Mona Simpson and Yiyun Li Q&A
MS: The organization of both your novels emanates from a central, extremely dramatic event. The structure is almost a wheel, with spokes coming out from a center. The motors in your stories feel very different. Can you talk about how an idea settles in you for a novel? Is it different with stories?
YL: I love the description of a wheel with spokes coming out, and indeed both of my novels open with a death that the novel and the characters have to make sense of and deal with in all kinds of ways. For me, a novel starts with a situation, and a story starts with a character or a set of characters more than a situation. Kinder Than Solitude started with the situation that a woman was poisoned yet lived in a prolonged state of unnecessary misery for twenty-three years. Who was she? Who were the people involved? Why did the case remain unresolved? And what happened when the woman eventually died? These questions from that central situation were all mysteries to me when I started the novel.
MS: Beijing is almost a character in this novel, as it is in a few of your recent short stories. What is it like writing about Beijing in English for an English speaking audience?
YL: I once wrote to a friend and said that this novel was going to be my love letter to Beijing. I have given my fondest memories of Beijing to the three characters when they were teenagers, not only the tourist sites Boyang and Moran took Ruyu to see, but also the fabric of everyday life: old men sitting under a tree and expecting a fresh and forgettable story from Ruyu; Boyang and Moran on bicycles, free as Mongolian children on horsebacks; puddles after the rain; watermelon rinds rotting by the roadside.
Several Westerners living in Beijing have commented to me that the city I write about is mostly gone, and it is true, but its people haven't changed much. Human nature evolves much more slowly than a city does, which is heartening. That's why I love to read Jane Austen and Dickens. So writing about Beijing in English is like writing about California in English: the landscapes are characters that interact with the people.
MS: What does being a Chinese writer writing in English mean in terms of identity? We're each odd examples of global modernity. (I'm half Syrian, though I grew up in the US and write in English.)
YL: As novelists, we are transparent so our characters won't be. I think this global world seems to make it even easier for a writer to blend in and to be invisible: I don't call myself a Chinese writer, or an American writer, or a Chinese-American writer, because I don't feel the pressure to solve my identity; my only urgency is to stay as un-intrusive as possible when I write about the characters.
MS: You're a Chinese woman living in America, and you've cited William Trevor as your primary teacher. Which cultural lineage seems most significant to you: your national history or your literary legacy?
YL: I often think of one's national history as one's genes: something given, something predetermined. Literary legacy is, at least in my case, a choice. I only started writing in my late 20s, and by then I could decide whom to include in my literary genes: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen, and of course William Trevor who, as you mentioned, is a primary influence. So my literary legacy comes from Irish literature and Russian literature.
MS: You've recently become a US citizen. Have you been sworn in? It's hard to imagine either Ruyu or Moran becoming naturalized.
YL: I became a citizen in August, 2012, and yes, I have been sworn in. I think I knew the immigration status of both Ruyu and Moran—they are American citizens—and yet I refrained from making it too obvious in the novel. For Moran, her citizenship offers psychological shelter from the violence she does not understand; for Ruyu, the citizenship is, like everything else in her life, something she accepts and can discard without a second thought. In a deeper sense, however, both of them are so bound to the past that it is hard to imagine that becoming American citizens would change them in any fundamental way.