Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life by Yiyun Li

01/03/17, New Statesman

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed except through metaphors and, then, those too are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about? Dear Friend, from My Life I write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a Katherine Mansfield letter), a memoir of depression and reading, is the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American short story-writer and novelist, Yiyun Li, who won the Guardian first book award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the Sunday Times EFG Bank Short Story Prize, while her astonishing and bleak first novel, The Vagrants, was shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the same question that formed the heart of books about depression as diverse as Styron’s path-breaking Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the very outset Yiyun swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about ‘a difficult time’, her mind being in ‘poor shape’, ‘this emptiness in me’. A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into twenty-four short subsections, from anything between four lines to just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This heterodoxy sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect a unity imposed by the theme the titles indicate, and that is not absent, although the greater coherence comes from her overarching project in this book of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that this book ‘would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.’ To talk of a ‘before’ and ‘after’ is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely consciousness of a self-defeating task: ‘To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.’ The compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: ‘ “The moment one is sad one is ordinary,” she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal’, or ‘To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.’ Her emotions are thoughts, not so much in the way Eliot said of Donne but more as a consequence of a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. ‘As a body suffers from an autoimmune disease,’ she writes, ‘my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates; a self dissecting itself finds little repose.’

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative of sorts emerges: an immature, emotionally unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic, long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two major hospital visits for serious depressive episodes (we’ll find out their exact nature only in the ‘Afterword’).

But the one constant, other than the self-consuming mind, running through this deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading and the writers close to Yiyun’s soul. Here, too, she is original in the way she approaches the authors and how she reads them, what they hold for her, how they speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence; she tells us that it springs from ‘the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives’. It is difficult not to find heartrending her notion of finding her ‘real context’ in books: ‘ … all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.’

For a writer who has made her name in the traditional lyrical-realist school, producing pellucid, moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least on their first occurrence, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl. There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – although she never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to write in English. She gives the penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most, Trevor, a writer she ‘aspired to be’, ‘to see as he does’. It’s a deeply affecting piece, and not only because of the weight of the knowledge of Trevor’s death three months ago. At the end of her assay is a sense of endurance: the book is ‘an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed’, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.