Theoretically Personal

By Sarah Hoenicke for BOMB

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Resisting confession in Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

“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.

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