There are a few facts and dates. I would like to do without them, or fiddle with them, in the sense that the person they govern is a great writer, and would have been a great writer without them, and so mocks, like Homer of the seven birthplaces, the confining clutch of circumstance, but I can’t. So, take them as they are. Yiyun Li was born in 1973 in Beijing. In 1996, she left for the US. She studied medicine at the University of Iowa, took her Master’s in immunology, worked as a research scientist, then slipped or skipped sideways and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she took her MFA. She has published two books of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005) and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010), and two novels, The Vagrants (2009), which seems to me one of the first masterpieces of our stumbling century, and Kinder than Solitude (2014), and now a book of essays, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. The flowery title, by the way, is not, as one might have supposed, Li’s, but is quoted from Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks.
Li’s subject – mostly – is the transitional China of après-Mao, though with that she also takes in emigration, expatriation, memory, change, duress. Her tool, at least to begin with, is a simple, curt, unpredictable English, often aphoristic, sometimes folklorically fragrant. It can read like a translation. (This is a compliment, in case you wondered.) ‘Men of all ages slipped into the park like silent fish,’ is how she describes cruising. Someone is given to worrying, ‘like an ant on a hot pot’. A newspaper gossip column bears the title ‘Odd People at This Unique Time’ – it’s applicable everywhere. A sewing-machine ‘made soothing tut-tutting sounds when you pressed it’. As an expression of a small boy’s guilty grief and apprehension (he has inadvertently denounced his father), the following surely can’t be beaten: ‘Tong only sat and nibbled on a noodle that seemed endless.’
The stories have the geometry of a cruel ethics about them. The ethics of a cruel geometry. The cruelty of a geometrical ethics. In ‘Prison’, an illiterate country woman, hired to bear the child of a well-off couple who have emigrated to America, realises her power, gets uppity, and starts to terrorise them, at least for the duration of her pregnancy. In the important long story ‘Kindness’ (which leads off Gold Boy, Emerald Girl), a middle-aged spinster in Beijing looks back on a year in the army and a long acquaintance with one Professor Shan that have left her with an unusual collection of English classic novels. In ‘The Princess of Nebraska’, a gay man escorts a woman made pregnant by his former lover to Chicago, to get an abortion, and gets to wondering if he shouldn’t or couldn’t instead marry her and adopt the child. There is a parade with floats and holiday lights. Irrelation as a form of relation.
Li’s structures have the authority of irregularity: friendships or marriages or feelings that shouldn’t exist, relationships that shouldn’t exist, perhaps a whole society that shouldn’t exist, because they all serve harmful or disreputable functions. One old retired gentleman, in the story ‘After a Life’, ‘is always cheered up by the mixed smells of leftovers from other dinner tables’. Teacher Gu thinks of himself and his wife as ‘the two fish that chose to live the rest of their lives in the same drying puddle’. It is a happy thought. A 12-year-old girl falls for a creepy borderline paedophile. A disabled woman forces the arms of a dead old lady she has never met into silk funeral clothes, hears a crack, thinks she has probably broken one. Sansan, an ageing English teacher, ‘Miss Casablanca’ (because, romantically inclined, she teaches the film time after time), the daughter of a woman who sells ‘eight-treasure eggs – the best you’ll ever taste’ – at the railway station, takes a knife from a desperate man with a cardboard sign, and cuts him. ‘Such is the promise of life,’ comes the lapidary comment, ‘such is the grandeur.’ Reading Yiyun Li, I had the pure fictional experience of being held in a completely alien world – ‘weather’ would be a better word – that played by rules I didn’t know and couldn’t anticipate. Everywhere the stories come at you with imbalance, the heterodox, the out-of-kilter. A propensity for – or sometimes an expectation of – cruelty, paired with sensitivity and vulnerability. Reflexive, unquestioning disloyalty. The upshot of lives lived anxiously or defensively, without much desire or ambition. Not, as Lowell says, ‘the one life offered from the many chosen’, but the one life offered from the none chosen, and that one quite likely no sort of life at all.
The very wide array of characters (think of Chekhov), garish in their ordinariness, is brilliantly realised, seemingly too old, too young, too middle-aged, too powerful, too powerless, too married, too divorced. Li does wonderful children, wonderful spinsters, wonderful widowers. Families are small, fissile, unexpectedly extended, ruptured, porous. They are vulnerable to sounds, knocks, visits, gossip, neighbours, a passing policeman. Public announcements over tannoy or by placard. Apprehension and unhappiness cling to them. They hoard their secret humiliations, their secret disgrace. The way to school past the local pervert (people are the most dangerous animals, you read one character saying, or thinking of saying), the buses (but one often walked anyway), the anxious father who runs all the way, the efforts to protect – but home is about the least effective source of protection. ‘No life seems happier than an orphan’s life for a non-orphan like me,’ says one not untypical character. An informal adoption, not really kind but strangely irresistible, is a Li standby. ‘Aunties’ and ‘Uncles’ (a form of address to strangers) are ten a penny. ‘Behind each window some grown up keen to catch a child in a bad deed.’ By keeping (or knowing) secrets and telling lies, Li’s characters try to preserve and even extend their tiny areas of privacy, in just the same way as identical indoor spaces are painstakingly customised and made a little expressive by their denizens. Food is laboriously prepared all the time. Except for its squeal, all parts of the pig are used; except the cluck, ditto the chicken.
It didn’t occur to me, in reading the books, to disbelieve anything in them, or to apply any of it to the author in a trivial or direct way. Li does capital and provinces (‘a midsize city, plagued by hepatitis and pickpockets’), suburbs and countryside (that countryside ‘where lives were probably butchered or maimed every day’), indifferently well. I felt grateful for an account of a residual, old-fashioned, mysteriously overlooked Beijing (where I have never been or thought to go) that reminded me of Mandelstam’s Moscow, a ‘tossed salad of glass and wood and milk’:
The next morning, when the city stirred to life, they both lay awake in their own beds. The homing pigeons flew across the sky, the small brass whistles bound to their tails humming in a harmonious low tone. Not far away, Tao music played on a tape recorder, calling for the early risers to join the practice of tai chi. Old men, the fans of Peking Opera, sang their favourite parts of the opera, their voices cracking at high notes. Then the doors down the lane creaked open, releasing the shouting children headed to school, and adults to work, their bicycle bells clanking.
It sounds almost idyllic, but is ever so slightly soured. Is it the synchrony? Or the goneness? Or the non-participation? The unbeautiful ‘cracking’ and ‘creaked’ and ‘shouting’? Or the unexpected rusty vigour of that final ‘clanking’? For all its richness, isn’t there poverty there as well, an almost French melancholy (Laforgue!) to the paragraph? ‘Spring in Beijing was as brief as a young girl’s grief over a bad haircut,’ it says, more smartly and sassily, less mysteriously, in another story. Of course it was also, as Les Murray puts it, ‘the years of the Coffee Revolution/and the Smallgoods Renaissance’. ‘Now we have Sony and Panasonic; we have Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson,’ one of Li’s speakers notes, with as much historiographic brilliance.
I tried hard to find some single simple principle by which this world, Li’s world, might be distinguished: is it bleakness, is it coolness, is it harshness? At a time when apparently everything is magnified by self-pity and the flinching or clamorous anticipation of pain, Li is entirely without. Things happen to her characters before they are ready, not after. The blade cuts into the flesh before there is the least outcry, and even then it will probably be bitten back. ‘People who think they know their own stories do not appreciate other people’s mysteries, Professor Shan explained; that is why people like you and me will always find each other.’ Nini, the little crippled girl in The Vagrants, bites her cheeks throughout. It also helps against feeling hungry. Li is clean, astringent, styptic. Her Chinese are Spartans. I have no option but to encounter the stories over and over again, to try to get used to them or adapt to their fierce reality.
Dear Friend is not a book anyone could have predicted from Li. She is complicated, intelligent, unusual – and reticent (re + taceo: I keep silent/backwards/doubled/inside myself). Nothing very much survives her attention. Part of her professional demeanour – I hadn’t known this before, and probably it wouldn’t have interested me very much – is a show of shininess, toughness, un-personalness. It’s the opposite of soggy, soppy American magazine and internet culture, that ‘writing the self’ shtick, where everyone has a story and buttonholes you with it. Li’s books are inventions, they are about the characters and the stories, they are nothing to do with her. Now, it turns out, they came at a cost, or with a cost: the author suffered serious depression and twice in 2012 tried to kill herself. I don’t know if this is the writer or the person (if they can be separated in a meaningful way), and I have a sense Li doesn’t know either. Could her psychological vulnerability be a consequence or a concomitant of her abandoning science for literature, or Chinese for English? She worries at it. It seems almost as though the kind of writer she is is likely to let her in for trouble. ‘I am not an autobiographical writer – one cannot be without a solid and explicable self’; ‘what if this emptiness is what keeps me going?’ Dear Friend is intimate, but not personal; or personal, but not private. Her endeavour, as she puts it, is ‘to write about a struggle amid the struggling’: there is no chronology, little detail, no revelation. She puts up categories, abstractions, terms, and slices through them: time, a solid self, melodrama, originality (a subject on which she has nothing good to say). The writing is divided against itself, sometimes almost in the form of discontinuous sentences, tart-toned (‘Living is not an original business’), or, for long stretches, doleful but affectless. She espouses not nihilism but nemo-ism, to give it a name. An argument of insidious intent, as the poet says.
Dear Friend offers something like the reading-cure. Different scenic memories keep coming up, various figures, from a Chinese past (a monstrous mother, still alive and still there), from hospital and therapy (‘a majestic mental health worker … with perfect lipstick, shining curly hair, and bright blouses and flats of matching colours’), from an international literary life of readings and festivals; but they are almost no sooner there than gone again, interleaved with sudden and peremptory accounts of reading, arguments with books, a fondness, she says, for the autobiographical writings of writers – the non-Li. It seems she is most drawn to Irish and Russian writers: William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen, John McGahern; Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Gorky, though her pantheon is unpredictable and expands to take in Hardy and Mansfield, some oddly straightforward passages from the letters of Philip Larkin or the conundrum that is Marianne Moore (and her mother). Nabokov puts in an appearance, but only to have his dictum ‘My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural language’ opposed and overturned by her own: ‘My private salvation, which cannot and should not be anybody’s concern, is that I disowned my native language.’ She offers an equally startling and – for this book – utterly characteristic definition of reading: ‘To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one’s existence.’
When you consider some of the people who do notice Yiyun Li’s existence, her preference for books (‘what if one’s real context is in books?’) is less surprising. ‘Chinese immigrants of my generation in America criticise my English for not being native enough. A compatriot emailed, pointing out how my language is neither lavish nor lyrical, as a real writer’s language should be; you only write simple things in simple English, you should be ashamed of yourself, he wrote in a fury. A professor in graduate school told me I should stop writing, as English would remain a foreign language to me.’
Li has apparently never allowed her books to be translated into Chinese. This too is unsurprising, given incidents like the following:
‘I don’t understand why [William] Trevor still writes about the Troubles, someone in Ireland once said to me. They are old stories, and Ireland has moved on. I can tell you your stories have hurt my feelings, a reader, who turned out to have grown up in the same apartment compound I did, announced at a bookstore reading; why do you have to write about China’s history; why can’t you make me feel proud of being Chinese?’
I would like to conclude by borrowing and giving back to Li (who quotes it here) Turgenev’s note, written on his deathbed, to his estranged friend Tolstoy: ‘I am really writing to you, therefore, to tell you how happy I have been to be your contemporary, and to express to you my final, sincere request. My friend, return to literature!’