Arriving a little early for our interview, I find Yiyun Li in the process of being photographed. We are on the sixth floor of one of the newer buildings of Princeton University, in the library of the creative writing department in which she teaches. Behind her, as the camera clicks away, is a sweeping vista of the Ivy League campus. Li is a writer, used to having her words, not her face, scrutinised, so while the photographer is skilled and efficient, and she is accommodating and patient, it is still an unnerving experience and she finds it impossible not to feel self-conscious. Once the shoot is over, she gives her face a massage, her cheeks aching from holding a smile.
As we begin talking about her new novel, Where Reasons End, Li points out that writing it was not dissimilar. “With this book, it was important not to turn away from anything,” she says. “It is like being photographed. You might not be comfortable, but you have to be able to just stay there and not turn away. It was a challenge but also necessary.” The novel is both an investigation of grief and a product of it: Li began writing it in the months after the suicide of her teenage son.
At 46, Li is already a writer of distinction, having won more than a dozen awards, among them the PEN/Hemingway Award and the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant”. What makes these achievements even more impressive is that Li is one of those remarkable authors — among them Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov and her Princeton colleague Aleksandar Hemon — who write in an adopted language.
She first learned English as a teenager in Beijing, where it was a means of rebelling against an overbearing mother whom she has compared to a “communist dictator”. Her mother did not understand English, so reading books in that language was a way for Li to carve out her own space. There was also the possibility that it would serve as good preparation: her father was a nuclear physicist and, like many in the Chinese professional class, they often talked about emigrating to the West, especially after the crackdown that followed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests when Li was 16.
She moved to the United States in 1996, at 23, to study immunology at the University of Iowa. But literature was her real passion, and she soon ended up on the university’s celebrated creative writing programme, where she was taught by James Alan McPherson and Marilynne Robinson. She published her first collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, in 2005, and went on to publish two novels, The Vagrant and Kinder Than Solitude (both set in post-Mao China), and another collection of stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. With the prizes piling up, in 2010 she was named by The New Yorker as one of the best 20 writers under 40.
Yet amid this success, Li was struggling. In 2012, she had a breakdown, and twice attempted suicide. She wrote about this period in her 2017 memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, reflecting on the damaging legacy of her relationship with her mother and how writing was the only way for her “to find a new way to see the world”.
For obvious reasons, writing Where Reasons End has made great demands on her. For two and a half months, the process consumed Li, not stopping until the moment she realised she was done. “The book was driving me to write it,” she says. “And I certainly understand now that it was necessary to write the book at that time. It was written in the centre of something. I hate to use analogies but let me use just one really bad analogy: the eye of the hurricane. It is so still, so quiet there, you almost feel like you get close to something absolute.” Aside from a few words here and there, she did not revise the manuscript; it emerged fully formed. “It was an experience,” she says. “It was important to write that way.”
At Li’s request, we agreed ahead of the interview not to talk about the details of her son’s death and to focus on Where Reasons End. “What happens in real life, people will have their interpretations, but I would not say anything,” she says. “This book is my time to say something. And I wanted to make sure I said the right thing, in the right way.”
The novel takes the form of a series of conversations between an unnamed mother and her dead son, Nikolai. “From the start, I knew it was a novel without time or space,” Li says. “Time passes for the mother, of course, the seasons and holidays come and go — but those things are in the mortal world. For the son, there is no time. I wanted to put the characters in this situation and see how far they could push themselves.”
On first reading the manuscript, Li’s agent said it was reminiscent of the stripped-down aesthetic of black box theatre. The effect, initially at least, is disorienting, as you try to figure out the rules of the fictional world Li has created. “I was not so concerned by what the readers wanted,” she says. “I wanted them to come with me, rather than my paving the road for them. Everything I have written in there is fiction. I can always say that there I create this place, this setting, that is different to our physical reality, and I placed two of my characters in there and they said something I wanted to say.”
Li is a writer immersed in the literary tradition. She loves what she calls “messy books”, with Moby Dick and War and Peace at the top of her list (she assigned the latter — all 1,000-plus pages of it — to the students in her creative writing class last term). Her fiction is often a direct response to the work of those authors she most admires, among them Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, and William Trevor. But when it came to the literature of grief, she found the canon let her down.
“Soon after my son died, I looked for books that could express that word,” she says. “Many of them fell short for me.” At first, she thought she had found the right book in CS Lewis’s 1961 A Grief Observed, written after the death of his wife in 1960. “That book spoke to me for 10 pages but then just fell away. It became a kind of failed model for me.
“That was when I realised I had to make my own book. At the beginning, [Lewis] questions many things, including the consolation brought by religion. He speaks of grief as fear and suspense and confusion, he poses questions to God, but then he seems to make a sharp turn and conclude that a mortal should not ask God unanswerable questions. I have liked many of his other books but this one is not my favourite. And I read it at this moment when I needed a book that not only asks unanswerable questions, but also asks unasked questions.”
The mother of Where Reasons End is, like Li, a writer for whom precision is paramount. “I am obsessed with the English language,” she says. “I did not have an intimate relationship with it from an early age. I came to it late and, for that reason, the more I write, the more I question what I write. I’m always thinking, ‘Is this the right word?’”
But what if there is no right word? That is one of the questions the novel poses. How do you render what is inexpressible in language? It is an idea she returns to again and again. “How do you compare sadness that takes over like an erupted volcano to sadness that stays inside one, still as a stillborn baby?” the mother asks. “People talk about grief coming and going like waves, but I am not a breakwater, I am not a boat, I am not a statue left on a rocky shore, tested for its endurance.”
Li realised that part of the problem was the word “grief” itself. “What can I do? I don’t like the word,” she says. “All the things people say about grief don’t help. I used to think that people used cliches because they were not thinking. But in the mother’s case, no matter how much she thinks, there are no words. So, she thinks: ‘Can I just invite a few cliches in?’ The word ‘grief’ is already a cliche. It means a burden, a heaviness. You cannot give it up, you have to live with that heaviness all your life.”
Nikolai, the son in Where Reasons End, is a perfectionist, especially when it comes to language. Many of the conversations between him and his mother are a kind of duel over correct usage. “They share a fascination for language and arguing about it is something they can do together. The argument is about words because words fall short. The mother cannot get it right. She wants to, but she cannot reach that point,” says Li.
There are passages when the mother reflects on her loss — some of them beautifully written — that are interrupted by Nikolai (“Yikes!”) because he feels they are overdone. “I mean that’s the joy of having a teenage child,” Li says. “There is always a ‘but’ somewhere, always having the last word. There were parts when I was writing this that made me laugh out loud despite the pain.”
In Nikolai’s need for purity, we see the cause of his undoing. Nothing matches up to his idea of its ideal expression; the messiness of life always encroaches. “He has this desire to be sharp, and wants his mother to be sharp too,” Li says. “But life blunts you. He has the more absolute things to say about life now that he is on the other side, but she has to go on living, so she needs to live with uncertainty, imprecision, imperfection.”
The publication of the novel provokes complicated emotions in her, but she is proud of her work. “I am not always certain about life but what I am certain about is that I stand behind this book,” she says. “Anxious? Yes. Regret? No.”
Now she returns to those who need her, her husband, whom she met when she was a student in China, and her younger son. There are also her expectant students at Princeton. “I have mellowed as a teacher,” she says, laughing. “I used to be quite stern.” And there is her next book, for which she is doing the first round of revisions. It is a novel, but one “very different from my previous books in form, setting, timespan”. Like the mother in Where Reasons End, Li has to go on living, too.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019