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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.