Writers & Company

Yiyun Li navigates the loss of a child in her heartbreaking new novel

The Chinese-American author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about the process of writing about love, pain and grief.
Yiyun Li is a Chinese-American author. She spoke with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel in 2019. (Michelle de Marco)
Listen to the full episode53:39

Yiyun Li wrote her new novel, Where Reasons End, in the months following the suicide of her 16-year-old son. Searingly intimate, both poignant and playful, the book imagines a dialogue between a fictional mother and her own teenage son, who has also recently taken his life. A meditation on motherhood and questions unasked, it's a story of love, pain and the transcendent nature of words and language.  

Li's award-winning novels and story collections include The Vagrants and Kinder Than Solitude. She previously described her own struggle with depression in a startling memoir, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You in Your Life. In the book, she recounts her experience in a psychiatric hospital and her engagement with the private writings of authors such as Katherine Mansfield, Philip Larkin, William Trevor and Anton Chekov.

Born in Beijing, Yiyun Li lives and teaches in Princeton, New Jersey. She spoke to Eleanor Wachtel onstage at the Toronto Reference Library in September 2019. 

An unconventional form 

"Sometimes a book decides how it has to be written. There's nothing to hide here; the book was written after my teenage son committed suicide.

"Part of the reason this book was written, and written in this way, was I couldn't find a book that could say what I wanted to say about grief, although I hate that word. I'm a writer and so I had to make my own words. Words cast long shadows. My endeavour is to find those long shadows cast by words. But words always fall a little short. 

"A lot of books on this subject fall short — and I had to see how I might also fall short in writing about the way I was feeling."

Sometimes a book decides how it has to be written. There's nothing to hide here; the book was written after my teenage son committed suicide.- Yiyun Li

How I write

"As a writer, you listen to people and you hear stories. The habit of eavesdropping makes me think I'm invisible... mistakenly.  

"You always want to hold on to that fantasy that you can see people but they can't see you. That's what a writer does. The practice of eavesdropping has conditioned me to be one. 

"You have to maintain that invisible space where you are looking at your characters but the characters can't see you. That's how you interact with them. You'd never want to step into their lives. That's how I write fiction. Writing is never a lonely business because I have all these characters with me."

Eleanor Wachtel interviewed author Yiyun Li onstage at the Toronto Reference Library in September 2019. (Michelle de Marco)

The things we didn't say

"Nikolai, the son in the novel, is an extraordinary child. He is a poet in his own right. He looks at the world, he bakes, he knits, he plays with words. He's a surprising child and a lot of things interest him.

In life we don't always get to say certain things to the people we love.- Yiyun Li

"Certainly I took things from my life to write this book. In life we don't always get to say certain things to the people we love.

"For instance, the mother-son conversations in the book were something that happened in life but never in this depth or this continuous way. Life interrupts. Life is busy. But once you're separated by life and death, that's when you have the time and space to have a long conversation. That's important to me." 

Yiyun Li's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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