Yiyun Li: From Her Life to Ours
Great suffering drove Yiyun Li to find solace in writing.
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.
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.