February 21, 2017
Philippe Matsas/Opale — Leemage
208 pp. Random House. $27.
“Why write autobiographically?” the Chinese-American author Yiyun Li asks in this new collection of essays, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” the closest thing to an autobiography she has ever published. It is a question Li takes seriously and explores tirelessly, not least because she professes an unease with the assertion of the pronoun “I.” It is a “melodramatic” word, Li writes. “The moment that I enters my narrative my confidence crumbles.” This a remarkable statement in a volume that is essentially memoir.
Such diffidence is difficult to detect in her fiction, where the first person has been deployed to devastating effect, albeit infrequently. But then the narrative “I” of a short story is perhaps best seen as a means of self-effacement, and it’s notable that Li’s remarkable fiction — two elegant novels and two story collections — is all assiduously unautobiographical, from the forgotten granny living in China to the gay immigrant seeking asylum in the United States.
Yet the particulars of Li’s life are scarcely less interesting than those of her characters. Li was born in Beijing, four years before the end of Mao’s fatally destructive Cultural Revolution. The daughter of a nuclear physicist and schoolteacher, she grew up with more access to literature, both foreign and Chinese, than most children of her generation. In 1996, after graduating from college and serving a year in the army, Li arrived in Iowa to study immunology, armed with “an anthropologist’s fascination with America.” It took one part-time writing class for Li to change her professional course irrevocably, but the decision is threaded through with a troubled and deeply equivocal relationship with the self: “When I gave up science, I had a blind confidence that in writing I could will myself into a nonentity.”
Li’s transformation into a writer — and her striking success (she is the winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant, among other prestigious awards) — is nothing short of astonishing. But most of the essays here tend to center on the personal unraveling that accompanied this metamorphosis: two hospitalizations following suicide attempts and time spent at a recovery program “for those whose lives have fallen apart.”
For someone who says that “pain was my private matter” and considers “invisibility” a “luxury,” writing about these experiences cannot have been easy — Li is not the type of memoirist to dwell on blow-by-blow descriptions of her life. There are episodic mentions of a childhood lived in the vortex of a mother’s suffocating love, a perennial reckoning with the fear of attachment, a haunting nihilism most likely fostered by a fatalistic father, and fondly remembered encounters with William Trevor, the late, great Irish short story writer — himself a master of self-effacement — who became a mentor and friend.
Li can be an elusive writer, and her meditation on the teleology of pain and memory sometimes reads like a series of aphoristic koans (“Impatience is an impulse to alter or impose”; “The more faded one becomes, the more easily one loves”). Such statements stop short of revelation, except insofar as they reveal the contours of a capacious, searching mind. The reader never doubts that Li is an incisive thinker, but her tendency to sublimate her own emotions in the correspondence between others, be it Turgenev to Henry James or Chekhov to Tchaikovsky, occasionally puts one in mind of a devout nun’s scrupulous study of her prayer book.
The most memorable essay in the collection is not the most personal one but rather recounts Li’s relationship to English, which she calls her “private language.” “Over the years my brain has banished Chinese,” she writes. “To be orphaned from my native language felt, and still feels, a crucial decision.” The reader feels the weight of this decision — and senses the skein of memories it seeks to bury. When Li compares her abandonment of Chinese to “a kind of suicide,” the statement is quietly shocking, the feeling of muted heartbreak nearly unbearable.
Immeasurable loss hovers just behind these pages, but in sacrificing her first tongue, Li tenuously acquires in her adopted one some legible form of “self.” English, Li’s first language in writing, is the only one in which she could have told this story, one in which Li says she feels, finally, “invisible but not estranged.”
Jiayang Fan is a staff writer at The New Yorker.