Yiyun Li: Reading Letters and Journals

“What do we gain from wanting to know a stranger’s life? But when we read someone’s private words, when we experience her most vulnerable moments with her, and when her words speak more eloquently of our feelings that we are able to, can we still call her a stranger? I have convinced myself that reading letters and journals is a way of having a conversation with those writers, but surely it is as glib as calling perusing the music score of a symphony the same as listening to it. A conversation requires more than scribbling in the margin.
Sometimes I suspect that I am drawn to those who don’t converse with me because I have not outgrown a childish wish that they will teach me how to live. Or, a slightly more complicated version: I wish that they would teach one how to die.”
. . .

“All people lie, in their writing as much as in their lives. It frustrates me that I hold on to an unrealistic belief: there is some irrefutable truth in each mind, and the truth is told without concealment or distortion in a letter or in a journal entry. My obligation is to look for that truth; finding it will offer me the certainty I don’t have in me. With that certainty I will find a way to build a solid self. This burden I never take on while reading or writing fiction.”

To those that have read Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life offers something very different, another reluctant memoir: introspective without morbidity and philosophical without pretension.

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