Invisible But Not Estranged

Intimacy and detachment coexist in Yiyun Li’s memoir of languages, reading, and mental illness

Content warning: discussions of mental illness and suicide

Yiyun Li is primarily known for her fiction, but her recent memoir — Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to Your in Your Life — is a quiet force to be reckoned with, proving that her storytelling ability goes beyond the structures of narrative. Shifting her focus away from key moments of autobiography, Li instead unfolds herself into a text-centered discourse that often reads more like philosophy or even literary theory. Although the impetus for the memoir is clear — her two suicide attempts and subsequent hospitalizations in 2012 — the book is more grounded in her identity as a reader than as a writer or patient.

The experience of reading from one chapter to the next feels more akin to reading an essay collection than a fiction or nonfiction story. In carefully-measured sentences, Li deconstructs the relationship between author and character as well as the relationship between writer and reader.

She draws the unwieldy and intruiging title, “Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life,” from the notebooks of Katherine Mansfield, one of her major literary influences. Li’s reading habits circumscribe the themes of her own project: she obsessively reads certain writers’ correspondences and journals, immersing herself in the private space of literary letters and diaries, in addition to books. It’s therefore not surprising that her memoir tends toward genre-bending.

As Li recounts her reading experiences, she builds up a portrait of herself that is perhaps more true than a straightforward retelling of major life events would be. Most of the live-action scenes that readers receive are merely vignettes; because of her essayistic approach, the meat of the story is in the ideas. Instead of dramatically retelling the narratives of any literal self-harm (though that is certainly implied), her prose circles back to suicide in the abstract, and metaphorical forms of “eliminating the self”:

I wished then and I wish now that I had never formed an attachment to anyone in the world either. I would be all kindness. I would not have done anything ruinous. I would never have to ask that question — when will I ever be good enough for you? — because by abolishing you, the opposite of I, I could erase that troublesome I from my narrative, too.

When I read the first chapter — or first essay — at first I felt put off by the way Li was holding me at arm’s length. I usually come into a memoir expecting the creation of an intimate reading space; instead, I encountered Li hiding herself behind third-person constructions of “one does…” and “one must…” or, occasionally, embedding the “I” into the generalized “we/our.” Sometimes she even verges on platitude:

What one carries from one point to another, geographically or temporally, is one’s self.

In the passage that focuses on the book’s title, Li writes about how she sustains her writing though this urge to create relationships and reach across distances between places and selves: “What a long way it is from one life to another, yet why write if not for that distance, if things can be let go, every before replaced by an after.” The bridge — or lackthereof — between the reader and writer becomes a keystone in the way Li illustrates certain tensions in her life, both personal and literary.

A writer and a reader should never be allowed to meet. They live in different time frames. When a book takes on a life for a reader it is already dead for the writer.

These connections between reading, writing, and personal distance come to the forefront in the chapter “To Speak is to Blunder,” in which Li explores her reasons for choosing English over Chinese, her “mother-tongue” — even going so far as to reject translations of her work into Chinese, a controversial choice that interviewers often bring up to her. She outlines a worldview where her other-tongue, English, becomes her own “private language” in contrast with the “public” nature of the language she grew up speaking. In the newness and foreignness of English, she finds a kind of liberation: “A private language […] defies any confinement. Death alone can take it away.”

In a philosophy that is interestingly reminiscent of Jhumpa Lahiri’s sentiments in her book In Other Words / In Altre Parole about learning Italian, Li explains how this natural duality of closeness and distance between self and second-language is what gives her the freedom to escape the past, as well as the freedom to write:

In my relationship with English, in this relationship with its intrinsic distance that makes people look askance, I feel invisible but not estranged.

This idea of linguistic distance then drifts back to suicide. Li circles around the ideation in prose in the same way that the mind does:

One crosses the border to become a new person. One finishes a manuscript and cuts off the characters. One adopts a language. These are false and forced frameworks, providing illusory freedom, as time provides illusory leniency when we, in anguish, let it pass monotonously. “To kill time,” an English phrase that still chills me: time can be killed but only by frivolous matters and purposeless activities. No one thinks of suicide as a courageous endeavor to kill time.

(“To Speak is to Blunder: Choosing to renounce a mother tongue” also appeared as a stand-alone essay in this year’s first issue of The New Yorker.)

It is important to note that a large portion of Li’s discourse centers not around visible symptoms of depression, but on the idea of suicide itself. She often directly pushes back against the disembodied arguments that call the act selfish or ungrateful. The book isn’t necessarily a vindication of suicide, but it would be hard for some readers to get through without feeling buried or surrounded by the internal logic, those knots of thought that she threads around herself and her reader.

That being said, as a reader and writer who struggles with mental illness, for me it’s so refreshing to find a writer who finally addresses the real “thought-spirals” of depression, instead of merely describing symptoms like I couldn’t get out of bed all day — a type of discourse which seems to be overwhelmingly dominant in today’s mental health discussions, especially online.

In many ways, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life provides a much-needed different lens for thinking about mental illness in the sphere of ideas rather than buzzwords like self-love or self-care. While those are certainly important to our conversations, they will always be a step removed from the self.

Li writes that she “struggle[s] with a lack of depth perception,” but in many ways, depth perception is what this memoir brings to the table. The perspective, at face value, is familiar: person-with-mental-illness-pens-memoir-after-suicide-attempts almost seems like a trope, albeit an important one. But by writing through a refraction of everything she has read — from Turgenev to McGahern to Woolf — Li is able to present this “familiar” perspective with an astonishingly unfamiliar amount of depth.

The Personal Is Political in Every Revolution

Perhaps Yiyun Li’s intensely intimate relationship with English — her own “private language” — is what made me feel distant as a reader in the beginning. When I reached that chapter on language, I realized that I was a guest here, dwelling inside of her words. It was not like reading a diary, a critique disproportionately wielded against female memoirists. Instead, it was like stepping into a threshold of the mind, and being allowed to see the patterns of thought as clearly as footprints on the floor.

The intense closeness of reading what’s on (or surrounding, or entrapping) someone’s mind, combined with the unbridgeable distance of each other’s unknowability, results in a kind of beautiful dissonance. By the second half of the memoir, I no longer felt that I was being held at arms length; I felt — to appropriate Li’s phrase for another purpose — invisible, but not estranged.

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