tue 17/10/2017

Sunday Book: Yiyun Li - Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life | reviews, news & interviews

Sunday Book: Yiyun Li - Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life

Sunday Book: Yiyun Li - Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life

A brave meditation on depression and the consolations of literature

Yiyun Li: deep, or pretentious?John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Yiyun Li’s fiction comes garlanded in praise from authors and journals that don’t ladle it out carelessly, so it feels almost churlish to cavil over a memoir written during the course of two years while the author battled serious mental health issues.

Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life – a quote from Katherine Mansfield’s personal journal – is not actually a memoir even in the most broad-brush sense of the term. Rather it’s a collection of essays – meditations one might call them – on depression and life and what makes it worth living. Reading this book you wonder, so don’t come here seeking balm for the soul. “Painful,” says the press release, and that’s true enough, but “richly affirming”? I’m not so sure.

I can’t decide: is Li’s book deep, or simply deeply pretentious. “I was reading Kierkegaard while waiting to pick up my children from school”, she writes at one point – and you want to shout: “Get a life, woman!” The line introduces a quote from Either/Or, the Danish philosopher’s first published work, in which he notes how, reading an epitaph, you are “easily led to wonder how it went with his life in the world; one would like to climb down in the grave to converse with him”. The quote refers back to the book’s title and the fact that Li reads in order to talk to other writers, to enter into discussion with them. She always reads with pen in hand, inscribing comments and questions in the margin, and has said that she frequently shouts at books the way many of us shout at the TV.

Yiyun LiAll the writers she admires (Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen, Nabokov, John McGahern and William Trevor, whom she is eventually able to commune with in person, even though she writes that “a writer and a reader should never be allowed to meet”) seem to dwell on solitude and self-destruction. The book’s opening chapter is “Amongst People”, an homage (one must assume) to McGahern’s claustrophobic masterpiece Amongst Women.

Li was born in Beijing amid the tumult of the Cultural Revolution and came to the US as a student, studying for a PhD in immunology. She never finished, becoming instead a writer and holds an MFA from the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop plus an MFA in creative non-fiction from the University of Iowa. She’s been published in prestigious magazines, won numerous awards in both the US and Britain and has been translated into a score of languages. But not into Chinese, her native tongue and the language she renounced, dreaming, thinking, speaking and writing only in English.

Li also has a total aversion to the personal pronoun, which can make for some convoluted sentences. That’s partly linguistic (it doesn’t really exist in Chinese) but also, one must assume, psychological: “There is this emptiness in me. All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing.” If she rids herself of the emptiness, will she be “less than nothing”? Paradoxically, she seeks to “erase” herself by writing. “When I gave up science I had a blind confidence that in writing I could will myself into nonentity.”

Depression, even when not suicidal, as Li’s was, wrecks your regular thought process. It takes different forms, its outward sign often anger, but it makes you look relentlessly inward, inevitably finding much you don’t like and thus deepening the depression. Li has flashes of memory, and it’s how we learn her back story. Drafts of Dear Friend were written when life “began to feel unbearable. Composing a sentence is better than composing none; an hour taken away from treacherous rumination is an hour gained”.

She admits in an Afterword that “Coherence and consistency are not what I have been striving for” and one can understand why. For someone who wishes to erase herself this is a brave book though I think few people will truly be able to engage with it and fewer still will find comfort. What it lacks, I suspect, is a brave editor.

Li also has a total aversion to the personal pronoun, which can make for some convoluted sentences

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