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A Q&A with Yiyun Li and Mona Simpson

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Li_Kinder Than Solitude Yiyun Li is the author of Kinder Than Solitude, a profound mystery about three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed. She is joined in conversation by Mona Simpson, author of Casebook, a powerful new novel about a young boy’s quest to uncover the mysteries of his unraveling family.


A Conversation Between Mona Simpson and Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li: The central plot of your new novel, Casebook, is a love mystery and a detective story. I wonder if there’s mystery in the kernel of every love.

Mona Simpson: Love is an experience of yearning. I don’t know if it’s possible to feel completely in love at the same time you feel thoroughly comprehended. And yet, it’s everyone’s dream to be known. Yiyun, the organization of both your novels (The Vagrants and Kinder Than Solitude) emanates from a central dramatic event, a mystery of sorts. The structure is almost a wheel, with spokes coming out. It occurs to me that your novels are structured the way a classic short story is said to be, more than your stories are.

YL: You are right that novels and stories start differently for me: a novel starts with a situation, and a story starts with a character or a set of characters more than a situation. Indeed both novels open with a death that the characters have to deal with. Kinder Than Solitude, for instance, started with a woman who was poisoned, yet who lived in a prolonged state of unnecessary misery for twenty-three years. Who was this woman? Who were the people involved in the case? Why did the case remain unresolved? And what happened when the woman finally died? These questions from that central situation were all mysteries to me when I started the novel. Time in a novel works a little differently: the space provided by a novel allows a writer not only to collapse time—twenty or thirty years in a scene, a century or two in one sentence—but also to dissect a moment without letting anyone off the hook. Perhaps this is the rippling effect you talk about: time can be brief or expansive. I also like to imagine that a novel is like an accordion: when Ruyu in the novel plays the accordion, we see the motion of something being opened and closed, and we wait to hear what kind of tune is produced.

In Casebook, the grownups endeavor to treat the breaking-up of families as normal. That makes the disruption more poignant.

MS: When Henry James published What Maisy Knew (his novel about a contentious divorce) in 1897, the divorce rate in the United States was seven percent. Now, it’s closer to fifty percent. And “normal” is little more than common practice with a bit of moral sugar sprinkled on.

For the most part, legally, we declare divorce “no fault.” We’ve changed the way we live, we’ve changed our laws and so our art changes too. Marriage is no longer until death do us part, and fictionally, there’s no way to make that feel exactly right. What we’ve lost is permanence, the simple happy ending. The forever after of fairytales. If a man sleeps with a young woman in Shakespeare or Cervantes, you can bet by the end of the story, they will have been tricked into marrying each other. The complex reality of marriage enters the novel as early as Middlemarch, a book a friend once told me he loved because the two best people don’t end up together. They not only don’t end up together, they meet many times and aren’t even interested in each other. Dorothea makes a disastrous marriage and when her author lets her off the hook (by killing off her husband), we’re meant to believe that she eventually finds some kind of happiness with Will. And yet, there’s a deflation in the ending. Dorothea and Will are like a couple one grudgingly admits to be happy but doesn’t envy.

We all know that divorce is sometimes unavoidable. Yet for ourselves and our children, we don’t want divorce. We don’t want even that weird modern almost-oxymoron, a good divorce. We don’t hope to be Dorothea and Will. We want a Jane Austen love. We want permanence. We want rightness. But even no fault divorces leave victims. Somewhere in that disparity, between what we still wish for and what we can’t avoid, fiction grows.

YL: This is the first time you have a teenage boy as a first person narrator. His observations come from a place where the tenderness of a boy is not yet replaced by man’s half-heartedness. For instance: “We come into the world whole, all of us, but we don’t know that, don’t know that life will be taking large chunk out of us.” Or: “Love ruined people’s lives, the way our parents said drugs would.”

I would like to know how you’re able to come so close to a young man’s thoughts and feelings and how you’re able to reconstruct them in the exact words.

MS: I have a boy, I love a boy, and though in most of the central parts of this novel, he’s not represented, I’ve used his lingo, his friends’ diction and slang and some of the games they played. The boy I’ve created is, in some ways, a mother’s fantasy. Only a mother could dream up a boy who is obsessed with… his parents. This book started for me with the boy’s vantage. I thought of it as a door open only one small wedge. I wanted to limit the love story, to set it within a family, within a larger life and among people whose main concern was not the lovers’ happiness.

I’m curious about how you reconstructed Beijing in Kinder Than Solitude. The city is almost a character in the novel. It’s a palpable presence. I’ve visited China and spent a week in Beijing, and yet my own sensory impressions of it are far less vivid. Your Beijing has replaced mine. What is it like writing about Beijing in English for an English speaking audience?

YL: When I was working on the first draft of Kinder Than Solitude, I wrote to a friend and said that this novel was also going to be my love letter to Beijing. I have given my fondest memories of Beijing to the three teenage characters, not only the tourist sites where Boyang and Moran took Ruyu (and where visitors go today), but also the fabric of everyday life: old men sitting under a tree and expecting a fresh and forgettable story from Ruyu; Boyang and Moran on bicycles, free as Mongolian children on horsebacks; puddles after the rain; watermelon rinds rotting by the roadside.

Several Westerners living in Beijing have commented to me that the city I write about is mostly gone, but its people haven’t changed much. Human nature evolves much more slower than a city, which is heartening, as that’s why I love to read Jane Austen and Dickens. So writing about Beijing in English is like writing about California in English: the landscapes are characters that interact with the people.

Casebook comments on many issues about contemporary life, yet it does not have the self-consciousness that some books do, striving to point out to readers how they are socially aware, for instance. Can you talk about the balance of writing about a society without feeling constrained by the society?

MS: I’ve always written perhaps a little from the inside out, and so I hope the reader will glean all kinds of context that I don’t always overtly provide. I’m extremely interested, though, in what it feels like to be in all the different places on America’s economic spectrum, and how that pinch is felt inside the body and the sensibility.

Yiyun, you’ve cited William Trevor as your primary teacher. Which seems most significant to you—your national history, or your literary legacy?

YL: I often think of one’s national history as one’s genes: something given, something predetermined. Literary legacy is, at least in my case, a choice. I only started writing in my late 20s, and by then I could decide whom to include in my literary genes. Writers I’ve been rereading in the past few years while working on the novel: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen, and of course William Trevor who, as you mentioned, is a primary influence. So my literary legacy comes from Irish literature and Russian literature.

MS: You’ve recently become a US citizen. It’s hard to imagine either Ruyu or Moran becoming naturalized.

YL: I became a citizen in August, 2012. It’s interesting that you say it’s hard to imagine Ruyu or Moran becoming naturalized: I think I knew the immigration status of both characters, and yet I refrained from making it too obvious in the novel. They have both become American citizens (Ruyu needs an American passport and a Chinese visa to return to Beijing). For Moran, her American citizenship offers psychological shelter from the violence she does not understand; for Ruyu, the citizenship is, like everything else in her life, something she accepts and can discard without a second thought. In a deeper sense, however, both of them are so bound to the past that it is hard to imagine that being American citizens would change them in any fundamental way.

Stay connected with Yiyun Li on Twitter and with Mona Simpson on Facebook!

Author Spotlight: “5 Books That I Reread” by Yiyun Li

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Li_Kinder Than SolitudeYiyun Li, author of KINDER THAN SOLITUDE, shares her top 5 favorite books that she likes to reread. Are any of these on your reread list? Share your top 5 with us on Facebook!

Five Books that I Reread

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
There are so many reasons to read War and Peace, and the only reason not to read it is that it is long and requires patience. However, the payoff is incredible. For instance, Tolstoy never said a word about the winter’s approaching or the French being unprepared. Rather, he described a young French drummer sticking his hands into his pockets when he exited the camp. And the readers feel the chill of death coming to the French army.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
In a letter Hemingway said The old Man and the Sea can be read as an epilogue of all the books he’d written. And it is a perfect novella, not an extra word included.

Reading Turgenev by William Trevor
It is a novel about reading and how reading preserves people’s imagination and integrity in the direst moment of life.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
This is not Bowen’s favorite novel; she even called it an inflated short story, but I think she might be wrong. It is a domestic novel, without a war or a physical struggle but in the end the battleground in a house may be more devastating.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Jane Eyre seems a good novel to be reread every five years or ten years. It is accessible to readers of different ages, and at different age we learn different things. This recent reading, I noticed that there were passages about how time passed, which I had missed as a younger reader.

An interview with Yiyun Li, author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Brigid Hughes is the founding editor of A Public Space, a Brooklyn-based independent magazine of literature and culture that debuted in 2006. Previously she worked at The Paris Review, where she succeeded George Plimpton as editor upon his death in 2003.

Brigid Hughes: To get things started, can I ask you about influences? You mention William Trevor in your acknowledgments, and you published an essay in Tin House about his influence on your work. What authors or books have mattered to you?

li_yiyunYiyun Li: I like to think that one writes stories so they could go out and talk to other stories. William Trevor’s stories have made space for my stories to venture out to the world, to be on their own, so my stories talk to Trevor’s stories constantly. For instance, the title story, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” was written especially to talk to a Trevor story, “Three People.”

Of course stories, like people, can’t just stay sheltered by those to whom they feel close kinship. Stories also like to have ­discussions and sometimes arguments with other stories. A few writers who have been constantly on my mind when I write: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, John McGahern, J. M. Coetzee. So they have been influencing me too in each of their own ways.

BH: Can I ask what specifically “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” and “Three People” were talking about with each other?

YL: “Three People” [from Trevor’s collection The Hill Bachelors] is, as the title suggests, a story about three people: an aging father; his unmarried, middle-aged daughter; and a man close to the family who the father hopes will propose to the daughter so she will not end up in solitude after her father’s death. Unknown to the father—I don’t want to give too much away of the story—the daughter and the man shared some dark secret between them. The final passage of the story goes like this: “The darkness of their secrets lit, the love that came for both of them through their pitying of each other: all that might fill the empty upstairs room, and every corner of the house. But Vera knows that, without her father, they would frighten one another.”

Gold Boy Emerald Girl TPWhen I started to work on Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, I imagined writing a story about three people too—an aging mother, a grown-up son, and a woman—and the mismatch between the latter two would not be any better than between the couple in “Three People.” The story is set to a tone similar to that of “Three People,” though I do remember writing toward the end and feeling overwhelmed by the bleakness and fatalism of “Three People,” working on the final line of my story to catch the same music but with some gentleness: “They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”

BH: Do you think your characters in the new stories are lonelier, or rather more isolated, than in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the first collection? I’m thinking of that opening line from “Immortality”—“His story, as the story of every one of us, started long before we were born”—and that sense of being part of something bigger than oneself, history, or community, which seems much less the case with the new stories. Do you notice differences between the two collections?

YL: I would like to think that the stories in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl were more mature than the stories in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers!

But I know exactly what you are asking about. “Immortality” was the first full-length story I wrote, about nine years ago, and I was very aware at the time of how China and its past (and pres­ent) cast a long shadow over at least two or three generations of characters. Many of the stories in the first collection were written out of meditations on the inescapable fate of many of the characters being trapped by political and ideological turmoil in the past century.

Are my characters lonelier or more isolated now? In a way, yes. In choosing solitude, my characters are also trying to regain some of the control of their own fates—rather than being members of a chorus, they allow themselves to become outcasts, sometimes illogically, sometimes stubbornly. But I don’t think they are passive characters. I like to imagine that some of the characters in the first collection (in “Persimmons,” for instance, or “Immortality,” or “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”) allowed themselves to be carried away by history and politics as long as they did not drown—and one tended not to drown if one did not fight against that torrent. Many of the characters in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl made the decision of not letting themselves be swept away. They held on to anything—loneliness, isolation, and even death—to be themselves.

BH: Is that also what Professor Shan is saying when she tells Moyan, in “Kindness,” “The moment you admit someone into your heart you make yourself a fool. When you desire nothing, nothing will defeat you”?

YL: By forbidding Moyan to fall in love with anyone, in a way Professor Shan is acting as cruelly and inhumanely as the unfair and harsh world from which she is trying to shelter the girl, though the latter, in following the advice of the older woman, also defies her in her own way. Twice in the story—at the beginning and at the end—Moyan says, “I have never forgotten any person who has come into my life.” And indeed she is able to remain true both to her words and to her promise to Professor Shan: She is able to love without making herself a fool.

BH: When you emigrated from China, The Letters of Shen Congwen was one of the few books you brought with you to the United States. He wrote about, and was criticized for, his disinterest in politics and lack of commitment to the class struggles of his time. You recently translated some of those letters, and in an introduction wrote that “relevance is always a useful tool for lesser minds to attack true artists.” What is the connection between the politics of the present day and fiction—does one inform the other in any way? What does it mean to be a political writer?

YL: I have always resisted being called a political writer. Take Shen Congwen as an example—his commitment to his arts was not influenced by the ideology of his time, which, in one sense, made him apolitical, but in another sense his resistance was also highly political. Once I was asked by an editor to write something relevant to our time—in his letter he framed relevance with examples of a Mumbai slum, or a Chinese sweatshop, or a war-torn zone in Africa. Certainly we need stories from these countries, these places, but his letter reminded me of the criticisms Shen Congwen received in his time.

BH: How would you like your books to influence the reader?

YL: If books are like people, mine are not the prettiest ones, or the loudest ones, or the quirkiest ones one meets at a party, nor are they, I hope, too frivolous or too scared of truths to matter to the readers. I would like to imagine that the readers can have a conversation with my books—they can agree or disagree with the characters fairly and honestly.


Gold Boy, Emerald Girl is now available in paperback.

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