Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life
“When a train stops in the open country between two stations, it is impossible not to put one’s head out of the window and see what’s up,” Katherine Mansfield is quoted as writing in her journals by Yiyun Li in this collection of essays titled after another line by Mansfield and addressing topics such as time, authenticity, intention, attachment, character, ambivalence and melodrama as they are mapped in literature, both for readers and for writers, and as demonstrable parts of mechanisms of the depression that led Li to attempt suicide twice. Since her suicide attempts, Li has not written fiction but has immersed herself in reading as an alternative mode of nonexistence - “To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one’s existence.” - and in writing about reading and about writing and about the underlying motivations for both activities. “But for those who wish to erase themselves by writing: why write at all? Uncharitably one writes in order to stop oneself from feeling too much; uncharitably one writes to become closer to that feeling self.” Li proceeds, appropriately, considering her pre-literary career as a scientist, treating each statement she makes as a hypothesis to be tested and disputed and refined by the kind of close, intelligent reading of others’ writing that it is a privilege to accompany. “I have arrived at a point where defending and disputing my actions are the same argument. Everything I say is scrutinised by myself, not only the words and their logic but also my motives. As a body suffers from an autoimmune disease, my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.” This sort of rigour is as hazardous to perform as it is to avoid, and we begin to be convinced that the stakes of all literature are existential. Why is literature written and read? What is its relationship to so-called ‘real life’? For Li, the expectations visited by oneself upon oneself when relating to actual people are an existential threat that can be avoided with resort to literature. “The part of me that could be so free and happy on its own is not fit to live among people. It strives in vain to articulate its right to be; it shies away from drama or feeling yet avoidance only leads to melodrama: it compromises one, it shames one, it terrorises one; it makes one’s life into a cautionary tale.” Melodrama refuses to act as a metaphor. For someone “whose real context is books”, literature is the testing ground for one’s existential gambits, the place in which, for both reader and writer, the ambivalent impulses of existence/nonexistence, emptiness/identity, constraint/freedom, story/incoherence can be exercised, observed, and, to an extent, contained (not that this diminishes the valencies or the threats they pose). “How much does one believe in the possibilities of one person’s knowing and understanding another? A real person, open-ended, can only be approached as a hypothesis. To say that we know a person is to write a person off. A person written off becomes a character.” If a character appears in a novel, what is the modicum of coherence/incoherence that makes them both believable and comprehensible (if believability and comprehensibility can be seen as opposing qualities)? “What kind of life permits a person the right to become his own subject? I wished then and I wish now that I had never formed an attachment to anyone in the world. I would be all kindness. I had often glided through life with deceiving tranquility, I had the confidence to put up a seeming as my being. That confidence, however, is the void replacing I. The moment I enters my narrative my confidence crumbles. Can one live without what one cannot have - the absence of I, and the closeness to people that makes absence impossible? Willfulness turns the inevitable into the desirable. Time spent with other people is the time to prepare for their disappearance. By abolishing you, the opposite of I, I could erase the troublesome I from my narrative, too.” Literature provides a means of self-erasure for both writer and reader but has the antithetical consequence of self-extension - or it might be better to say that literature provides a means of self-extension but has the antithetical consequence of self-erasure. “To write is to revive feelings, but it is to leave these feelings behind that I write.” Li may escape from herself into Mansfield, Hardy or Kierkegaard, but, by reading, she brings herself more clearly into focus, a being that observes without being burdened by any qualities of its own, a being precisely located by its own attention but otherwise unobservable.
'Profoundly engaging in depth, with remarkable subtlety and rare, limpid beauty. A must-read' - Mary GaitskillA luminous memoir about reading, writing and how to find meaning in a lifeWritten over two years while the author battled depression, Dear Friend is a painful and yet richly affirming examination of what makes life worth living. Interweaving personal memoir with a wide-ranging celebration of writers and books, this is a journey of recovery through literature.From William Trevor and Katherine Mansfield to Kierkegaard and Larkin, Yiyun Li traces the themes of time and transformation, presence and absence. Drawing on personal experiences from her difficult childhood in China, she constructs a beautiful, interior exploration of selfhood and what is required to choose life.
Reveals, gloriously, the companionship, intimacy, and insight that can come from obsession with the written word * LA Review of Books * Literature, the clash of public and private, human nature itself-these subjects and more are explored with remarkable subtlety and rare, limpid mental beauty. A must-read for anyone trying to stay sane in a world that might be perceived as insane -- Mary Gaitskill, author of The Mare Weaving sharp literary criticism with a perceptive narrative about her life as an immigrant in America * The Millions * An intimate memoir of darkest despair... A potent journey of depression that effectively testifies to unbearable pain and the consolation of literature * Kirkus * Quietly forceful, unrelenting... She unfolds an argument with the self, suspicious of the very concept , but not, ultimately, refuse its possibilities -- Eula Biss Novelistic scenes, limpid prose, subtly moving emotion... Personal reminiscences [and] literary meditations... Li explores ruptures in time, the difficulty of writing autobiographical fiction, the pleasures of melodrama * Publisher's Weekly * Publisher's description. A luminous memoir from the award-winning author of The Vagrants and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Startlingly original and shining with quiet wisdom, this is the record of a life lived with books and a richly affirming examination of what makes any life worth living. * Penguin * Beautiful and profound... This book is a terribly beautiful gift to the reader -- Neel Mukherjee * New Statesman * A remarkable account of literary life [from] an important and gifted writer... Her new book is a meditation on the fact that literature itself lives and gives life -- Marilynne Robinson Extraordinary. A storyteller of the first order -- Junot Diaz Exceptional... one of our major novelists -- Salman Rushdie Yiyun has the talent, the vision and the respect for life's insoluble mysteries... [she] is the real deal -- Michel Faber A work of arresting revelations...A writer of meticulous reasoning, probing sensitivity, candor, and poise, Li parses mental states with psychological and philosophical precision in a beautifully measured and structured style born of both her scientific and literary backgrounds. * Booklist * Li celebrates the authors who make reading a joyous pursuit, and the details that've made her own life worth living. * Huffington Post *
Yiyun Li is the author of two novels, The Vagrants and Kinder Than Solitude, and two short story collections, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. She has won literary awards including the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, and was listed among Granta's 21 Best of Young American Novelists 2007. Her stories have been published in the New Yorker, Paris Review and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City with her husband and two sons. Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life will be published by Hamish Hamilton in February 2017.