Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
By Yiyun Li
Random House. 224 pp. $27 nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by John Timpane
Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life (beautiful title) by Yiyun Li is three things in one.
It's part life story: We learn of the author's early life in China, her fractured relationship with her mother, her relocation to the United States, her decision to give up science for writing, her adoption of English and purposeful abandonment of Chinese, her career as a novelist and essayist, and (always obliquely) her suicide attempts.
It's part reading journal: She loves Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, William Trevor, Marianne Moore, and especially Katherine Mansfield. She prefers the careful, reserved, ironic, scrupulous writer; anything else she very much suspects and fears.
And it's part existential shadowboxing, as Yiyun Li contends with her need to "erase" herself through writing, her anxieties over being (in writing and in life) insincere, inaccurate, facile. It's a series of themed essays, with an islands-in-the-stream structure, in which the theme flows forward and collects vignettes from her life, writing/reading, and philosophy. Stories and arguments don't flow; they build up.
Born in Beijing in 1972, she came to this country in 1996 to study immunology but had a crushing, enlightening epiphany: She must become a writer, a writer in English. Brooking adviser disapproval and family anger, she made that choice. And she has become one of our best. Exhibit A is her 2009 novel, The Vagrants, a lacerating tale of the damage wrought by totalitarianism on provincial Chinese lives.
We get glimpses of her life in China, her time in the army, her schooldays. People ask her what she's hiding, and when she says she's not hiding anything, they trust her even less. We watch her quest as a self-described "recluse" (although, as the book shows, she is often among readers, writers, family, strangers), a quest descended from Buddhism but with an existential twist, to avoid connections, attachments. Chinese readers blame her for writing fiction that does not let them be proud of their country. She tells of a mysterious uncle presumed dead, presumed alive. There are many discomforts, as in, for example, looking at art with a friend: "The truth is, I did not know what I was supposed to see."
Many of the judgments here may seem odd, backward, distressing. The title stresses what seems to her the vast distance between one life and another, our indestructible and resistant separateness. Here are a few more aperçus:
"To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one's existence."
"A recluse, I have begun to understand, is not a person for whom a connection with another person is unattainable or meaningless, but one who feels she must abstain from people because a connection is an affliction, or worse, an addiction."
"A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic word."
"What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?"
All is written in straightforward, precise, meditative prose. Much of it is all but flat and voiceless - and there's a reason for that. It's her almost impossible scrupulousness, to erase herself by writing (about herself!), to commit no flamboyance, self-indulgence, or prettiness. It is painful, perplexing, fascinating, often moving. Yiyun Li has invented her own brand of beauty.
Suicide is in the wings, in the background. It comes to the fore only in the superb "Afterword," where Yiyun Li tells us she started these essays with mixed feelings: "I wanted to argue against suicide as much as for it, which is to say I wanted to keep the option of suicide and I wanted it to be forever taken away from me." So her struggle continues. This book was written as a stay against the unbearable. We realize why this book exists: to endure, to survive.
I just need to say: Yiyun Li is a prime example of a big trend in American writing, in which writers born, so to speak, in another language come here and become masters of American literary art. A wealth of such writers are bringing new stories, sensibilities, and outlooks into U.S. lit. As Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life does, they enliven and enrich us.