Sunday Review: Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
a memoir from Yiyun Li
[ Penguin Random House / 2017 / 224 pp ]
Reading Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is an education. It’s a creative writing course, on the possibilities of non-fiction, on literature, on literary criticism. Yiyun Li’s collection of essays is one that readers will go back to, time and time again.
When you think of autobiography or non-fiction, you think of firm statements about self: true events, real feelings, definite moments that are constructed with heightened affect. When these essays or books are good, you’re left rather shaken. When they are not—when the book has taken great care to manicure the self, to produce that triumphant well-made American film kind of feeling—you are left disappointed, annoyed at the inauthentic polish, at the arrogance of the person’s cemented self-definitions.
Li’s book has been described as an anti-memoir—yes, but it could also be seen as a triumphant apogee of the form itself: one that refuses to accept the self as anything solid, questioning everything. In the eponymous essay in the collection, she writes: “I had this notion, when I first started writing this, that it would be a way to test—to assay—thoughts about time.” Assay, éssayer, essay—the form itself seems to demand attempts at comprehension, and not definitive answers to a question, for the definitive is false. “I am not an autobiographical writer” she writes in ‘Amongst People’, “one cannot be without a solid and explicable self […] What kind of life permits a person the right to become his own subject?” Unsurprisingly, Li hates the word ‘I’.
Dear Life examines what it is to live, to die, and delivers line after line of extraordinary wisdom. “Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language“ (‘To Speak is to Blunder but I Venture’), “A person, by dismissing her own self with a morbid carelessness, could easily bulldoze another person’s beliefs” (‘Amongst People’), “A glimpse into the depth of other people’s misfortunes makes us cling to the hope that suffering is measurable” (‘Memory is a Melodrama from Which No One is Exempt’). They aren’t presented as final statements, but as things to be tested—an attempt to grasp at some kind of truth. And the attempt is all.
It is also a remarkable work of literary criticism. From Turgenev to Larkin to Moore, Li brilliantly analyzes letters and other non-fiction, examines these writers’ own dealings with autobiography and the way their lived lives find their way (or not!) into fiction and poetry. A particularly striking section is when she analyzes the construction of Sue Bridehead from Jude the Obscure—a character often thought to be modeled after Hardy’s own wife. She uses Larkin’s comment on Sue as starting point—“Really too irritating not to have been a real person”—to examine what makes a character real: “To say we know a person is to write that person off […] When characters forgo realness – their unknowability—they become real and known to a reader” (‘Amongst Characters’).
Li teaches us what it is to create, what makes the imaginary ‘real’. And in this sense, you get the impression that she’s continuing a tradition, a historical conversation of what it is to live.
Visit Penguin Random House to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Alexandra d’Abbadie
Five Things with Mary Ruefle
1. The last thing that made you smile.
The last thing that made me smile was the sound my dog made eating a cheese puff.
2. A secret.
If I told you a secret, it wouldn’t be a secret, secrets are kept things; unkept they become something else; thus there is no such thing as “telling a secret”.
3. The last thing you wrote.
The last thing I wrote (and by hand) was a thank-you note for a snowdrop catalogue. I wrote it this morning. The catalogue is handmade and exquisite and I plan on erasing it, but I didn’t mention that to the man I thanked for sending me the catalogue—perhaps that is a secret!
4. Favourite city.
In general I hate cities, whenever I am in one I am always anxious that I will never get out. Yet several cities I have visited stay in my mind for very pleasant reasons—San Francisco in the 1970s, walking through a courtyard with the smell of gardenias in the air; a fantastic antique store in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where the owner didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Slovenian, yet we communicated with passion by picking up very small, odd objects, all the while expressing mutual excitement with our eyes and hands; Wellington, New Zealand, where I found the best movie theatre I have ever been to, and went there every afternoon for seven days, the length of my stay in Wellington. So you see, I do have some pleasant memories of cities, but they are all memories, I don’t live in one.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
I don’t know. Journals and diaries are like “time capsules” in themselves. I like to read obscure diaries kept by farmers and housewomen in the 19th century; one has the sense not much has changed, the snow falls, a horse has to be shot, berries are picked and eaten in the summer. I don’t know. I might just bury a page upon which I have written what the weather has been like today, what I have done, what I have eaten. Nothing spectacular or literary. I wouldn’t mention that the other day I wondered what it would be like to see, set out on long tables in a field, everything you have eaten in your entire life!
Mary Ruefle is the author of My Private Property (Wave Books, 2016), Trances of the Blast (Wave Books, 2013), Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (Wave Books, 2012), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, and Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2010), winner of the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. She is the recipient of numerous honors, including the Robert Creeley Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a Whiting Award. She lives in Bennington, Vermont.
The Poet and the News
an essay from Emilia Phillips
“Honestly, when I look at life straight, I’m just a poet, which means I’m just a human who should, if I’m doing it right, be able to listen”
What is the writer’s place in the history of politics and violence? I don’t have the answer for this, but Emilia Phillips’s essay about how we tackle the terrible in our writing may provide a path to several answers. She looks at words by Tom Sleigh, Jack Gilbert, Wislawa Szymborska, and opens up their trauma. She poses the question, can we write about trauma that isn’t ours? Does our emotional and physical distance provide a new outlook, or do we, as Phillips states, “re-perform the act of violence”? Is there a right or wrong way?
Times are difficult and heart-breaking, but I think about the power of poetry every day. How Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” circulated the social media web and became more than just this collection of lines and words. While it’s true that some poets present the terror and pain of the world from a comfortable and privileged standpoint, I agree with Emilia in that there are no easy answers when writing poetry influenced by the news—we must do what we feel is just.
Visit The Ploughshares Blog to read the essay.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
a short story from Mary Mueller
The record-breaking heat in the Tucson has scorched any coherent thought from my brain, leaving behind bones of righteous rage and wisps of despair—and in that state I sunk my teeth into Mary Mueller’s ‘Live Bait’ and found it the most delectable meal. Rage isn’t a prerequisite to read her story, of course, but I found it particularly satisfying because it echoed my own incoherent feelings into eloquence. It’s a pointed planting of flag into the land, and a subtle middle-finger to the status quo, a reminder to be who you’re going to be and don’t give a damn. Just what I need to get me though this sunburned summer.
Visit Moonsick Magazine to read the story.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
the monsters my parents warned me about speak in their defense
a poem from Alfredo Aguilar
“mis hijos. i am sorry. every face looks like yours.”
This three part poem speaks in the voice of several creatures and beings prominent in Mexican American folklore and beautifully reverses their roles as myth and cautionary stories to tell your children. And it’s not just the voice and the lore, Aguilar’s use of language and space encompasses each character, from the hidden, lurking paranoia of el coco, to the direct, clipped stanzas of chupacabra, then the ethereally haunting voice of la llorona.
This extension of the existence of childhood monsters and myths moves invention beyond its initial purpose, to make children behave, to keep them safe from the unknown. To teach them that there are things that should be feared in the world. But beyond that, this poem seeks a perspective shift, to teach not caution, but empathy. To entertain the mirror and to look beyond the surface, beyond the fear, of our stories.
“i want to
tend to a thing, watch it grow,
& hear it say
i love you back.”
Visit Tinderbox Poetry Journal to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong
Middle Passage Messaging Force
a poem from Nikki Wallschlaeger
Sometimes the world is one big coincidence, and maybe another word for coincidence is confirmation bias or, more simply, magic. I’m currently writing a review of a dance performance that at its heart is a celebration of black womanhood. It takes a non-linear form, which is perfect for its subtext of memory as an ephemeral and binding force across generations. And then I come across Nikki Wallschlaeger’s ‘Middle Passage Messaging Force,’ a gripping and relentless poem about trauma and memory. The title is somehow irreverent and sorrowful, cheeky and deadly serious. After two short but expansive sentences (“A word is an old story. One word, many stories / one body many bodies.”), the poem turns into a free associative thunderstorm, some 300 words with no punctuation (save for one colon) that builds up so much steam, so much emotional and existential momentum, I’m still not entirely sure how Wallschlaeger is able to find the ending she found—and all the more fitting that the poem doesn’t end with a period, lest the reader think the energies and histories contained in this poem could be contained to a few pages.
Visit Nikki’s Twitter to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
lovers’ quarrel with abdelhalim hafez
a poem from Safia Elhillo
My favorite poems always make me pause to think, “I wish I could argue like that!” The clarity of voice won me over immediately. We begin the poem with “you ruined it all by dying”, which can be seen both as a striking accusation and a confession of vulnerability. The speaker continues to toe this line throughout, speaking in a way that’s confident yet sensitive enough to win our sympathy.
Yet the “lovers’ quarrel” between Adbelhalim Hafez and the speaker relies just as much on what’s unsaid. My favorite lines of the exchange come close to the end: "[speaker]: loving you tips a body off a building // [Halim]: the word for love and wind sound the same in arabic.” Applying the qualities of wind to love usually doesn’t feel toxic. Often wind is a renewing force that keeps us fresh and on our toes. But here, love and wind are both faulty in their inability to fully hold. If the wind around the falling body becomes love, love still cannot save the woman. Love can cradle, but has no bottom for a safety net. What is the use of surrounding something you won’t catch? What could be a simple fun fact turns into another twist of the knife: when love and wind are thrown into comparison, you constantly come up short.
Leaving the body and building ambiguous also collapses the timeline. We’re kept in the present tense, which makes all bodies touched and hurt by Halim’s absence align into one. But this one is always thrown to the abyss instead of his arms. We the readers are the lucky ones who can become the body falling midair, but remain safe. When we give some of ourselves over to the impact that Elhillo has gorgeously crafted, it’s still less tenuous than the real wind. Let’s lean into the trust fall while we can.
Visit Bird’s Thumb to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse