“An agitated mind does not know any road to peace except the one away from home.”
Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life.
The title seems to imply a warping of space and narratives. Indeed, Yiyun Li’s story is one that has transcended time, geographic boundaries, and languages. Her entire collection is founded upon one central belief, that in spite of the readers’ varied background, the power of the written word, substantiated through the rich history of literature and the English language, can somehow unite them. It’s a room of stories, of lives that have endured tragedies and pain and have crossed one another’s paths in the most unexpected ways. Memories are formed as a collective act. By delving into the narrative of another person from another time, we rise out of the experience to become more complete.
Li’s psychiatrist has told her, “You should be very careful every day for the rest of your life… Things could sneak up on you, when you realize it you’d have already lost the solid ground beneath you.” Even though China remains a core subject of her works, she has consciously and carefully removed herself from her native country. Almost nonchalantly, she chronicles a lost world, a city that has been deconstructed and entombed in the bottom of her memories. Through tracing her words, I’m also slowly rediscovering the city of my past. The Soviet-style grey buildings. The middle school built on the ruins of the Old Summer Palace. The roads and structures that have become devoid of life as they materialize in a foreign language.
(On a side note, Li never cites any Chinese authors as her literary influences. This probably has something to do with the fact that she only picked up writing after she moved to the States, and that she only writes in English. However, it is curious that she has alienated herself from the Chinese—and actually, the entire Asian—literary scene. Her rejection of the Chinese language is quite resolute.)
The essays are filled with pain and melancholy. By choosing to publish them, Li is really exposing her most vulnerable side to the readers, regardless of whether they actually want to see it. Sometimes you want the writers to resemble their art, but at other times you really wish they weren’t like that. It would be awful if people could really be that lonely.
While I have read some of Li’s short stories before, I didn’t really like them. One of the reasons is that her voice reminds me too much of my own. There’s a certain sense of cautiousness and detachment in her writing that perhaps only a fellow non-native speaker of English could recognize.
My relationship with the English language is a complicated one. I almost never write creative pieces in English—even when the story has taken place in America and only involved my interactions with its people. I feel that a part of me would be removed if I were to retell my experiences in a language that is not my own. As I type these words, I can hear myself saying them, smoothly and fluidly, but somehow they still feel distant. There’s some type of nuance that I’m unable to capture when I’m not speaking in my native tongue.
Therefore, to me, what Ha Jin and Yiyun Li have managed to do through English is truly remarkable. I would never attempt to tell my Chinese stories in English. My thought processes in these two languages operate through entirely different systems, and it is impossible to bridge them through translation. (and because of this, I’m a horrible translator.)
One time, on an acquaintance’s Facebook page, I noticed a piece written by her friend, a Chinese American college student, that accuses “To Speak is to Blunder” of reinforcing the hegemony of monolingualism. My friend’s friend has missed a simple point, that multilingualism is a privilege, and it is extremely difficult to acquire later in life had one not been gifted with it upon birth. Speaking two languages is probably natural for her, but for many first-generation immigrants, proficiency in a new language often comes at the price of erasing an old one, and denying the memories that have accompanied it. Erasure is turned into an act of violence.
One could argue that Li’s treatment of her immigrant experience is highly problematic and has probably contributed to the deterioration of her mental health. She frames her journey away from home almost solely as an escape from a dictatorial regime, and the Chinese language as a lifeless linguistic system that is overwrought with politicization. While she has extensively discussed her first days in America and her introduction to creative writing in English, there is virtually no illustration of the culture that she has come of age in. If one changed all the names of cities and roads in the essays into Polish and attempted to convince me that the author is from Poland, I would actually believe it. It is understandable that she needs to distance her culture in order to establish a new self in America, but such rationalization of her reductive creative choice, not to mention the fact that this phenomenon is quite widespread among Chinese artists working abroad, is still acutely sad.
(The danger of unraveling lies in the danger of living in between. The pathway is so narrow that it feels suffocating. The more steadfast commitment you put into your life, the more fearful you become—that everything might break at once, and you might eventually lose it all. The harder you grasp, the faster you’ll fall.)
At the end of “To Speak is to Blunder,” Yiyun Li writes, “In an ideal world I would prefer to have my mind reserved for thinking, and thinking alone. I dread the moment when a thought trails off and a feeling starts, when one faces the eternal challenge of eluding the void for which one does not have words. To speak when one cannot is to blunder. I have spoken by having written—this book or any book; for myself and against myself. The solace is with the language I chose. The grief, to have spoken at all.”
This passage reminds me of the ending of Lolita’s epilogue. No matter how much I dislike Vladimir Nabokov and his ouvert, narcissistic obsession with elitism, every time that I come across these words, I still cry a little.
“After Olympia Press, in Paris, published the book, an American critic suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel. The substitution ‘English language’ for ‘romantic novel’ would make this elegant formula more correct. But here I feel my voice rising to a much too strident pitch. None of my American friends have read my Russian books and thus every appraisal on the strength of my English ones is bound to be out of focus. My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and indefinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses—the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”
Compared with Li, I am truly fortunate that I moved to the U.S. at an age that has allowed me to preserve both of my languages. But still, I also wonder what would happen had I remained in Beijing, or had I been born in Los Angeles. Li speaks of many parallel lives that have been inhabited by our counterparts back home, that since there are so many of us, one person’s absence will soon be filled by another’s existence. One really should not pine for the could-have-beens, but I simply can’t help it.
I speak of my home in an adopted language but long for it in my native tongue.
I only hope that my restlessness could eventually get me home.