Author Yiyun Li and choreographer Miguel Gutierrez make work that fuels—and is fueled by—self-understanding.
Yiyun Li is an award-winning author whose accolades include the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award and the Guardian First Book Award for her short story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and the 2020 PEN/Jen Stein Book Award for the novel Where Reasons End.
Born in Beijing in 1972, Yiyun served a year of compulsory service in China, where she wrote propaganda speeches for her military commander. She completed a BS at Peking University and moved to the United States to continue her scientific studies at the University of Iowa. She began to write English-language stories while in Iowa City and earned an MFA from the university’s famed writing program in 2005. She found international acclaim the same year for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.
She has since published an additional collection of stories, four novels, and the memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (2017). Much of her writing is set against the background of the profound changes in recent Chinese history, with mental illness another frequent theme.
She is a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
Miguel Gutierrez is an admired choreographer, known for his interdisciplinary dance-based works exploring identity, desire, and queerness.
Born to Colombian parents in Queens, NY, in 1971, Gutierrez began studying dance at age 9. He attended Brown University and New York University but left to work in gay activism in San Francsico, where he danced in the Joe Goode Performance Group. He returned to New York in 1996 to join the John Jasperse Company and began to create solo and group performances in 2001. His 2017 piece Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, won a prestigious Bessie Award for Best Revival, one of four such awards Guterriez has received.
He composed the music for several of his works as well as for other choreographers, and leads the cabaret concert group Sadonna, which performs sad versions of Madonna songs. His 2013 book When You Rise Up compiled his poems, lyrics, and other performance texts.
Gutierrez has taught at festivals, workshops, and colleges, including Yale, Princeton, NYU, and Brown, where he completed his BA after a twenty-seven year layoff.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that brings you insights into the human condition from some fine creative thinkers.
On this episode, “Self Realization.” Great suffering drove Yiyun Li to find solace in writing.
Yiyun Li: I want to push myself to think about my blind spot. What I don’t see is always more important or more interesting than what I do see.
And witnessing his own development with a watchful eye has kept high flying choreographer Miguel Gutierrez grounded.
Miguel Gutierrez: Of course, that’s the arrogance and the blindness of youth. You have no idea that grace is going to enter your life in this other kind of way. In a way that doesn’t look like the Lifetime movie. It’s a lot weirder and stranger and progressive than that.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Growing up in post-Maoist China, Yiyun Li was told to be quiet. Knowing that to speak out could be deadly, she listened. But at 18, while undergoing mandatory political indoctrination, she didn’t hold her tongue. The decision could have cost her her life.
Yiyun Li: This defiance was very much close to saying, I would not like to live this life you have given me. So you’re right, it’s a death wish.
Clearer manifestation of this death wish had shown itself a year earlier, when Li had attempted to take her own life. It was the result of a deep depression that she would continue to suffer throughout her life, fueled in part by all that was said and unsaid around her. Yiyun Li grew up at the start of China’s cultural transformation. Reforms enacted after Mao’s death in 1978 sowed the seeds of today’s booming Chinese state-controlled market economy. Western books began to become freely available. Li devoured them, and imagined herself speaking freely like the characters she read. But when, in the late 1980s, social and economic reforms faltered, thousands began to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The government clamped down, sending Chinese troops to massacre scores of student protesters, and then impose martial law.
(Excerpt from Yiyun Li’s “Bye bye, Beijing”)
Every day before I went to school, my parents would remind me to keep quiet in public. Our Mandarin teacher, a tiny old lady, warned us not to write anything in our weekly journals about the political situation. Then she begged us not to tell on her to the school authorities.
And so after high school, instead of taking her place at Peking University, Li and her peers were sent to the army for a year, to prevent future insubordination. Li’s mother told her to imagine her mouth like a closed zipper, but shortly after she arrived, she decided to tell her squad mates the truth.
(Excerpt from Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life)
I presented myself as someone different from others. Submitting obliquely, subversive poetry, when I was ordered to write propaganda. Making cleverly insolent comments about the officers. Taking every opportunity to undermine the authority of our squad leader. To defy any political authority. To endanger myself in a righteous way. To use my words to distinguish this self from people around me. These, at 18, were shortcuts to what I really wanted: confirmation that life, bleak and unjust, was not worth living.
But in this honesty, Li didn’t feel relief. Instead, she alternated between fantasies about provoking her own death in the military, and fear that her dissidence would land her in prison. She wanted out. So in college she worked towards an ambition to study in the United States, believing she might be better there. And so, upon graduation, she gladly accepted a place at the University of Iowa to study immunology.
Li: The funny thing is, before I left China, I had this imagination about my American life. But I had never been to America. I did not know the country. I did not know the language. So my entire fantasy ended the moment I entered America.
At the time, Li was in a relationship with the man who would become her husband, Dapeng Li. But during her first years in Iowa, he remained in Beijing. Lonely and looking to improve her English, Li decided to take a writing class. She soon discovered that she had years of stories to tell. So she wrote. After three years, she quit her PhD in immunology to enroll in the university’s prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She soon landed lucrative publishing deals and received a MacArthur “Genius” grant. She was joined by her husband in America and started a family. They had two boys: Vincent in 2001, and James in 2005. Their eldest son Vincent shared many of Li’s interests.
Li: He was full of joy about life. Very poetic, very musical and artistic. All these wonderful things you saw in a young person. I think he and I had a very close relationship. We were like friends.
But Li continue to struggle with crippling depression. She tried to end her life twice, and ended up in a rehabilitation program where at first she wasn’t receptive to treatment. She couldn’t write, but eventually took comfort in what others had written. And like those first stories she had read in English as a child, she found company in others’ words. When she began to write again, her experiences became a memoir, 2017’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life.
Li: Depression certainly is so complex. I think part of my understanding is, it’s not only mental, it’s also physical and biochemical. So what triggered depression, for instance? For myself, I’ve written about that just for years. Not sleeping, just because of parenting and working and writing. Just the lack of sleep seems a tremendous trigger in my case. When my life was the most difficult, I wouldn’t be able to write. So I would copy other people’s sentences into a notebook. Just to keep the hands working, just to keep the eyes moving along on a page, keep hands on them. I did not have a conscious mind to know that is where I wanted to go. I just wanted to get out of this position of stuck-ness.
But just as Lee began to recover, she lost her 16-year-old son Vincent to suicide. She couldn’t tell her family in China of his death, believing it would be a burden they wouldn’t be able to bear or understand.
Li: Vincent was extremely literary. He had a very good taste in literature and music. I think he probably took after me. I’m sure depression, too, came from me. There’s no way to work around that. Certainly he knew of my suicide attempts. So, I think it was just. I would say he was born on the same wavelength as I am. I think the misunderstanding is if you’re depressed, it’s a willpower thing. Why don’t you will yourself out of bed? But it’s an illness. It’s an illness as terrible as cancer. You cannot just say to a cancer patient, well, just cheer up, you’re going to be fine. Just live with some willpower. I think I’m scientific towards this disease.
AJC: How are you now?
Li: I’m fine. I think, more or less fine. I mean, my life has been a little difficult over the past few years. Things are hard, but I want to make a difference between sadness and unhappiness. I’m sad. I’m always sad. But I don’t always say I’m unhappy. It’s different.
Li had expected Vincent’s death to break her, but she soon realized that her relationship with tragedy had changed. In the past, she had tried to manage grief by silencing it. Now she was using it as a door into a world where she could still communicate with her son. These conversations became 2019’s novel Where Reasons End.
(Excerpt from Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End)
What I was doing was what I had always been doing. Writing stories. In this one, the child Nikolai, which was not his real name, but a name he had given himself among many other names he had used, and his mother dear meet in a world unspecified by time and space. It was not a world of gods and spirits. And it was not a world dreamed up by me; even my dreams were mundane and landlocked in reality. It was a world made up of words, and words only. No images, no sounds. Would you call it a tragedy? He said. I would only call it sad. It’s so sad. I have no adjectives left.
Li: I think about contentment sometimes. There are moments I can feel content looking at my full garden, and doing the gardening, making flowers grow. That’s contentment, I would not call it happiness. I never believe you can write yourself out of misery or unhappiness or sadness. And I would prefer not to have these miseries to be able to write well. I think, I would say for myself, it’s more about these things are in my life, but I try not to pressure them. It’s like, if there’s a pain, I don’t push and see how much pain I am in or how painful it is. I just acknowledge the pain is there. I won’t be able to write myself out of the pain. But I also don’t think I’m writing because of that pain. I think it used to be, maybe I am nothing, but I wanted to be something. But now I don’t have that desire. That’s what is consoling, is, if I’m nothing it’s fine. I can still make something out of nothing.
(Excerpt from Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End)
Everything breakable, and unbreakable belonged to a parent’s field. What could I catch on this grey wet morning? Not a smile on your face, not the light in your eyes, not a blue cat, not a purple penguin, not dust in the wind, not a thought whispering in your ears, so loud that it had drawn out all the music of the world. What, my child, can I catch now? When all has become invisible. “Words, mother dear,” Nikolai said. “We’ll be catching each other’s words, don’t you see?”
Li: Somehow I think the experience of the last few years, they have changed me a little. They have changed me. I would say I am a better friend for myself than before, instead of an enemy. I would say before Dear Friend, all my books were written in a kind of struggle. Even if they were fiction, it’s still just a self fight. You know, self-damaging. All these arguments were with myself. I think I still argue with myself, but that’s not the only way I write now. And that gives me a little hope people can change.
And this hope is reflected in her own transformation. Yiyun Li no longer expects to be pardoned from grief. Instead, she accepts that for her, there can be no life without it. And day by day, she’s choosing to live.
Miguel Gutierrez comes from a long line of prodigal sons. And just like his father, he deviated radically from the path his family had envisioned for him. To go his own way he turned against his parents, and turned up the volume on self destruction. It was a lonely road.
Miguel Gutierrez: That took years, for me to be like, it’s okay for me to take suggestions from others. It’s okay for me to accept that my problems might just be like everyone else’s, actually. This idea of like, “No, my problems are operatically different.”
Miguel Gutierrez is named after his father. Miguel Sr. was a young man when he watched Rebel Without A Cause in his native Colombia. It’s depiction of the American dream and youthful rebellion against it appealed to him. And so when he was old enough, he left his home and his family for the US. He became an electronics engineer and married a Colombian woman, Elena. They had two kids, a boy and a girl. The American dream was working out just fine until their son, Miguel Jr., began his own youthful rebellion.
Gutierrez: I remember my dad, I think I was in eighth grade, and I was having this huge fight with him. And I really wanted to go to performing arts high school, and I had stealthily started researching. Then that became revealed. And he was like, “Tell me right now if you’re going to go to an Ivy league school or not, because that’s the only reason we have you in that school that you’re in.” I went to private school. Because for my parents, absolutely education was the ultra ultimate thing. So for my sister and me to not fulfill the greatest possible form of education that we could get was interpreted as failure on their part. And that was terrifying for them.
Young Miguel didn’t like sports. He liked Broadway shows and learning his older sister Margarita’s cheerleading routines. More than anything, he loved dancing. He says it was how he first experienced his body as his own. It soon became clear to him that dancing was what he was going to do, but his parents were not pleased with their son’s unconventional career choice.
Gutierrez: When I was really in the midst of having my fights with my parents in my teens, which these were epic, epic fights, my father and I just like, screaming at each other. It was horrible. But one of my big frustrations with them was always, you left your country and came here and you’re mad at me because I want to go dance? You abandoned your family.
The more Gutierrez explored who he was through dance, the more he realized he wouldn’t fit in with the ideal, the life his parents had envisioned for him. Raised Catholic, he went through a period of denial as he was coming to terms with being gay. When he came out to his family at 18, it confirmed his father’s worst fears.
Gutierrez: My father said two horrifically annoying things to me about my gayness. One time, he was like, “When you’re in a situation with a guy who plays the man and who plays the woman?” Like that whole thing. Which I was just—and that was more like eye-roll-y for me. I was like, really? This is where we are? And then the other thing was when he was like, “What you’re doing is an abomination against God.” That was the more severe, when I first came out to him. It was so painful to hear that. But I also just didn’t believe him because I knew him. I was like, you sleep on Sundays. You don’t even go to church if you don’t want to. We all know that you’re a skeptic. It was just always funny to me. I would see him take on these ideas, of like a stern homophobic dad and then he could be listening to Verdi. It’s like really, queen?
Miguel Gutierrez says he had to fully rebel against his parents to undo the Catholic self-hatred and shame he had been raised with. He did eventually go to an Ivy league school, just as his father had hoped: Brown University for theater and performance studies. And then, in what Gutierrez is calls a rebellious bourgeoisie act, he dropped out. He says he did it primarily to upset his parents. And so at 21, without family support and without any idea of how he might make a living as a queer Latino artist, he was on his own. But in San Francisco he found his place and a mentor who recognized and validated his need to find his own way. Slowly it became clear that there might be a need for the type of experimental, mold-breaking work he saw himself making.
Gutierrez: When I started dancing professionally in a company, in California in the nineties, which was Joe Goode Performance Group, and Joe actually was the first person who curated me into a show. He saw that I was really into it. And I just knew that there was something that would take over me when I knew I had to make something or that I wanted to make something that was very particular.
In California, Gutierrez spent his money recklessly partying, boozing, drugging. Eventually his recklessness caught up with him.
Gutierrez: I remember being six months behind in the rent, I remember I couldn’t bend my foot, I remember I had this cough that wouldn’t go away.
At 27, Miguel Gutierrez was diagnosed with gout. Soon after, he sobered up. Looking back he says his self destructive phase, though painful, was probably necessary. Miguel Gutierrez can’t explain exactly how he stopped drinking, but he believes there was a spiritual force guiding him. What filled the void he says was recognizing that he wasn’t a victim. And that he was surrounded by people who loved and cared for him. And in time he began to heal his relationship with his family.
Gutierrez: They were like, what is this sobriety thing this person’s doing? Because that’s not the example they had seen in their lives. People drank themselves to death. That’s what they knew. And because also there’s a spiritual component to the way I deal with sobriety, they were also, like, wait, what? Like, you’re not going to church, but you, it’s this whole thing. It’s different, and I think there’s a kind of mutual respect that formed around that. Similarly, I remember one time being at a New Year’s Eve party with my parents in Florida and they were handing out drinks on a tray and my father was like, “He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t drink!” I remember being like, oh, that’s so sweet. I think that later, when I was able to make amends to my parents for the ways I had exploited their very hardly won successes in the form of not showing up at school the way I should have, it took time for me to appreciate the amount of pain and the work that it meant for them to give me those tools. And it took time for them to understand that my taking of those tools in the directions that I wanted to was not an abdication or a renouncement of them as humans or as people.
Success and recognition from Gutierrez’s peers soon followed his family’s reconciliation. In 2006, Retrospective Exhibitionist, a solo show about the vulnerability of being watched by others and the search for love, won him one of dances highest honors: the first of his four Bessie awards. Gutierrez flew his parents to Austin to watch it. His dad was glowing.
Gutierrez: Afterwards he was like, “I’m really proud of you. I think that was amazing.” I remember being like whoa. Again, I did not think we were going to get here. Even if they didn’t understand like logically what it was, I think that the affect of the work was powerful for them.
In 2008 Miguel Gutierrez Sr. had a stroke. The following year, his son presented one of his most important works, Last Meadow. The piece uses several references to James Dean’s movies, including Rebel Without A Cause. The title refers to a kind of stroke in which the heart is too weak to pump enough blood to the brain. Gutierrez turned it into a symbol of the disintegration of the traditional family, and particularly the perennial conflicts between fathers and sons.
(Excerpt from Miguel Gutierrez’s Last Meadow)
In his personal life, Gutierrez’s dad’s stroke offered both father and son the ultimate shot at redemption.
Gutierrez: Weirdly enough, when my father started having his brain problems, any stitch or trace of homophobia left him. It was really weird. It was like, okay. This is what it took? Multiple brain operations can chase the homophobia away?
Miguel Gutierrez Sr. passed away in 2019. His death devastated his son, who once again morphed his grief into work. In 2019’s Unsustainable Solutions, he performs a duet with his dead father, who’s present on stage in the form of home videos. The piece is a powerful display of his father’s influence and their ever changing relationship.
(Excerpt from Miguel Gutierrez’s Unsustainable Solutions)
Just like his son and like James Dean’s most significant characters, Gutierrez Sr. was a victim of toxic ideas about masculinity. But Gutierrez Jr. didn’t remain a victim. He bravely chose to follow his own path, something few dare. And in doing so, he released himself from the shackles of paternal domination, breaking the generational curse of the prodigal son, and ultimately redeeming his relationship with his father. His dad followed suit, moving lovingly towards his son. Miguel and Miguel finally accepted each other. They became equals.
Gutierrez: My father was not a macho guy. He was macho in the sense that he was a straight guy. But he wasn’t a football dad. My dad was like a philosopher. My dad was like a weirdo scientist. My dad loved computers. My dad loved opera. My dad loved concert piano. He was an aesthete and an intellectual. So for him to try to foist some idea of masculinity upon me was kind of hilarious. We both failed at the script of manhood in a certain kind of way.
Miguel Gutierrez’s journey of rebellion against his family caused suffering and regret. But much like his self destructive years, it may have been necessary, maybe even hereditary. But in unashamedly seeking out his unique, true self, he has shared the possibility that we too might also dare to become openly and unabashedly ourselves.