“For years I have had the belief that all my questions will be answered by the books I am reading,” Yiyun Li writes in her latest effort, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Penguin Random House, February 2017). But, as Li concedes, books “only lead to other books.” Dear Friend, too, could lead its reader to any of the writers written about in its pages—William Trevor, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen, Thomas Hardy, Ivan Turgenev—but the books and authors are so intricately connected to Li’s thought process that it would feel wrong to take them solely as recommendations. Dear Friend, dubbed a memoir, is a collection of autobiographical essays on Li’s reading life and the meditations therein.
In truth, it’s difficult to articulate exactly what this book is about. Like reading philosophy, it requires rereading, patience, and the will to interpret. Li is not interested in appealing to her reader’s emotions, instead circling around the vague atmosphere of her own. And yet, the prose is unambiguous—simple and direct, as is Li’s praxis. Some will say this book is about Li’s choice to write in English, which she refers to as her private language, and it does take on a variety of personal themes, even as they’re paradoxically handled from a distance. Despite this, Li is wary of the expectations of individualism, since “living is not an original business.” Perhaps because of this leeriness, her fiction more often deals in collective memory, in ways of being that are plausible within a people’s history while not fitted to any one person’s life.
Other readers might say the book is about suicide. Li attempted suicide twice, but she doesn’t say as much in Dear Friend. The blunt admission is in her recent New Yorker piece, “To Speak Is to Blunder.” In it, she writes, “In the summer and autumn of 2012, I was hospitalized in California and in New York for suicide attempts, the first time for a few days, and the second time for three weeks.” In the book, by contrast, the event is simply depicted as, “For a while, when I was unwell…”
Li’s writing is always meticulous, and she has publicly affirmed that when she puts pen to page she is sure of every word. So, her decision to state her history with such exactitude in the New Yorker essay feels at odds with the seemingly intentional omission from the book. Her general distrust of memory, explored at great length in Dear Friend, resists the record-like nature of the admission. Perhaps it was only possible outside the bounds of the book, which was written during the two years after the incident occurred—arguably, the coping period.
That said, Dear Friend is not about suicide so much as it’s an argument for self-definition. What leads an individual to attempt or commit suicide cannot be interpreted objectively, “One does not have the capacity to feel another person’s feelings fully—a fact of life, democratic to all, except when someone takes advantage of this fact to form a judgment.” Dear Friend is a defense against such judgments. But, to avoid being misinterpreted, Li’s caught between having feelings and trying not to have them. Here one does not feel a sense of intimacy with the author. Though she writes much about her experience of human frailty, she does so while maintaining a cerebral distance.
This is different from Li’s novels and short stories, where her fictional women are strong-minded but rarely get to own their stories. In them, Li has a protected but limitless space in which to grapple with herself: “What is a more secretive way to struggle than struggling along with people to whom I remain unknown and unseen?” It might not be a stretch to argue that, for Li, fiction and suicide are both solutions to the same problem of visibility. Both are modes of hiding and escape. But one gets the sense that writing this book was a way out of hiding, even if she doesn’t say so explicitly. Dear Friend is Li’s attempt to own her story while keeping some parts of herself to herself, where she discovered that wiping “out the body” wasn’t “the only way to end the pain.”