When Yiyun Li first became a writer, she decided that she would leave behind her native language, Chinese, and never write or be published in it again. She has described this decision as being like a suicide. In languages, she suggests, we form our identities. Leaving one behind is a death of a version of our self; and starting afresh in a new language is a kind of rebirth.
In Where Reasons End, the English language, in which Li has made her name as a Chinese-American author, has transformed into something the narrator can no longer depend upon. She stumbles over words, recognizing that she no longer knows, or perhaps never knew, their true meanings, struggles to remember adjectives, and cycles through etymologies, searching for deeper understandings of words she has used for years (‘I looked up the word suffer. It comes from sub, from below, and ferre, to bear’).
What has caused Li’s narrator and perhaps Li herself to question her understanding of the English language — and, in turn, the identity she has formed in it — is an event. Several months after the publication of Li’s last book, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You — a memoir in essay-form, written in the wake of her breakdown and two suicide attempts in 2012 — her 16-year-old son took his own life.
In this novel, the protagonist, a writer who may or may not be Li, mourns the death of her son, too, who has also committed suicide. In ‘a world made up of words, and words only’, she meets her son again and the pair converse over several months. They argue, reminisce, exchange witticisms and philosophize about life, death, time, the self, language and writing.
Together, in their new states — Nikolai a boy who has lost his life; the protagonist a mother who has lost a son (‘orphan, widow, widower… but what do you call a parent who’s lost a child?’ she writes at one point, realizing that her new state has no word to describe it in English) — they reassess the meanings of things. Li writes about the protagonist’s and Nikolai’s ‘dictionaries’ — representations of everything each of them understands — and catalogues what neither of them do. In an especially moving passage, she lists words that are no longer in her dictionary, among them ‘always’ and ‘forever’.
A line in Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You — a book that is, among much else, a love letter to the novels that have provided Li with escape during difficult times — reads: ‘Why write autobiographically? There must be a belief in some kind of freedom.’ Where Reasons End provides no escape from grief, as novels did from depression for Li during her breakdown. However, it does still provide ‘some kind of freedom’. In it, the protagonist is free to converse with her son, even though he is dead; she can ask him questions and find his answers coming to her in her writing.
There is an often-repeated cliché of the novel-writing process: that characters seem to write themselves. Here, this fact provides a reprieve from the silence left behind in the absence of the protagonist’s (and/or Li’s) son. Dear Friend demonstrates how, in fiction, there is the potential to find freedom and escape from life. In Where Reasons End, however, Li finds that, in the unusual cross between fiction and autobiography she writes in, there is the potential for freedom and escape from a death.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.