Sometimes Li’s reading habits consume her, books becoming more important to her than people, and taking the place of more interactive relationships. It’s a particular kind of immersion: “To read oneself into another person’s tale is the opposite of how and why I read,” she writes. “To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one’s existence.” In this way, reading provides Li risk-free companionship — a sweet spot of human connection as opposed to an escape. “I am aware,” she writes, “that, every time I have a conversation with a book, I benefit from someone’s decision against silence.” Li has written Dear Friend out of gratitude to those who have dared to write down what they think, feel, and believe, and the book is carried along by the connections Li makes from one thought or author to another. There is a “plot” — the author travels to the United States, becomes a writer, starts a family, is hospitalized several times for life-threatening depression, and continues her work — but this story is secondary to a fragmented exploration of her life in and around words.
Obsessed as she is with books, Li has always kept a journal, referencing authors’ lives and correspondence to describe her own state of mind. The journal, she explains,
was — and remains — a long argument with myself: a lucid voice questioning judiciously, and a more forceful voice speaking defiantly, sometimes in reply, other times in digression. The experience is like a confrontation between George Eliot and Dostoyevsky. The former counsels self-restraint through self-improvement, and the latter interrupts with monologues on impassioned and imprisoned souls.
That she writes of her inner struggle this way is indicative of her thought process as well as her style. Then, too, having chosen to write in English rather than in her first language, Chinese, it make sense that she would look to other texts and literary conversations — to the jargon of her personal literacy — to communicate her private thoughts.
Yiyun Li came to the United States from China as an immunologist — science offered an escape from a conscripted way of life in a communist country — but long before she immigrates, she describes herself as a spectator. Once in the United States, she becomes even more attracted to the idea of a solitary way of life: “It is the moments spent alone,” she tells the reader, “that are the preferred narrative. I was happy walking by myself.” Eventually, not just reading, but writing — in her adopted language — begins to absorb her.
Though the structure of Dear Friend is nonlinear, there are recurring preoccupations — fatalism, melodrama — that influence Li’s actions and unify the text. Making reference to the work of Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and Ivan Turgenev, among many others, she is frankly gratified by difficult texts. In a discussion of Marianne Moore’s correspondence, for example, she writes:
The contrast between writers’ published work and private words makes one feel for them, but Moore’s poetry and letters, equally opaque, close a door to anyone’s curiosity. Perhaps my reading her is far from rebellion or intrusion. It is only to insist on being defeated. No one defeats better than Moore.
Committed to literary frustration, Li draws parallels between a difficult reading experience and her day-to-day struggle with life. In this way, Dear Friend is a “found” memoir, woven from the journals, letters, and manuscripts of others: its significance is demonstrated in Li’s arrangement of these materials to explicate and explore her own state of mind. It is not her intent to illuminate or reveal connections between the works of others. Her immersion in their words — in and despite moments of great personal pain — is the point.
But if reading gives Li a safe place to battle, life does not. Various therapies, designed to offer her a path to stability, present another kind of intellectual quandary — something else to over-think. She was raised by a father who preached fatalism as a means to cope with life under a communist regime, but she finds the familiar philosophy at odds with her creative desire to dream. “It’s not fatalism that makes one lose hope,” she tells the reader. “It’s one’s rebellion against fatalism; it’s wanting to have one’s time back from fatalism. A fatalistic person cannot be a dreamer, which I still want to become one day.”
A reluctant memoirist, Li’s halting prose reflects both her discomfort with the form and her trepidation about revealing too much. Memoir places too much focus on the writer, Li contends. “Perhaps,” she offers,
this is why the memoir is always difficult for me to read. If there are things lacking in my life — and there are, as is the case for everyone — I have resolved never to want them. This must be greed too; wanting nothing is as extreme as wanting everything.
This sort of anxiety characterizes her narrative; her worries about misinterpretation by the reader hover over every word. Dear Friend is a riff on metacognition, or thinking about thinking, emblematic of the author’s habit of recording her response as she reads, of observing other authors through their words, and of her attempt to anticipate her own reader’s reactions. Though the book is not a work of science, it reads as though influenced by a scientist’s view of the world.
So thorough is Li’s concern that her own entrance into the narrative may skew the proceedings that she interrogates the English language like a poet, as when, early on, she muses on the use of the first-person singular: “A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic word. In Chinese, a language less grammatically strict, one can construct a sentence with an implied subject pronoun and skip that embarrassing I, or else replace it with we.” She continues, “The moment that I enters my narrative my confidence crumbles. Can I live without what one cannot have — the absence of I, and the closeness to people that makes that absence impossible?”
At this point she discloses her bias: she prefers to read biographically, seeking out as much of her favorite authors’ unpublished writing and history as she can to dissect and analyze their stories. But that is also what she fears most about how any of her own works might be approached. And herein lies the irony and the challenge of writing about herself in the first place: it is possible to be too explicit. “A writer and a reader should never be allowed to meet,” she says,
They live in different time frames. When a book takes on a life for a reader it is already dead for the writer.
It is preposterous for the writer or the reader to trespass, yet both sides often dismiss the border set by the characters: when a writer insists on his presence (on the page, between the lines) to dictate how his work is to be read; or when a reader reads without true curiosity about the characters, but with a goal of judging the writer.
Notwithstanding her own discomfort, Li has created Dear Friend from the messy intersection of reader and writer, where she has always lived. The result, though hard to classify — neither straight-ahead memoir nor straightforward literary criticism — amounts to a deeply sad story, one that nonetheless reveals, gloriously, the companionship, intimacy, and insight that can come from obsession with the written word.