‘I like to write about stubborn people!’: Yiyun Li on her first American novel, Must I Go

The Chinese author has tackled suicide and bereavement in her acclaimed work. Now, 25 years after moving there, she's written her first American novel – and it's an epic. 

Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li. Image: Roger Turesson / Penguin

There’s a hurricane blowing into New Jersey when Yiyun Li and I speak over Zoom; she’s at her home near Princeton. It seems an appropriate setting to discuss her frequently turbulent new novel, Must I Go, a work in which the memories of one elderly woman cover 70 years of American history, from the immediate post-war period to 2010: a full historical sweep.

That Li manages to create a feeling of intimacy against this backdrop of constant change is testament to why her books are so acclaimed. Her debut was a short fiction collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Set mostly in modern China, where Li was born in 1972, it was awarded a string of prizes, including the 2006 Guardian First Book and PEN/Hemingway awards. Li’s story 'A Sheltered Woman' won the Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2015. In between there have been novels including The Vagrants; a memoir, Dear Friend from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, and most recently a novella, Where Reasons End. This year, Li added a prestigious Windham-Campbell Literature Prize to her list of accolades.

The history behind the writing of Must I Go is a painful one. While Li was working on the novel in 2017, her eldest son took his own life, aged 16. (Li wrote about her own previous breakdown and attempts at suicide in her memoir: a rare foray into autobiography from someone whose preference has been to jettison the personal. As she explains in Dear Friend: “A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic word.”) Two years after her son’s death Where Reasons End unexpectedly appeared, a fiction taking the form of an often playful, sometimes despairing, but always humane dialogue between a bereaved mother and her newly dead son. Must I Go has had, therefore, a long gestation.

Li spent a mandatory year serving in the People’s Liberation Army in 1991

It is also Li’s first all-American novel (she arrived in the US from China in 1996 to study immunology: science’s loss has been literature’s gain.)  Li went from never having written a story to, in 2005, graduating from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA programme, and becoming the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant five years after that. She had been a maths prodigy growing up in Bejing, the daughter of a nuclear physicist father and teacher mother; the latter’s controlling aspect and its long reach, even after Li emigrated to the US, is much examined in Dear Friend.

Part of the so-called “Tiananmen generation’ which came of age during the 1989 student protests, and bore the brunt of subsequent government crackdowns, Li spent a mandatory year serving in the People’s Liberation Army in 1991, an experience that is reflected in several of the stories in the collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

Li has said in the past that she first “learned writing” by reading the work of the Irish writer William Trevor, and that without Trevor “there would be no ‘me’ here.” Trevor was not simply a literary inspiration: the pair shared a close friendship until his death in late 2016.

Why wait so long? “You need some accumulation of time to understand a place,” Li says of the explicitly American setting and characters of Must I Go. The novel is chiefly set in San Francisco, its catalyst the 1945 UN Peace Conference held in the city. “I was in California for over a decade,” she explains. “I thought I would like to write a novel about the Bay area – but not as it is now, rather a time before Silicon Valley – I was struck by how hopeful California must have seemed in 1945, representing the golden future of human history.”

It is in this moment of idealism that 16-year-old Lilia, the redoubtable main protagonist of the novel, meets her nemesis, an older man named Roland Bouley. Roland is Canadian, urbane, well-travelled – and Lilia engineers more than one encounter with him. These few meetings will change Lilia’s life and yet leave Roland untouched. Early on in the book, we learn that Lilia will go on to have his child, a girl she calls Lucy, whose parentage she never reveals to Roland, nor, until extreme old age, to anyone else. The death of Lucy by suicide when she is a young mother in her twenties forms an undercurrent of grief and yearning running through the novel, which Li tells in flashback.

Lilia, acerbic and aggressive, three times widowed, a mother, grandmother and great grandmother, is now in her 80s and living in a San Francisco retirement home when Roland’s diaries are published posthumously. Discovering that she briefly appears (alongside many other women) in a couple of entries, where she is referred to solely by the initial ‘L’, Lilia furiously sets about annotating Roland’s account. The result is like eavesdropping on a private conversation.

Roland, who we only come to know through his gossipy diary, is a man who holds never-to-be-realised ambitions. Aiming to write for posterity, for immortality, he is merely a footnote in history. In thrall from his youth to older, married woman Sidelle Ogden, as the years progress with little to show he brings to mind an ageing gigolo: a witty and flamboyant but rather pathetic figure entirely lacking in self-awareness. Li had great fun writing him.

'I read a lot of 19th and early 20th-century letters and journalism about the Gold Rush and documents of immigrants from all over the world'

“I kept a diary every day for him, in order to get to know his voice” she tells me. “I want the reader to meet him only through his words – and how as a person he is consistently predictable, in that he never loses interest in himself.” Roland, even in older age, is “the boy who never grows up”, and while his Noel Coward-like comments are very much of an era and a type, Li confesses to having a “soft spot” for him.

While Roland, is, she feels, deeply bound by convention, despite his claims to the contrary, Lilia is the exceptional one, who lives “by intuition.” Li sees her heroine as “very American, in a way... she has made up a life story for herself, grabs whatever she can and makes use of it. She is living forward, not looking back, until the end of her life.” She laughs. “Her unbendingness frustrated me when I wrote her – the whole writing of Lilia’s character was to wrestle with her wilfulness – but I like to write about stubborn people!”

Must I Go moves fluently though different registers and periods. How much research did the novel entail? “It formed two parts - the first was historical – I read a lot of 19th and early 20th-century letters and journalism about the Gold Rush (Lilia comes from settler stock), and documents of immigrants from all over the world; which gave me a real sense of what people sounded like then.

'My brain has banished Chinese. I dream in English. I talk to myself in English. It was a crucial decision to be orphaned from my native language'

The second part was to know every character, and give each an extensive timeline – such as how Roland’s parents met, and the birthdays of Lilia’s children, even though none of this background information might make it into the finished book.

The overall effect is of a world very much of its time and place, and also one that is perpetually in flux. Lilia are Roland are two people who meet by chance, “in a historical moment – tens of thousands of similar encounters were probably taking place in 1945 in San Francisco at that time.” Li adds: “Those characters are further away from me than most characters I’ve written and it is for that reason I find them so fascinating.”

The background to Li’s previous books (none of which, by her choice, have so far been translated into Mandarin) is the decades-long aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Li has said that “My brain has banished Chinese. I dream in English. I talk to myself in English. It was a crucial decision to be orphaned from my native language.” In Must I Go her prose seems as far removed from a Chinese context as is possible; it is as burnished as anything by William Maxwell or Henry James.

'Lilia says that when you start writing you feel you can live forever. She has reached a level of living which she did not have in the past'

Those seeking a neat ending will be disappointed: the novel resists closure. Lilia herself is firmly set against such a concept, as she explains in the novel: “I’m hard as the hardest life. Like a settler I’ve lived through the bumps and wounds and amputations and deaths. I don’t mope. Give ‘em an axe and hoe and I’ll start a garden.” And yet, despite this matter-of fact,  hardscrabble attitude, Lilia is somehow freed by Roland’s diary, according to Li: “Lilia says that when you start writing you feel you can live forever. She has reached a level of living which she did not have in the past.” With Li, for whom “privacy was not a concept” back in China, with a lack of physical, emotional and psychological space, writing must also bring a sense of release.

Li is “by nature drawn to storytelling” but is “a solitary reader.” Somewhat to her surprise, this March, during the lockdown brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, she started ‘Tolstoy Together’, a virtual book club in which people all over the world set aside time each day to read a few pages of War and Peace.

The 1,200 page epic is wholly familiar to Li; it is the book she has turned to most often for comfort. She re-reads it every year, with each immersion “revealing new things to me.” Eighty-five days after the start of the project, “people were really happy that they had accomplished something, as a structure to anchor their lives... there is a beauty in that, when people from all continents do the same thing on the same day.” Random people, purposeful encounters – all very much in the spirit of Must I Go.

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