Photography by Aaron Burden
Since 2015 Yiyun Li has been writing award-winning books and articles. Her spellbinding works explore the devastating stuff of life, and she has become a beacon for readers worldwide. Since I converse with many individuals who have experienced profound grief intimately and culturally, I read many authors who explore the subject. Yet, Yiyun Li’s writing keeps unraveling my thoughts long after I finish her books.
An overview of her accomplishments and her life’s challenges is discussed in The Guardian’s article here. – Jinx Davis
A powerful intelligence accompanies an eloquent despair in each of the works of Yiyun Li. Her writing is breathtakingly honest. I have filled pages of my reading journal with her quotes.
Yiyun Li is a Chinese-American author and essayist who has received widespread recognition for her work. She is the author of several books, including the short story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Guardian First Book Award, and The Vagrants, which was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
Li’s writing often explores the complexities of identity, belonging, and the immigrant experience. Her work is known for its subtlety and emotional depth and has been praised for its stark and evocative prose.
Li often deals with motherhood, death, loss, and how individuals cope. Her characters often struggle with the idea of home and displacement and how it affects the individual.
Li has also been noted for her unique and vivid use of language, which combines Chinese and American idioms and expressions. This gives her writing a unique perspective and allows her to explore universal human experiences from a different cultural point of view.
Seldom does one read writing as rich and nuanced as her explorations of the human experience and the complexities of identity and belonging. She is open about her own struggles with grief, depression, and suicide, often using her own experiences to draw attention to the importance of addressing mental health issues. Her work has been called “a powerful testament to the power of literature to heal.”
In Yiyun Li’s novels and memoirs, memory is often depicted as a complex and fragmented entity closely tied to the characters’ experiences of grief and loss. For example, in her memoir The Opposite of Fate, Li reflects on the impact of her mother’s death on her own memories and sense of self, describing how the past and present are constantly interwoven in her mind.
Similarly, in her novels, such as The Vagrants and Where Reasons End, Li explores how the characters’ memories of their loved ones shape their understanding of grief and loss. The characters often struggle to come to terms with their grief, and the passage of time is often depicted as a slow and challenging process.
She examines the role of memory in shaping a person’s identity and sense of self and enables her readers to shape their understanding of love and loss.
Her work is timely and crucial to our world’s present tragedies, horrors, and preoccupation with consumerism, celebrity status, and toxic positivity.
Yiyun Li’s writings offer a nuanced and honest portrayal of the complex relationship between memory, grief, and time. They prick at your heart and mind long after you have read them.
Many people have not discovered the hunger for reading. Others read in their mother tongue, which is not English.
For this reason, I am choosing to offer quotes I selected from her books. Her quotes stand alone in their ability for personal reflection.
If I am honest, I share them because they are pushing me towards questioning my own behavior and assumptions.
The sense of being an imposter, I understand, occurs naturally, and those who do not feel so I find untrustworthy
Memory is a melodrama from which no one is exempt.
Our memories tell us more about now than then: there is no shortage of evidence: photos, journals, letters, old suitcases. But we choose and discard from an abundance of evidence what suits us at the moment. There are many ways to carry the past with us: to romanticize it and to furnish it with revised or fictionalized memories. The present does not surrender so easily to interpretation.
I have a troubled relationship with time. The past I cannot trust because it could be tainted by my memory. The future is hypothetical and should be treated with caution. The present – what is the present but a constant test: in this muddled-in-between one struggles to understand what about onself has to be changed, what accepted, what preserved. Unless the right actions are taken, one seems never to past the test to reach the after.
Freedom, like originality, is curious only as a universal fantasy.
The need for recognition and glory must have its roots in human loneliness.
The possessiveness in human nature turns loving or arguing into something different: winning, conquering, owning, and destroying.
One of life’s complications is that in many of life’s important relationships, one becomes more than one…To be more than one, to be several, and to live with the consequences, is inevitable.
There is defiance that comes only with youth and inexperience, the refusal to accept life as it is.
What others and the world has done should not define one as what one has done to oneself.
Even the most innocent person, when cornered, is capable of a heartless crime.
Every place is a good place, only time goes wrong.
What is revolution except for a systematic way for one species to eat each other alive?
But loneliness is as delusive a belief in the pertinence of the world as is love: in choosing to feel lonely, as in choosing to love, one carves a space next to oneself to be filled by others – a friend, a lover, a toy poodle, a violinist on the radio.
The dance of forming an attachment to a person, to a place, to a profession, to a cause, even to one’s own life, is that one can trick oneself into believing that an attachment has a meaning, and worse, that the reason can be mistaken as a right.
He was the kind of person who needed others to feel his existance.
Death, except for someone entirely isolated, is always a personal moment made public. Suicide, among the most private decisions one can make, is often taken over by the public. Those who express strong feelings mistake themselves as the center of the story. The intense emotions around suicide: anger, pity, unforgiveness, even condemnation, demand what no one has the right to claim: an explanation and the authority to judge the explanation.
The talent of argument becomes finding the right rival, those who can be awed or bullied into agreement and dismissing those who cannot be as irrelevant. That talent needs an audience.
I have always believed that, between living and dying, from being to being no longer, there are secrets understood by those near death. I want to know them, too.
One never kills themselves from knowledge or understanding, but always from feelings. Understanding cannot be willed into existence. Without understanding one should not talk about feelings. One does not have the capacity to feel another person’s feelings fully. It is a fact of life, democratic to all, except when someone takes advantage of the fact to form a judgment.
Feelings carry values like currency. People like to think they have control over their feelings in connection with others. I feel for you. I’m happy for you. I’m angry on your behalf – or You don’t deserve my love, sympathy, respect, or hatred. The words reflect a status. Those who feel can stop doing so if they want; and they will, if their expectations are not met.
Both tragedy and comedy allow us to experience solid emotions, which all are possible to share. Sorrow becomes less excruciating, laughter more resonant. Melodrama puts us on guard. We are the uneasy enemies of our own melodramas as much as of other people’s.