When I left China in the mid 1990s, it was still a country largely unknown to the West. Americans sometimes asked me if I had ever eaten chocolate before, or if my parents had arranged a marriage for me. But over the past twenty years, with rapid changes in technology, the world seems to have become a smaller place. A photographer in Madrid told me that he had a language partner, a high school student in Wisconsin, and he practiced English on Skype with the student, and the student practiced Spanish with him. A woman I met in London makes a living by teaching English long-distance to Chinese business people. At a playground the other day, a man was using FaceTime with his family in Europe: he showed his children on swings, and his brother and sister-in-law showed an album of their traveling in Senegal, all on their iPhone screens.
Are we closer to one another than the yesteryear? Can the past become past when, unlike a hundred years ago, we do not vanish from each other’s life so easily? Are memories, instantly recorded by technological devices, more truthful than before? These are some of the questions the characters in my novel Kinder Than Solitude have to answer for themselves, as they grapple with a past they can neither erase nor revise. In the novel, three friends from Beijing—Boyang, Moran, and Ruyu—are involved in a murder case as teenagers. The poison used in the crime not only destroys a woman’s health and eventually her life, but more importantly, it leads to guilt, self-defense, distrust, and eventually the exile of all three characters in their adulthood.
Readers often ask me if I only write about China, or if I have any plan to write about America some day. Both China and America have shown up in this novel, but they are not the two countries you read about in the newspaper, two giants that are partners in many aspects of world affairs yet still struggle to trust each other. Rather, both China and America are the intimate landscapes that offer solace, hiding places, and sometimes isolation, to three people who are refugees from the past. Moran, Ruyu, and Boyang all try to make a new start, but they find that changes in their external circumstances make no difference if there is no change from within. At the end of Kinder Than Solitude, the two countries remain the two very different countries we know, but the distance between them is nothing compared to the distance between friends who no longer seek each other’s affection and trust.
Yiyun Li is the author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The Vagrants, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. A native of Beijing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Guardian First Book Award. Granta named her one of the best American novelists under thirty-five, and The New Yorker named her one of twenty U.S. writers under forty to watch. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at the University of California, Davis, and lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their two sons.