For the uninitiated, Yiyun Li is an author whose work is difficult because it is unrepentantly free of sentimentality. That is also part of the reason it is so easy to appreciate her books, among them her first nonfiction book, â€œDear Friend, from My Life, I Write to You in Your Life.â€
Known best for her acclaimed novels and short fiction and regular turns on the pages of The New Yorker, Li â€” the recipient of the Pen/Hemingway Award and and a MacArthur â€œgenius grantâ€ â€” was born and raised in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996, before the end of the Cultural Revolution in China.
In her mid-20s at the time, she arrived in the United States as a scientist. Even with her comparatively late start as a writer, and one writing in a second language, Li has accomplished much with the publication of â€œA Thousand Years of Good Prayersâ€ and her novels â€œThe Vagrantsâ€ and â€œKinder than Solitude.â€
She studied immunology, but a writing class moved her to another path, one that is unarguably successful by any measure. Even so, she finds the story of the immigrant who leaves everything behind and becomes successful to be a â€œsuperficial and deceitfulâ€ story â€” and not one worth sharing. But she does share it, and itâ€™s worth it.
This is a book about loss, and the loss of life â€” through suicide. This main storyline is an interesting one as it is juxtaposed with an incredible success story, but perhaps associating happiness is an assumption and not something that Li herself puts forth.
Li helps us understand what most just donâ€™t know about depression: that it is not the opposite of happiness.
The story is always far more complicated than that, and it is for Li, too. We learn of the two-year period when she was in hospitals for treatment of her depression.
Li translates her pain and desolation in the clearest of terms, and yet they are obfuscated in the telling as she moves us into the blank spaces of the emptiness she feels. We feel what is absolutely unknowable about depression. She puts us right there in the blank spaces and the hollowness.
Quickly, we can surface again as Li discusses love â€” her love of literature. It is a lifeline back to survival for her, not in a corny way, but in a way that is recognizable for those of us who understand the power of literature to make us feel less alone â€”again, not in a corny way, but in a life-giving one.
The authors who have shaped Liâ€™s reading and writing life include Stefan Zweig, William Trevor, Marianne Moore and Ivan Turgenev. The title of Liâ€™s book comes from the writings of Katherine Mansfield, a New Zealand modernist who died at the young age of 34. Attesting to the life-giving nature of literature, Li writes that upon reading Mansfieldâ€™s words she realized why â€œI do not want to stop writing.â€
Li also struck up a tender friendship with Trevor, the Irish writer who passed away last year. Her fascination with other writers shows her affinity with them â€” not with their celebrity or success, but with the way they themselves give voice to tragedy and trauma.
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
By Yiyun Li
Random House, $28
Li is a scientist, so her linguistic precision is surgical, even with subjects that are difficult to grasp. Like Trevor, she feels sorry for the characters in her novels, as they all suffer â€œdespicable pain.â€
Li writes that pain is a â€œprivate matterâ€ and declares â€œinvisibilityâ€ to be the most enviable â€œluxury.â€ So why write a memoir? Why remove privacy and make visible these profoundly naked experiences of everything from her meddling mother to her detached father?
Even in the telling, Li is hard to pin down. Some of the sentences in her book come through enigmatically. Lines like â€œImpatience is an impulse to alter or imposeâ€ can be exasperatingly elusive, but also revealing or moving, and they certainly help Li to remain enigmatic.
And thatâ€™s what she is. Li shares that she has made the dramatic move to denounce every part of herself that is Chinese and describes that decision as â€œa kind of suicide.â€ To abandon a country, a life, a language and a way of being must surely feel that way. To do these things as some kind of self-imposed directive makes the bereavement of the past all the more devastating.
This knowledge makes the title of the memoir, again, taken from Mansfield, all the more curious. Li was Trevorâ€™s reader. And they had a close relationship â€” one full of splendid conversations and connections. If we are the â€œDear Friendâ€ of the title, it means that Yiyun Li is coming into view, taking shape, here with us, with a voice and a story to share.