First, know that Yiyun Li is not exactly a comforting author. Those who have read her fiction may recognize her tone: calm, but not soothing, matter-of-fact, yet dreamlike; a voice dedicated to seeing the world clearly and without sentimentality. Across two collections of short stories and two novels, this voice is both chilly and elegant, like a 19th-century Russian novelist, or a snowfall. Paired with Li’s legion of characters — often near-biblically afflicted with a deep powerlessness — the overall effect can leave you with a mix of wonder, awe, and pain. In Li’s first nonfiction book, Dear Friend, from My Life, I Write to You in Your Life, this voice speaks to us in fortissimo.
Collected over two years that saw Li hospitalized for depression and suicidal ideations, Dear Friend is a memoir, albeit an unusual one. She does not attempt to follow the plot of her life – which is as dramatic as any of her invented characters’ lives – as much as she allows herself to drift from memory to memory, letting her thoughts extend like far reaching spokes that span both literary references and personal memories.
Her favorite novelists form an army of introspectives and exiles, all sharing her attitudes toward solitude and self-destruction in varying degrees: Stefan Zweig, Maxim Gorky, Søren Kierkegaard, William Trevor, Ivan Turgenev, Katherine Mansfield, and Breece D’J Pancake, among others, lend Li dignity in her despair.
Some writings, like those of Mansfield, give her dark nourishment (“I devoured her words like thirst-quenching poison,” she writes) while others provide more diplomatic fuel for her spirit — of a Stefan Zweig novella, she says “This is the cruelty of melodrama—like suicide, it neither doubts nor justifies its right to be.” These voices sustain her, articulating her dour, private pains into a shared but private language.
Like suicide, language seems to be a fraught concept for Li. In January 2017, an excerpted chapter of the book ran in the New Yorker, under the title, “To Speak is to Blunder.” It is the most dramatic and vexed passage, addressing her readers and critics about what she calls her recent “private salvation” – her decision to renounce her native language completely.
Here, memories flicker in overdrive: Images from her childhood in communist Beijing strike against recollections of her first hospitalization. Memories of her mother’s scorn press against passages by Nabokov and Marianne Moore. Visions of Iowa City, her immigrant home, live alongside Chinese songs sung by her sister long ago.
In the face of opposition from friends, instructors, and family, Li puts away the Chinese parts of herself. Though she has never written in Chinese, and though many of her fictional characters are indeed Chinese, she vows never to write — or think — in her native Mandarin again.
Li does not pretend to naiveté about how this act will be received: “It’s the absoluteness of my abandonment of Chinese, undertaken with such determination that it is a kind of suicide.” To seal away an entire lifetime of experience is costly, not only socially, but personally. “I am not the only casualty in this war against myself,” she notes.
Yet there is a sense of relief here. Regardless of the criticism — and she notes that both Chinese and American authors have seen her as disloyal — Li’s is a deeply personal decision, one that makes her life livable by helping her build a new identity — one that we will ostensibly see in her literature to come.
If there is a nucleus at the center of this sprawling, pensive work, it is its title. Written by Katherine Mansfield in a personal journal, the phrase “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life” is not so much an introduction as a declaration of intent. “I cried when I read the line,” Li notes. “What a long way it is from one life to another, yet why write if not for that distance?”
For all of her logical twists and spiraling narratives, it is hard not to think like Li after reading her book. There is a magical property to her voice, one to absorb and admire in its absolution. I found myself, Li-like, sewing images of my own past to the passages and authors I respected, sustained by the personal language and private history I had created over time. Li had accomplished what she had set out to do: She had reached me.