its final, ambiguous form that references the struggle in writing words in place of thoughts: “The solace is with the language I chose. The grief, to have spoken at all.”
Writing when she can “grab time” — most often in the company of her two young children and husband at the family’s book-covered dining table — Li says thinking also counts as writing. The thought that led to “Dear Friend” was “whether fiction still mattered to me,” she says. A return to binge reading — and writing in response — it seems, constitutes Li’s most fortunate lifeline.