A master of the short story, Yiyun Li is one of a handful of writers who have collected many, many accolades—she was a MacArthur Foundation fellow the same year she was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 under-40 fiction writers—but aren’t household names. She is seen as an exemplar of the émigré writer in the vein of Nabokov: She fled an ostensibly communist country (China) in her early 20s to the “free” Anglophone world (America), now creates masterpieces in an adopted tongue, and refuses to have much to do with her country of origin. (She has said she doesn’t want her books translated into Chinese.) It certainly doesn’t help that some her critics seem to misunderstand her project—treating her work as political fables about the follies and crimes of the communist government, when Li is deeply interested in the intricacies of personal relationships, not the grand arcs of history that we recount in the aftermath.
Her fiction focuses on the interior lives of people who find themselves in undesirable situations—a nanny taking care of a young mother with postpartum depression, a dictator’s impersonator blackmailed for having sex, a woman grieving over her dead teenage son. The last is the subject of her latest novel, Where Reasons End, in which the narrator has a series of imagined conversations with her precocious teenage son Nikolai after he kills himself. (Li also lost a son to suicide, which led plenty of critics to label Where Reasons End as autofiction.)
Earlier this year, I talked with her at her office at Princeton University, where she teaches creative writing. We had a wide-ranging conversation about Chinese poetry, why Moby Dick is a fantastic novel, her writing process, and more.
Rosemarie Ho: You’ve spoken about how you love revision, but Where Reasons End was essentially a one-draft novel. Why didn’t you feel compelled to edit it thoroughly?
Yiyun Li: What happened in that book was that I worked—or wrote—only as a reporter of that conversation. That conversation took place between a mother and son, and they had to sustain that momentum, all the complications, everything. So if I had revised that book, it would have been me, the writer, coming in to do things.
RH: It’s really interesting that you use the term “reporter,” that there is an impartiality to this process. Because part of the book is concerned with Nikolai’s and his mother’s quibbling over language and precision. What does it mean to be precise when you are discussing characters, even as you say they live independently of you?
YL: You can never get as precise as you want in writing. It’s always just getting as close as you can. For me, precision in writing is one of the most important things. But again, I always have to acknowledge at some point that I can never get as close as I want, that I can only get a proximity to precision.
RH: I’m going to ask you a really basic question, one that probably Nikolai would ask, but what is precision?
YL: In the book, the mother said, “I cannot always say ‘always’ or ‘never,’ because they’re not precise words.” Say “I always like chocolate”—no, there’s been days where I’ve been so sad that I don’t like it. Or, you know, “You never return my calls.” No, we do. That’s a complaint, right? In life we use language in such an imprecise way, making a lot of generalizations and sweeping statements.
I was just working on a travel piece, and I was thinking about just how to write about the ocean and the sky. I can only say things like “The ocean is blue, and the sky is blue,” but is that precise? No. Because language is limited. Those two kinds of blue are very different. Precision to me is a really high bar that you can’t ever reach, but you aim at it anyway.
RH: That’s a little depressing.
YL: But it’s not! It’s such a joyful process. Every time I say or write a sentence, I study the sentence again, and I say to myself, “Does this really mean what I mean? And is there a more precise way to say it?” That process isn’t only about working with words but also about sharpening your thoughts and ideas. So I write just to have a conversation with my brain.
RH: In Where Reasons End there are excerpts, from Elizabeth Bishop to a classical Chinese poem that the narrator translates for Nikolai. How does other people’s writing interact with your own, and why bring them into your work?
YL: I’ve always believed that you write to have a conversation with somebody else’s writing, and I do have things in mind when I write. I’ve said this before, but when I was working on my earlier stories, I oftentimes had William Trevor’s stories in mind, and so my stories became direct conversations with his. But I would not bring his stories into my stories. That conversation is happening on another level.
Each book, I think, has its own personality. Where Reasons End and Dear Friend are two people who just really wanted to say, “Hey, I want you to hear directly what Elizabeth Bishop said.”
RH: How do you feel about fiction and nonfiction as being construed as entirely separate categories? Before you wrote Dear Friend, you would have said that those are very separate things. But now the distinction has been muddled a little bit.
YL: I’m a fiction writer and a fiction reader, but I’m also an essay reader. Essays are still a little different from nonfiction. Nowadays when we make the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, oftentimes we’re talking about narrative nonfiction. Things have to have actually happened in a memoir, someone has to fact-check it, even as not everything in a memoir is technically true. Even omissions make it less true. Essays are most exciting for me, I think.
I actually don’t understand why people say that Where Reasons End is autofiction, mostly because I don’t understand what that word means. Certainly the book and my life—there’s a lot interwoven there. The book is precisely the conversation the parent and son have, but it’s not accurate.
RH: I’m struck by your insistence—or at least the publishers’ insistence—that Where Reasons End is a novel, even as it’s drawn from events in your life. Do you think all writing is autobiographical, then?
RH: You would have said no before, though?
YL: But I corrected that, for the record. Most fiction is autobiographical in a way. So is Where Reasons End more autobiographical than my other novels? Perhaps on the surface, since you can trace it back to my life. But what does it matter? These are two characters that are separate from me.
RH: What do you set out to do in your writing?
YL: I write about people and things I don’t understand. I don’t know if other writers would feel the same, but for me, it’s important that I learn new things when I write, otherwise there’s really no point in doing so. Even if I’m writing a book review or an introduction to a book or just any magazine assignment, I want to find thoughts I’ve never thought before. Certainly, the best books, for me, are by writers who write to expand their understanding of the world. When I read them, I will expand my understanding also. I want to be challenged and say, “Oh, I’ve always thought this way, but it could be different.”
I mean, speaking of thinking differently, Moby Dick says everything I want to say, but a hundred times better. It’s just one of the most gorgeous novels. That should be the ambition of every writer—to write a good story that has maybe one line as good as any one of Chekhov’s or a novel that has a passage that can live up to any from Moby-Dick.
RH: You’ve covered this in Dear Friend, but I just wanted to press you a little on this. Why no Chinese translations of your work?
YL: China is not ready for me, and I’m not ready for China. That’s what I usually say. This is not a very good analogy, but if you take Kinder Than Solitude and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart—readers [in China] would read Bowen as a British writer, but they would read me only as a Chinese writer. It’s inevitable. I don’t think people in China are able to treat my writing as they would an American or Anglophone writer or even just as literature. Some people say that my writing hurts their feelings and that my work isn’t representative. Of course I don’t represent them. I only represent myself. Nobody should represent a country. It’s just pettiness and not reading literature for what it is: literature. I’m not interested in reading for political reasons.
Because of that, I’m not ready, either. I’m not ready to engage with an audience that has this much political baggage.
RH: But even in America, people read so much into your books the fact that you immigrated and that you chose to write in English.
YL: Misreaders are everywhere! There are people who come up to me and say, “Oh, you’re so wonderful. You’ve overcome all these obstacles to become this American writer. This is the American dream.” Again, those who read me for that triumphant arc are not my readers. On the other hand, as a writer, you can’t control how your readers read. So you might as well just not think about it.
RH: But doesn’t being misread frustrate you?
YL: I had plenty of preparation coming into my career, knowing exactly that this was what would happen. If I couldn’t have imagined how people react the way they do, I wouldn’t be a fiction writer. I was a little tickled at the beginning. I was a little annoyed. It’s like mosquito bites, right? It’s all so predictable, and that annoyed me, I think. At least unpredictability is interesting.
RH: What is your current relationship to Chinese?
YL: It’s my mother tongue. But it’s not my thinking language or my writing language, either. Most of the times, I speak English now, so there’s now a distance—a very self-inserted, maintained distance. The only thing I really do in Chinese is counting and doing math.
I would say the only Chinese work I’ve read in the past decade is Dream of the Red Chamber, maybe five times. There’s this saying, 小不讀紅樓夢, 老不讀三國 (No reading Dream of the Red Chamber when you’re young, no reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms when you’re old.) So of course I wanted to read it. I remember when I was 12 years old, I was talking to a friend who was reading it also. She said, “It’s so boring. Their lives must be so boring in that garden.” I was horrified. I thought [the characters] led such fascinating lives, doing nothing but writing poetry. I read the book for little things, details, though later on I would say I read it for the relationships. I used to read the book about 10 times a year. It would just be next to my bed. I’d turn to a page and start reading. I haven’t followed contemporary Chinese literature that much.
I’ve said I’ve abandoned Chinese as a language, but I have not abandoned Chinese classical poetry. I can still remember a lot of the poems. When I’d have a boring meeting, I used to write them down [from memory] in my notebook, and no one could read them. I have a few collections, but Chinese poetry isn’t really in my everyday life. It’s just in my blood.