Yiyun Li is the author of two story collections, two novels, and, most recently, a book of essays called Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. When I read her novel Kinder than Solitude, I was just beginning to take writing seriously, and the psychic familiarity of her characters spooked me – they were instantly recognizable. At the same time, I realized that I’d never expected to experience this at such close range when reading fiction in English. We spoke over the phone this spring about melodrama, the boundaries between languages, and defying representation.
Yvonne Yevan Yu: After reading Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, I was struck by the amount of dialogue between you and others, from two-way conversations with living authors to your marginalia on writers’ old letters and journals. Was there a book that first inspired you to write in response after reading it?
Yiyun Li: I would say William Trevor’s short story collection (The Collected Stories). The first volume came out years ago. I think it was the book that made me think: “Oh, I want to write myself.” I think sometimes we have those dreams of yes, we’re going to write, but we don’t know how. We know there’s a way there but we don’t know where it is, and I think for me that book showed me the direction.
YY: What did that direction look like for you?
YL: There’s a tendency when people look at literary lineage to look at the author’s country of origin. In an old interview, Trevor said he was always asked about James Joyce. Another Irish writer, John McGahern, also said every time he was interviewed he was asked about James Joyce, and he was really funny, and said that other than my being Irish, we really share little in common. And with Trevor’s lineage, he came from Chekhov. I love Chekhov’s stories, and I sort of just made a decision: that is where I want my stories, or I want to be that kind of storyteller.
YY: When you say old-fashioned, are you talking about differences in voice or character?
YL: If you look at, say, Jane Austen, or even the 19th century writer, they do have their voice. If you read Chekhov’s stories, you won’t look at each story and say, oh, this story is about Chekhov. It’s more about Chekhov looking at people he’s interested in. There’s a story about Trevor eavesdropping on these people he’s interested in. I’m sure everybody has egos, but these writers don’t have much ego; it’s almost as if they are transparent in the story. And that’s what I mean by old-fashioned.
YY: How do you eavesdrop on your characters?
YL: I strongly believe my characters lie to me. That they lie to everyone. Every time I teach, I bring in the research down in Boston somewhere, that as grownups we lie every ten minutes. We tell so many lies in the course of a day that we shouldn’t be surprised. We’re so used to lying that we don’t think we’re lying. But I think that characters do the same thing as we do in life; they hide themselves a little. If a character tells me everything about himself or herself, I’m sure that’s not an interesting character, and I would lose all my interest. I think eavesdropping is really sort of a lie-detecting process: you just ask characters questions and make them uncomfortable. Put them in situations that they would not choose, if they had a choice. Sooner or later, I think if you tell a lie, it leads to another lie, sometimes it just cracks, and as a writer you just catch those cracks, and then you can start from there.
I look at my dog – if he’s happy, he’s happy. If he’s not happy, he shows his unhappiness. But we protect ourselves much more than animals. And I think animals only protect themselves from real dangers, like predators, or natural disasters. We protect ourselves from both real and unreal things. Part of what we’re protecting ourselves from is friction in life. We’re imagining friction when we think a person’s going to think a particular way. Between protecting and presenting ourselves, we get a lot of complexity in character.
YY: It seems that our fears, or our characters’ fears, are fiction in a lot of ways.
YL: You’re right. I’m more curious about when these things are fiction than when it’s not fiction. In other words, say we have a character running away from an earthquake in California. That’s real. An earthquake is non-fiction. If a character survives or endures all this pain from an earthquake, the reactions are real; they’re not fiction.
But I’ll give you another scenario. We lived in California, and earthquakes are big things there, they’re on everybody’s mind. When our children were younger and in grade school, at the beginning of every year, you would send a care package with one stuffed animal, some food, a family picture, and a note saying: “I love you.” Which is fiction! There’s no earthquake.
That to me is a much more interesting situation – you’re saying goodbye to your children in a hypothetical way. It’s really just a projection of a future when some catastrophe would happen. What interests me is the second scenario – it’s what could have happened, rather than what already happened. It’s a situation that has more potential in fiction.
YY: In relation to characters lying – you mentioned public and private languages in one of your essays, “To Speak Is to Blunder.” To me, your characters personify the tension between public and private. How do you approach these two languages in a character? How do you work that into their emotions, and how one influences the other?
YL: You’re absolutely right in that I’m always interested in the countless intersections between a character’s private and public language. I believe that for every single moment, a character lives in multiple moments. A character doesn’t just live in this moment – it’s like an accordion, collapsing all these moments into just one moment. We’re unaware about that in life all the time. When you walk down the street to get a cup of coffee, sometimes you’re just thinking, “I’m walking down the street to get a cup of coffee, but what I’m really thinking about is that girl from high school who’s this and that.” And these moments are really fleeting in our real lives, and then our minds go somewhere else.
I do think that if we follow our mind all the time, it’ll just be a mess. A character does that too, and a fiction writer has the luxury and responsibility to really just look at the one moment. Auntie Mei (“A Sheltered Woman”) is sitting there rocking a baby, but it’s not about rocking the baby. It’s about all the babies before, and all the babies coming, and her own mother and grandmother. They’re all collapsed into that one moment.
YY: That boundary between languages has so much to do with time.
YL: I’m infinitely interested in time. Time in fiction, especially. Think about music, for instance, as real time. If you hear a note, you remember that note when it’s gone, but in writing you can recreate that note just as it happened the first time. In writing you manipulate, or manage, time in a different way than in music, or in painting, or in movies. To me, in writing, you have all the luxury and freedom to do whatever you want with time. In a Grace Paley story, you can let eighteen years pass in one sentence. Then one moment can last five pages. Again, it’s like an accordion. You can collapse all the time into one moment.
It’s close to what Hemingway calls the “tip of the iceberg.” You can’t experience every second of that character. How much real time do you show? Auntie Mei is sitting there taking care of a baby, but she lives elsewhere in her memory. Sometimes she really lives in the moment, but she’s actually living in the future about running away with this baby. You always move the character around a little in time, even though the character is in real time.
YY: In Dear Friend, you say that melodrama is “absolute loyalty to the original moment.” In workshop these days, it’s often considered a critique when a piece of writing is melodramatic. How do you think about that as an element in fiction?
YL: I certainly understand where that critique comes from; on the other hand, I really don’t understand. I go back to what Elizabeth Bowen said about fiction. She said that when you write fiction you’re really putting the lid on the pot, on life, that so much pressure is built up under the lid – and that’s when you have a story. When you put that much pressure on people, melodrama is innate within everyone. But if you take the lid off, the drama flows out like fireworks. That is uninteresting drama to me. And I think sometimes I do also say to my students, I think this is unnecessary drama, and I mean that they took the lid off, letting the thing go, and it’s a big production. When I talk about melodrama, maybe I am talking about whether it’s language or feeling. You have to put pressure on it, it really bears the pressure.
YY: I wanted to ask you about audience and language. When you write, do you think of your audience?
YL: I don’t think about audience. I think about two specific readers. When you think about an anonymous audience, to me that’s just…on the days when you don’t feel secure, you’ll be able to create all these critical voices around you, right, and I don’t think I need that. I’m also not interested in hearing the chorus of what they want, or what they want to hear, or what they don’t want to hear. I’ve chosen two readers, and for specific reasons. If they like my writing, I’m happy. And I think that’s enough for me.
I think publishing itself is a different thing from writing, and I separate them completely. The publishing side is business. The joy of writing is really with writing. And I let that joy stop after the story finds my two readers. And I just don’t think about the rest of it, because it’s too much to think about.
YY: Do your readers surprise you?
YL: One of them is my longtime editor friend, who does surprise me. She would criticize my writing in a brutal way. I remember I showed her one time I thought, when I was working on Kinder Than Solitude: “That’s a beautiful passage.” She wrote next to the passage, “BS.” And she said, “It is BS, you need to go back.” That’s the kind of trust you have to give to the reader, when she says it’s not right, you have to do it again. And I would do it. As for my other reader – I’m working on this character who’s an old, highly uneducated woman, and she caught me and said, “Oh, she reminded me of Hamlet!” And I said, “What?” And then I realized she has a point. And those are the best comments, because they really point out things that I’ve missed when I’m just writing.
YY: You wrote that often you’re a part of another person’s memory, and when you are, they’re often able to have the last word about their idea of you. Readers are constantly doing that, including me, to you, to writers; our memories making claims on that person’s writing. I was struck by the moment in the book when you were at McGahern’s gathering: it felt like utopia to me, that there’s this robust community of those who understand where he’s coming from, and maybe agree with his telling.
You say that “his life was lived among his people, his books written among his people,” and I can’t help but contrast that with some of the responses from your readers, especially Chinese readers. How do you write about place and history, especially when the memories of those places are contested? I was really struck by the line: “Writing as one’s private freedom will always be disloyalty.” How do you wrestle with that idea?
YL: Say you have ten American writers writing about New York City. They may come up with ten versions, and I don’t think people will contest that one is the real version of New York, and the other nine are fake. But if you’re a Chinese writer writing in English about China – this goes for other countries, too – people start to say: which version is the authentic version? It’s a ridiculous question, because I think every writer comes from where he or she comes from, and we’re writing about memories, we’re writing about our private memories, and one person’s memories can be totally different from another person’s, and it has to be, otherwise the world would just be one place.
McGahern is a very interesting example to me, that he wrote in a way that’s so transparent to his readers, to his people around him. But he has a long life story: he was exiled too, for many years, from Ireland, even though now they love him. Again I think each writer has to take some way, to have to follow a road. So people will say this and that. To be “disloyal” is to say that I’m not going to let anyone stop me from what I want to do. And I’m not going to join any crusade or any propaganda, or any agenda, and do things that they want to do.
So those are two very important things to me when I write. That sense of disloyalty as a writer comes from Graham Greene in one of his letters. And I really agree with that generation of writers post-World War II, as they were talking about having to stand up to all this historical pressure to be loyal, to be representative. No, we don’t represent other people. I resist this pressure that I have to represent something.
YY: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I often feel I’m having a conversation with your work, so this has been wonderful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.