The way to a reader’s heart is easy. Much like film buffs who gush over movies about filmmaking, devoted readers will melt in the palm of the author that can write well about their own relationship with words, stories and authors.
In author Yiyun Li’s new memoir, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” authors like Katherine Mansfield, Stefan Zweig, William Trevor, Marianne Moore and Ivan Turgenev are Li’s characters, and readers need not be familiar with their works to experience them vicariously through Li’s elegant but direct prose.
In “Dear Friend,” Li presents an achingly honest account of her struggles with depression and suicidal ideation, but it’s her musings on those writers and their books and journals and letters that color that despair, turning desperation into contemplation.
Born and raised in Beijing, Li originally came to the United States when she was in her twenties to pursue a Ph.D. in immunology. Though Li abandoned labs for libraries when she decided to pursue writing, her diction belies a continued commitment to the scientific process. She selects her words with the precision of a neurosurgeon.
There is a possibility, Li mentions on several occasions, that she might never have taken up writing. And though both her naturally lyrical tone and genuine passion for language and literature make it difficult to imagine a universe in which Li wouldn’t find her way into the writer’s life, those reminders of that possible impossibility of her writing career affirm one of Li’s main points — real people, rather than fictional characters, defy absolute definition.
Li, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has authored four major works of fiction, to immediate success. Her first, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award and California Book Award. “Dear Friend” is Li’s first foray into nonfiction, and she refers frequently throughout the work to her conscious avoidance of autobiography.
In “Dear Friend,” Li merely alludes to her life’s events with flashes that tease with their narrative potential — her year in the Chinese military, her complex relationship with her mother, her hospitalizations for suicidal ideation — but Li’s aversion to autobiography seems to consistently hinder her own work of memoir. But, as Li herself writes of autobiographical writing, “what is revealed and what is concealed expose equally.”
Though Li’s omissions are telling of the author’s own complex feelings about herself and her memories, less restraint in the narrative aspects of the book would have improved “Dear Friend” as a work of memoir.
Told in eight sections of varying lengths, the structure of the piece is fluid, the themes of each section mingling with the next and the next, but this fluidity, combined with the density of some of Li’s more philosophical musings, fails to take the reader through a clear beginning, middle or end.
However, Li is the master of the standout sentence. Whereas most authors can artfully drop a line or two that warrants an underline, a scribble in the margin or a dog-eared page sporadically throughout a volume, it’s difficult to read two pages of Li’s “Dear Friend” without feeling compelled to take out a pen and take notes.
The fluidity and lack of cohesive structure almost make that pull to hold on to her poignant declarations stronger, as if they’re likely to get lost in Li’s sometimes dreamy and meandering prose if you don’t hold on tight.
The book is neither uplifting nor life-affirming and most likely best enjoyed by readers who, when faced with ambiguous questions and illusion-shattering observations, feel excitement rather than anxiety.
Li’s “Dear Friend” does not give many, if any, answers, even to the two existential questions which the book jacket pegs as its primary inquiries: why write and why live? The message of the book overall is murky, like the blending blue and gray watercolors of its cover. But coming up with answers wasn’t really Li’s point, anyway.
As Li writes in the book’s first chapter, she had a notion that this book would be a way to assay thoughts about time. Assays in science are a means of “endless exploration” — questions that lead to more questions without any real solutions. It is elusive and maybe futile she admits “to write about a struggle within the struggling.”
As Li’s title suggests, “Dear Friend” is much less about finding answers to the questions which plagued Li’s mind in her years of despair, and not even so much about story or memory, but much more about bridging that chasm between one life and another so, in the end, it can be said: “Dear friend, we have waited this out.”