A Conversation with Yiyun Li

Ever since reading Yiyun Li’s essay, "Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life," an essay originally published in A Public Space a couple years back (it’s also one of the essays ably essayed by V. V. Ganeshananthan in our new anthology out from Coffee House), it’s really stuck with me. When I found out that Random House would publish a collection with the same title last month, I emailed her in the spirit of writing from one life to another, to ask her some questions about the book, and she was gracious enough to have a conversation about it. And now, of course, if you haven’t, you really ought to buy this remarkable book. —Ander Monson
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Ander Monson:
In the last decade or so, I’ve been thinking about what I value most as a reader in a work of literature, and I think for me the primary thing is that I want to have an intimate experience with a text. One of the things I loved most about Dear Friend (the title essay and the book as a whole) is how intimate this experience is, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. That’s in part because you’re often enough speaking with the dead, which, as you point out can be a bit of an easy out: that’s not a conversation that we’re having exactly, when we’re speaking to the dead. And as you put it, "When a book takes on a life for a reader it is already dead for the writer," so in a sense conversations with books are always conversations with ghosts. I wonder what sort of intimacies those ghost-conversations allow for that our conversations with the living might be capable of only rarely, if at all.
     I think this experience for me—which is a very powerful one, almost an ASMR experience–has to do with loneliness, or maybe I mean aloneness, as you put it: if this is not a lonely book, it is certainly a book of aloneness and its interruptions. It values (and performs, in its thinking) the time it spends alone—alone with a book or with a writer’s work, which isn’t quite the same thing. 
     Do you think of reading as aloneness or togetherness or some space between the two? Are you of multiple minds about this?

Yiyun Li:
Once at a reading, someone asked if writing was a lonely activity. I was a little surprised, as I had not thought of writing as a lonely pursuit. Writing can be frustrating or exciting but it’s never lonely. When one writes fiction, there are all those characters as companions of one’s mind; with essays, one has to follow the inner logic of a thought or an argument until arriving at a place unknown to one beforehand. If loneliness is a state in which one longs to make a connection yet is unable to, writing, at least to me, is the least lonely activity. 
     Reading, on the other hand, is an experience that constantly reminds me of some kind of limit. If I’m reading Kierkegaard while waiting in the car to pick up my children, I really can’t—when I see something brilliant or interesting or hilarious—exit the car and show the passage to another parent. I have often heard of parents reading to children or lovers reading to each other. There is something lovely about it, but the best reading—that almost ASMR state as you call it—often happens when one is alone, and it is often as an out-of-time, out-of-place experience. Of course we long to share the experience with another person, but it is nearly impossible, as it is intensely personal. Intensely lonely too, in a good way.
     The conversation with book is indeed a ghost conversation. It’s a compromise, of course. But there is something in that exchange that defines the limit of physical space and temporal space: the dead are always here, their words are permanent, and one has the luxury of not having to make small talk or having to be restrained by good manners. The intimacies in these ghost conversations are really the intimacies with one’s own mind. Can we have the same conversations with the living? Rarely, I suppose—I say rarely rather than never. It would be wonderful if that could happen more often, all the time, but I have to borrow Hemingway’s words, the last line of The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
AM: 
The multiple minds of the book create much of the tension for me (this is a very essayistic tension, as you allude to later). Often enough Dear Friend seems to be you arguing with yourself (are you are both the I and the Dear Friend at times, I wonder?) and giving yourself the space to contain and try to corral, or at least put into conversation, a set of contradictions. Some of these relate to the inherent tension that you talk about in writing autobiographically: you’re drawn to these writers who do and yet you seem to eschew autobiographical writing. You’re envious of those who seem to never make that turn, and yet here you are making the turn toward the autobiographical. You gloss this nicely in the section talking about your dislike of the English word I. If autobiographical writing is a burden, and it seems like it sometimes (always?) is, what sorts of freedom come with that?
YL: 
I was having a difficult time for two years, which I now think of as an autoimmune disease of the mind, meaning that my mind targeted itself as though it were targeting a non-self. Writing of the book was in a way to accept that condition and to make use of it as much as I could. You are right. It’s book written to argue against myself, to dissect myself—logic and illogic, rational thoughts and irrational feelings. It’s interesting that you ask if I am both I and the Dear Friend.
     For the most part of the book (or the writing of the book) I was my own enemy, and I was aware of that (“One always knows how best to sabotage one’s own life.”). But I also knew I had to maintain the conflicts and tensions to be able to do what I needed to do. (“Evasiveness rarely leads to joy, and there is, one must admit, a sense of joy if one can dissect something, oneself included, with precision.”) Only when I reached the last line of the book did I realize that I was becoming my own friend. (“I want one day to be able to say to myself: dear friend, we have waited this out.”)
     My discomfort of autobiographical writing and my discomfort with the pronoun “I”—I think it’s especially a burden or a struggle to me. Perhaps the best explanation is that it’s as innate as one’s hair color or eye color. But reading other autobiographical writers, especially John McGahern, I understood another way to look at autobiographical writing. (“No one’s vulnerability is more devastating than the next person’s, no one’s joy more deserving. What happens to McGahern is only life, which happens to us all.”) Without that understanding, more than half of the places where the pronoun “I” is used in this book would still have said “one” (English language does offer us one way out, to say one instead of I). I think honesty—honesty to the point of cruelty and ruthlessness, though this honesty is different than exposure or confession—is the freedom that comes with autobiographical writing. I can hide myself in all sorts of ways behind characters when writing fiction, but I cannot hide myself in the essays.  
AM: 
Yeah: I think what a lot of people miss when we read I in essay or memoir that, as Patricia Hampl says, the self is the instrument, not the subject. So when I used to be revolted by the idea of writing about the self (how self-serving and somehow American, I thought, to write about it), I underestimated, as Sarah Manguso says, "the dimensions of the self." So when I was younger, I think when I saw memoirs or essays fail, they were failures of the instrument, not the subject. I misunderstood the nature of autobiographical writing.      So here’s this line from Dear Friend: " Some people, knowing the boundaries of their selves, choose to disregard what is beyond as inconsequential." I wanted to put that in conversation with the full Manguso quotation: "Those who claim to write about something larger and more significant than the self sometimes fail to comprehend the dimensions of the self."      Is the difference between these two thoughts primarily "some people"’s faulty knowing or underestimation, or are you driving at something else?
YL: 
This answer risks being ignorant, as I don’t know the exact context of Sarah Manguso’s quote. I would agree with Sarah, if my understanding is right that she is speaking from a writer’s point of view: a writer who doesn’t understand the limitlessness of the self may have a limited understanding of the world. [yeah, that’s what she’s talking about]
     What you quoted from Dear Friend is from another angle. I was looking at how “some people” can live without knowing the boundaries of their selves—specifically about the characters in Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart. But we can also say it is a thought about readers more than writers, as Dear Friend is a book about reading, and I equate reading to living.
     When I first came to America, I was surprised—and I must say I’m still surprised every time I see such a standard applied to literature—that it’s good or great or even imperative that a reader should identify with a character; the complaint from a reader that he or she “can’t relate to a character” does sound to me as though what is beyond the reader’s self is inconsequential. I recently received a well-intentioned email: “It there’s anyone who can understand you it’s me.” The statement would be similar to a statement if you or I or any author would say to a reader: “If there’s one book that can speak truly to your experience it’s mine.” What imperviousness, what preposterousness, what arrogance! 
     So I wonder if you put Sarah’s quote and mine in a direct conversation, it might become a discussion of acknowledging the limit of our knowing and understanding, and how to expand a mind and connect with another mind with that innate limit.  
AM: 
So when you tell us early that "I am not an autobiographical writer—one cannot be without a solid and explicable self," it helps to direct me from the expectations of autobiography into more interesting territory, which is where the thinking drives us. And as you read more and more explicitly in these pages, I find that you also draw yourself out. So I appreciated that when I read your I, I understand it not as an assertion of that self so much as an identification of a target or a question.
     And part of the heat of that question does have to do with that unwillingness (or inability, I suppose, but plenty of essayists find ways to hide themselves) to hide in here. So that feeling of danger–of the novelist working without the cover of fiction–just ups the possibilities for intimacy. 
YL: 
In the earlier drafts of the book, in many places I avoided using the word “I” and always opted for “one.” But as most of the essays were written and rewritten over months and sometimes a year or two, I did eventually revise a fair number of “one”s to “I”s, so it’s an astute observation that you said I was drawing myself out. And what was drawn out was not I with an autobiographical narrative, but I which was to be questioned, as you pointed out. 
     Not offering a continuous narrative in a memoir (as the book is called) may strike people as evasive, but any narrative, at least in my experience, is about concealing as much as revealing, if not more. By choosing some detail and omitting others, we create a narrative full of corners and nooks for hiding. By not committed to a narrative, however, one has to constantly confront almost everything so as to make sense of it. I was unwilling to hide in this book. It seemed to me a pointless pursuit if I still hid—I might as well stay in writing fiction, where it’s easier to hide! 

AM: 
You also pose this question, which it’s hard not to read as a challenge for the reader, on 74-75: "What do we gain from wanting to know a stranger’s life?" We are, after all, reading this, some aspect of a stranger’s life, and perhaps at this point we wonder just what is in it for us. Then later, on 127, we’re at this idea that I found very pleasurable to consider: "To say we know a person is to write that person off." This seems both true and necessary to do in order to live a life, but also counter to the fiction of reading, which I I feel like I do to approach knowing (even knowing actual knowing is unreachable, still I yearn that way). I suppose that gestures at the paradox of literature, that in order to have an emotional or intellectual experience, I read something you wrote on the page that in some way both performs and documents some experience or idea of yours. The thing that happens in me isn’t the same—almost certainly—as the thing that happened in you (much less what happens on the page), but one hopes that the three things are in a functioning relationship. 
YL: 
A writer’s private words—journals, diaries, correspondence, notebooks, written for a specific reader or him/herself—reflect the messiness of life that can’t always be instilled into his/her poetry or essays or fiction. I prefer reading them to reading biographies, partly because a biography is always an effort to explicate and to give a narrative, while those private records don’t bear such a burden. What do we gain from wanting to know a stranger’s life, then? For myself, perhaps it’s the notion that time is democratic in its public measure but it is also unpredictable or unknowable in each individual’s private experience, and I want to know how another person experiences time and lives through time or even endures time. When people read my book, do they know some aspect of my life? Yes, but possibly in the same way—a reader would know more about my thoughts than a concrete narrative. 
     To say we know a person is to write that person off—I often think it is the saddest and most dangerous thing for anyone to say he or she knows someone, or anyone to be known that way. Knowing is unreachable, but we mortals (I borrow this phrase from George Eliot and include myself) would be more willing to say we know a person to write him/her off than to admit that we fail in our effort to know more or know better. Someone asked me an event if I did make it clear in my book about the narrative of the suicidal depression and find an explanation for it, and I thought that was exactly the danger of wanting to know at a surface level. Many things are inexplicable but it’s the inexplicable that often resonates between a writer and a reader. I imagine my job is to find the words to describe the indescribable—to get as close as possible—because as a reader, I’m drawn to the writing that is trying to describe the indescribable rather than the describable. Is that what you mean a functioning relationship?
AM: 
Exactly! The best art to me allows the irreducibility or undigestability of real things to persist (and to become more singular and powerful by virtue of the rendering). Stories and novels and poems and essays and memoirs ought not to be problems to solve: they’re more like questions to artfully pose and work on, and that work is the best part. If we can too easily resolve things, we forget them. They don’t stay with us, do they? What we want is for things to stay with us. (And your book does.) 
     You said before that “Not offering a continuous narrative in a memoir (as the book is called) may strike people as evasive.” To me this doesn’t feels evasive at all: it feels honest: I’m suspicious of fitting the demands of narrative (which are the demands of story) to the facts of lives and the strangeness of our lived experience (at least I hope our lives are strange). Even as I acknowledge that we are wired to experience our lives narratively, I wonder about the effects of that pressure to fit everything in narrative. That same statement above also hints at a tension I felt in the book: it’s sold as a memoir, I guess, which is the way that I’m sure everyone wants to package it. Do you resist that term? It sure feels like essays—or maybe one big, long interconnected and interweaving essay—to me. 
YL: 
Are we wired to experience our lives narratively? This is a new idea—I must admit it has never occurred to me! I wonder if it’s easier or more sensible to experience things narratively: time moves in one direction, and if we can have a narrative, with a beginning and a middle and an end, that goes to the same direction, at least it is attached to something…perhaps? The reason I’m puzzled is that I can’t say for certain that I experience things narratively. I don’t connect time with narrative. I wonder if there are two elements in any given experience—the part that can fit into a narrative, and the part that defies a narrative. It’s often the latter part that interests me most, in both reading and writing, this desire to experience something that is clearly attached to time but can be experienced separate from time. But I may be going to a place that needs clearer definitions of many things before discussion can continue!
     Do I resist the term memoir? I do. I was asked at a reading what advice to give to someone who wants to write a memoir, where to start, how to start, et cetera. The only answer I could come up with—despite my unwillingness to go back to my mother tongue—was to use the Chinese word for of “memoir” which, if translated literarily into English, is “memory-record.” So I said perhaps he could start to make some sort of record of his memories instead of finding a place to start.
 
   As for this book, I’ve always thought of it as a collection of essays, or, one long essay—essay is still one of my most favorite literary format—one long letter, and an ongoing conversation with Brigid Hughes, who’s been my first reader for my entire writing career and who worked closely with me on this book. It is a memory-record but also more than that. A thought-record, that is closer to how I think of it. 

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Yiyun Li is the author of four works of fiction: Kinder Than Solitude, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The Vagrants, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. A native of Beijing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the recipient of many awards, including a PEN/Hemingway Award and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the “20 Under 40” fiction writers to watch. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She teaches writing at the University of California, Davis, and lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their two sons.
Ander Monson is one of the curators of this site and coeditor, with Craig Reinbold, of How We Speak to One Another: an Essay Daily Reader.

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