Here’s my review of Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life. A version of this was printed by South China Morning Post.
This is a remarkable book in many ways. Both a memoir and Li’s disavowal of the possibility of writing one, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life takes the reader through Li’s life as a reader and writer. Focusing on the formation of her literary mind, the book is seared with the pain and difficulties of that life. (If you ever want to dissuade a child from pursuing a career in literature, this might be perfect for it). As a memoir, it is not sequential, narrative-based, nor even organized by theme. Rather, slivers of anecdote and memory are developed into short musings, equivocation and pitiless, self-excoriation (at one point she even says that “The moment that I enters my narrative my confidence crumbles” – an extraordinary thing for a memoir-writer to say). She also discusses at length a number of writers and what their significance to her life, her writing and her understanding of time, memory and loss.
But this should not be taken to suggest the book is artless diarizing. Theme and characters appear and re-appear: Li’s mother (who appears to have been a world-class narcissist), her decision to only write in English, her youth in Beijing and army service, her two stays in a mental hospital, her depression and the appeal of suicide, and authors such as Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield and Russian greats like Tolstoy, Turgenev, Nabokov, and Chekhov, her friendship with the Irish writer William Trevor. There is a sense of trajectory in that as the book progresses, narrative becomes increasingly prominent, especially compared to the first chapter’s numbered series of whisps of remembered moments and introductions to her themes. It’s as though the alienated solitude of the early chapters gives way to a more social present – though the final, unusually ambiguous, paragraph hardly ends the book on an upbeat note.
Discussions of writers are of course disguised autobiography, as Li herself recognizes. “I was aware that my obsession with [Mansfield and Larkin] reflected what I resent in myself: seclusion, self-deception, and above all the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives.” Thus, her discussions of Nabokov’s decision to write in English rather than Russian, Larkin’s self-protective passivity, Mansfield’s anxiety about her work, Woolf’s competitiveness, all become parables help the reader better understand Li.
Musings on the craft of writing, memory, mental illness, and self-effacement – in less capable hands these ingredients might have produced something self-indulgent or tediously egocentric. Li is both too skilled in the art of prose and too severe a self-critic to err in these areas. Most notably, Li is an exceptional prose technician. Her sentences are wonderfully precise: always hard, clear and finely-hewn, as though chiseled and polished into precise shapes. Her style is what Martin Amis described as an example of the modern “absence of curlicue”, never decorative, stripped of connotation and ambiguity – though her images and similes are always clear and precise, and there are a few deft little allusions (she writes that, “A heat wave was general all over Ireland” in a cunning echo of Joyce’s The Dead). One feels as though each sentence were precisely balanced, that Li has a poet’s awareness of each phrase’s verbal weight. Such care is invigorating. Here are some choice examples:
In life we seek like-minded people despite – or because of – the limit of knowing and understanding. We do so to feel less lonely, though it brings a different kind of loneliness. In seeking others, inevitably we try to control an interaction. We insist on being known only as the version we prefer to attach to ourselves.
What I admire and respect in a dreamer: her confidence in her capacities, her insusceptibility to the frivolous, and her faith that the good and the real shall triumph and last. There is nothing selfish, dazzling or preposterous about dreamers; in everyday life they blend in rather than stand out, though it’s not hiding. A real dreamer has a mutual trust with time.
In the second example there’s a semi-colon handled deftly, the word “shall” used precisely, a trio of adjectives (“selfish, dazzling or preposterous”) that do not overlap, and a final sentence laying down a general precept that closes the entire paragraph with a short, exact aphorism. This is wonderful prose.
Similarly, Li has a gift (or, more likely, a hard-won skill developed over many years of practice) for aphorism. The end of each section of musing tends to end with a general statement, a maxim, with Li repeatedly moving from anecdote to contemplation to pronouncement. There’s a sense of her perhaps slightly hedging her bets, of removing herself from her most deeply felt beliefs, by the frequent use of the gender-neutral, indefinite pronoun, “One”. Here are a few of her terrific paragraph-ending aphorisms and general statements:
One always knows how best to sabotage one’s life.
To read is to be surrounded by people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one’s existence.
One ought to be loyal to whom one deems a friend on the page.
Our admiration and scrutiny of another person reflect what we love and hate to see in ourselves.
As a style, it replicates Philip Larkin’s most recurrent poetic strategy, where he transitions from concrete observation to rumination to final-line pronouncements, such as the famous “What will survive of us is love”. Following this technique in crystalline prose, perhaps Li’s book is better understood an inter-connected series of autobiographical prose poems than as a memoir.
The sections or themes perhaps of most public interest concern Li’s writing only in English – in fact, going so far as to refuse to have her books translated into Chinese. She knows that to live in the US and to renounce Mandarin will be seen as a slight against her motherland, and so discusses elliptically, and refutes any suggestion of being a political writer. (She earlier brings up the Tiananmen Square massacre, only to explain how media commentary would be false: “[W]hat can be said, on a radio program or TV, is always a simplification or a distortion… One has either to submit oneself to that script, or else choose to only speak on one’s own terms.” In a book of infinite nuance, the certainties that either side requires would clearly repel her). She describes writing propaganda pieces whilst in the army, then how she felt disturbed at this “public language”: “can one form a precise thought, recall an accurate memory, or even feel a genuine feeling, with only the public language?” English, of course, becomes her private language, and from this alienation she comes to eventually find articulation and connection.
Though Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life is not at all a typical memoir, it is stimulating, wonderfully written, and reveals moments of deep personal significance. Li has already won a number of awards that attest to her exceptional talent. Here is further evidence of the full flowering of her bracingly challenging and exhilaratingly precise writing.