Yiyun Li has had a remarkable career. Growing up in Communist China, she devoured any books she could find. She’d never written fiction herself, but upon moving to the United States for graduate studies in science, she enrolled in a community writing course to improve her English. Her first story got noticed and she’s gone on to become the acclaimed, prize-winning author of eight books, including A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The Vagrants, Kinder than Solitude and Where Reasons End.
Li’s surprising new novel, The Book of Goose, was inspired by a real-life literary hoax. Set in rural post-war France, it focuses on the relationship between two creative peasant girls, the daring game they play, and what they gain — and lose — from it. With the flavour of a fairy tale, the book is a moving meditation on friendship, imagination and truth in storytelling.
Li spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Princeton University, where she directs the creative writing program.
The power of childhood friendships
“When the two girls start in the novel, they’re 12, and the novel goes on until they reach 14. I think girls that age, they’re not angels. The purity comes from the intense feelings. They manipulate each other’s feelings, they manipulate each other very easily, and sometimes they also like to submit themselves to the other’s manipulation. I find that phenomenon interesting. I know how intense friendship between girls could be during that age because of my own friendships with different girls. And I think it’s as tragic and as dramatic as a Shakespeare play.
I know how intense friendship between girls could be during that age because of my own friendships with different girls.– Yiyun Li
In the book, Agnès, the narrator said, ‘Childhood friendship is like fate.’ It happens to you. When children meet, they don’t have small talk, they don’t smile at each other and say, ‘Hello, what a nice day.’ They look at each other. I often notice young children, they look at each other intensely. Then they have already made a decision if they like you or they don’t like you. Sometimes two people when they meet, they like each other without any ado. They start an intense friendship. So childhood friendship is one of my biggest fascinations.”
A hunger for stories
“I felt a hunger, yes, for everything. On the basic level, there was not enough food. But that hunger was really only the first level of hunger. Hunger for knowledge and hunger for books. For instance, I did not grow up with a library. The first time I was in the library, I was 13. There was not enough information, not enough books. I would pick up the newspapers wrapped around the dead fish and I would read the newspaper because there [was] just not enough of anything. So I think that hunger was for food, for knowledge, for books, but also for connection, for wanting to know what other people were thinking or feeling.
I think that hunger was for food, for knowledge, for books, but also for connection, for wanting to know what other people were thinking or feeling.– Yiyun Li
“These days, I look at the young people. They have internet. They have chat apps. They are constantly in touch with the world, and that was not available when I was a child. There was just a hunger to know the world outside of me.”
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The world beyond oneself
“I think that this is at an age when [Agnès and Fabienne] are both growing up but also the world is coming to them. I always find that moment interesting, when you realize your life is not the only life, or that there is an outside world. When I was young, we were taught a lot of songs about how happy our life was in communist China.
I always find that moment interesting, when you realize your life is not the only life, or that there is an outside world.– Yiyun Li
“I remember the precise day when I realized our life was not ‘in the garden,’ as the songs told us. There was a hotel called Beijing Friendship Hotel, and in the early 1980s it was the only hotel in Beijing that allowed Westerners to stay. There was some sort of work event my father brought me to, and it was actually at Beijing Friendship Hotel. One day, I saw a little girl, probably American or English, riding a bicycle with a pair of training wheels. I had never seen bicycles with training wheels in my life. She was so happy, she was just riding around, and then next to that court there was a tennis court and two white people were playing tennis. The most shocking thing was the tennis ball. The colour of the tennis balls, this neon green. I had never seen that colour in my life. In my 10 years of life, I had never seen that colour. I remember watching them and realizing, ‘Oh, my God, they live in a different world than us.There is a life out there that I did not know.'”
Capturing the butterfly
“There are two ways to catch a butterfly. You could go with a net: you catch the butterfly, and pin the butterfly down, spread the wings and mark all the things. And you get a dead butterfly. It’s still beautiful, it’s an art object.
“I like to think writing to me is to catch how it feels if a butterfly flutters by and you can’t really see it clearly, you can only see the shadow, you know, passing by on your page, on the book or on the porch. But that momentary feeling, that fleetness of the moment, I think that is what writing is about. It’s to capture the feeling instead of the real butterfly.”
“I’m a big believer in slow reading. I think books are like wine. You have to let it sit. You have to let it breathe. I’m going to borrow from Alexandra Schwartz, I didn’t say this. She said you have to decant a big great book. So ‘decant’ is a good verb, and slow reading, I think it’s a way to live in the writer’s mind.
I think books are like wine. You have to let it sit. You have to let it breathe.– Yiyun Li
“I like rereading, I like also rereading slowly because it’s a way to breathe the book, in order to live with the characters, to live with the rhythm of their lives, all those things are both important for me as a reader and important for me as a writer. I need to learn from living with other people’s characters. I need to learn to do that before I can live with my own characters.”
Yiyun Li‘s comments have been edited for length and clarity.
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