Barely a year after I arrived in the United States, I experienced a devastating loss. My new friends, college students not far out of their teens, struggled to guide me away from my despair. “Why don’t you write about what you’re feeling,” one of them said to me.
Write? I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or get angry at such a suggestion. Where I come from — Cameroon — the brokenhearted do not write about their pain. Why write when there is so much crying to do? Because “to write is to find a new way to see the world,” says Yiyun Li in “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life ,” her meditation on writing, living and losing.
There is a lot of loss in this book, most notably the loss of one’s life by one’s own hands. How does one come to terms with a strong urge to commit suicide? How does one make sense of this urge when outwardly one is “an example of the American dream come true?” How does a writer partake in a genuine conversation with a world that loves the sight and sound of success stories — the splendor without the abyss beneath?
Born and raised in Beijing, Li came to the United States in 1996 in her mid-20s and trained as a scientist before switching to a literary career. She won acclaim for her debut short story collection “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and her novels “The Vagrants” and “Kinder Than Solitude.” She has received prestigious awards including a MacArthur “genius grant” and a PEN/Hemingway Award, remarkable achievements for someone who considers herself “unqualified to be called a dreamer.”
Her immigrant-made-good story is the kind we’re desperate to applaud. Don’t, she says — this transformation from new arrival to success story is “as superficial and deceitful as an ad placed on the back of a bus.”
It’s a journey she barely focuses on (who cares how she did it?) in her memoir, which she wrote during a two-year period when she was in and out of hospitals for the treatment of suicidal depression.
Those who know little about depression can be quick to dismiss it as an indulgence (“why can’t you be happy?”) and many think of it as a passing sadness. But for Li, it is a profound desolation: “All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing.”
And yet, within this emptiness lies love, and literature. In her void, Li floats surrounded by the words of men and women who’ve pondered the worthwhileness of it all and shaped her ability to join in that pondering. Katherine Mansfield, Stefan Zweig, William Trevor, Marianne Moore, Ivan Turgenev and others — in their private letters and public works, she finds solace, questions without answers, answers without questions.
From Mansfield, she got the title of her memoir, a line which upon reading made her cry and reminded her why “I do not want to stop writing.” In Zweig’s letters, she found disconcerting and relatable thoughts before a double suicide. With Trevor, who died late last year, she develops a brief, sweet friendship that made me almost want to send a letter to Andrew Solomon asking whether he wanted to talk about his book “Far From the Tree” over tea.
Li’s ruminations on her anguish are so poignant that it’s nearly impossible not to close your eyes and give her a long mind-hug when she says “again and again my mind breaks at the same spot as though it is a fracture that never fully heals” or “I wished then and I wish now that I had never formed an attachment to anyone in the world” or “wanting nothing is as extreme as wanting everything.”
Being an acclaimed Chinese-born novelist writing in English, Li has to field questions on why she does what she does the way she does it. Nabokov provides her with an ideal answer for the endless “what it meant to renounce my mother tongue” inquiries, and when she’s asked at one of her readings why her writing isn’t political enough, she asserts that her “refusal to be defined by the will of others is my one and only political statement.” Good for you, girl.
Interspersing her thoughts with stories from her Beijing childhood and her time in the army (her university class was sent there for a year after the Tiananmen Square massacre to “prevent future insubordination”), Li doesn’t allow us too far behind the scenes of her private life, and I salute that ironclad hold on writerly privacy. Still, from what she tells us about her mother — the “family despot”— I was left disturbed and wishing she would tell us more explicitly about the link, if there is any, between her mother’s invectives and Li’s eventual melancholia. When Li thinks about how her mother said Li “deserved the ugliest death” because she did not love her mother enough, she decides she does “not want to know the answers,” as to the whys of such behaviors. If it propelled her quest to find comfort in words, Li doesn’t say because “not everyone born to a tyrannical mother has the mental clarity and strength to articulate” certain decisions.
Mental clarity or not, Li has stared in the face of much that is beautiful and ugly and treacherous and illuminating — and from her experience she has produced a nourishing exploration of the will to live willfully.
Imbolo Mbue is the author of the novel “Behold the Dreamers.”
By Yiyun Li
Random House. 208 pp. $27