Writing Is a Second Life: An Interview with Yiyun Li

Alicia Oltuski talks to Yiyun Li
February 25, 2015

Your work is widely, internationally read and, although many of your narratives take place in China (where you grew up) or among Chinese Americans, you write in English. What are the nuances your English-speaking readership is most likely to overlook, misapprehend, or interpret differently from how they were originally intended?

My hope, of course, is that it doesn’t happen. There are certain expectations from the readers that I am aware of, but I don’t think it is my role to meet them. For instance, some readers would read my writing as commentary on China and ask why I can’t be more political; some readers think the stories and novels I write could only happen in China. These things are not why I write, and I find that I have been put into that place from time to time to be a spokesperson against my wish.

You’ve said that, previous to your being published, the direction of your career seemed more bent toward the sciences and that writing was a particularly private endeavor for you. You began with a single adult education course. How has the experience of writing changed for you since you first came upon it? Do you still begin a story the same way?

Writing is still a very private business for me. In fact, I tend to be secretive at times; I rarely talk about my writing with anyone. In a sense, writing is a second life that I don’t easily share with others. When a book comes out, one goes out to promote it, but that seems so far from the experience of writing it that I can convince myself that there is not much connection between the two. So when I come back to writing another story, another book, it feels like a homecoming, or at least coming back to a familiar place. So I suppose I still begin the story in the same way: all I start to feel responsible for are the characters, and all I want to do is to spend time with them.

What satisfied the impulse to tell stories and keep the company of characters before you formally came to writing? When you were a science student, for example, did the stories occupy a latent place in your mind? Or was the kind of homecoming you talk about simply one you’d never experienced before you found writing?

That is a good question. Why do I want to keep the company of characters? I wonder if it has something to do with who my characters are—oftentimes they are characters who live a deeper emotional life beneath a restrained surface; in some cases they refuse to be known by others or by themselves. By nature I’m drawn to them, and would like to have their stories heard (even if this is against their wish!). Before I came to writing, reading was possibly the only thing that kept my imagination alive as does writing now. If the stories occupy a latent place, it is a space that I knew by instinct to protect from the environment. Then, sooner or later, one crosses a line, and hiding is no longer a predominant factor.

How did that transformation come about for you, from concealment to exposure?

I wonder if the concealment has something to do with caring about how these stories will be received by the world and how the characters will be judged by others. Perhaps exposure is not the right word once one feels less protective of the characters. One cares about the characters so much that one stops caring about how other people look at them. I have a slightly uneasy feeling that I may be talking about two things: being a storyteller, and telling stories about characters. But in a sense I can perhaps salvage my logic by admitting that it is the stories and the characters that motivated me to become a storyteller in the first place.

Maybe you could take this a step further and say that you have to maintain an allegiance not just to the craft but to the characters that spring from it. Do you ever have trouble leaving them behind when you’ve finished a story or novel?

I don’t think I ever leave the characters behind. I don’t reread my books but I remember the characters and sometimes I seem to run into them in life, at a street corner or on the subway. I asked William Trevor once about this. I told him that his characters often stayed with me months and years after I read the stories. He said he remembered them, too, and felt sad at times for them. I think that is how I feel too.

I wonder if part of the reason your characters resonate for so long is the way in which you construct them, or at least the way I’ve experienced them. They’re intimately and thoroughly alive and yet there exists an enticing little space between them and the reader, and we can come back to them, without needing to reinvent them, to further explore. Do you think about leaving room between the character and the reader? Or between the character and yourself?

This is a good question. In fact, your observation about the distance between characters and readers versus the distance between characters and writers is so astute that I start to think—not about my own work, it is embarrassing to think about one’s own writing that way—about the stories and novels that really stay with me for years, which I reread, versus the work that I forget soon after I finish reading. With certain writers, you remember who the authors are—their styles, their strengths and weaknesses, their quirks—and I am sure some of these are considered great writers, too. But I don’t think I approach reading in a writerly manner, so in a sense, the less I feel the author’s presence the more easily I can feel the characters’. The worst-case scenario is for a writer to stand between the characters and the readers as the interpreter. The space between the character and the reader is one that is closely related to real life. You can’t order someone to respond to another person in a certain way; the distance between those two exists independent of the author’s will. As for the distance between the characters and me, I don’t think there is any distance, because I don’t want to exist along with them. If I stay as transparent and nonexistent as I can, they have more space to breathe and live.

Who are some of the writers today who best achieve that kind of transparency? That stepping back?

I think perhaps William Trevor is a perfect example of that transparency, though I am conscious that I often use him as an example. Tom Drury is another writer I’m always interested in. When I read his work, I don’t feel a Tom Drury anywhere in any of the characters. I think he must recognize that the characters are more interesting and complex than can be written, and that recognition is important for his work.

Do you ever stray from these preferences or your aesthetic principles? Have you ever thought, I’d like to do something completely different today? What’s the farthest you’ve ever gone?

These are good questions. Of course one does not want to repeat oneself. And one wants to grow in writing as in life. I’ve been working on a series of essays, which require that I have a voice more than I usually do in my stories. I’m trying to get used to starting a sentence with “I”—and often still change it to “one”—and I’m trying to get used to the idea that I have to take a center stage at times in the essays. This is a project that I would say goes beyond my comfort zone. In fiction I have done a few things, less radically. I’m not used to writing fiction in the first person, so I tackled that discomfort by writing Kindness, a novella. I have written some shorter stories in the third person—within five pages—but I’m not sure I’m happy with them. Characters need space to breathe, and I don’t want my voice to carry their stories more than they do themselves. I would like a few more pages for them to develop.

I’m interested in hearing more about your experience writing in the first person after tending toward the third. I think a lot of writers consider it one of the biggest choices in beginning a piece of fiction. Do you agree?

Yes, I think writers are right to think it is one of the most important choices. One way to think about it is where the blind spot is for the narrator. Any time we choose to tell a story, we are projecting some light on a set of characters, and already that is not the most natural setting. Whether the light is intense or soft, it still leaves shadows behind the characters. For the first-person narrator, that shadow is often the blind spot of his or her consciousness, while for a third-person narrator, the blind spot must come in a different way—for me it is acknowledging that even the most omniscient narrator knows only to some extent. That not knowing makes writing interesting, so I’m more drawn to third-person narrators. I don’t want the blind spot of a character and my own blind spot to overlap, or my blind spot covered by a character’s.

Can you tell me—and the readers—one thing, big or small, that you’ve never told anyone else?

That is a funny question. Oddly, I have been thinking about this—or perhaps a character of mine, in her pre-character stage, makes me think about this: if something (about me, in me) is not known to others, it does not exist. When I came to that thought, I knew I had never said it aloud and I also knew it was true, so there you have it!

Photo by Roger Turesson