Bare-ings: A Conversation with Yiyun Li
It’s weird to prologue this interview with another, very different conversation I’ve had, but it’s also kind of necessary.
I met Junot Díaz in 2016 when he was giving a lecture on ‘I Will Build a Great Wall: Immigration and Xenophobia in the Age of Disruption’ at Newcastle University. Of course it was brilliant. Of course he sharpened our ways of looking at the refugee crisis and nationalism, the ways that we—2nd and 3rd world ‘we’—will be locked outside these great concrete and psychosocial walls, once climate change’s floodwaters come in.
Of course, afterwards, I tried to talk to him about writing. I can’t quote him word for word, but he said something along the lines of: “You should live, first. Many things I read right now lack lived experience. When you go back home, go work, most importantly read a lot, then write.”
It comes as a shock to no-one that Junot Díaz is a fan of Yiyun Li’s work. On her book Golden Boy, Emerald Girl, he says, “Yiyun Li is extraordinary, a storyteller of the first order. Each tale in this collection is as wild and beautiful and thorny as a heart.” The organic image is no accident: her writing is ‘fully fleshed-out’—the standard everybody (yes, even the po-mos) aspires to. Ribs and veins and cartilage. Viscera. Like a body, her stories make for no facile dissection.
Her latest book is a memoir. Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, released this year, is being lauded all over the internet, and is undoubtedly in many Amazon wish lists and baskets. She’s won and been shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, won the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award for ‘A Sheltered Woman’, is a MacArthur Fellow, and is inarguably one of the most important writers today. Like Junot, I was surprised by her kindness, her polite answers; the fact that she even accepted to this interview, when there are a million other things to be doing, to be writing.
Alexandra: In an article about you in the New York Times, there’s a quote from The Paris Review editor Brigid Hughes, who says: “she’s very stubborn about wanting to be defined on her own terms, to be an individual and not be defined by society, history or even her native language.” It’s almost like a move towards the post-national, the migratory, the identity that is shaped through a life lived and not from a single root. Was there any feeling that you had a unique claim of some sort to China and America, the countries that your stories are set in? I ask this because there’s a lot of talk about immigrant writers redefining ’the New America’, and I wonder if you ever felt that, at some point, you could not or were not ‘entitled’ to write about a country that you did not grow up in, as absurd as that claim may be. I’m asking this question in light of the nationalist sentiments at the moment in America and across the world.
Yiyun Li: I don’t feel I have a unique claim to any country, but I have a unique claim to my own characters and my own words. I don’t look at my characters and group them into immigrants, Chinese, Americans, or any category defined by external standard. All sorts of beliefs of what a writer can or cannot do—they are pure noises to me. If I spend time and energy on listening to them or fighting them I wouldn’t be writing. I think that is what Brigid meant by my stubbornness: I have my own priorities.
Alexandra: You have stated that you haven’t written much in Chinese except in your journal as a teenager, and though English came to you very fast, there’s a lack of ‘intimacy’ with the language. That’s brilliant though, because you can create and interact with language as a thing that is just there, history and global use notwithstanding (which is what Amy Leach seemed to suggest, when she wrote that you approached English without fully-formed barriers, those clichés and facile sentence structures). Do you believe there is a kind of ‘inherited tradition’ in English, of a ‘way of doing things’, of composing sentences, or is it just so fluid and post-national in its own terms, a true ‘private language’? I also wonder if you’ve given thought to how—if at all—Mandarin’s structures, rhythms, ways of composing phrases, have found a way in your work?
Yiyun Li: Choosing to write in English is a decision and I don’t analyze a decision once it is made. I write in English the same way I talk with my friend Amy Leach or Brigid Hughes, which is different from how I speak with most people or in public. Different writers make different decisions and they are both private and intuitive, so I don’t think about how to incorporate Mandarin into my writing, as it doesn’t feel natural.
Alexandra: What is your opinion of the current English market? What challenges have you encountered, and have you ever made compromises in, say, the advertisement of your work in order to suit the taste and expectations of an English readership?
Yiyun Li: I don’t feel qualified to answer any question about the market, about which I know little. Writing is the only thing a writer can have some control. Everything else with publishing is to be left with others, with circumstances, sometimes with fate. There will be different expectations and receptions, interpretations and misinterpretations, but I don’t think it is my priority to think about those things.
Alexandra: When you write in English about China, do you have a particular readership in mind? Native English speakers or any English speakers, including the Chinese? Does it matter much for you and is it crucial to any aspects of your work?
Yiyun Li: I don’t have readership in mind, but I have two specific readers in mind, two good friends. One is an editor and I trust her reading; the other is a writer and an avid reader of Shakespeare, John Donne and Jane Austen but not as interested in contemporary writing, and I trust her disconnection with any literary tread. They are the only people who read everything I write and if they say it’s okay to go I sign it off.
Alexandra: It seems to me that, when reading some of your short stories, there is like an ‘unravelling’ process: at the start, the emotions of the characters are held within the sentences like a discreet tremor, as if the characters themselves are only just contained within language. Later—whether your characters are in conversation with others or reflecting on themselves—that self-contained polish fissures, revealing some kind of truth that we, the readers, observe at a distance with the third person narrator. You’ve got characters that are dealing with some kind of personal failure or ‘blemish’, who are fragile but have their rationale, the stories they tell themselves to just get on with life: utilitarian ‘old-world’ Auntie Mei, who resists attachment, ‘intellectual’ Teacher Fei, guilty, tormented Becky who in some sense projects her own monophobia onto her son. Of course, this may all be wrong, but if not, it’s almost as if, within the confines of the short story, there is a breaking of the self, and an openness that potentially results (I’m thinking particularly of A Sheltered Woman). I don’t want to ask your opinion on anything as grandiose as ‘the human condition’, but I was wondering if this ‘unravelling’ (sorry for calling it this way, couldn’t find a better word) was intentional, whether it’s part of your technique, something you wanted to convey in your writing.
Yiyun Li: Characters (and in a way stories, too) are just like people we meet in life: they lie to us; they hide their thoughts and feelings and show us a facade; they long to be known yet oftentimes refuse to be known. What you call unfurling, I suspect, is a process of getting to know them, sometimes against their wishes, an intrusion or even a violation. But this process is not only an intrusion or a violation of the internal landscape of the characters’ but also—if a story works—the readers’ (and sometimes the author’s) internal landscape. We—I mean we as readers or storytellers—are never in a better place than the characters. We are equally if not more flawed; we rarely fare better than them in our follies and vulnerabilities.
Alexandra: And lastly… a cheesy question: how do you write non-fiction like that, with such cutting honesty? Is there a frame of mind that you adopt before or after writing, knowing that your words will be read by thousands? In fact, do you see that kind of writing as exposure?
Yiyun Li: That is a good question. It’s not exposure. Strangely, nonfiction written in absolute honesty is a protection against any intrusion. I don’t think the readers end up knowing about me, but if the words are the exact words I want them to be, and if they are read by the right readers, my hope is that they know themselves a little more (much more than they know about me!).
Questions by Alexandra d’Abbadie and Eiffel Gao
Éphémère is a concept; two visions of the same sphere. Both are multidisciplinary Mauritian artists—designers and illustrators—influenced by nature and culture. They attempt to convey a part of their dream-like, somewhat playful world through their art and products. (Photo credits: Céliliphotographies)