After facing tragedy, Yiyun Li has become a different kind of writer
Yiyun Li is reflected on the tragic moment in her life when her cockapoo, Quintus, starts barking — loudly. “I’m sorry about that dog!” she says with a boisterous laugh, then a soft smile. “This is the embarrassing part about Zooming, right?” From her residence in Princeton, N.J., three months or so into a quarantine she’s adjusted to just fine, Li appears comfortable with the jarring transition. As she’s learned, it’s just the way life works sometimes.
Li wrote her last novel, Where Reasons End, in a flurry after the suicide of her teenage son three years ago; it imagines a conversation between a grieving mother and her dead 16-year-old son. The best-selling writer Elizabeth McCracken called the book “about the saddest thing in the world.” But Li, 47, a published author for more than a decade, sees things differently. “Even just writing it in the most dire moment, I laughed often.” Pause for the barking cockapoo. “It’s probably the funniest book I’ve written, about the saddest thing in my life.”
She wouldn’t call writing the novel therapeutic, exactly, since that process is already so intrinsic to her identity: “I can only understand what I am feeling by putting it down on the page.” A true writer’s writer, Li, who was born in Beijing, China, and has lived in the United States for the past 24 years, has amassed a prestigious collection of literary prizes while still evading mainstream recognition. Where Reasons End — winner of a PEN Award and among last year’s best-reviewed books — edged her closer. Her latest, Must I Go, is primed to vault her into the spotlight.
The novel finds Li in a newly expansive mode, as its acerbic (and rather bitter) 81-year-old protagonist, Lilia, reflects on her long, complicated life — through three husbands, five children, and several wars. She encounters the diaries of a long-estranged old flame, Roland, and becomes obsessed with his own first-person account. Their interspersing narrations tell dueling stories of fizzling romances, California history, and personal revelation. “Older people are in general interesting to me because they forget things,” Li cracks. “When you get to that age, what you remember are all the important things — to [you] at least. Lilia’s personal history overlaps with American history post–World War II. She has a lot in common with American history, how it’s built.”
Li’s shift toward that kind of novelistic sweep doesn’t mean she’s sacrificed her dry humor or keen insight. Nor is it without key elements of autobiography (a label Li recently accepted for her fiction, after resisting it for years). Indeed, Must I Go has had its own complicated journey. The writing of it was “interrupted by life,” Li notes in the acknowledgments. As she developed its backstory, she got to the plot point where Lilia, at 44, loses her daughter Lucy to suicide. Li’s son died shortly thereafter, when she was 44 years old. “That was an uncanny coincidence,” Li says. “I stopped writing the novel at that time. I thought, ‘What did I do before this happened? Was I writing to prepare myself?’ ”
During this period of intense grief, she wrote Where Reasons End; she returned to Must I Go later, as if ready to face a part of herself anew. “It’s almost like I had a personal contest with Lilia,” she explains. “Pushing her to say a few things more, pushing her so I could understand her.” In one line from the book, Lilia says, “I haven’t stopped arguing with Lucy for 37 years,” a nod to the conversational structure of Reasons. As Li realized after writing that book, “there was a lot of unresolved business.”
Books are core to Li’s being. Currently, she’s reading about 10 books simultaneously — each in 15-page increments a day. “Reading is the structure of my life,” she says. Li speaks of loss in the language of Euripides — “Those Greek characters, they grieve in the most dramatic way, right? They cry” — and calls each of her books “a record of my life at a time.” She considers her work in conversation with her literary heroes, like Leo Tolstoy or William Trevor. She asserts emotion in prose: “Sharpening the feeling, the thought. Writing, to me, is constantly saying, ‘This sentence is not close enough.’ ”
A gardener appears outside; the cockapoo is back at it. “Of course, he’s excited!” Li says. “Where were we?” Writing. “What a writer can do [is say], ‘Let me see if I can do better.’ That’s what is in my control.” Quintus keeps barking; Li keeps going, adding, “But I’m becoming a little less in control of the words.” She smirks, realizing she’s contradicting herself. “I guess I’m writing with more freedom now.”