To Kill Time

Review of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li (USA: Random House, 2017)
by Ranjani Rao

“What kind of life permits a person the right to become his own subject?”

Yiyun Li, a prize-winning fiction writer, who grew up in China and now lives in the USA, asks this surprising question in her 2017 memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. The question is surprising because most memoirists assume such a right in writing about themselves. Not Li. She questions this assumption perhaps as a way of demanding an answer from herself because that is what a memoir is—an exploration of your own life where you become the subject of your own introspection, both like and unlike a character in a novel.

Li chose to write about a difficult time in her life, a period of two years when she battled with depression so dark that she attempted suicide twice. Outwardly, she was living the fortunate life. A supportive husband, two children, fulfillment of her desire to move to the USA, ability to choose a creative career very different from the one she was trained for, enrolment in the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, swift recognition for her talent, interactions with famous writers and, above all, her tremendous intelligence, all add up to a life worth envying. Why then did she find herself in the hospital on more than one occasion, sharing a room at one time with a Buddhist black woman and at another with a hallucinating college student, on suicide watch?

Li provides some explanation towards the end of her memoir, attributing it to some combination of inherent factors, such as genes and lack of mental strength, and of practical reasons—burnout from working multiple jobs, caring for her family during the day, trying to write at night—but she also traces the truth to an unhappy childhood when she had to endure a mother who is described as the “family despot.” Dissatisfied with her daughter’s choice of husband, she told Li on her wedding day that Li had “left her only with the hope for (Li’s) divorce.”

During the time between her hospital stays, as Li tried to find not just a reason to write, but a reason to live, she read voraciously letters and journals of famous writers: Katherine Mansfield (whose notebooks gave Li the title for her book), Stefan Zweig, Ivan Turgenev, and Marianne Moore, among others. Perhaps it is not too surprising that these writers seem either to have had violent, controlling mothers (Moore, Turgenev) or to have committed suicide (Zweig, Mansfield). And yet reading these dead authors gave her comfort.

Another source of comfort is friendship with living friends. “This book is part of a conversation with Brigid Hughes,” says the inside cover of Dear Friend. The first chapter, which bears the title of the book, consists of a series of short, numbered paragraphs that do not logically follow each other but read like an edited transcript of a free-flowing conversation between two people. As if to emphasize the importance of this relational middle to her project, Li begins the conversation with her fascination for “before” and “after” pictures in advertisements in America. She likes the definitiveness of the phrase, before and after, with nothing “muddling the in-between.”

This theme of the confusion that she faces, after moving from China to the US, between hospitalizations, between midnight and 4 a.m. when she writes, reappears multiple times throughout the book. There is a sense of wanting to “reset life” that permeates the narrative; a sense of impatience with life as it is in the moment, a quiet aura of despair along with a desire for the phase to be done with, that gives the book its melancholy mood. Early in the book, Li writes, “I have always believed that, between living and dying, from being to being no longer, there are secrets understood by those nearer death. I want to know them too.” Is this a reason to attempt suicide? A way to accelerate ‘knowing,’ to take into her own hands the decision that the time for ‘knowing’ had come?

An immunologist who gave up her scientific career to pursue writing, or, as a friend put it, “make her life more difficult,” Li has the commendable capacity to delve deeply into the human condition. Like Li, I am a scientist by training and a voracious reader; I looked to Li to give me a first-hand account of what it takes to give up a promising scientific career to pursue writing full-time, a choice I have been grappling with for a while. Li does not give a straight answer to my questions. She shares vignettes of her public career— literary festivals, panel discussions, radio shows—but they reveal nothing essential of the writing life. Reading her memoir, I had to stop and re-read every so often her lean sentences. Her sharpest observations are turned inward, not outward, as befits the medical specialization of immunology, which deals with the whims and fancies of the human body and its self-protection and maintenance. “Had I remained a scientist, would I have turned out differently—calmer, less troubled, more sensible? Would I have stopped hiding, or become better at it?” Li’s question remains unanswered but potent.

Not only did events appear opaque to Li, sometimes people appeared mysterious as well. When her younger son put his hand in hers as they waited one afternoon for the older son to come out of class, Li was unable to fathom, she writes, the comfort that her son felt in the physical connection. This failure to understand could be ascribed to depression, which in turn, felt itself misunderstood by others. In response to a friend who told her that she was too impatient with herself, her work, and others, Li writes, “Impatience is an impulse to alter or impose. Suicide is a kind of impatience people rarely understand.” Li’s response highlights her ability to take the concern of a friend and turn it into an emphatic statement that attempts to justify her actions. In her memoir, only Li has the fullness of a character in a novel. In another place, she writes that the English phrase, to kill time, chills her. She continues in an understandable moment of self-assertion: “No one thinks of suicide as a courageous endeavor to kill time.”

Li’s prose is indeed “luminous,” as the book blurb has it. However, the crystalline style could come across as overly distilled of setting, story, and background. Every morning, on various social media channels, people share “positive” messages for the day, a pop-psychology shot of optimism, with no regard for the type of day you have ahead of you or the week that just transpired. Just as those messages are pretty words that do not leave a lasting impact because they lack any kind of context, Li’s memoir is, ultimately, unsatisfying because it misses that primary substance. For instance, Li briefly alludes to her time in the army in China and her strong desire then to move to America. If she could have connected the dots, she would have provided a story, no matter how tentative or illusory, for the reader to follow.

When I began reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, a memoir about a woman who seemed to be living a charmed life, spending months in exotic destinations while trying to figure out her life after divorce, I had at first felt no sympathy for Gilbert, given how privileged she was. But as the chapters unraveled, through her honest narration and introspection into her life, I could feel her pain and became eager to share her journey. Context and story are essential for connecting with a reader, no matter how similar or different the reader may be from the author. Li seems to have missed this most important facet of a work of memoir. Without a story to ground the narrative, all I found were shiny, glittering words, like fireworks on a dark night that light up the sky for brief moments, impressing you with their color and sparkle but not leaving any lasting illumination for you to find your way back home.

Li says of Marianne Moore, “Reading her is like trudging through a snowfield in the dark. Even though her words seem to have been written out of the wish to communicate, together they take on a frustrating opaqueness. How can a person, writing in a genuine attempt to convey things that are important, make herself so unknowable?” I feel the same about Yiyun Li after reading this book. I found the lack of continuity in the narrative and the absence of a firm structure quite frustrating and am unwilling to give Li the waiver she wishes to claim in the afterword, that “coherence and consistency are not what I have been striving for.”

On a visit to County Leitrim, Ireland, Li participated in a festival celebrating the Irish writer John MacGahern, an autobiographical writer. Reflecting on that visit, Li asserts that she is not an autobiographical writer, for “one cannot be (an autobiographical writer) without a solid and explicable self.” We return to the question that Li poses: “What kind of life permits a person the right to become his own subject?” The writing of her memoir seems to be an answer, more to herself, than to the world, that her life, fragmented and troubled, is one that can be the subject of a book.

Ranjani Rao, a scientist by training and a writer by choice, lives in Singapore and writes at Story Artisan Press (