Though slim at 192 pages, Yiyun Li’s 2019 novel, “Where Reasons End,” is packed with profundity.
The book – an extended conversation between a mother and the imagined voice of a teenage son, Nikolai, who, unexpectedly, took his own life – was written after Li’s own son, Vincent, committed suicide at age 16. In the novel, when Nikolai puts a “keep out” note on his door, the mother tells him that to love is to trespass. He responds by saying that living is trespassing.
In the same conversation, the son delineates between staying out of your mind – trespassing in your mind – and being out of your mind.
Later, Nikolai tells his mother, “To live, you have to propagate delusions.” The two characters share a close relationship. They discuss Emma Bovary and the Oxford comma, “Les Misérables” and the poetry of e.e. cummings. They talk about the writing process itself. “Writing fiction is to eavesdrop on your characters’ hearts,” says the narrator.
“I do not mind that life is not perfect,” says Nikolai who, in his short life, has excelled at baking, playing oboe, knitting and writing poetry. “I mind that I cannot perfect myself in an imperfect life.”
In July, Li became director of the creative writing program at Princeton University. She has taught in the program, previously helmed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, since 2017. Faculty has included Elizabeth Bowen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Chang-rae Lee, Mario Vargas Llosa, John McPhee, Lorrie Moore, Toni Morrison, Paul Muldoon, Neel Mukherjee, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Delmore Schwartz, Tracy K. Smith, Edmund White and others, many who have received Pulitzers and Nobels.
Among Li’s own honors, to date, are a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Windham Campbell Prize, the 2021 Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the PEN/Hemingway Award and others too numerous to mention.
In September, her 10th book will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Li will discuss “The Book of Goose” at Labyrinth Books, Princeton, Oct. 11, at 6 p.m. (The talk can be attended in person or virtually – registration required.)
During a recent conversation on Zoom – she had just returned from a family trip to Europe, where she contracted COVID and had to be detained – Li says she is looking forward to live book events again, after touring virtually for her 2020 book, “Must I Go.”
Although one can learn quite a bit about her from her memoir and personal essays in The New Yorker, among other publications, Li comes across as a private person during an interview, offering few personal details. Her Zoom backdrop is a white birch forest. When her cockapoo attempts to participate in the conversation, she mutes her audio.
Born in Beijing, Yi grew up the daughter of a teacher (mother) and nuclear physicist (father). Following a compulsory year serving in the People’s Liberation Army, Li earned a bachelor’s of science degree in immunology at Peking University, then came to the University of Iowa for a master’s degree in the field. At the time, she was unaware that the University of Iowa was also home to the most celebrated creative writing program.
Until then, she had never written anything beyond school work. But while working on her master’s, “it occurred to me that there were community based writing classes, and it seemed like a way to while away free time in the evenings,” she says. “I fell in love with it. Someone told me about the Iowa Writers Workshop.” The Program in Creative Writing in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has been cited as the best writing program in the country, with 17 alumni having gone on to earn Pulitzer Prizes.
The first story Li wrote, “Extra” – about a 51-year-old unmarried woman called Granny Lin who loses her job and goes on to find accidental love, first as a replacement wife/caregiver and later as a replacement mother for a young boy – was published in The New Yorker.
Interestingly, Li has only written in English. She thinks and dreams in English. “I even talk to myself in English,” she says. “After living in the U.S. for 26 years” – more than half her lifetime – “English has taken over as my main language.” She has even resisted having her books translated to Chinese. “Must I Go” is one she made an exception for. (Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages.)
But she still computes in Chinese. “I can’t really do math in another language.”
She says that one advantage of writing in a language that is not your native tongue, is that you don’t use cliches. “I want to express things as precisely as possible,” she told Electric Literature.
In a 2020 essay in The New Yorker, “The Ability to Cry,” Li recounts that she did not cry the day Vincent died, nor when her father died. The floodgates finally opened when she learned her dog sitter had committed suicide, and she would have to tell the news to her younger son, already reeling from the death of his brother.
“My mother is not one to put her arms around me. My father was not one to express his feelings easily,” she wrote. Her father’s principles were: be kind, keep smiling. Stoicism — silence and restraint – are what defined him and, in turn, her. The words “I love you” were never uttered to the other.
Suicide is a topic that appears throughout her writing. In high school Li attempted suicide. Her father’s counsel to her was to “think of time in classical physics — a linear element ... What you don’t want is to stop at this point in time.”
“Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” her memoir published in 2017, covers the time Li spent in a mental hospital, following an attempted suicide. Reading and writing are her salvation.
In “Must I Go,” the main character asks, “Is it so much of a tragedy if you live your life a little differently from most people? And choose to die in a different way than most people?"
For Li, or for the consciousness from which her characters emanate, perhaps death does not mean separation. “Death does not take the dead away,” says another character, “it only makes them grow more deeply within you.” That would certainly seem to be the case for the mother and son in “Where Reasons End.”
A theme of Li’s earlier work is life in China following the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests and the subsequent massacre in which thousands were killed by the military. Li was 17 at the time. Like many of her generation, coming to the U.S. was the way out.
In “Kinder than Solitude,” Shaoai — a character who joined the protest movement and is suspected of killing herself — is reading Simone de Beauvoir and literature by other feminist, progressive writers. Though China has a long history of literary censorship, particularly during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Li says she was reading books like that at Shaoai’s age. “They were available to us. There was a period, from 1986 to 1990, in which books were translated from English, French and German to Chinese. It was an astonishing, culturally open period in Chinese history, and translators were working to bring literature and humanities to China.
“There were not many bookstores,” she continues, “but there were bookstands on street corners selling everything from popular novels to (works by philosopher and poet Søren Kierkegaard). We would go to stands and read through and see what we would like. There was no systematic introduction to literature.”
Li says she writes first thing in the morning, after making breakfast for her family, and keeps at it until 11 a.m. “I used to be able to write anywhere — planes, trains, the airport – but these days I’m less active. The longer you write the more you realize it’s in your head, rather than page. I used to write every day, but now sometimes I may need a month to think about things. If I’m actively writing, I can write anywhere. I may spend half an hour fixing one sentence.”
She says she doesn’t write from her personal life, but from her personal point of view. “I feel more responsible for my characters than for how I feel.”
When asked where her characters come from, Li says “often you see something in the world that doesn’t make sense. I may observe this when reading a newspaper or seeing someone on the subway, and they raise questions for me. All come to me as question marks. I write a novel or stories to figure out who they are. You never know but try to get as close as you can.”
“The Book of Goose” is set in provincial France during the post-World War II era. Li says she didn’t choose the time and place, “it was more about the character having had her experience in that time. It had a seed in history, in a girl who wrote books that were published and she was perceived as a child prodigy, but it was not the product she presented. It was a literary hoax. In the end it’s not about that girl, it’s about the friendship between two girls.”
It’s too soon in her new role at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts to know how Li will juggle her additional responsibilities without compromising writing time. “Ask me in a year,” she says with a laugh. She’s also an editor at A Public Space in New York. Through that literary magazine, during the first year of the pandemic, she hosted a virtual book club, an 85-day public reading of “War and Peace.” Hundreds participated.
“I’ve found that the more uncertain life is,” she wrote in an accompanying publication, “the more solidity and structure ‘War and Peace’ provides.”
She remains excited about working with students. “Princeton is a very special place. I love teaching undergrads. Unlike MFA programs, Princeton students are not expected to publish a book by the end of the semester (although they do work on a thesis project, either a novel, screenplay, or a collection of short stories, poems or translations).
“They are curious,” continues Li. “Some are math majors, others may be studying engineering, political science, physics or English (the University does not offer a major in creative writing). It’s a good time to explore other interests, and to pay attention to reading and writing. I find it rewarding, making a difference in people’s lives. Some do go on to MFA programs, others become doctors and inventors, but if they love reading there’s always a little bit of hope.”