A Chinese-American fiction writer offers an intimate memoir of “darkest despair.”
In her fiction, Li (Creative Writing/Univ. of California, Davis; Kinder than Solitude, 2014, etc.), winner of multiple writing awards and a MacArthur Fellowship, has created bleak worlds inhabited by estranged, psychologically damaged characters who are haunted by their pasts. The author, who grew up in Beijing under an oppressive political regime and with an emotionally volatile, demanding mother, has resisted the idea that her work is autobiographical. “I never set out to write about melancholy and loneliness and despondency,” she writes. However, as she reveals in this bravely candid memoir, those emotions have beset her throughout her life, leading to a crisis during two horrifying years when she was twice hospitalized for depression and suicide attempts. Soon after Li came to the University of Iowa “as an aspiring immunologist,” she decided to give up science and enroll in the university’s famed graduate writing program. She was inspired, not surprisingly, by reading William Trevor, “among the most private writers,” whose stories gently evoke the lives of sad, solitary characters. Li’s abrupt career change included a decision to write in English, which led some to accuse her of rejecting her Chinese heritage. Others suggested that “in taking up another language one can become someone new. But erasing does not stop with a new language, and that, my friend, is my sorrow and my selfishness.” “Over the years my brain has banished Chinese,” she writes, in an effort to “be orphaned” from her past. Li frequently invokes writers—Katherine Mansfield, Stefan Zweig, Philip Larkin, Marianne Moore, Hemingway, and Turgenev—who “reflected what I resent in myself: seclusion, self-deception, and above all the need—the neediness—to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives.” Her title comes from a notebook entry by Mansfield, which Li believes expresses her own reason for writing: to bridge the distance between her life and her reader’s.
A potent journey of depression that effectively testifies to unbearable pain and the consolation of literature.