Writing a memoir was not in Yiyun Li's plan. The celebrated author and University of California, Davis, English professor was working on a novel but had lost interest in it.
“I didn’t enjoy writing fiction or reading fiction at the time, so I was reading collections of letters by writers,” said Li, who has taught in the creative writing program since 2008. A friend encouraged her to write an essay about her relationship to the writers whose letters she was reading. She did that — and then kept writing.
The result is the recently published Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Penguin Random House, February 2017). It is about her love of writing, books and certain writers, as well as her battle with suicidal depression.
Anyone looking for a memoir in which the protagonist overcomes great difficulty (a horrible childhood, drug abuse, disease, a trip gone very wrong, depression) and finds redemption and happiness will not find it in Dear Friend.
“Miracles, triumph and recovery — it is not that,” said Li during a recent interview at her Oakland home where she lives with her husband and two children. “There is no narrative arc. It’s not a comforting book; it’s a disturbing and challenging book.”
The book is made up of many little stories: her early life in China and her relationship with her family, coming to the United States, leaving science for writing, and especially the many writers whose work she has a relationship with (and some she knows personally).
Li came to the U.S. in 1996 to study at the University of Iowa. After receiving a master’s degree in immunology, she earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction. She earned another MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
At that point, she gave up science for writing.
Her writing life took off quickly and successfully. Her first story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005), won the Frank O’Connor short story award and the PEN/Hemingway Award. It was followed by the novel The Vagrants (2009), the short story collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2011), and the novel Kinder Than Solitude (2014). In 2010 she was named to The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 writers list and received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
The opening essay shares the book’s title and took eight months to complete. The 21-page, 24-part essay speaks to her hospitalizations and her roommates there, the suicides of two acquaintances, dreaming and ambition. After Li completed the essay, she thought “this might be a book.”
She wasn’t sure, but she kept writing, not knowing if it would even turn into something publishable. For a writer of her stature, the machinery for publishing a next book is in motion from the start. That wasn’t the case for Dear Friend.
“I just needed to write this and then think about what would come next,” she said. “I didn’t tell my agent what it was about until it was almost done.”
She worked on the book for most of 2014 and 2015. Fortunately, not every chapter took as long as the first one, but it was arduous.
“I rewrote it so many times — draft after draft after draft,” Li said, sipping tea in the dining room overlooking a tree-filled ravine behind her house. “Every word was exactly what I wanted. That book is so honest. That’s what I am most proud of.”
This is one in a series of stories produced for Mental Health Awareness Month illustrating how UC Davis plays an active role in research, treatment and recognition of mental health issues.