Yiyun Li is a Chinese American award-winning writer. She was named a MacArthur fellow in 2010. Kinder Than Solitude is her second novel.
The novel deals with the weight of the past and how we choose to deal with it. Do you think that, whatever we make of it, past ends up being what defines us?
My major motivation to write the novel was to see how one thing can cast a long shadow on those characters’ lives. Things never die. People never die, they are always in us. I’m always curious about that. Even small things in life would cast a big shadow. Personal and private history are what I’m interested in, and they never die.
Do you feel that the behaviour of the characters in the novel mirror the behaviour of your own generation?
I think that in my generation, marriages have fallen apart much more frequently in recent years. I think there’s the instability of marriage, but also people moving around. People used to stay in the same place all their lives, now they change careers and countries, and all these things add to the instability of marriage.
I think people on China looked to the West, to America, and would say “oh, they’re free”, as in “they’re free to divorce”, but now, in China, people are free to divorce too, so it’s an interesting journey that these characters came to America.
One particular element in Ruyu and Moran’s lives is that they make a particular choice of solitude. As a way to preserve themselves?
I think it’s interesting, because Ruyu has solitude, but at the end of the novel, she admitted she never had solitude: what she had was loneliness. This is a huge difference. What she had was a life-long quarantine against love, which, again, was not solitude. I think that for Moran, solitude was a dream she had. She thought that with solitude, she could protect herself from the world, but she did not succeed.
For Ruyu, I think people like her would be better staying off of people’s lives, and I think she knew that too. She doesn’t really desire to get into people’s lives, she thinks it’s easier to be on her own.
Do you think that solitude is given a bad name in our world where we are supposed to connect with each other?
Absolutely. You feel like a dinosaur if you are not on social media, and I think people forget how to be with themselves sometimes. They always have to have a witness to anything! To their lunch, or their drink, or their party. But I think the best life, the most solid life, is a life without a witness, and that’s when solitude really works for us. I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere, but in America, people really don’t like solitude.
Although there are four characters in the novel whose stories are interconnected, each chapter is dedicated to one character or the relation between two of them. Why this choice?
When I structured the novel, there were two timelines: 1989 and 2010. To me, it’s important, because we have to know both timelines at the same time. What’s important to me is that all the characters are together in 1989, and they dispersed, they never got together again, but they are lonely back in 1989 too, for this and that reason, and they never changed that much.
One of the running interrogations in the book is what makes a family, which is not necessarily a biological family, but rather what you make of a family.
I think family is always the backbone of any person’s life. Some of the characters in the novel have parents, but they don’t have them around. Ruyu is abandoned, brought up by these two strange ladies. Moran has a good family, but she orphaned herself from her parents. For me, through these kinds of people, it’s always interesting to look at life that way: orphans want a family, and children with parents want to be orphans.
What led you to write on the subject of Tiananmen?
It really is my generation’s history. I think the poisoning and all those things would have happened without Tiananmen Square, but if I wrote about China without writing about this, it’s like writing about Europe in the 1940s without any war going on in the background. I write about those people because history already happened to these people’s lives.
History, especially big events, happens always on the surface. I look at Tiananmen square, and it has a lot of lies. So I think personal history is more interesting, because you cannot lie about people’s personal history. The moment Shaoai was poisoned, she could never be unpoisoned, you cannot write that out. But in China, if you are in Tiananmen Square, they can write you off as if you never existed. I think physical violence is not as interesting as psychological violence, and Tiananmen Square was physical violence, but psychological violence is what I am interested in.