By just about any measure, writer Yiyun Li has had a remarkable life. Born and raised in Beijing before China’s explosion of prosperity (her family had no phone until she was in college), Li had a talent in science that brought her to the U.S. for graduate studies in immunology, but she shifted her focus to writing and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. By age 37 she’d won multiple writing awards, including a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and had a full life in California. Yet she recently spent two years in and out of hospitals for depression. She wrote Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, her first nonfiction work, during this difficult period.
This unconventional memoir tucks glimpses of Li’s youth in Beijing, her narcissistic mother, her quiet father and childhood friends into a variety of meditations on writing and writers. These eight essays consider essential questions: Why write? Why read? Why live? She considers the letters and journals of Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Philip Larkin, Ivan Turgenev and others, and she writes tenderly of her own friendship with the Irish writer William Trevor.
At times, this book feels like a quiet conversation with a wise friend who says confounding things. Still, Li’s writing is lovely, graceful yet plainspoken, and I underlined many passages, like this one: “Some days, going from one book to another, preoccupied with thoughts that were of no importance, I would feel a rare moment of serenity: all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”