Yiyun Li’s Latest Reveals The Reader’s Writer

Every day since Covid-19 forced Americans indoors, writers Yiyun Li and Edmund White have started Skype at five in the evening to engage in a book club for two. White, whom Li calls “a very good interpreter”, reads passages from the books aloud, and the two compare their marginalia, often finding that they have underlined the same passages. Good writers, after all, must first be great readers.

Li, 49, is certainly a keen reader, having now led a number of literary-minded netizens through multiple collective readings of War & Peace and one of Moby-Dick. The readings were led by the publisher and literary magazine A public space; Li is the magazine’s editor, and the group has published its companion volume on War & Peaceentitled Tolstoy together, Last year. (Li reads each of these books herself once a year, she says, online book club or not.)

His next book, September’s The goose book (his ninth, and the first with Farrar, Straus and Giroux after a decade and a half with Random House), also found inspiration in his readings. This time, the source was not a masterpiece of world literature, but rather a review on a mysterious subject: mid-century novels written by French children.

“I read all kinds of old stuff,” Li says on Zoom, sitting in front of a tiled fireplace, a little white dog curled up behind her, in her living room in New Jersey, where she’s a professor of creative writing at Princeton University. . . Among the old things she reads are the works of British-Irish fiction writer Elizabeth Bowen, which Li and White devoured at their book club. In the process, Li came across Bowen’s reviews of a handful of books by four French teenagers. (Such books became, briefly, a trend in France after the debut of Françoise Sagan in 1954, Hello Sadnesswhich was released when she was 19.)

A 14-year-old whose work Bowen reviewed, Berthe Grimault, particularly intrigued Li. ‘West. Eventually she came across “a little piece of information about how she was sent to an English school after publishing the book, where the headmistress found out she couldn’t write – that she was illiterate”. It turned out that the prodigy was actually a charlatan.

But for Li, she was something more: an inspiration. “We novelists,” she says, “love those things you can’t grasp.” The story of this fraudulent young writer spawned from Li the story of Agnès Moreau, a poor girl who grew up in the countryside of western France after World War II. In The goose book, the adult Moreau tells the story of his early life, and how his mischievous childhood friend Fabienne, taking advantage of their claustrophobic closeness, pressures Agnès to play a series of imaginative childhood “games”, that would be more appropriately called hijinks. Soon, Agnès is pushed to affix her name to books imagined and dictated by Fabienne; when they are published, Agnès becomes, for a time, one of the most famous authors in France, and her life is turned upside down – when she had, in fact, not quite written the books for which it was rented.

Despite the ruse, Agnès really knows how to write. She is, in fact, practically an aphorism machine. In a first chapter, after Agnès, older and married and living in America, learns of the recent death of Fabienne, she writes: “No, it is not the ghost of Fabienne who licked the tip of my pen , or opened the notebook to this new page, but sometimes one person’s death is another person’s parole paper. I may not have acquired complete freedom, but I am free enough.

Li’s own pen is so dexterous that the reader could be forgiven for forgetting how central the questioning of the writing process is to The goose book. It is only towards its end that the novel becomes, evidently, a künstlerroman, tracing the evolution of Agnès from an impressionable young girl hoping to please an overbearing friend to the writer of The goose book himself.

Agnes’ development into a proper writer, Li says, happened almost by accident, a product of Li’s own authorial intuition. head of Agnes – I was probing like she was probing,” Li explains. “And one of the first readers of the first draft said, ‘Oh, I really liked that, because it also tells us how a writer writes a book . And I thought, Oh, I forgot! It’s true. It’s about the process. Even though she was not a great writer, she still published these books.

Li, on the other hand, is obviously a great writer. After emigrating to the United States from China in 1996, she earned her MS in Immunology at the University of Iowa, then quickly dropped science for the arts, only to receive her MFA in creative fiction and non-fiction. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2005. That same year, she published her first collection of stories with Random House, A thousand years of good prayers, after signing a two-pound, $200,000 contract; she would go on to be named a Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow and win several PEN awards, among other accolades.

“I’ve known Yiyun for a very long time, and I remember that she was up to something quite extraordinary in this first short story,” says Mitzi Angel, president and editor of FSG and editor of Li. (Angel acquired the first book from Li in the UK while working at HarperCollins UK’s Fourth Estate.) “There was a unique sensitivity to the work, and she was doing something with the language that was very interesting, because she was writing in precise English seemed borrow something hard to put your finger on the Chinese language. This book is quite a departure for her in some ways, because it’s set in France and England, and it’s a historical novel, could- we say – although I hesitate to say it because it’s not pastiche, which a lot of historical novels are, and because there’s such a vision at work that it doesn’t feel like a historical novel .

Although the book is a departure in some sense, it also reflects an ongoing shift in Li’s career. His first four books, published between 2005 and 2014, focus on the lives of Chinese citizens and the troubles they have endured in the communist China of Li’s youth. His last two novels, 2019 Where do the reasons end and 2020s should i gonot.

In between came 2017 Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your lifeLi’s only work of non-fiction. In it, Li examines her difficult relationship with her mother and her mental health issues, even as she questions why a writer would ever write autobiographically.

“I wouldn’t say I’ll never write about China again,” Li says. “But I like to think of biography as kind of an accident: it just happens. I don’t need to specify what kind of topics I write about – although as authors we feel compelled to write something that lines up with our bios Which is such a boring thing to ask a writer.

Instead, of herself, Li demands, if not perfection, at least something like that. She is his own most rigorous reader and, therefore, his toughest writer: The goose book is about 350 pages, but the original draft, Li says, was twice as long. “I probably cut 200 pages from the first draft, then cut more and rewrote 100 pages. There were just too many things I wanted to put on. But in the end, you have to be disciplined. My first draft for every novel is always very long, and if I can cut 200 pages out of it, I’m always very happy.

These days, Li thinks less about the art of writing. As she puts it, “the characters never think about crafting” and “by aligning my feelings and visions with theirs, I think I stopped thinking about it”. She hesitates when told how brilliant her turns are, attributing the power of prose to the characters, to their own secret language, the language of the isolated countryside and childhood friends whose closeness borders on obsession.

“They don’t read literature,” Li says. “But on the other hand, they’re not influenced by what they read. It’s their language, they have to invent their language to describe things: “Can I grow happiness in the bird’s nest? ‘Can I cultivate happiness in water?’ I don’t think educated people would think of such things.

This trait is shared by Agnès and Fabienne, but it is clearly not autobiographical coming from an annual reader of Melville and Tolstoy. Now that her novel set in France is finished, Li is still immersed in the country, or at least its people: she read a biography of Honoré de Balzac. (“It’s a weirdo,” she says.) For Li, as a writer, the creative process always begins in other people’s books. “What to read next? It’s a good question. Balzac?

A version of this article originally appeared in the 08/08/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: The Reader’s Writer


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