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The Case of Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li, New York City
Patrice Helmar
Yiyun Li, New York City, June 2019

The effort of self-transformation is generally regarded as an improving journey, whatever its vicissitudes may have been. The writer Yiyun Li, who left China in 1996 as a trained scientist and set herself the task of becoming instead an American novelist, might appear to belong to that narrative of success. For an immigrant writer, the psychological problem of lost links can be meaningful terrain; likewise, the abandoned homeland can be fruitfully considered, from a safe distance. Yet creativity is no fortress, and even language—as Li has proved—is a bridge that can be burned. You can unlearn your own language as a stratagem for escaping the rudeness of memory, but events will still pile up, with or without an identity willing to organize them.

Having written, in a flawless acquired English, four books of much-lauded fiction that might be described—admiringly—as more-or-less perfect forgeries of European sensibility, in 2017 Li produced a confession:

A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic word. In Chinese, a language less grammatically strict, one can construct a sentence with an implied subject pronoun and skip that embarrassing I, or else replace it with we. Living is not an original business.

These lines are taken from her essay collection Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, described on its back cover as “a luminous account of a life lived with books.” The UK edition has a picture on the front of a young woman sitting on a bench reading a book, accompanied by a quote from a review: “a remarkable hymn to reading.” Setting aside the possibility that publishers find something special and odd in the idea of a person reading, the suspicion arises that we are in the presence of embarrassment. What is occurring here to have caused this flurry of congratulation to an author for her reading habits?

On the second page we find the following paragraph:

I was leaving to teach class when an acquaintance who lived across the country in New Hampshire called my office. She had traveled to a nearby city. I talked to her for no more than two minutes before telling my husband to go find her. He spent twelve hours with her, canceled her business appointments, and saw to it that she flew back home. Two weeks later her husband called and said she had jumped out of her office on a Sunday evening. He asked me to attend her memorial service. I thought for a long time and decided not to.

It would be natural to need to read this paragraph several times in order fully to grasp it, not because it is abstruse or inaccessible—on the contrary, it is written in plain language—but because its expressive basis is almost impossible to comprehend. It is a psychological wound converted into—as opposed to described by—words. The wound has not been inflicted by the author’s unfortunate “acquaintance”—there are many and more brutal such anecdotes in Dear Friend—but by the writing situation itself. Or rather, writing is the wound, a site of pain that is also an involuntary threshold between inside and outside: autobiography—the “embarrassing I”—exposes that wound, where fiction might seem to bandage it. It’s nothing personal, in fact, except for the thoughts—undocumented—that lead the author to decline the widower’s invitation.

Li’s lack of protection is what concerns us here, a protection which similarly even the twelve-hours’ loan of her husband couldn’t provide for another woman. That woman called Li’s office, then two weeks later jumped from the window of her own: the office, a nondomestic space, is the temporary or faux safety in which an undefined feminine agony waits to be found. The harshness of the woman’s situation, we come to understand, is identical to the harshness of Li’s own, except that by traveling to “a nearby city” the woman momentarily broke cover and was exposed (“that embarrassing I”).

“That year I traveled frequently,” Li writes in Dear Friend:

Each trip had been meant to renew a belief that I had forgotten. Nothing matters.… The source of my difficulty, I had decided before I went to London, was that I had gone astray from my belief…. How did I forget to start each and every page of my journal with the reminder that nothing matters?

For years she appears to have gotten by on this mantra without entirely facing several important considerations. “Do you, a friend asked me years ago, understand that you are in people’s real lives? I remember feeling shocked—at the time, the only real people were my characters.” It would seem that in writing fiction Li built herself a structure from which she could see but not be seen, and it’s turned out to be not a shelter but a prison. Or it’s a hiding place that unbeknownst to the hider leaves her from a certain angle entirely visible. “I have been asked throughout my life: what are you hiding?” she writes. “I had only wanted to stay invisible.” Yet she chose “a profession that makes hiding less feasible…. Had I remained a scientist, would I have turned out differently—calmer, less troubled, more sensible? Would I have stopped hiding, or become better at it?”

In the autobiographical situation of Dear Friend, that unconscious visibility causes an initial alarm: we are watching someone while being entirely unable to help her. This is a sensation one can occasionally derive from reading, say, Kafka, but usually a writer of substance has formulated her mental pain as a two-way street: both parties can get somewhere. The difference between sharing and watching might almost be a definition of the difference between good writing and bad. In the case of Yiyun Li, this principle appears to be not only reversed but also turned inside out: her sentences, like the Chinese streets of her childhood, are ghosts imprisoned beneath an unstoppable transformation, where the spirit wanders—at once homeless and free—amid the alien structures of the new.

Much of Dear Friend concerns the question of individuals reading and writing fiction, including Li herself. What is the motivation for these activities?

To read oneself into another person’s tale is the opposite of how and why I read. To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one’s existence.

From her earliest childhood in China, Li read everything she could find, including the canonical works of Western literature. She formed such strong attachments to certain writers that she also read their journals and notebooks and correspondence (the book’s title is a phrase from Katherine Mansfield’s notebook: “I cried,” Li writes, “when I read the line”) and pondered their relationships with one another. Her discovery of these autobiographical materials can be seen as the fragile basis on which important aspects of her writerly identity rested: behind the created characters who do not notice one’s existence, she found authors who could become her friends, with whom she could enact in private the sacred ceremonies—tolerance, shared perception, understanding—of love. Most of these people, of course, were long dead: her feelings for them, therefore, give an unsullied picture of what her affection looks like.

Katherine Mansfield
Katherine Mansfield; drawing by David Levine

Is writing the work of unspent love? This might be a familiar notion to writers who grew up in environments that were unloving and antithetical to their own sensibilities. In the China of Li’s youth, the cruel environment both of her family home and of the society she lived in represented the severest attack on her individual nature. When and by what means do such attacks—for certain people—become internalized? The scientific training with which she arrived in the United States enabled Li to treat herself with an objectivity that could also be a dangerous form of emotional neglect:

I came to this country as an aspiring immunologist. I had chosen the field—if one does not count the practical motives of wanting a reason to leave China and of having a skill to make a living—because I had liked the working concept of the immune system. Its job is to detect and attack nonself; it has memories, some as long lasting as life; its memories can go awry selectively, or, worse, indiscriminately, leading the system to mistake self as foreign, as something to eliminate.

The outcome of this logic, in Dear Friend, is two hospitalizations for attempted suicide, as well as the belief that in the reading and writing that have been her deepest experience of love she has had to remain invisible. For Li, fiction—the creation of events and characters—only works through the emphatic denial of its links to personal experience, which she has extended to the denial of native language itself. In other words, she will only be allowed to live among those she loves if she hides herself; beneath the bandage of fiction, the wound can lie undisturbed.

Dear Friend might be regarded as the account of the infection of that wound through neglect, its years-long suppuration, and the gradual invasion of her whole system. One factor that precipitates the collapse of her mental health is the realization that autobiography—somewhat like a marital affair—has been a possibility for other writers all along; that the pact of fiction, its status as a dissociative meeting-place where selves can be discarded, where “freedom from” and “freedom to” are indistinguishable, is not commonly sworn to with her own absolute fealty. Not everyone, she realizes, wishes “to erase their selves by writing”:

When I gave up science I had a blind confidence that in writing I could will myself into a nonentity. I had for a few years relished that status, living among the characters who did not know my existence. But how does one remain forever an emotional hanger-on when one wants the characters to live, if not better, or more honestly, or more wisely, at least more fully? Uncharitably one writes in order to stop oneself from feeling too much; uncharitably one writes to become closer to that feeling self.

On a trip to Ireland to attend a festival commemorating the writer John McGahern, a crisis point is reached; rereading his memoir All Will Be Well, Li recognizes that the concept of autobiographical writing is unbearable to her precisely because, in a sense, it renders her own loneliness absolute. Sitting by a river, she comes upon a passage in which McGahern describes the almost religious feeling of calm he sometimes experienced walking the green lanes of his native land. Li, the assiduous note-taker, the good student, is as always offering her full attention to those she reads—hoping for no more in return, it seems, than to be allowed to stay among them—when all at once she can take no more:

I underlined the words “an extraordinary sense of security, a deep peace” and then did something violent: I hurled the pen into the water. It sank soundlessly, and I regretted the action right away. I had never in my life harmed or destroyed an object out of uncontrollable emotions…though I have resisted forming an attachment to any object, or any place. I wished then and I wish now that I had never formed an attachment to anyone in the world either…. I would never have to ask that question—when will I ever be good enough for you?—because by abolishing you, the opposite of I, I could erase that troublesome I from my narrative, too.

Who, other than a generic other, is “you”? What is it that has caused this deeply sensitive, extraordinarily intelligent and humane artist to be so dreadfully upset?

Everyone can resort to an omniscient voice to tell another person’s stories. There is, however, one omniscient voice I cannot live with, yet it is the only voice that continues to drown out the others. Writing is the only part of my life that I have taken beyond my mother’s storytelling. I have avoided writing in an autobiographical voice because I cannot bear that it could be overwritten by my mother’s omniscience.

The not-good-enough mother, who leaves a shard of her own self-hatred inside her daughter and then disowns or disapproves of the resulting pain: it is a pain Li shares with a great number of women of her generation, for whom the difference between their mothers’ lives and expectations and their own is a psychological chasm that neither feminism nor education can entirely bridge. Achievement itself can appear to have come out of that chasm, and to be therefore indelibly allied with its darkness: the young girl constructs herself from knowledge, around an inner emptiness that the “built” identity unwittingly conserves. For such a person, the notion of self-love—a natural state that generates natural acts—is frustrating precisely because it cannot be learned, as everything else has been. The definition of the not-good-enough mother might be the simple failure to instill in the child the capacity to love itself. Where a society overwhelmingly fails to offer alternatives to formative experience—as did the pre–Tiananmen Square China of Li’s youth—the individual is left entirely victimized by what predates her own recollection and what, therefore, she will never entirely be able to understand.

It is hard to think of a more philosophically riveting account of the consequences of the denial of individuality in our contemporary world than is offered in this troubling, thrilling, mesmerizing book, which requires close attention and numerous readings for its revelations to be absorbed. It is not a “hymn to reading”: it is the spectacle of a woman struggling either to die or to be born, because she has internalized a surfeit of cruelty. That cruelty is generic and structural, and its aim is for the individual to personalize it and thereby destroy herself:

There is this emptiness in me. All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing.

Not long after the publication of Dear Friend, the older of Yiyun Li’s two sons committed suicide, aged sixteen. We know this appalling fact because her publishers tell us so, on the dust jacket of Where Reasons End, published earlier this year. They also describe the book as a “novel”: this has become a norm of autofiction whose justification is sometimes difficult to see, especially when the work cannot be understood without its autobiographical basis. To use it for a writer who has adamantly defined her fiction as the product of pure invention and whose denial of its links to her own experience has been absolute is especially perplexing. Li has emphatically and unambiguously said that her fiction has no basis in autobiography: Why, then, categorize as fiction a work that openly states its relationship to events in her own life?

“What kind of life permits a person the right to become his own subject?” she asks in Dear Friend, and one answer might be: a life without extremity, a life—or aspects of one—that can be used to represent not the exception but the rule. The purpose in art of the autobiographical voice is to navigate morally opaque or contentious perceptual territories, especially those that fall within shared or universal experience: the dangerous subjectivity of narrative is guarded against by the stringency of personal verification. The truth can always be located at a cellular level in the example of the self; autobiography is useful where the truth of a public discourse is unreliable or unclear.

At a certain point, it seems, Li missed an important turning in the road: she staked everything on the art of fiction, as practiced by people whose egos had not been systematically dismantled by the political and cultural structure of their homelands, and she mistook autobiography for the work of ego. Dear Friend is her bleeding, exhausted arrival at personal truth after the longest of detours: it is in a sense her attempt—for the very first time—to speak, to use her voice out loud.

During one of her hospitalizations, a doctor asks her why she can articulate her thoughts but not her feelings:

It took me a year to figure out the answer. It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible to do that in my native language.

I often forget, when I write, that English is also used by others. English is my private language…. I have no doubt—can this be an illusion?—that the conversation I have with myself, however linguistically flawed, is the conversation that I have always wanted, in the exact way I want it to be.

In my relationship with English, in this relationship with its intrinsic distance that makes people look askance, I feel invisible but not estranged. It is the position I believe I always want in life.

These sentiments are agonizing to read, for the reason that in writing them Li is also rendering them no longer true: the reader, watching this transition occur, is put in a position that is both participatory and powerless. She can only hope, hope that the author finds her way out of the maze, hope that she survives. In the hospital one day, a fellow patient can bear this spectatorship no longer:

It was one of those days when I sat on a ward couch and saw little hope in life. Another patient grabbed War and Peace from my hands, and, with R-rated language, scolded me for messing up my brain with nonsense. Her grievance against Tolstoy was so personal that I could not stop laughing.

Have I made you laugh? she said. She then raised the thick volume. Has this fucking book ever made you laugh? No! It’s so damn heavy it could kill me.

Well, what do you want me to do, I said; I can’t change myself.

Laugh more, she said.

Dangerous advice, easily given: for a person in Li’s position, happiness represents the absolute and final loss of self, for the reason that the self has become characterized by—is indistinguishable from—pain. Happiness can also seem like an open invitation to calamity.

How, then, is the ultimate calamity—the loss of Li’s son—to be borne? A writer finally beginning to speak, to feel, to trust language as a moral and spiritual system by which the inside and the outside strive to bring themselves into balance and harmony, rather than fleeing it as a brutalizing mechanism for lying, exposure, violence, misused power—that writer, instead of being relieved of her silence and pain by her art and the kindliness of the world’s attention, is crushed by the externalization and embodiment in her child of the same impulses that wracked her own inner life. “I am not the only casualty,” Li wrote in Dear Friend, “in this war against myself.” Such an event, among other things, is the opposite of creativity: it is the nihilistic offshoot of cruelty reproducing itself.

Where Reasons End is a book-long conversation between mother and reimagined child: it is a work, in a sense, of denial. The publishers’ decision to state its autobiographical basis makes it hard to see how it could be read any other way; yet even in its raw subjectivity there is a costiveness that is far from the open candor of Dear Friend. Li explains that “the liberty I had taken to get myself here” was to have “made time irrelevant”:

What I was doing was what I had always been doing: writing stories. In this one the child Nikolai (which was not his real name, but a name he had given himself, among many other names he had used) and his mother dear meet in a world unspecified in time and space…. It was a world made up by words, and words only.

Their conversation, being private and particular, leaves the reader with a sense of intrusion: “Nikolai,” a person of unusual and outstanding intelligence and ability, is someone we are trying to know in reverse. Li’s old novelistic definition of “characters”—people who don’t exist, and who don’t know of your existence either—has been revived, her customary means of shielding herself from pain. Yet she is standing on the wrong side of that shield now: she is exposed, half-in and half-out on the threshold between the self’s truth and that of the world. As a response to that exposure she is trying, in a sense, to become a character herself. While Where Reasons End succeeds neither as fiction nor as autobiography, it achieves something perhaps more valuable: a glimpse of a woman artist struggling, in life, to align herself with the truth.

“No one thinks of suicide as a courageous endeavor to kill time,” she wrote in Dear Friend: then, it was her own courage she was questioning, her own entitlement to strike back at the body that lives in time and feels pain. The formidable strength this kind of thinking entails has perhaps not been wholly apparent to Li. “Nikolai” has a lacerating wit, which he deploys plentifully in his robust questioning of his mother’s intelligence, to the extent that one recalls that “you” for whom the author of Dear Friend could never be good enough:

I was dense. Once Nikolai told me that J. [his younger brother] had made an insulting joke about me: Mommy, you’re dense. You’re so dense if we put you next to a black hole, the black hole wouldn’t suck you in but would be sucked in by you.

The Christian philosophy of death—that the dead one is merely in the next room—might serve here to illustrate a very different denial of reality, for whether she knows it or not, it is at this point only the thinnest of walls that separates Li from the realization of her own beauty and power. Where Reasons End is a work of respect, the kind of respect few parents are capable of feeling for their child. Li is a far-more-than-good-enough mother. She has broken the chain of repetition, and from there it is one very small and very hard step to reach love and respect for oneself:

We can always be good, do better, try our best, but how perfect can we be before we can love ourselves and let others love us? And who, my dear child, has taken the word lovable out of your dictionary and mine, and replaced it with perfect?

I wish you had made me an enemy, I said, rather than yourself. Mothers, I thought, would be perfect for that role.

You can’t be that for me, Mommy, Nikolai said. I’ve found a perfect enemy in myself.

Yiyun Li may feel that it is now impossible for her to continue the journey to truth and self-realization that she began in Dear Friend, and that the only option is to go back. I hope she can go forward: I believe she’ll find the ground firm there.