Distilling life on the page: The beauty of storytelling with Yiyun Li

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“No writing is perfect. There's always some flaws or some imperfections there, but on the page is as close as I can get to a distillation from life.” Yiyun Li. Graphics by KCRW’s Gabby Quarante

There might be no better way to grapple with the complexities of life than by reading a good book. And for novelist Yiyun Li, exploring human emotions “is one thing great literature does really well.” Li is an avid reader, revisiting two of her favorite novels each year: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Melville’s Moby Dick. Her life, Li says, “is partly saved in those books … The books are the same books, but you have been growing and maturing and changing.” 

Li, born and raised in communist China in the '70s, first discovered her skill with words while writing patriotic articles at school. Later, when she traveled to the US to study medicine at the University of Iowa, she kept up that interest by taking creative writing classes to enhance her English language skills. Writing in a second language, Li says, had some disadvantages but also some advantages.

“I examine every single word I put down on the page, I use dictionaries all the time," she says. "I put a lot of pressure on the language. ... It's a kind of suicide when you when you sever yourself from your mother tongue. And in my case, it was done out of a wish to recreate my mind in another language.”

Though a talented scientist, Li abandoned medicine to follow her passion for writing. Many of Li’s stories feature the universal themes of grief, suffering, and unbearable loss, talking openly about the loss of her son Vincent to suicide. With unexpected lightness and humor, Li discusses acceptance and her ability to reframe the most difficult moments in her life.

“Things have been difficult with my life and yet I have used those difficult moments, and I have not been moping — and not moping is important,” she says.

Li also shares her love of gardening and physical movement. “I love weeding, sometimes you just get the energy out by weeding," she says. "You cannot live your days entirely in that internal space because then you stop paying attention to the world around you.” 

Li explains how simple garden wisdom permeates her life and her stories. 

“Nothing works well perfectly in the garden,” she says. “You can love a plant, the plant will still die or you can water the plant, but something happens…animals, wild animals, bugs, worms.” 

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  • Yiyun Li - novelist and short-story writer


Andrea Brody