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Melville Before Coffee

Yiyun Li, interviewed by Eve Bowen

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


In our February 10, 2022, issue, we published Yiyun Li’s essay “In the Beforemath,” about the novels of the British writer Jon McGregor. “There is a familiar narrative formula in fiction,” Li writes: “something dramatic, tragic, or otherwise life-changing happens and the novel explores the aftermath, showing how the characters’ lives are affected by the event.” Li argues that McGregor’s books, in resisting predictable narrative formulas, rescue scenes from daily life that might otherwise not be remembered because they aren’t connected to that event. One of the questions she poses is: “If there is aftermath, there should be beforemath, too. But what does beforemath mean?”

Yiyun Li in a blue scarf

Basso Cannarsa/Agence Opale

Yiyun Li

Li was born in China and moved to the US at the age of twenty-four to study immunology at the University of Iowa. After taking a writing class to improve her English, she started to write fiction, and went on to study at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She now teaches creative writing at Princeton. Her many books include the novels Where Reasons End and Must I Go, as well as Tolstoy Together, a compendium of reflections on War and Peace that grew out of the virtual reading group she organized during the pandemic with the literary magazine A Public Space, for which she is a contributing editor.

I wrote to Li this week to ask her about the idea of “beforemath,” how her thinking about reading as a solitary or social act has evolved during the pandemic, and what she has learned from her practice of copying out the work of Tolstoy, Melville, and others by hand.


Eve Bowen: When did you first start thinking about “beforemath” as a concept, and how did you connect it with McGregor’s work?

Yiyun Li: I love reading dictionaries, getting to know words beyond their everyday usage: etymologies, definitions that have gone obsolete, meanings that have been added over the years.

Last year, as I was rereading McGregor’s entire body of work, I looked up aftermath and was surprised to find that it’s derived from aftermowth, which refers to the second crop of grass that grows after the first has been mown or harvested. Instantly my interest was piqued, as we don’t tend to talk about beforemath—we don’t even have it as a word. As I thought through how McGregor approaches dramatic and tragic events in fiction, it became clear to me that some of his books focus on the beforemath, and others approach aftermath at a slanted angle.

In McGregor’s first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, there’s a scene you write about in your essay in which a young girl stands unobserved on a street corner, trying to perfect a gesture of lifting an imaginary hat and winking. Why does that moment haunt you so much?

Children in fiction are often stuck in a narrative chain of cause and effect: sad, terrible, life-shattering events happen to them, and they walk around as the concrete proof of the aftermath. But I am more interested in children as their own selves, who experience things outside a book’s main themes. I am also interested in non-child characters—including many of the grown-ups from McGregor’s novel Reservoir 13, or even Ishmael from Moby-Dick—who are allowed that independence.

In that scene in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, the young girl lives as fully, as tragicomically, as a heroine. It haunts me because that moment is lost to the adults around her, and will be lost to herself after her brother’s death. At a recent book launch, I read that paragraph aloud to McGregor. He was both surprised and touched, and admitted that he had forgotten the passage—which made me feel more grateful on behalf of the girl that he had written it down.

Of McGregor’s most recent novel, Lean Fall Stand, you write: “It consists of three parts, each named for a verb, the part of speech that is most time-conscious.” In your book Where Reasons End, you talk about time as “irrelevant,” the imprecision of certain adjectives, and the trustworthiness of “simple nouns like trees and flowers and leaves and birds and stars.” How do you think about these basic parts of speech in your writing?

English is not my first language, and I don’t have the kind of intimacy with it that one has with one’s mother tongue, the language one speaks and hears in the crib. So I am sensitive to English grammar, and to the constraints that come with its set of grammatical rules. For instance, in Chinese, we don’t conjugate verbs to indicate different tenses—time is determined by the context, with a less defined clarity than in English. Where Reasons End is set in a nontemporal, nonphysical place. Every word I use when I write—noun, verb, adjective, adverb—has to be studied and secured before it becomes my word. 

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In your memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, you write that “To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one’s existence.” And yet, in the past two years, you have been very visible as the leader of Tolstoy Together. How has your thinking about reading as a solitary or a social act evolved during this time?

The beauty of reading is that it’s always a solitary act. I was rereading some early D. H. Lawrence lately, and there were moments when I experienced that bliss of feeling something, yet knowing that my feeling remained unseen to others and unarticulated to myself. (Perhaps the clichéd way of saying it is that I was entirely lost in his words.)

But there are moments when it is important to be able to articulate one’s feelings and communicate with others about what one reads. And when, during the pandemic, people read in isolation, I was glad I could gather people virtually, reading a long novel together. I got the best of both, reading in solitude and reading with others: I felt like a soirée hostess who could remain largely invisible.

Just as you were starting Tolstoy Together, you wrote in The New York Review’s pandemic journal: “Twice during the most difficult periods of my life, I could do little but read [War and Peace]. There were days when I would hand-copy passages from it just to keep my brain and hands in movement.” What did you appreciate about the experience?

My understanding, from my own experience, is that agitation does much harm to our minds. It is a most time-conscious state—every minute is devastatingly long when one’s perception of time becomes disoriented. I hand-copied passages from War and Peace during two difficult times of my life, several years apart: when I was suicidally depressed, and after I lost a child to suicide. The activity was a defiance against that harmful timelessness: here time does pass from one line to the next.

Lately, I’ve been hand-copying Moby-Dick first thing in the morning, before coffee, to carve out a space for my brain and my hands, to have a definite frame of time. I suppose I do that as others practice yoga or meditation.

A writer friend told me that she’s curious about your relationships with your mentors, and wonders whether you consider Tolstoy a mentor?

The two writers I call my mentors are William Trevor and James Alan McPherson. Their work made a space for me when I was a young writer, and I developed a deep connection with both when they were alive. 

Do I consider Tolstoy a mentor? No. I see him as a fellow practitioner—I read some of his works more often than others, I agree with some parts of his philosophies but not other parts. I will always read him! 

On the subject of book reviewing, you recently shared this quote from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books: “I regard reviews as a kind of childhood illness to which newborn books are subject to a greater or less degree…. Attempts have often been made to ward them off with the aid of the amulets of prefaces, dedications, or even to inoculate them with self-criticisms, but this doesn’t always work.” With that perspective in mind, how do you yourself approach writing about other people’s books?

Isn’t that quote fabulous? Lichtenberg wrote it around 1790, and I was so relieved that some things don’t change from century to century. Reviewing—if it is not subjecting the newborn books to illnesses—is at least a stress test that the reviewers administer to the books (and their authors). When I was rereading McGregor’s books last year, I did so very slowly, so that my mind could be in sync with his words.

In your recent novel Must I Go, there are a couple of spots in the diary entries of one of the characters, Roland Bouley, when he becomes his own interlocutor, and I felt suddenly transported to Where Reasons End—especially near the end of the book when he asks himself, after the death of his lover Sidelle, “How do you feel, Roland?…. Sad at least?” and responds, “Yes, yes, sad…. But sadness is never a strong enough flavour for my emotional palate.” How do these two books relate to each other?

Where Reasons End and Must I Go were written around the same time, when I was thinking about how much the line between life and death can be blurred, and how much it remains uncrossable. But Where Reasons End is a dialogue between a mother and her dead child, whereas Must I Go is, to my mind, an epistolary novel made up of two long letters: between Roland and his own posterity; and between Lilia, the protagonist and onetime lover of Roland, and Roland after his death. No reviewer would say that about Must I Go, I suppose—so you see the danger of writing one’s own review. Thankfully, unlike Balzac, writers these days rarely get to review our own books.

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Your new novel, The Book of Goose, is coming out in September. All I know is that it has a gorgeous cover by Na Kim, and it’s not about geese. What more can you say about it?

The Book of Goose is about childhood: how children can be both monumental characters in their own lives and yet remain inconsequential and irrelevant to the world; and how children can exploit the world as they are exploited. But those descriptions are vague. More concretely, it is a friendship story between two girls, and it is the tale of a literary hoax. If by chance Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), Sweet Days of Discipline (Fleur Jaeggy), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark), and Angel (Elizabeth Taylor) were to have a picnic, I would love The Book of Goose to be invited.

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