Yiyun Li interview: ‘I had to make my own book about grief’

Yiyun Li interview: ‘I had to make my own book about grief’

Yet amid this success, Li was struggling. In 2012, she had a breakdown, and twice attempted suicide. She wrote about this period in her 2017 memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, reflecting on the damaging legacy of her relationship with her mother and how writing was the only way for her “to find a new way to see the world”.

For obvious reasons, writing Where Reasons End has made great demands on her. For two and a half months, the process consumed Li, not stopping until the moment she realised she was done. “The book was driving me to write it,” she says. “And I certainly understand now that it was necessary to write the book at that time. It was written in the centre of something. I hate to use analogies but let me use just one really bad analogy: the eye of the hurricane. It is so still, so quiet there, you almost feel like you get close to something absolute.” Aside from a few words here and there, she did not revise the manuscript; it emerged fully formed. “It was an experience,” she says. “It was important to write that way.”

At Li’s request, we agreed ahead of the interview not to talk about the details of her son’s death and to focus on Where Reasons End. “What happens in real life, people will have their interpretations, but I would not say anything,” she says. “This book is my time to say something. And I wanted to make sure I said the right thing, in the right way.” 

The novel takes the form of a series of conversations between an unnamed mother and her dead son, Nikolai. “From the start, I knew it was a novel without time or space,” Li says. “Time passes for the mother, of course, the seasons and holidays come and go – but those things are in the mortal world. For the son, there is no time. I wanted to put the characters in this situation and see how far they could push themselves.”

On first reading the manuscript, Li’s agent said it was reminiscent of the stripped-down aesthetic of black box theatre. The effect, initially at least, is disorienting, as you try to figure out the rules of the fictional world Li has created. “I was not so concerned by what the readers wanted,” she says. “I wanted them to come with me, rather than my paving the road for them. Everything I have written in there is fiction. I can always say that there I create this place, this setting, that is different to our physical reality, and I placed two of my characters in there and they said something I wanted to say.” 

Li is a writer immersed in the literary tradition. She loves what she calls “messy books”, with Moby Dick and War and Peace at the top of her list (she assigned the latter – all 1,000-plus pages of it – to the students in her creative writing class last term). Her fiction is often a direct response to the work of those authors she most admires, among them Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, and William Trevor. But when it came to the literature of grief, she found the canon let her down.

“Soon after my son died, I looked for books that could express that word,” she says. “Many of them fell short for me.” At first, she thought she had found the right book in C S Lewis’s 1961 A Grief Observed, written after the death of his wife in 1960. “That book spoke to me for 10 pages but then just fell away. It became a kind of failed model for me. 

“That was when I realised I had to make my own book. At the beginning, [Lewis] questions many things, including the consolation brought by religion. He speaks of grief as fear and suspense and confusion, he poses questions to God, but then he seems to make a sharp turn and conclude that a mortal should not ask God unanswerable questions. I have liked many of his other books but this one is not my favourite. And I read it at this moment when I needed a book that not only asks unanswerable questions, but also asks unasked questions.”

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