In her first album, Sprained Ankle, Julien Baker uses a pedalboard to loop gently plucked guitar
strings into a self-layered symphony, marked by its almost terrifying intimacy, and ultimately ending in
despair over the difficulties of substance abuse, depression, and death. Her second album, Turn Out the
Lights, brings something radically different, but still distinctly familiar. She introduces piano, violin, and
clarinet, all without losing the previous intimacy. But the album isn’t set apart by the instruments; it’s the
journey to hope that distinguishes Turn Out the Lights.
Baker sings like a river: softly flowing along at first, only to crescendo into an unbridled roar that
can barely contain its own power. She uses this power to discuss deeply intimate, emotional matters,
writing about anxiety, failed relationships, and the fear of isolation. The album opens with the sound of
Baker walking across a creaky wooden floor and sitting at a piano bench, giving the listener the
impression that to listen to Turn Out the Lights is to sit side-by-side with a close friend and confront the
hardest aspects of being human. However, Baker has found some hope since the last we’ve heard her. At
the end of the second track “Appointments”, in delicately layered harmonies, she sings with a voice
cracking under its own strength: “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright / I know that it’s not, but I have to
believe that it is”. Despite the myriad of troubles she’s gone through, Baker harbors a resilient flame that
refuses to be silenced. Her hope may seem unreasonable, but it carries on.
Many of the songs on Turn Out the Lights follow a powerful pattern. They begin with Baker’s
vulnerable voice and a single instrument, either guitar or piano, then add harmonies with varying
instruments as the song goes on. This format finds great success in songs like “Shadowboxing”, where the
end of the song finds itself shrouded by ethereal harmonies, delicate piano and bleached violin, and Baker
screaming from the depths of her gut: “Tell me you loved me”. The juxtaposition of the punk vocals and
folky instrumentation is a chillingly fresh combination. But following the same pattern in most of her
songs could be accused of becoming repetitive. In “Happy to Be Here”, the format fails. The grungy,
nearly clashing chords that cycle throughout the entirety of the song quickly become boring, and there
isn’t enough variation to keep the song interesting.
Title tracks should be picked out carefully, and Baker certainly chose hers well. The song “Turn
Out the Lights” builds to what sounds like a full rock band by the end, even though she only uses her
voice and the electric guitar. She sings about the dangerous thoughts that accompany her mental illness,
ending with “When I turn out the lights / There’s no one left / Between myself and me”. In the dark, she is
free to confront her darkest thoughts. The entire album is an exercise in turning out the lights; song by song, she works through her struggles. When isolated from the rest of the lyrics, the title of the song, and
consequently the album, is an imperative command. Baker is asking us to turn out our lights. She’s asking
us to set aside our quotidian concerns and confront our problems. It’s easy to ignore that imperative, and
ignore our own mental struggles, but Baker would have us confront the worst things about ourselves in
order to come to a greater sense of hope just as she did.
Written by Hannah Y.
Do you remember your first year of college? Do you remember the anxiety and anticipation mixing in your mind as you awaited your first day? Do you remember those sleepless nights spent staring at the ceiling, waiting for the rest of your life to finally begin?
You might remember, but Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, definitely won’t. Her excitement gets swept away by the jolts of confusion and bizarreness that make up her freshman year of college. Selin’s bafflement at the world around her can be understood by anyone who has ever been freshly eighteen and thrust into adulthood with no preparation for what’s to come.
Nothing that can be regarded as “plot” really happens in The Idiot. But to appreciate this novel, plot makes no difference. What’s more important are the various singular incidents that Selin witnesses that demonstrate the weirdness and surreal quality of adult life. For instance, when Selin and another student make use of a communal shower, the other student cheerfully remarks how the showers look like the ones “in concentration camps” before jumping in. “In adult life the hits never stopped coming,” Selin remarks dryly. In The Idiot, Batuman has successfully captured and dissected that disorienting quality of early adulthood, when everything everyone does feels like a practical joke being played on you.
The Idiot is filled with pithy observations like the one above, because Selin is constantly observing and analyzing. Yet, she’s repeatedly defined by her inability to express herself, a trait that frustrates the reader at times. Using the character of Selin, Batuman depicts a typical highly intelligent, emotionally immature student–a kind of person I assume there is no shortage of at elite universities like Harvard. Selin’s most dramatic arc comes in the form of an intense e-mail correspondence she has with a senior– she can only approximate intimacy when distanced from him by a computer.
The most critical of Selin’s observations emerges in the last line of the novel, as she reflects on her first year: “I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.” Here, Batuman ingeniously indicates the greatest revelation of adulthood–that all of us are the titular, Dostoyevskian Idiot, fumbling around amongst missed connections and failed quests of self-knowledge, only to arrive at the conclusion that we’ll never really know what it is that we’re doing.
Written by Neha T.
I wrote a blog post similar to this last year. I guess time didn’t really change anything.
The white screen, the flashing bar, the total emptiness in my brain. What do I write
about? What should I say? There are simultaneously so many and so few things to talk
about. I read plenty of writing, blog posts, poetry, works of fiction. How do all these
people come up with such deep thoughts? What is it that their brains possess that mine
lacks? I sometimes struggle to put together sentences, while from their pens flow an
endless stream of knowledge and wisdom, commentary about social issues and
discourses on philosophies. And from a few supremely gifted ones, even comedy and
wit spring forth. I have none of that. Half the time, I can’t even put words on a page,
much less wax eloquent. But maybe there’s still hope. I once read that a fiction author
only peaks sometime in their early 50’s. I’m only 19, I guess I can only go up from
here… right? Who knows? Maybe this self-reflective blog post is my peak. Only time
will tell. Check back in next year to see how 20-year-old me is faring. Maybe by then I’ll
have a three-paragraph blogpost chock full of wisdom for you to enjoy. But until then,
this is all you get, just be thankful that’s it’s not a list of quotes about fall.
Written by Josh A.
The Catcher in the Rye is a wonderful coming of age story about a young boy named Holden
Caulfield. This brilliant work of art can be classed as the Pride and Prejudice of the 50’s. In it,
young Holden overcomes the egregious problems facing rich white males in the United States.
For example, Holden has been raised in such a dissolute environment that he feels a strong desire
to hire a prostitute. Clearly, not all of us have had to face such a difficult challenge. However,
Caulfield’s innate moral compass leads him to refrain from sexual encounters; instead, he
chooses to spend his time philosophizing and critiquing others who engage in less honorable
practices. Caulfield deals with the ramifications of living in a boarding school; it’s quite
comparable to similar epochal works such as Gossip Girl which also deal with the cultural
difficulties wealthy socialites face. For me, the beauty of The Catcher in the Rye is this: Holden
Caulfield physically and verbally fights others, which mirrors the metaphorical battle he
undergoes to free himself from the chains of white privilege. However, The Catcher in the Rye is
not perfect. It struggles to adequately deal with family life; Caulfield’s few family interactions
are primarily with his sister. These limited insights fail to provide a full insight into the classic
American family, which is what I was led to expect when I picked up the book. Naturally,
because it was not what I expected based off of the cover, I must penalize it slightly.
Furthermore, Phoebe suffers as a character because she comes off as overbearing; also, no
younger sister would have the temerity to chastise her older sibling. Thus, the nuclear family
presented by Salinger does not accurately reflect the accepted family structure in the United
States. However, The Catcher in the Rye generally matched exactly what I think life is like, all
while speaking to me on a deeply personal level.
Final Rating: 4 ½ ★
A satire written by Ryan C.
You’re sitting on the bed, palms pressed against the soft, warm sheets pulled taut by your weight. Your legs dangle over the side facing him, suspended well above the ground. He’s standing, leaning really, against his desk, one arm pressing down on it, the other crossed over his chest as he stares at you.
You’re speaking. You’re explaining your tension, your struggles, your pain, and your dreams to him. They tumble out of your mouth, words flowing after one another like a waterfall, cascading down the side of your bed. He’s picking through them. He’s inspecting each one, sorting them, and storing them. At least, you think he is.
But you see it in his stare, his distant, glassy stare. You see that they are just sounds to him. The fear, the joy, the essence of yourself woven into your words dissipates the second they leave your mouth, and as he scoops them up he does so without comprehension, without understanding.
You pause. He nods. The silence stretches. He has nothing to say. He is thinking, but you know there is no sense in waiting. You wait anyway. Inevitably he breaks the silence, and the platitudes and miscomprehension drip out of him, clattering against the floor with the hollow, metallic clinking of rusty nails. They hurt.
The sky is dark, shrouded in the thick blackness of night. She’s staring up at it as she speaks. Her words are like the pitter-patter of rain striking a window, tarrying for but a moment before they slide down and off into the darkness. Her eyes are rimmed with redness, and the little cracks in her voice are jagged and uneven.
She’s staring up into the sky as she speaks, and the words flowing out of her mouth are obscured by the darkness. She’s staring up into the sky as she speaks, and not at you. And all the little cues - the quavering voice, the moist eyes, the slight trembling – all of them speak of pain, but she won’t look at you. And you can feel it in your eyes. You can feel the distance and the void, the irreconcilability of her world with yours. You can feel what she might be avoiding etching itself in your pupils. You turn to your right, and you see suffering. She looks straight ahead. Her pain will never be yours.
We are all as islands unto one another. Separated by vast stretches of experience, our inner lives are remote and trapped within ourselves. We search unceasingly for intimacy - with our friends, with our lovers, with our parents - with anyone we think might understand us. We are never successful. Despite our best efforts to explain ourselves and understand others, despite how well we sometimes believe we are understood or how well we sometimes believe we understand others, there is never true understanding. Each one of us has a distinct set of experiences, a distinct set of impressions, a distinct set of struggles and pains. We cannot expect ourselves to be able to step outside of those, to be able to fully step into another person’s life as easily as we might step into a pair of shoes. We are confined by what we know and who we are. Even as we empathize with others, we fail to fully understand them.
The goal of the writer or the artist is to break beyond this. The desire to be understood pushes us to understand ourselves and synthesize our experience into a story or a feeling we can share. We struggle to encapsulate our full experience in what we create, and if we share that work we are casting a part of ourselves out into the world to be seen and understood.
Alas, it a doomed enterprise. Even when we write and create, when we pull from ourselves all that we are able, we can never fully bridge the barriers inherent in human individuality. If you consider, for example, the first story, can you fully describe the “hurt”? To each reader it would be felt as a different sensation linked to different memories, and so even amongst fellow readers the experience would not be the same.
The actions of the artist, then, are like hurling a stone into the ocean. The true form of it sinks beneath the waves, lost somewhere on the ocean floor, and in its wake it leaves ripples. This slight disturbance in the water, this slight nudge to the lives and minds of others in the world – this is what the painter, what the composer, what the author creates beyond their work. It is a slight perturbation of the world. It is a distorted piece of the creator pulsing out from their creation, diminishing almost to nothing as it propagates, but it is something nonetheless.
This is what we hold onto when we write, when we paint, when we push our souls into our work and our work into the world. This slight taste of something - this slight sensation of having some dilute, distorted perception of our inner lives exist in others– this is our candle in the night. This is our paltry effort to stave off the darkness of our isolation, and though it is a small comfort, it is a comfort nonetheless.
Written by Shaan N.
I had an interesting experience at the symphony last weekend. The pianist was amazing, and for the first thirty minutes I was completely engrossed in his playing. And then my mind started to drift. Suddenly, I was writing a poem in my head while the concert was going on. Part of me felt guilty about it, like I should really be completely focused on the music. But it was pretty cool, too. While the musicians were making their art, I was simultaneously making mine. When I got home, I wrote down what I’d come up with, and it turned out wilder and stranger than what I’ve been writing lately.
I took two things away from that evening. First, the best writing doesn’t always start on the page. You can write while you listen to a concert, clean your room, or walk your dog. And secondly, at the symphony I was forced to sit down for two hours and just be there. There were no distractions, no one texting me, no homework to do. That kind of experience has been rare since I started college. Freshman year, I was shocked at how hard it was for me to write, and I wrote three times as many poems last summer (when I didn’t have a job and was extremely bored) than I did in my entire first year.
We’re all busy at Rice. But writers need time to rest—even to be bored. If every free moment of your day is filled with events, classes, friends, homework, Netflix, and napping, you have left your brain no time to cook anything, no time to synthesize and combine your experiences into that magic creative impulse that leads to art.
So here are six simple practices to give yourself some blank space to generate the beautiful poems, stories, and essays you have inside you.
1. Make a playlist that inspires you and listen to it for half an hour before you start writing. Really sink into the music. Close your eyes and feel the stories the songs are telling. (PS, the album To the Sun and All the Cities in Between by City of the Sun is some of the most evocative instrumental music I’ve ever heard. If you’re looking to start your writing playlist, give ‘em a listen!)
2. Go to a free event you think might be slightly boring—maybe a lecture on the physics of Star Trek or a silent movie screening. If it’s interesting, it could generate material for your writing. If not, you can zone in and out and think about whatever you want. The important part is that you’ll be in a space where politeness will restrict you from chatting, using your phone, or falling asleep, a perfect atmosphere for writing.
3. But also, sleep. I sometimes come up with ideas for writing in dreams. For bonus points, wake up half an hour earlier than you need to and use that time to jot down a few ideas/images/ephemera.
4. Go for a walk and leave your phone on silent.
5. Take a long shower.
6. Cultivate a stress-free hobby; crocheting, biking, cooking, organizing your room. Activities that engage your body without asking much of your brain are prime writing times.
These are just a few ideas. I’m sure y’all can come up with even better practices that work for you! Best of luck, and happy writing.
Written by Annabelle C.
Look up, and you shall see a tree. A tree much like you. You walk away from your third exam of the week; you see a tree as exhausted as yourself, with its long torso slouched against the grass, leafy fingers outstretched, toward the frequented pathway outside McMurtry and students passing by. You fall off your skateboard on your way to class; you see a tree bark--scraped yet tough. You feel a great explosion of enthusiasm and validation; you see a tree: proud-faced, arms thrown up in a Y, ecstatic and free of worries. You want a break from your hectic schedule; you see a tree, in the middle of everything, but serene, a head of broccoli, under which you are tempted to sit down and slumber away into oblivion.
At night, I walk under their gnarly fingers, a tunnel made for me. It is nine p.m., you look up and see a roof of curly bones; you look down and see images cracked into the ground. Shadows leap from the lights cast from the lampposts—a growing claw besides me, dragging zombies up ahead, a bestial blob in front. A host of frightening yet curious figures. A strange feeling settles in me; and I slow down and observe. A knot, a branch, a cluster of diamond-shaped leaves. Up, up, up, up. It is a climb, one that brings you beyond the shadows and the fears and the narrow-mindedness. A wide, pitch-black void, night. What we find there is that precious thing that Plato calls Truth.
There are as many trees as there are students. Or at least, that’s what I think as I walk around Rice campus. All of the trees in Houston congregate here, offering us oxygen for our carbon dioxide. Mutualistic exchange, or something more. While some of them may seem odd or intimidating, they each have as much character as us, a permanent resident and companion. So--
Look up, and you shall see a friend.
Written by Kristie L.
Think about your favorite poem. If you don’t have one, think about your favorite book, movie, song, TV show, art piece, whatever. Where did you find it? Who were you, then? Did you pick your favorite book off a library shelf and take it home with you? Did you read it all in one go on the floor at a bookstore? Did you hear your favorite song at a party, in the background of a TV show, or did you download it before listening to it because you knew it was by your favorite artist? Do you have a picture of your favorite art piece saved on your phone? Is it your lock screen? Is it better in person?
I went to an English Undergraduate Association event where we made stickers out of cut-outs from old books and art magazines. I picked up a vintage (2008) edition of R2 and, as I flipped through it, was struck by two things: (1) the magazine had no visual art component, and (2) there was a poem, titled “V. Credits,” about end credits, at the very end of the magazine, right before the contributor biographies. I was so struck by how perfect the poem was, and how perfect the placement was (I thought at first that they were literal “end credits” to the magazine) that I almost got emotional over it, so I cut it out of the magazine to make a sticker out of it.
It was only after I cut it out that I realized what a horrible, violent act I had performed--attacking this artifact of Rice history, slicing this poem out of its home, ditching the page number, the author’s name, cutting off the arteries that had once fed life into the poem. While I’m sure that other, intact copies of the 2008 edition of R2 exist somewhere else in the world, this copy will never be the same again, and this poem will never know its home again. I was almost compelled to glue it back into the magazine.
I didn’t, but hopefully I can resurrect this poem and give it a new home here. I was moved by it in the magazine; who says that someone else may not be moved by it in the blog?
Written by Rynd M.
Walking around the Tokyo National Museum gallery this summer, I saw this scroll of poems with words that looked more like chicken-scratch than actual Japanese. Originally I took this photo because I intended to ask my host family whether or not they could read it.
For those who are unfamiliar with Japanese, it looks like this:
*Hiragana is used for Japanese words and Katakana is used for foreign words (and some miscellaneous usages such as for onomatopoeias)
With my limited knowledge of the language, I could make out a few characters,
but as for the rest, all I saw were scribbles.
Before I ever got around to asking my host family, I met a Japanese student who had studied Japanese calligraphy for nearly a decade during her childhood. So naturally I showed her the picture I had taken and asked her what she thought. “This is very beautiful calligraphy,” my new friend said, “The balance is very good.”
When I told her I didn’t quite get what she meant by “good balance,” she explained that,
1. The lines went straight up and down and did not curve or slant
2. The connection of letters within individual words was smooth
3. The spaces between letters were all even, including the spacing of the connected letters.
The “fluid” look actually required years of training to master. My friend said she would practice writing individual words over and over again until her teacher approved.
But what I found most interesting was that the writing on the scroll was poetry. I still don’t know what it says, as my friend said the Japanese was too old for her to understand, but I imagine the reading of the poem flows just as smoothly as its lettering: a wonderful fusion of visual and written art. From past experience, I don’t remember the last time I saw a poem in which the visual components (besides the spacing) were taken into as much consideration as the poem itself. And I’m sure many writers don’t give a second thought to whether their writing is printed in Times New Roman or Arial.
That led me to wonder what would happen if we also developed specific English lettering systems to write certain poems. Would it change the way we read them?
(Note: the purple/blue spots on the scroll are part of a “flying cloud” decorative pattern.)
Written by Ginny J.
R2: The Rice Review is honored to be part of The Creative Process, an exhibition and international educational initiative traveling to leading universities. As part of the exhibition, portraits and interviews with writers and creative thinkers are being published across a network of university and international literary magazines. The Creative Process is including work by faculty and students of Rice University in the projection elements of the traveling exhibition.
This interview was completed by Mia Funk.
Novelist and short-story writer Yiyun Li discusses her two homelands – the China she left when she came to the University of Iowa to study immunology, and America, which has been her home for almost 20 years. In novels like Kinder than Solitude and The Vagrants, and short story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, she has impressed critics and fellow writers with the grace and subtlety of her writing, even as she tells stories so truthful and critical that she won’t publish her books in China. Michel Faber, writing for The Guardian, said, “Yiyun has the talent, the vision and the respect for life’s insoluble mysteries...[she] is the real deal.”
Li has received numerous awards, including Whiting Award, Lannan Foundation Residency fellow, 2010 MacArthur Foundation fellow, 2014 Benjamin H. Danks Award from American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize, among others. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. She has served on the jury panel for Man Booker International Prize, National Book Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, and other. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.
In the US, she discovered her love for literature and studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop with Marilynne Robinson, whom she credits for teaching her to read deeply, but the writers which Li says have been a deeper influence on her are William Trevor, Elisabeth Bowen, Tolstoy, and Turgenev
I met Li in Paris during the Festival des Écrivains du Mondeand reconnected a few months later for this phone interview.
Someone asked me why does Kinder Than Solitude start with a death? And I always think, death is not the end of the story. Death is always the starting point of the story. Death is such a—well, there’s no private death. You know, if you think about someone, in the newspaper someone died yesterday—in New York, she was murdered, that went really public. But even when a very unknown person dies all of a sudden, I think it’s no longer private: people would come to the memorial service, people would talk about the person. I think that really death moves people beyond their control of themselves. So I think for that reason, I like to think about death as the detail of a bigger story that no longer belongs to that person.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
It’s like an unraveling. So you see how did that person become unraveled, and all the threads that brought them there.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
So for a while, you were an involuntary soldier in the Chinese army?
For about a year, yes.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
So, what was that experience like? How did you draw on that for your writing later?
I think, in retrospect, I really appreciate it. And partly because I went there when I was 18, and I came out when I was 19, and that was the time you started to develop your whole, I guess, life philosophy and your view of the world. And I went in, when we talked about anger earlier, I was much angrier than when I came out of that service. Partly, I felt that I was– I went in with this– you know young people... I went in with this urge to become someone, to have like a big personality. To become—to have character. But I realized—it’s really boringafter a year—I realized I could become a personality, and I was a personality, and I was a character. And it was rather disappointing. And again the moment you put yourself in that situation, a lot of things are black and white. The army is bad, the people who oppress us, it's the army—they're bad. Then it's not true, everybody is so complicated. So I came out, and I think the moment I left the army, I knew that I could never judge anyone and I became really ambivalent about a lot of things.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Yes, exactly, the army forces you into false positions. And fiction is like the opposite of that. It’s all the shades of gray.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
I was curious. I'd read something else–I guess you must have–you witnessed an execution before?
Yes, that was when I was, even before elementary school. So probably when I was 5.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Wow, that’s quite extreme.
Yes, it’s interesting. I didn’t really feel anything weird. As children, everything comes to you very naturally because you just remember these moments without understanding them. And only when you’re a grown-up you look back you realize there’s more to that understanding.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
So was The Vagrants sort of your way of making sense of that, and then the wider story of what happened in that time?
Yes, I think so. And I felt it has the setting of 1978-79 which sort of overlapped with my views and my confusion and in a way, I think writing is always a way to sort out your confusion.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Yes, because you were saying, you were taught never to put your thoughts into words, and that must have come out of the cultural revolution. Do you think your writing is part of—you were formed by the cultural revolution in a way?
Well, certainly my decision not to write in Chinese is formed by that, I think. Not to put your thoughts into words is a lifelong issue. My parents and they would teach us these things, and so you learn early on these things are not– you’re not supposed to do these things, and I think for me– it’s interesting because as I look back, I think maybe I didn’t have any thoughts because when I was told not to put thoughts into words, maybe I just didn’t have the words for my thoughts. Maybe I only started to really think hard when I started to think in English. So in that sense, maybe I think English is not my second language, but both are my first language. So I would say yes, I think the long detour to writing was partly formed by the cultural revolution.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
And I can imagine how frustrating, as someone who is a potential writer and is curious about people to have people hiding their thoughts and not saying. I mean, there is almost like a constant mystery to try to figure out what’s really being thought, and what’s really going on. Did you find you were like that, as a kid? Very curious, asking lots of questions?
I was really curious and never asked questions because you also learned quickly not to ask questions. I mean that is very Chinese. When you were young, you were not as confident as you wanted to be so whatever you wanted to know people really did not care about those things. So I didn’t ask questions, but I was very curious. I offended people when I was really young because I was so curious I would stare at them, just for a long time.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Me too. I did that kind of stuff.
I know, isn’t that fun, to stare at people. People would really be offended, and they would say very mean things because we were staring at them, so I was curious, yes. And that’s the part where nobody really explained the world to me.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
It’s nice to have wonder. It’s really unfortunate, that’s sort of the thing about growing up. You’re supposed to learn not to do these things, not to step on people’s personal space, but the wonder of the child–and I think that’s what all kinds of writers, all kinds of artists, have–this wonder, this curiosity. It’s fortunate for their career that they can keep that alive. It keeps you young, in effect. So, of all the characters you’ve written, who is the closest to your own personality, would you say?
That’s a very difficult question. All my characters…I would say the narrator in Kindness, the novella. I think she probably is close to me in many ways. Not my story, but she speaks in a voice that is close to my voice.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
She also has your reading habits.
She does, certainly, she does. She loves a lot of writers I do as well. And then I think also with The Vagrants—people ask about that too—with The VagrantsI felt when I was writing it, I felt very close to Teacher Gu, the old man. I sort of felt I lived with all the characters in that novel. But I lived the novel through him more than anybody else. He’s close to me. And then with Kinder than Solitude, it’s very interesting. It’s so difficult, I felt—I still feel very close to Aunt, the mother.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
I thought about the silence too, her quietness.
I mean certainly I am mystified by her and joined to her, but I also feel very close to her. And I asked my best friend, and she likes her too, which is very reassuring.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
I don’t know if you want me to say–because it’s a bit of a spoiler to say that–but I don’t consider her a real murderer. It’s complicated.
It is. Someone asked me if she did intend to murder. I don’t think she even knows herself. She just half-heartedly does things, and when you talk of the consequences, it’s interesting because for her she views the world a little differently from us. When I say from us, I mean from everyday people. But she actually did not think about the consequences and, I don’t know, she’s just not concerned with consequences, which is fascinating to me.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
It's like she looks at her actions from the perspective of a long time–how do you say–it's like a leader views things that happen that are incidental. Like a death as opposed to the big scheme, the big story.
Yes, I know, when you think of the way she looks at herself, I always imagine, like you turn the telescope the wrong way, and you put your hand in front of the telescope, and your hand becomes further away? And it’s really far and small and boring? And I think the whole life she has lived is that way. Like this reverse telescope, and she can look at her life, and somehow she can say, “That life is so far from me,” but I think there are just only a few moments in that novel where she says, “Well, that’s me.” Most of the time she says, “That’s someone. That someone is interesting.”
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PORTRAIT OF YIYUN LI
by Mia Funk
“There is a clear-cut: old life, that's old country,and here's there's new life, new country. It is an advantage. You are looking at life through an old pair of eyes and a new pair of eyes. And there's always that ambivalence––Where do you belong? And how do you belong? And I do think these are advantages of immigrant writers or writers with two languages or who have two worlds.”
I liked the image suggested by Li’s description of looking at life through an old and a new pair of eyes. Her writing is characterized by subtlety and characters who do not always directly express their emotions. Often their true feelings, motives, actions are submerged, and so I thought it would be interesting to show Li with her eyes closed, with her face reflected in the water.
Li told me about her admiration for Patricia Highsmith’s stories, which she calls “masterful because nothing happens. Really, nothing happens and you feel the danger, the threatening that something is going to happen, like a death or something, but really nothing happens. And I think that touch, it’s the same touch. It’s to allude the reader rather than to impose something on you.”
Things happen in Li’s books, of course, but her writing also has an alluding touch. And so I thought it would be more interesting for the figure on top to have her eyes closed. I saw her as a kind of iceberg in warm waters. Writers often say that they feel most alive when they are writing, effectively, when they are dreaming, so for me, it made sense for the face of Li above the water to have her eyes closed.
Now that she has lived over 20 years in America, the majority of her adult life, she told me she’s “on the cusp of becoming an outsider, and on the cusp of becoming a foreigner in China. I know the language, I can decipher people’s facial expressions which, all of those things are super helpful. So you’re both inside and outside at the same time.”
So these were some of the sources I drew on when I was doing her double portrait, as well as her books A Thousand Years of Good Prayers; Gold Boy, Emerald Girl; and Kinder than Solitude.