This past week, Yiyun Li, a MacArthur fellow and recipient of numerous awards for both her fiction and nonfiction pieces, gave the first reading of the spring installment of the President’s Reading Series.
She read an excerpt from her 2017 memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, as well as the opening pages of one of her short stories.
Li opened the reading with a passage from her memoir, written over the course of two years during which she struggled with mental illness.
When asked during the question and answer portion of the event about how she approaches writing memoirs, Li said that her goal is to reflect on her life in as unflinching a light as possible.
“I look at my own life... in the harshest light, in the most unforgiving way,” she said.
The specific passage she read detailed her relationship with language over the course of her life, focusing specifically on her decision to write in English.
The memoir passage was self-reflective and somber, while the second reading — taken from a short story entitled “A Sheltered Woman” — was somewhat harsher, more critical.
The story focuses on a nanny, hired to take care of a newborn infant during its first month of life while its mother struggles with depression.
While observing the mother’s difficulty to properly care for her child, the nanny, referred to even in narration as “Auntie Mei,” recalls her own relationships with family and unhappiness.
The passages from the memoir and short story both played with the idea of loss and the ways that our pasts continue to pop up, even when we try to avoid or push them away.
At times, I was lulled into a false sense of complacency by Li’s almost soothingly matter-of-fact tone, and it was only when I read through the stories on my own that I recognized the pain in the text.
Her works are somber and avoid easy happy endings. Li even said that she doesn’t like to refer to Dear Friend as a memoir because that genre typically implies that, “you overcome a bump” and “become a new person.”
In contrast, in her work, the sense of loneliness never really goes away; it just becomes more visible, more understandable to the reader.
Worse — as Li points out with a quote from Vladimir Nabokov — our understanding means that the loneliness is no longer personal.
Her choice to write in English is no longer just a decision, but a metaphor for the public to poke and pry at in an attempt to understand it. It is no longer her decision alone but rather belongs to others as well.
When asked about the goals of the President’s Reading Series, Professor Andrew Motion emphasized that it is not only skilled writers that are sought but also wordsmiths from a variety of diverse backgrounds.
“[I want to] combine the very best that’s around... with a proper subset of the diversity of writing that’s going on in the country. [Mrs. Li] certainly speaks to the diversity question... and also [is someone] who I have great personal admiration for, so she ticks every box,” he said.
Later Motion described how Li’s works touch a upon a variety of facets in the human experience.
“I thought that her reading from [Dear Friend] was quite wonderful... you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it, but it is also so cleverly involved with other things, social things, political things and literary things... our expectations of what literature is, what it is able to do,” he said.
Following the reading, Mrs. Li answered a few questions from the audience.
She addressed a variety of topics, including her decision to switch careers from working as an immunologist to writing, how she works interesting newspaper headlines into her stories and how the scarcity of literature in her childhood developed into her current passion for reading and writing.
Li also responded to a question about whether or not she views her stories as works of social concern — a reference to the event’s title, “Literature of Social Import.”
“[My characters] are living as seriously as anyone, they feel as deeply as anyone... their loneliness, their solitude is a political statement. I respect them for that, and I don’t push them to do what they shouldn’t do,” she said.
All in all, it was a beautiful, thought-provoking reading, and anyone interested in somber and insightful literature should definitely consider checking out Li’s works.
The Reading Series, hosted by the Writing Seminars department, will continue on March 13. The rest of the series will include readings by novelists Jessica Anya Blau, Jane Delury and Rahul Kanakia, among others.